Keeping your first pet parrot

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Parrots are becoming more and more popular to keep as pets. They are fascinating, different and wonderful bird pets that will give their owners much enjoyment, but in order to have a happy, healthy parrot, here are some of the basics on keeping your first pet parrot.

Most pet parrots fall into the order Psittaciformes. Although other and rarer parrots will also fall in this group, this article is mainly intended for African greys, cockatiels, cockatoos, lovebirds, macaws and ringneks.

Parrots are considered very intelligent and can live much longer than most other pets. Smaller parrots (cockatiels, lovebirds, ringnecks) can live 20 to 30 years, while the larger species like macaws can live to be 60 to 80 years old! African greys, on average, live about 50 years.

Most parrots will be obtained as babies, but for various reasons some keepers might also obtain their first parrot when it is an adult.

Parrot food

Vary your parrot’s diet. Parrots need a variety of foods with a broad range of nutritional value. Fifty percent of the diet should consist of a good-quality commercial parrot food containing a mixture of seeds and pellets. The other half should consist of a combination of fresh or cooked fruit and vegetables. Favourites include grapes, bananas, apples, carrots, berries, greens, cooked squash, peas, green beans and probably many others. Some parrots will also like an occasional prepared chicken bone or two. Stronger parrots love to open the shells of nuts to get the meat out. Fresh pecans and macadamias are considered safe.

Stay away from avocado, onions, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, sugary or salty snacks, greasy food, raw or dry beans, rhubarb leaves, dill, cabbage, asparagus, eggplant or honey. Don’t feed too much dairy as well.

Treats should be reserved for the odd occasion and training. To determine your parrot’s favourite treats, try giving him/her a variety of nuts, fresh and dried fruits, and seeds.

New parrots may be unaccustomed to some foods and some parrots may be unaccustomed to newly introduced foods – so continue, but give them a few days to get used to them.

Parrot cages

Parrots can roam free, be kept in a cage or a combination of the two. While your new pet parrot is still a baby, it can be kept in a smaller box, but soon he/she will be an adult and will need their own ‘house’ to sleep in and to feel and be kept safe.

Get a proper cage from the start. Square or rectangular cages with corners will make pet parrots feel safer than round cages. The cage should be large enough for a parrot to climb and move comfortably around in. Cages should also have enough room for perches, toys, food and water bowls and rest areas. The minimum recommended sizes depends on the adult size of your parrot:

  • Smaller parrots: at least 60 x 60 x 60 cm with a bar spacing of 1cm
  • Larger parrots: at least 180 x 180 x 180 cm with bar spacing of 5cm

On the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, you will come across the problem of rust. Zinc galvanising is still commonly used to protect bird cages, but can be dangerous to parrots that like to ‘chew’ – this is especially true for cheap galvanised cages with droplets which are extremely dangerous to birds after ingestion. A good quality cage that is powder coated instead is a much better option.


Parrots can tolerate temperatures ranging from 20 to 30°C. Room temperature (about 24°C) with little fluctuation should be perfect for most species. On the KZN south coast, the temperatures can easily rise above 30°C, so make sure your parrot cage is in a well-ventilated, shaded and/or in a cool area during these times.

Routine activities

Parrot cages should be cleaned at least every two days where the dirty and soiled substrate is replaced. Soiled areas should be cleaned at least once a day. Food and water dishes should be cleaned and disinfected before reuse. The entire cage should be disinfected at least once a week.

Fresh food and water should be made available daily. Food that spoils easily, such as cooked beans or those that attract flies and midges should be removed immediately after feeding.

Interaction & activities

Parrots are considered social birds. They like interaction with other birds and from people. To prevent boredom, cages can be placed in areas where your parrot can see and hear the activities of the house.

A good and proactive activity to prevent boredom, socialisation and strengthen the owner-bird relationship is by training your pet parrot to do tricks and to talk.

Parrot safety & health tips

  • Drafts and temperatures below 20°C are dangerous to parrots and might lead to respiratory infections and other diseases.
  • Dirty and improper disinfected cages and spoiled and old food can lead to fast spreading gastrointestinal infections.
  • When unsupervised, make sure to separate your parrot from other pets and young children.
  • Prevent your parrot from eating too many peanuts and sunflower seeds.
  • Avoid cooking with non-stick pans and utensils – especially if you keep your parrot near the kitchen. The chemicals used in non-stick cookware can be deadly to parrots when heated above certain temperatures.
  • Avoid smoking in the house or around your parrot.

Visit your bird-friendly veterinarian regularly. Some parrots are without health problems their entire lives, but most of the time when your parrot encounters a health problem, it could have been solved by consulting an experienced veterinarian. As with other pets, annual wellness check-ups are recommended.

The veterinarians and staff at Vet Hospital Port Shepstone are not bird specialists per se, but we have ample experience and facilities to aid owners with wellness check-ups, preventative measures and the diagnosis and treatment of sick parrots.

A commercial ‘bird-safe’ disinfectant, such as F10 SC, should be used as a disinfectant for parrot cages, their furniture and food and water dishes. F10 also has a wide range of other disinfectant products that are both safe and effective to use with parrots.

A healthy parrot is alert and responsive to his surroundings, sits upright most of the time, is not puffed up and is active. When a parrot starts acting sick, see your veterinarian without delay. Signs of a sick parrot include:

  • Deformed, receding, or ulcerated beak
  • Fast or difficult breathing
  • Stains around the eyes, nostrils or cloaca
  • Change in appearance, colour or texture of stools
  • Weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Swollen eyes or eyelids
  • Losing feathers and feather plucking
  • Bowed head, unresponsive and/or being overly quiet

Parrot toys & environment enrichment

Choose good-quality toys for your parrot. Toys provide mental stimulation and prevent boredom. Offer a variety of toys that differ with regard to texture, colour, size and sound. You can also rotate toys regularly to prevent boredom. Also, keep the following in mind:

  • Choose small, lightweight toys and mirrors for small birds.
  • Larger birds like to manipulate thicker toy pieces with their beaks, tongues and feet.
  • Birds love to chew. It is part of their natural behaviour to tear things apart. Be sure to check the toys regularly for damage, and throw them away if they are cracked or could break into small pieces that could injure your parrot.

Various placed, different sized (thickness) perches are a must for parrots to hold onto and to reduce the incidence of pressure sores on the feet. Other cage furniture includes heights and platforms.

About the author
About the author
Renier is a qualified, experienced companion animal veterinarian whose main interests are animal health and strengthening pet-owner relationships.
View all posts by Dr Renier Delport (BVSc.)

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