There has been a video circulating for a couple of years that depicts a parrot on a counter top feeding long strands of pasta to a large dog waiting below. It is an adorable video of an interaction between two species that are not naturally seen together. While it is touching and sweet, I cringe every time I see it.
There are two parts to my discomfort. First, there is the idea of a prey animal and a predator interacting. I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard over the years about the family pet attacking the bird.
Years ago, I thought nothing of keeping my cat and dog together with my birds. They had all been raised together and I carried on with the false impression that the cat and dog “understood“ that the birds were strictly off limits. They all got along well and without incident.
Then one day, my cat captured and killed a wild bird and brought it to me as a present. I was horrified that my cat would harm a bird and had to rethink the way I was letting them all interact. Even though they are domesticated, cats are cats and hunting is a big part of their intrinsic nature. Some common and popular dog breeds have qualities bred into them that specifically increase their interest in birds.
Should there be an attack, we would never be able to sprint into action fast enough to save our birds when something triggers the hunting instincts in our cat or dog, and the dangers double when food is involved like it was in the video.
The second concern of that video is less well known to many bird owners and the topic of this post: the dangers of mammalian saliva.
Cats, dogs gerbils, humans…all mammals… carry a type of bacteria in their bodies that is referred to as “gram negative” bacteria. It is present in our body fluids and we are equipped to deal with it in normal amounts. Parrots, however, do not carry gram negative bacteria in their bodies and are not prepared to battle it.
Saliva is the most common way to transmit gram negative bacteria to parrots (who, hopefully, do not have access to any other body fluids from ourselves or our pets.) This means we should be careful when we kiss our birds and we should never let them eat from our mouths or our utensils.
The claws of mammals are often coated with gram negative bacteria. That means that if there is an attack, it isn’t only the bite that is dangerous to a bird. Any scratch, no matter how superficial it seems, must be tended to by a veterinarian immediately.
To test for gram negative bacteria in an ill bird, your vet will use a process called gram staining which separates the gram negative cells from the gram positive cells. A purple dye is introduced to a sample taken from your bird which will leave the thinner cell walls of gram negative bacteria a pink color and the thicker walled cells of gram positive bacteria purple. Your vet can then make an assessment as to the degree of gram negative invasion and medicate appropriately.
Parrots are entirely different from mammals physiologically and it is beneficial for us to keep their environment as separate from our own, and that of our other pets, as possible.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.