Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The choice in substrate for your bird's enclosure can keep them healthier

Having lots of hands-on experience with exotic birds, I can tell you they're not only a lot of fun to spend time with, but require a lot of your time and diligence, just like any other pet.

Whether you're talking about parrots, cockatoos, macaws – even parakeets – being able to keep track of how they're feeling and cleaning up after them easily is a must. (Yes, they're all messier than you'd think!)

As a caregiver, this is especially important. Having that well in hand enables me to spend more time with them doing equally important things, like creating foraging toys for them, preparing fresh meals and interacting.

Enclosures vary from bird to bird, and that has a lot to do with affordability, and the size of the animal. One thing that they all have in common is that there is some sort of tray on the bottom to catch droppings and of course the food that invariably makes its way down, which is covered with some sort of substrate. 

There are many choices that one could pick from to line the tray, and in all my years as a pet sitter, I have seen them all.
Even though birds usually can't have direct access to the substrate (there's usually a bottom grate that separates the inside of the cage from the substrate's tray), whatever is lining the bottom should be safe and ideal for the health of your pet.

Not all products are created equal

Kitty litter is one of the worst choices for substrate. The clay variety produces particulate and dust, which can cause respiratory issues in avians (and other health problems as you'll read later), while clumping litter can be especially dangerous if it somehow injested into the G.I. tract. Also, many litters are scented, which is unhealthy for birds. 

Sand is not recommended as it can be ingested, but mostly it's difficult to clean. Also, it's a mess to deal with.

Wood shavings and chips might seem mindful, but one drawback is the potential for natural toxic substances in varieties including cedar, pine and redwood to sicken birds. 

Walnut shells and corncobs are popular natural alternatives, but unfortunately they make excellent breeding grounds for fungi, mold and bacteria. Some varieties of mold, like aspergillus can be deadly to birds. Also, these products are easily ingested and can cause an intestinal blockage.

Paper pellets and pulp bedding share an inherent downside that all of the other choices also possess: they make it difficult to do "poop patrol" – something that I can tell you as a caregiver is a vital part of my job. Checking the amount of droppings per day, along with the consistency and appearance of the waste is so important in understanding if something is amiss with a bird. 

Additional concerns

Kitty litter, walnut shells and corn cobs produce a lot of particulate in a bird's environment, and is something that could contribute to the development of a rhinolith. 

Rhinoliths (the Greek stem of the word refers to the word "nose"), commonly referred to as nose stones, are caused by material that accumulates between the nares (the nasal-like openings) and the hardened flap of keratin just behind them, called the operculum. Nose stones can cause problems in the tissue and worse, malformations of the bone. Unfortunately, they need to be tended to by a veterinarian experienced with birds. Dr. Leila Marucci, DVM, D-ABVP details this condition on her blog and offers tips on prevention. Click here to read more. 

The best option 

My favorite choice for bird cage substrate is good, old newspaper or paper bags. Both lay flat, make the droppings easy to see and removing soiled layers is a cinch. As the least expensive options, they're easy to obtain and you'll be repurposing perfectly useful material at the same time. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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