Breathe Easy

Maintaining clean air and a toxin-free environment are critical to keeping pet birds in good.




All pets have certain environmental requirements that need to be met to keep them healthy. While furry mammals like cats and dogs can live in basically the same conditions that keep us comfortable, pet birds have a few special requirements to keep them healthy. In particular, they require good lighting and excellent air quality, and owners should consider hydration needs and temperature as well.


Caged birds come from many different environments, including jungles, deserts and everywhere in between. When birds are from very humid places, they generally do a lot better in areas that are not too dry, and those from dry climates tend to fare better in less humid areas. But because many bird species have been kept and bred in captivity for sometimes hundreds of years, they have adapted pretty well to our homes. It’s rare to have to worry about the humidity level when keeping pet birds. However, water consumption can be critical. Cockatiels originate from the dry Australian outback, so they don’t have to drink water every day to survive. On the flip side, kakarikis, a New Zealand parakeet, will die within 24 hours without water.


Temperature rarely causes a problem with birds in the home or in aviaries, as long as the birds can avoid excessive heat or cold. Having birds close to a window is important for lighting, but if the cage is in direct sun, the birds must be able to get away from the sunlight—otherwise they can overheat. Owners with outdoor aviaries in cooler climates can use heat lamps or bring the birds indoors to keep them from getting too cold. Large and sudden changes in temperature may stress out birds, making them more susceptible to diseases, so they should not be placed near vents where hot or cold air will blow into their home.


Having the cage near a window where only part of the cage gets direct or strong indirect sunlight is very important for a bird’s health. If it is not possible to have the bird’s home near a window, then a full-spectrum light can be placed above them and kept on for 10 to 11 hours a day. Along with getting plenty of light during the day, birds should have a place to sleep where it is dark and quiet. A cage can be covered at night if necessary, but if the room is noisy, the bird should be placed somewhere else where it can sleep undisturbed for at least 10 to 11 hours at night.


The one area where bird owners need to be especially careful is in the air quality of the home. Unlike other pets, birds have a unique respiratory system where they never have any residual air left in their lungs. The air basically goes into a pair of air sacs, through the lungs, into another pair of air sacs and then out. Because of this, birds are more susceptible to toxins in the air than any other group of animals. This is why miners in the past brought birds into coal mines—the birds would die before any poisonous gas pockets affected the miners.


Unfortunately, there are lots of toxins that can hurt or kill birds at home, including cleaners, air fresheners, smoke and so on. It’s best never to spray or burn anything around them as it may cause serious injury or death. Any cleaners used around birds must be completely non-toxic and should not be sprayed into the air. Anything misted into the air, such as air fresheners, can harm or kill birds, including plug-ins and even scented candles. Smoking around birds must be prohibited as well.


Speaking of smoke, keeping birds away from the kitchen is a good idea because fumes from burning food can hurt them. In fact, burning Teflon releases toxic fumes that will cause birds to die very quickly, so bird owners should not use Teflon pans in their homes.


If a bird owner is planning to paint, they must use non-toxic paints. Even then, it is best to remove birds from the residence before painting or doing any other home improvement where toxins may be released into the air. Taking the birds out of the area may be needed if the home is going to be sprayed for insects on the outside, although some pest control companies know what to use if birds are in the house. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, though, because birds can be so susceptible to anything in the air.


One last environmental factor to keep in mind with birds in the parrot family is that they love to chew. They will gnaw on anything and everything they can get their strong beaks on. Although some types of wood are safe, the varnish, stain or paint could be poisonous, so bird should be kept away from any wood—except bird toys made for them to chew. This is also true of house plants. Some can be toxic to birds, and they should not be kept in any areas where birds might be able to get to them. If a bird owner really wants some greenery in their home, they can easily find some bird-safe options with a little research.


Any household objects made of metal or with metal parts in them should never be offered to birds because they can cause heavy metal toxicity, usually from zinc or lead. Items such as keys, toothbrushes, PVC, wine/champagne foil and wire, inexpensive jewelry, twist ties, metal clips, hangers and many other metallic objects can poison birds. Birds should only be given metal toys made especially for them.


When keeping birds, owners must keep in mind what their pet needs and what must be avoided in the environment. A variety of factors are important, but bird owners must be especially cautious about air quality to help ensure a long and healthy life for their pet. PB


Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.


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