Most birds have a “sweet beak,” there’s no doubt about that. They often love fruit, sweet potatoes, and baked goodies. Once you’ve shared one sweet snack with your bird, he’s likely to start begging for everything he sees you nibbling, and it can be tempting to share a tidbit of a cookie or candy.
As difficult as it may be, it’s wise to put your bird’s health first and ask whether the goodie you’re about to share is actually safe. Chocolate is one of several ingredients toxic to your bird, and while he may not immediately die from a taste of your cookie, there is always a risk that he might, and other short- and long-term health issues can also arise.
Why chocolate is toxic for birds
Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, two substances that even in tiny doses can increase your bird’s heart rate, cause hyperactivity, seizures or tremors, and even lead to cardiac arrest. Additionally, some birds may react to chocolate with vomiting and diarrhea.
The darker chocolate is, the more cocoa it contains, which increases its toxicity to birds as far as caffeine and theobromine are concerned. However, even lighter chocolates contain milk, which birds are unable to digest, and sugar, which also presents a health risk.
But my bird ate chocolate and is fine
It happens. You give your bird a lick of your chocolate ice cream or a nibble of your candy bar without realizing the risk and do not notice any ill effects.
Later, when you discover chocolate is actually toxic for birds, you may wonder if yours is the exception or conclude the information doesn’t apply.
This is a dangerous assumption to make. Even if your bird shows no obvious signs, the caffeine and theobromine could still be increasing her heart rate to dangerous levels.
Allowing this to happen even once is bad for your bird, and repeated exposures to the toxin could lead to seemingly sudden reactions and even death. Even if everything seems fine, every time you allow your bird to eat chocolate you are putting her at risk.
What if chocolate is a minor ingredient?
If chocolate is included as an ingredient in any food item, it is most likely not intended for animals. While the amount of chocolate present in the food item may be negligible, it’s still “people food” and really shouldn’t be offered to your bird anyway.
Birds’ digestive systems are not designed to process the same type of food we eat, and because of their small size, even small amounts of things like sugar, caffeine, artificial flavoring, and coloring can have a disproportionately large impact on their health.
What to do if your bird eats chocolate
If your bird sneaks a bite of chocolate, don’t panic. Take a moment to assess how potent the chocolate content of his stolen taste was.
Chances are, if he got a nibble of a baked good or Nutella or something with a mild amount of chocolate, he’ll be fine this time. However, you should keep a close eye on him for the next hour or so, watching for tremors or any other odd behaviors or symptoms.
If the chocolate your bird ingested was high in cocoa content or if he got more than just a nibble, it may be wise to take your bird to an avian vet or at least give them a call to find out how concerned you should be. You can also call the Animal Poison Control Center for further advice.
If your bird shows any symptoms of toxic poisoning, schedule an emergency visit with your avian vet as soon as possible.
What to do when your bird begs for chocolate
Birds that are used to sharing your snacks—or simply think chocolate looks extra good—will likely pester you to share any chocolate item you’re eating. Don’t give in to their begging, no matter how charming or insistent they are.
If you have trouble saying no, it may be best to consume chocolate snacks in another room so your bird never has a chance to see them. You can also keep one of your bird’s favorite bird-safe goodies on hand, like a sunflower seed, almond, or apple slice, and offer it instead.
This way you can snack together without putting your bird’s health at risk.
Other toxic foods you should never give your bird
Chocolate is only one of several foods that you should never give your bird. Obviously, if it’s toxic for humans, it’s not good for your bird! However, some things that humans can consume in moderation, birds still should steer clear of.
These include the following:
- Coffee and any other caffeinated drink
- Avocados, apple seeds, and fruit pits
- Meat and dairy
- Onions and garlic
- Fried food or processed food with high salt or sugar content
Some of these food items are more toxic than others. For example, coffee and alcohol are a BIG no-no.
Avocados, apple seeds, and fruit pits simply contain small amounts of substances like cyanide that may or may not affect your bird—and why take the risk?
Meat and fried foods have high saturated fat and cholesterol content, and sugary and salty foods are bad for your bird for the same reasons they’re not great for you. Opinions on whether birds can have garlic are divided, but it has the potential to cause digestive issues.
Onions break down red blood cells and lead to anemia. Finally, nightshades are poisonous—so don’t give your bird the leaves or stems of a tomato.
Also, check out our article “Is Vinegar Safe for Birds?”.
Dangers of sharing junk food with your bird
The dangers of sharing sweet snacks and junk food with your bird aren’t simply because some of these foods are toxic for them. In most cases, people’s food just isn’t great for birds.
It’s often fattening and contains higher levels of salt, sugar, or seasonings than is good for your bird. Once birds get a taste for these food items, they may also be reluctant to eat healthier, bird-safe alternatives, which can lead to nutritional deficits and behavioral issues.
An alarming number of pet birds suffer from obesity, joint deterioration, and nutritional deficits due to consuming only seeds and nuts and/or “people food”. The more you allow your bird to snack on these types of food, the less interested she will be in a healthy diet of avian-specific pellets and fresh vegetables.
Diet plays a huge role in your bird’s long-term health and even how long she lives. Nutritional deficits are a leading cause of disease and death among pet birds.
Birds that do not eat a premium species-specific diet often suffer from obesity, liver, and kidney disease, or heart failure and live much shorter lives than they would if their nutritional needs were met.
As far as possible, avoid getting your bird hooked on non-bird food. Offer instead a healthy varied diet that entirely fits the needs of your specific kind of bird.
For many parrots, this includes a nutrition-rich pellet, lots of tasty veggies, and some fruit and seed. You can also make bird-specific recipes such as chop (a mix of grains, veggies, pasta, and sprouts) and birdie bread (quick bread made with healthy, bird-safe ingredients—meant to be a treat only!).
Another problem that often arises from sharing too much junk food with birds is that they develop negative behaviors like screaming when they want what you’re eating, snatching food, and even biting. Negative behavior can also stem from your bird not feeling his best because of this unbalanced diet.
A huge number of behavioral issues can be solved simply by transitioning a bird to a healthy, balanced diet.
How to replace unhealthy treats with bird-safe alternatives
There are plenty of healthy, bird-safe snacks your bird will enjoy as much or more than he seems to enjoy human sweets and junk food. For feathered friends with a sweet beak, try offering fruit as a treat.
Keep favorite goodies like almonds or millet sprays handy for when your bird is feeling left out while you snack.
If your bird has developed behavioral issues related to snacking, target training and trick training are the best ways to break these bad habits. Learn to request a behavior from your bird before offering a treat, and save his favorite goodies (nuts, sunflower seeds, etc.) for these training sessions.
A bird on a healthy, well-rounded diet that offers plenty of room for variety (whatever veggies are in season, sweet potatoes, sprouted grains, etc.) will also be less likely to demand alternatives.
Finally, recipes for bird-safe versions of dishes like macaroni & cheese, pizza, and bread can be found online. If your bird is totally attached to people’s food, you can make these dishes as a treat or use them to transition him to a healthier diet.
Loving your bird is not always about giving him what he wants. It’s about giving him what he needs—and you’ll both be much better off for it in the long run.