(and other thoughts)
Copyright © 1998 by Sam Vaughn, DVM
from NCS Magazine – 1994
All Rights Reserved
Injuries and internal intestinal problems from toys and cage accessories are all too common in aviary practice. Owners of pet birds are continually asking me what toys are safe. There is no easy answer to this question because of the fact that birds are individuals and different individuals interact in their environment in different ways. I will attempt to recollect some of the problems I have seen with various toys over the years and share with you the many incredible ways our feathered friends have found to make a totally harmless appearing toy an element of destruction.
You know the ones that hang by a chain in the cage or on top of a playpen with various and saudry objects hanging from them like lava rocks, bells, plastic objects, rawhide and even foodstuffs. Chains are notorious for catching bird’s toes in them. Some birds do not fight this trap and allow the owner to remove them, but this is usually the case only if the owner is there at the time of he entrapment of the foot, the bird screams in panic and the owner rushes to his/her aid and removed the toe and everything is fine. More commonly, the owner is at work or out of the home (assuming of course that we do something besides play and feed our birds during our time on this planet) and the bird gets a toe caught and freaks totally out; wing flapping, biting and flailing about trying to free oneself from the “trap” into which they have now found.
I will never forget the little conure who broke his tibiotarsus (lower leg bone) struggling to try to free himself from the chain. He was hanging limp and in shock when his owner returned from work and found him nearly dead. Proper medical attention saved his life and the leg healed uneventfully with simple splinting.
So now, how do all of those thousands of birds with chain toys in their cages never have a problem? Behavior, luck and some intelligent selection of the chain for the bird. The bird’s behavior may be responsible for the safety. My Green Cheek Amazon never plays with her toys and so she is at very little risk of getting a toe caught in a chain. The busy conure who is constantly climbing, rolling and falling all over the cage is certainly at higher risk of injury. The intelligent selection of the chain is very important. Personally, I never recommend chain toys because of all the injuries I have seen with them. However, if you select a chain with a link diameter large enough for toes to easily slip in and out of, you will be of less risk for the toes to get caught, thus minimizing the chance of injury. Now you only have to worry about the beak getting caught in the chain and the resultant injury occurring to the upper or lower mandible (beak).
Bells and their clappers
are a constant source of problems in certain instances. I recall the Timneh African Grey whose loving father purchased him some new Christmas toys at the local bird fair. Included in the array were the little plastic balls that have two bells in the center that roll around and make noise when the birds play with them. This Timneh is one of the most playful birds with toys that I have ever seen. He loved his new-found noise maker and would joyously throw them across the room at his “father” and his father would dutifully retrieve them and give them back to the bird so that the cycle would be repeated. Well, it was Christmas Eve and the family was preparing to go to Grandma’s when the Timneh decided he was not getting enough attention, therefore he would destroy his new toy. Most often you see the plastic balls with cockatiels and budgies, smaller birds that would have some trouble breaking the plastic bars and getting at the bells inside. The bars were no match for this Timneh’s beak and he broke the ball open and got a bell, spread the bell open and the owner found this mess, minus the two metal clappers that made the bell ring. Radiographs (x-rays) proved that the Timneh did not ingest the clappers so we were all relieved. Several times I have had birds come in with the clapper out of the bell, they just love challenges with that beak. Many times if the clapper is small enough, the parrot will pass the foreign object (clapper) without incident. However, the make-up of the clapper can be lead or zinc, and heavy metal toxicosis will be the problem rather than gastrointestinal obstruction.
Yes, wood can and has been a problem for certain individuals over the years in my practice. A Kakariki presented after sudden death and signs of regurgitation for an autopsy to rule out infectious disease since the owner had several other pet birds. They had owned the deceased bird for over two years and had given him a new wooden toy about two weeks prior to this incident. Autopsy revealed a very sharp splinter had penetrated the ventriculus (gizzard) and the intestinal fluid leaked into the abdomen resulting in death from peritonitis (infection of the abdominal cavity). Another similar case was a Moluccan cockatoo who had been vomiting for several days when finally presented to the hospital. Radiographs revealed a distended proventiculus similar to the findings with Proventricular Dilatation Syndrome, however, the soft tissue density in the organ just did not look like normal foodstuffs. Upon questioning the owner (gathering a better history) the bird commonly chewed up enough wood to build a small condo. Surgery was performed and the mass of splinters was removed and after a long hospital stay the bird returned to normal. The question is did this bird have Proventricular Dilatation Syndrome of a low enough degree to prevent digestion of this wood? After all, many parrots chew lots of wood and never have a problem. We still have lots to learn about this syndrome in birds.
Plastic, plastic, plastic
I love plastic and I hate plastic. I love plastic because it is easy to clean and disinfect, and does not stay wet and grow bacterial like rawhide and wood objects if not attended too well. I hate plastics because the pieces the bird chews off can have very sharp edges and it is not digestible at all. Too many times I have seen partial to complete obstructions of the intestines from plastic toys.
Again, the question is, “Which birds are at risk?” One particular pet shop in town routinely gives a Blue and Gold Macaw those plastic lids for dog food cans, and he eats them in about three hours. I once commented to the owner that this could be dangerous, and they promptly told me that I did not know what I was talking about since the bird had been eating them for seven years with no problems. What do I know? That particular individual can pass the material with no problem. Another Macaw died in my hospital after ingesting a small plastic bead of unknown origin. The wall of the proventriculus was ulcerated and the bird died of peritinitis. What was the plastic bead that caused the ulceration? This is the most dangerous proposition when dealing with ingested substances.
Toxin analysis is extremely expensive and you have to give the toxicology lab some direction to go for testing. Simply sending an object and asking to test for toxins can cost thousands of dollars. One little Cockatiel had a proventricular obstruction that was relieved by gavage under anesthesia and literally hundreds of plastic chips were flushed out of the bird. This bird was very toxic and responded well to chelation with CaEDTA, a substance used in heavy metal poisoning to remove lead or zinc from the body. The owners finally came up with a source of the plastic after much thought and investigation at home. The bird loved to chew on the ends of shoestrings and perhaps there was a toxin in the dyes used in the shoestrings that made this bird so sick. Plastic ingestion scares me. Any toy that my bird starts chewing on are removed from the cage. Call me paranoid. Call my birds alive and healthy!
Hard Acrylic Toys
What about those hard acrylic toys that are nearly impossible to break? I love them if my bird cannot break them. If she breaks them or even gets tiny chards of plastic off of them, they are outta here!! Personally, I think foodstuffs make the safest toys. Hang an ear of boiled corn by a rawhide string in the cage. Leave it only three hours to prevent bacterial growth on the corn, and your bird will eat and play and eat and play and will not be ingesting potentially harmful items.
Those beddings people use in their cage bottoms are not toys, but I will comment on them here. I HATE THEM! Several reasons, but the most recent was a death in a pet store from proventricular impaction in a Blue and Gold who decided to eat this stuff. Yes, they claim it is ingestible. Tell that to the dead bird. The other huge problem with these products is that they take away the owners ability to monitor and observe the stool production and character by the bird. One Amazon suffering from lead poisoning had nearly bled to death when he was brought into the clinic. I told the owner he had been bleeding for some time. Upon examination of the cage bottom, blood was found throughout the corn cob litter. Had this bird been on newspaper, the owner would have seen it much earlier.
Unfortunately, I must relay to you another Teflon gas toxicosis story. A gentleman came to my clinic with 14 dead birds in a box. He had been entertaining some friends and someone cooked bread on a Teflon cookie sheet and barely burned the bottom of the bread. Thirty minutes later, all the birds were dead. He told me he had used the cookie sheet hundreds of times before without incident. Autopsy of two of the birds confirmed lung lesions compatible with polytetrafluoroethylene toxicosis (gas from non-stick cookware).
Please, if you own birds, do not allow any non-stick cookware in your home. Tell your friends and relatives and anyone else about the severe potential life threatening consequences of this substance around birds. Another thing…….if it kills our birds, what does it do to OUR lungs? Maybe we will know more 10 or 15 years down the line if possible tumors develop as a result of exposure to this substance.