Preventative Healthcare

Retailers can help bird owners understand that cleanliness, attentiveness to safety and a little caution go a long way in helping pet birds live long, healthy lives.


Parrots and other caged birds are generally healthy pets that can have long lifespans. A small bird like a zebra finch can live six to eight years, while a budgerigar will live from eight to 12 years, on average. Macaws, the largest parrots kept as pets, can live more than 50 years, if kept healthy.

Of course, if a pet bird is not kept properly and in safe conditions, their lives can be cut short. Caution, cleanliness and prevention are key for parrots to remain healthy, both at a pet store and in a home environment.

For Starters
When birds are new to a store or a home where there are other birds, quarantining is crucial to keeping disease from spreading. This is a concept that most pet stores understand well, and thus they have completely separate areas set up with their own ventilation systems, as many bird diseases, including psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD), psittacosis and polyomavirus, are contagious through inhalation. But an owner should not expose a newly purchased bird to birds already in the home for at least a month, preferably two. It’s always best to be safe, especially considering some bird diseases may be difficult or even impossible to treat. Treatments can also be very expensive, especially if several birds must be medicated.

Customers buying young birds may wish to show off their new pets–for example, at a bird club or show. It’s best to advise customers not to do so for at least two months after getting a bird (so they are sure it is completely healthy), and even then, they should wait until the bird is at least six to eight months old, as very young birds can be more vulnerable to diseases.

While these tame parrots should not be taken out and exposed to other birds, different people should handle them often, whether at the store or in the home, so the bird will not become too attached to one person. Anyone handling a bird should always wash their hands thoroughly first. Birds should not be exposed to any sick people, as some diseases can go both ways. Also note that birds should never be allowed any contact with a person’s mouth, teeth or tongue. It may seem cute when a parrot cleans its owner’s teeth, but it can be very dangerous to the bird and can possibly lead to illness or even death.

Keep it Clean
It may seem like common sense, but it’s worth repeating: the cage, dishes and other accessories in the bird’s home must be kept clean. Trays need to be changed at least once a week or more, depending on the size of the cage, the bird species and how many birds are kept in the cage. Tell owners to avoid using colored-ink papers or corncob litter in the tray unless the cage is suspended far above the bedding and the birds cannot get to it. Colored ink can be poisonous, and corncob litter can carry a fungus called aspergillosis that birds can be susceptible to because of their highly sensitive respiratory systems.

Wash the tray, bottom and grid once a week with soap and water, and the rest of the cage at least once every three to four weeks. Tell owners to set up perches, and be ready to move them as needed, so that the bird’s feces go straight into the tray and not onto other perches, dishes, accessories, cage bars or sides of the bottom–the cage will stay much cleaner, and the birds will stay healthier.

Water and the dry food layer at the top, along with any wet food, should be changed at least once a day. Water dishes or bottles need to be scrubbed well with soap and water at least twice a week, and food dishes at least once a week. If the owner would not be willing to drink out of the dish or bottle, it isn’t clean enough.

The dishes and any accessories made of plastic or other non-porous materials should be placed in bleach water–usually using one half cup of bleach to three gallons of water or so–once a week in stores and approximately once a month at home. They should be soaked for ten minutes and then rinsed until the bleach smell is completely gone. This will disinfect the dishes and other items completely.

Usually, wood and other soft materials should not be washed or soaked–water can soak in and cause a bacteria or fungus bloom in the material. Wood can be scraped with a razor blade. Porous items, such as wood perches and rope toys, should be replaced at least every six months at home and more often in a store.

Keeping the area around the cage clean and toxin free is also important for the bird’s health, as well as the owners’s. Warn owners of the dangers of anything that can give off any airborne toxins, such as cleaners made with ammonia or bleach and products that have Teflon or other non-stick surface material, like pans and irons.

Second-hand cigarette smoke is even worse for birds than for humans, and any natural gas or carbon monoxide in the air will kill a bird quicker. Have smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors in rooms where birds are located. Never spray any deodorizers, pesticides or any other aerosols near any caged birds. Ideally, bird owners should have a good air filter running near their bird’s cages. It will keep the air cleaner, and the birds (and owners) much healthier.

One last piece of advice to give tame-parrot owners is to be aware of where the bird is and what it can get into, like a poisonous houseplant. Keeping a bird’s wings clipped properly can help prevent accidents, such as having  a bird fly into a window or mirror, or even out the door. Owners should also take care that bird is not in a location where it can be stepped on, grabbed by another pet or accidentally crushed in a door because it was following its owner. Accidents can happen anytime, but keeping owners aware of what to watch out for and avoid will go a long way in keeping their birds safe from harm. 

Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.

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