By Stefanie Guindon, CVT
When it comes to our companion birds (e.g., parrots, parakeets, etc.) and small furry, pocket pets (e.g., mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, etc.), we have to be particularly careful safe guarding them. Due to their curious nature (e.g., manipulating items with their beak), their ability to fit into small areas that our cats and dogs cannot, and their small mammalian instinctual need to forage and hoard anything perceived as food, pocket pets are potentially at higher risk of exposure to dangerous poisons around the house. In addition, due to their smaller size, faster metabolism, and their unique anatomy (e.g., both air sacs and lungs in birds), they are potentially more sensitive to certain toxins.
Common exposure for pocket pets and birds occur when curious beaks or paws find cigars or cigarettes left within their reach or dropped on the floor. Even the butts of cigarettes can still contain tobacco and result in poisoning when ingested. Less commonly thought of is the risk of tobacco smoke to birds and pocket pets, which can cause significant respiratory irritation (or potentially even cancer) as well. Ingestion of just a tiny amount of tobacco for birds and pocket pets can result in significant poisoning. Tobacco poisoning can result in the following symptoms: hyperexcitability, agitation, gastrointestinal (GI) upset (e.g., vomiting, diarrhea, or regurgitation), a racing or rapid heart rate, potential seizures and tremors, and potentially even death. Treatment includes decontamination (which may include the administration of activated charcoal to bind the tobacco from the intestinal tract), hospitalization for fluid therapy (which will help hydrate the patient), and careful monitoring.
Mouse and rat poisons (“rodenticides”)
Mouse and rat poison can be a danger to birds and small pocket pets in the home. Companion parrots that are flighted may have exposure to rodenticides placed high up on cabinets and appliances. Pocket pets can be exposed when they are given free time out of the cage (or if they accidentally escape!) and may accidentally find rodenticides hidden away under couches or bookshelves where dogs and cats cannot reach them. Birds and pocket pets may be attracted to the unique color, smell, grain-based taste, and shape of a lot of rodenticides; these are often pelleted (similar to certain types of bird food) and colorful. Mouse and rat poisons come in multiple colors: blue, green, tan, yellow, and red. If you have birds and pocket pets in the home who are allowed to roam outside of the cage, ensure that their play time is well-supervised and avoid the use of mouse and rat poisons in the home, due to accidental exposure to pets. Because of a pocket pet’s small size, any exposure to a rodenticide should be treated as potentially life-threatening. As there are many types of rodenticides with different active ingredients, these poisons work by different mechanisms of action. With any potential exposure, it is important to contact your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline® promptly to find out how to best treat your pet.
Moldy foods (“mycotoxins”)
Moldy food such as grains, peanuts, beads, meats, and cheeses may contain a poisonous substance called mycotoxins. Many owners can inadvertently poison their bird or pet rodent by giving old, moldy food in the refrigerator as a treat, instead of throwing it away. Ingestion of the mycotoxin can result in clinical signs occurring within two to three hours after ingestion, and can last for days, potentially occurring even after a small amount is ingested. Signs include central nervous system issues (e.g., seizures, depression, walking as if drunk), significant GI upset (e.g., vomiting, regurgitation, diarrhea, inappetence or not eating), hyperthermia and cardiac effects. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s too hairy or slimy for you to eat, toss it in the trash!
Fruit seeds and pits
Some fruit and seed pits contain cyanide, which is a cyanogenic glycoside. Most of the cyanide is contained within the fruit seed and pit, so humans are not generally affected. Because these seeds and pits are so hard, unless they are chewed open, the threat they pose to cats and dogs is generally not from cyanide poisoning; rather, mild stomach irritation may be seen. With large amounts of seed ingestion, there may be the potential risk for a foreign body (meaning that the seeds obstruct the stomach and intestines). With pocket pets and birds, however, these fruits seeds and pits may be more dangerous. That’s because pocket pets and birds love to gnaw and crack seeds and pits open, thus potentially exposing them to the dangerous cyanide within. Signs of cyanide poisoning can occur one to two hours after seeds or pits have been ingested. Signs include heart effects (e.g., abnormal heart rhythms, abnormal blood pressure), GI effects (e.g., vomiting, diarrhea, regurgitation, abdominal pain), hyperthermia, central nervous system signs (e.g., weakness, walking as if drunk, seizures), and respiratory effects (e.g., increased respiration or slowed respiration). While fruit is often a good snack for birds and pocket pets, when giving fruit as treats, always remember to remove the pits or seeds.
Aerosolized cleaners, Teflon, and fragranced candles
Birds have a very advanced, yet very delicate respiratory tract. Whereas mammals have lungs, birds have unique air sacs. When mammals breathe in and out, they are taking in more oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. With birds, each breath is held within their air sacs. This allows birds to not only be lighter (for flight purposes), but also helps to circulate oxygen through the blood while birds are flying at higher altitudes. While this unique anatomy is quite handy for wild birds, it can be a down side for our companion parrots. Because of the retained air in the air sacs, scented candles and sprays, aerosolized cleaning fumes, as well as the fumes from non-stick Teflon pans can quickly poison a bird. These fragrances can overwhelm a bird, causing significant breathing difficulty and possibly death. We recommend always using caution when using any type of fragranced spray, candle, or cleaning product around your bird, and to keep their cage out of the kitchen or dining room area where they may be exposed to fumes to non-stick cookware.