A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with an avian vet during which I asked him about problems that would most commonly land birds into his clinic for treatment. We got to talking about food related bacterial infections, and he told me that he feels the dishes that are manufactured for small bird cages are causing big trouble. This is not the first time I have heard this complaint.
The small bird cages he was describing are the ones made of pliable, plastic-coated wire that are commonly found in pet stores and are meant for small birds: love birds, parrotlets, budgies, cockatiels and even some small conures. I have two or three of them that I use for transporting my small birds and for separating the cockatiels when they are being disagreeable with each other. These small cages almost always come with their own set of dishes that are made specifically for that cage.
The dishes are made from a lightweight molded plastic. Many are designed to fit inside a sliding feeding door on the front of the cage or have molded hooks that attach to the cage sides making it very easy to place or remove them.
They are wonderfully convenient, but they are not a good choice for food dishes from a cleanliness standpoint. There are some problems with these dishes that cause them to harbor more bacteria than other commonly used parrot dishes.
Whether they fit into a feeding window or clip onto the cage they are intended to rest against a flat cage side for stability. This means they are also flat on at least one side which creates at least two corners molded into the dish. Corners are areas where a lot of bacteria can collect because they are so difficult to access during cleaning.
Additionally, plastic is a porous material that is inherently more difficult to clean thoroughly than many other surfaces. It effectively collects and traps bacteria just because it is plastic.
It is very important for your bird’s continued good health that you clean the food dishes thoroughly after each and every use even those used with dry foods like seeds or pellets. Keeping plastic dishes sanitary is a challenge you will have to step up to if you use them.
Let your bowls soak for a few minutes in hot, soapy water before scrubbing them clean. To get into those corners, I use a clean toothbrush. I want to emphasize CLEAN. You are not doing your birds (or your family) any good if you clean their eating utensils with things that are dirty themselves. Kitchen sinks, sponges and cloths will be some of the most unsanitary items in your house if you don’t take care to keep them clean. You can easily spread disease that way.
My preferences for dishes are ceramic or stainless steel. Their surfaces are non-porous and much more durable. For small cages like the ones we are discussing, you can discontinue using the plastic dishes and replace them with small stainless steel cups that are easily inserted into rings that attach to the sides of the cage. They are lightweight and won’t bend or damage the wire bars.
Ceramic cups are too heavy to mount on the sides of most small cages, but there is no law that states that you must only feed your bird above ground level. If you are keeping your bird’s cage clean and changing the liner frequently, it is perfectly acceptable to put food dishes on the bottom of the cage.
Weighty ceramic dishes work well on the cage bottom because small birds will stand on the edge of the dish when feeding. Lightweight dishes tend to tip over with the weight of the bird. My quaker, Libby, is a bowl flipper. If it is possible to upend her food dishes, she will make short work of it. I use heavy, lipless bowls for her so there is nothing for her to grab ahold of in her efforts to turn over the bowl.
The real challenge for cage bottom feeding is finding the “no poop zone”. Don’t place the bowls under perches or beneath other frequented areas in the cage. Once food has been soiled with feces, it is no longer edible.
Also, if you have a food dunker in the house, you have no doubt felt the slimy substance that has started gathering in the water bowl by the time you get home from work. If you forget to give your bird fresh water one day, you will notice it gathering by the next morning even if your bird is not a food dunker. This is called biofilm. It is bacteria which produces its own layer of slimy protection, and it adheres to surfaces. Plastic makes a particularly good surface on which to adhere. The slime makes it resistant to cleaning and disinfecting. So, if you detect slime in the dishes, clean them with lots of scrubbing!
Whatever decision you make about which dishes you will use, before you bring food to your birds, ask yourself, “Would I eat from this dish?”
Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.