Dairy & Birds

- By DeAnn Waggoner, Executive Director, Wings of Love Bird Haven

Cheese and dairy products should never be given to pet birds! Contrary to much misinformation regarding the safety of dairy ingestion, the avian digestive tract is incapable of digesting the lactose contained in most dairy products, thereby causing severe allergic reactions, obstructive disease, or even death.

From a common sense approach, avian species are not nursing animals. They develop from an egg with the yolk as their sole food source until they hatch. After hatching, the chick is fed food that the hen first ingests and then regurgitates the contents from her crop into the crop of the baby chick. There is no mammary tissue involved, as in mammals. Because of this, birds never evolved to produce lactase, the enzyme necessary to help digest lactose. Essentially, birds are highly "lactose" intolerant" species.

Why does my Bird like cheese?
Is everything that tastes good always safe? Of course not! Dogs and cats will eat antifreeze because it tastes sweet, but it kills many of them each year. Chocolate also causes many animals to visit emergency rooms. There are many products that taste good but aren't good for us. We must act as the "safety" guardian for our pets. Why didn't my bird get sick when I fed him cheese?

It depends on how much he ate, the type of cheese (and lactose concentration), the frequency and what other components are contained in the cheese that might worsen the effects. It is sort of like alcohol ingestion in people; a little will cause no visible effect, a little more will make you sleepy or drunk, and a lot can actually cause alcohol poisoning or death.

How does cheese and lactose affect my bird? Since the bird can't break down lactose, the bird's gastrointestinal tract initiates an allergic or inflammatory reaction to the product. This can lead to mild inflammation with no clinical signs, mild symptoms like diarrhea in moderate cases (laxative effect) or total blockage/enterotoxemia in severe cases. Mild symptoms are often missed or incorrectly diagnosed as just "oh, that is normal for this particular bird". As the frequency or quantity of ingeston increases, the inflammatory process can lead to secondary bacterial/fungal infections, decreased postrointestinal motility or complete functional/foreign body obstruction, toxemia and death.

What types of cheese have caused the most serious problems?
Mozzarella cheese is by far the worse offending cheese and the number one recovered surgically from birds during surgery. It is found in pizza, lasagna, and under other names such as "string-cheese." Because of the high gum content in mozzarella, this cheese has a very high risk of becoming obstructed in the intestinal tract and death within 48-72 hours.

Jack cheese and other soft "white" cheeses often cause proventriculitis (gastritis) with secondary bacterial/fungal infections. The prognosis is solely dependent on whether surgical intervention (clean-out) and medical therapy can control the inflammatory process and secondary toxemia that ensues.

Cottage Cheese/Feta Cheese has also caused this syndrome. One case noted was a bird with a history of diarrhea for several months and repeated treatments for bacterial enteritis. The bird eventually became lethargic, anorectic and unresponsive to antibiotics. Radiographs demonstrated an enlarged proventriculus with an obstructive process extending from the mid-proventriculus to the duodenum and a transit time of over 20 hours (normal 3-6 hours). In spite of surgical removal and intensive medical therapy this patient succumbed to toxemia.


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