Proud bird owners keep vigilant in pet care

A red front conure is perched inside Noah's Ark Pet and Acquarium Store in Front Royal. The bird has a life span of 30-40 years. Rich Cooley/Daily

STEPHENS CITY – Dr. Max Mandel, veterinarian at Stephens City Animal Hospital and member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, advises bird owners to be on the lookout for slight changes in habit or behavior that could mean their pet is sick. By the time an owner notices those changes, the bird has probably been ill for quite a while.

“The big thing about birds is that they hide their illnesses because in the wild, if a bird acts sick …something comes along and eats them,” he said. “Once a bird is showing a sign that something is not right, it’s usually much worse than it seems to be.”

While a pet might try and convince its owner that it’s healthy and eating properly by dipping its beak in a food dish, he said there’s one thing birds can’t “lie” about – their poop.

“If suddenly there’s less poop than usual, the bird is not eating,” he said. “So that’s one thing to look for – which becomes more difficult if you have multiple birds in one cage.”

New bird owners, he said, should be prepared to learn about the proper care of their particular breed of pet, taking the time to understand their diverse nutritional needs. Mandel said many new owners mistakenly think that their pet will only need to eat dried seeds.

A red front conure is perched inside Noah's Ark Pet and Acquarium Store in Front Royal. The bird has a life span of 30-40 years. Rich Cooley/Daily

“Because they have such a resiliency in their nature, they can eat a bad diet for years and years before they finally have a problem,” he said.

Mandel said avian nutrition is a relatively new area of focused study and species-specific commercial diets are readily available. He said he usually recommends owners vary their bird’s diet, adding in the occasional acceptable table food scraps and using vitamin supplements.

Besides teaching owners about their pet’s dietary needs, Mandel said he also stresses the dangers of communicable illnesses. Rather than concerns about diseases like avian flu spreading to owners, though, he said the larger risk is the other way around.

“Colds, sore throats that people have can actually be contagious to the bird,” he said, adding that sick individuals should avoid handling their bird or its food. “Even the normal bacteria that we carry in our mouths that are OK for us can make the bird sick.”

He said that when he checks on birds with respiratory problems – a major health hazard – almost all of them caught the sickness from a human.

“Their bones are connected to their breathing system … that way there’s air in their bones so they can fly,” he said. “Any infection that gets in the equivalent of lungs in a bird gets into their bones very quickly, so that’s why it’s such a serious issue.”

Stacy Williams, manager of Noah’s Ark pet store in Front Royal, cares for young birds brought in from breeders and owns a number of different birds herself. She said that the healthiest birds are fed a balanced diet and live in a smoke-free home.

“They’re very susceptible to their environment – smoking, burning candles, burning Teflon,” she said.

With attentive and caring owners, Mandel said he’s encountered long-lived birds who have been passed down as family pets through generations.

“Most of the time, the birds that have made it to a ripe old age, it’s because they’ve had pretty good care,” he said. “If they’ve made it that far, they are usually going to be OK.”

Because many larger birds are on the developmental level of a 2- or 3-year-old human child, he said it’s possible for them to suffer emotional trauma from major changes or stressors in their living environment – like the death of an owner.

“You have to be attuned to what a bird’s natural behavior is,” he said.

Williams said it sometimes takes a patient owner to learn to love a bird’s distinct personality and quirks. She said her store has received plenty of calls about older birds that, once a beloved owner or bird buddy died or left, became moody or difficult.

On the whole, Mandel said the birds he’s tended to have typically had proud and attentive owners.

“Most pet owners, particularly when it comes to birds, are pretty attuned to their pet,” he said.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com