Keeping Your Zoo Safe: Living in a multi-species houshold

Pet Peeves

It's almost a guarantee that when I open a new parrot book, I'll be irritated by two things. First, at least one or two mentions of dominance, and second, some warning on owning cats and dogs while having parrots. The strength of this warning ranges from 'you are a terrible human being if you even consider owning a predator while you have a parrot' to 'you should keep them constantly separated' to 'be really really careful'.

They're all right to some degree. The only way to guarantee that a parrot will be safe from other animals is to own only one parrot. What they miss is that the most common injuries to parrots aren't from dogs or cats but from other parrots.

There are some general guidelines to living with a mixed species household (and I include different species of parrots in this discussion) that are simple and common sense. I'll go through each of those and then touch on specific tips to the animals that I am familiar with.

I've lived with cats, dogs, and dramatically different species and sizes of parrots for years now. My cats are allowed around the parrots when they are in and out of their cages, my dogs the same. I supervise all of them whenever they are out and they're separated if I'm not at home. Would it be easier if I only had one species of parrot and no other animals in the house? Absolutely. But it wouldn't be my home. With the guidelines listed here, I've kept my zoo safe. And that's what matters, isn't it?

The Rules

Know your pet, not only as an individual, but as a member of a breed or a species. Study their habits, their behavior, their instincts. Read about the species/breed, read as much as you can find, study their ethology, read about other owners' pets, about scientific studies, and take all of that knowledge and apply it to your pet.

A few examples to show what I mean by this. There are some species of parrots (particularly lovebirds and quakers) who are notoriously territorial. Their owners should understand that if another animal comes near their cage, the odds are high that the other animal will be attacked. This is normal for them and isn't something that can be trained away. It should be managed, and thought put into making sure that no parrot lands on, climbs on, or moves around the other's cage.

There are some breeds of dog that are known for having a higher prey drive. If you own one of them, you should be aware that they are often instinctually driven to chase things that are moving away quickly. A person can train a dog to listen to them despite distractions, but the time will come that the distraction will be too great. It is a behavior that must be managed.

Cats are instinctually driven to stalk things that move in interesting ways, and pounce at the last. They are hunters, and will act like hunters towards anything they see as prey. Some cats are fierce mousers and killers of songbirds, others are dangerous only to their dinner and may bat around a catnip mouse occasionally but wouldn't bother with a parrot.

Have reasonable expections. I live with a variety of animals, from fish to reptiles to rodents to parrots to cats to dogs. I consider the animals in my house very well trained at getting along with each other. However, my definition of this may be somewhat different than someone else's. My expectations from a well trained dog or cat is that their training at ignoring the interesting fluttery animal and their training to listen to me will allow me the ten seconds between scooping up a parrot and the parrot being eaten. I do not expect that training means there is no situation in which a dog or cat would not hurt a parrot. I do not expect that training will turn my dog or cat into anything other than predatory hunters. I do not expect that training means that the dog or cat would not retaliate towards an attack on them or towards anything they perceived as an attack.

The only thing I need to keep my animals safe is the few seconds difference between a cat or dog running after a parrot and the cat or dog moseying over to see what's going on. And the reason that is the only thing is...

Supervision is constant, eternal, and unending. I do not ever, ever, ever leave my animals together unsupervised if one of them is not contained. Ever. If there's a parrot out and I need to use the bathroom, get a drink of water, answer the phone, etc, I either put away the parrot or bring them with me (or call someone else in to watch them). Leaving a parrot alone in a room is a dangerous thing to do to start with (particularly if you like your woodwork). Leaving them alone with another animal could be fatal.

If you keep those three rules in mind, the odds are extremely high that you'll keep your house relatively safe. But there are some tips that I've found particularly useful when dealing with specific matches.

Cats and Dogs: Greatest Threat to Parrots Ever!

Or not.

Most parrot books go on and on and on about cats, particularly, and the severe and massive danger that they can cause. I firmly believe that these people have been watching too much Looney Toons. Most people who write parrot books know a lot about parrots... but not so much about cats and dogs. And understanding the psychology of cats and dogs is vital to knowing how to deal with cats and dogs and parrots.

Don't get me wrong. Cat bites and cat scratches can cause a fatal bacterial infection in parrots from Pasteurella bacteria. Any suspected cat scratch or bite should be treated as an emergency and rushed to the vet for treatment. However, in order to cause that situation, the cat must first bite or scratch the parrot, and that can be trained against in most cats.

Dogs, on the other hand, tend to have different problems. A cat bite may cause a fatal bacterial infection, but a dog bite is usually just fatal. Most pet dogs are dramatically larger than most parrots, and even an irritated snap at a parrot could crush their bodies easily. Dogs are even easier to train to be careful around birds, however.

Either way, a parrot should never physically interact with a dog or a cat -- no preening, cuddling together, etc. That's just asking for trouble. But they can be trained to live together successfully.

A lot of the advice in books is a great explanation of what not to do -- keep them separate forever, and keep the parrots flighted just in case. This is a disaster waiting to happen, the one time that the person leaves the door open a crack, the breeze blows, and the parrot flies off into the living room. The dog, who has never seen such a thing, treats it as prey, and the parrot dies. One simple mistake can cost the parrot's life.

All of this (and living with most animals in general) only works if you take the time and effort to train your pet. This doesn't mean 'sit/down/stay/fetch/do tricks', it means teaching them what is and is not expected of them in certain situations. In this case, the main thing to worry about is desensitization.

Every animal has various levels of interest or stress in any given situation. They range from 'I'm snoozing in my bed, all is right with the world' to 'OMGWTFBBQ! I must run, chase, flee, fight, DO SOMETHING!!!!'. One difference from the first level to the last is how common that situation is. The more an animal is SAFELY exposed to something, the less interesting, frightening, or stressful it becomes.

The more an animal is shown how to properly behave around the very interesting thing, the more they will properly behave around them.

A note about species: The personalities of the parrot in question is as essential to making this work as the personalities of the cats and/or dogs. If you've got bird dogs, or your cats attack everything that enters the household, and constantly bring you back presents, reconsider a few times. If you're in love with (or own) a very timid, quiet African grey who's not very good with change or scary things, think again. The best situation is to have some laid back dogs and/or cats, and a bird with enough personality and, well, obnoxiousness to stand up to anything. Your typical conure, Amazon, macaw -- good. The phobic grey? Bad. Also remember that size plays a serious role in how cats and dogs react to birds. Larger birds move differently. They don't flutter, they flap, and that's not as interesting. Also, be certain that your cats nails are trimmed. Keeping them short helps your furniture, helps your skin, and helps your birds.

There's no guaranteed way to train a dog or a cat not to chase or be interested in parrots. It's going to depend on the dog, the cat, and the parrot. But there are guidelines.

  1. Safety. The first introductions should be done in a very controlled environment, with the parrot in their cage, the person nearby, and possibly the dog or cat leashed, held or confined to a kennel or crate. One safety note -- clipped parrots are much safer around dogs and cats than unclipped parrots. This is because flight tends to cause great excitement in predators, and a flighted parrot can get far, far away from you in a very short period of time, farther than you have control of. It's possible to have flighted parrots and dogs/cats (I do!), but it takes more training.
  2. Progression. At no point should animals be allowed more closeness or freedom until they have shown no interest in the other animal for at least a few days. This means if the dog is very interested in the parrots while leashed and they're in their cages, the dog must be continually exposed to the parrots until the dog could not care less. The more the dog or cat is exposed, the less interested they will be. It is good to expose your dog or cat (safely!) to every sort of parrot behavior, from flying around the house, playing hard in their cage, outside of their cage, being on someone's shoulder or arm to just about anything else you can think of, continuing to do it progressively. It is unreasonable to expect a cat who has never seen a parrot out of their cage to not pounce on a parrot flying through the house.
  3. Behavior modification. We have to teach the animals how we want them to react. There are two general ways of doing so. The first is to offer praise and rewards when they're doing something we want. Giving a dog the best bone in the world when he's sitting calmly next to the parrot cage would be an example of that. The second is to punish the animal when they're doing something we don't want. Sitting and waiting for a cat to approach a parrot cage and using a squirt bottle to make them think twice about it would be an example of that. In my experience, praise and rewards work better with dogs, while the squirt bottle method does wonders with cats. Your mileage may vary.

Training a dog or cat is as important as having reasonable expectations and providing supervision.

Parrot vs. Parrot: The Grudge Match

Of all the parrot injuries I've seen, most of them involve another parrot, and usually involve injury to the beak or toes. The main trigger or location for this to occur is on or around cages. A little bird psychology will explain why this is.

Generally, in the wild, parrots do not fight. They may posture and bluff at each other, but there's few actual injuries. The only exceptions to this is during mating season, where beaks, eyes, and feet are frequently bloodied. See The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill if you want some visual proof of this.

We change things from the wild in two common ways. First, we clip their wings, thus dramatically changing their ability to flee, leaving only fight in the fight or flight reflex. And second, we seriously up their hormone levels while providing a fantastic area to guard like one might a nest -- their cages.

Thus, it's exceedingly common for one parrot to land on another parrot's cage and end up bleeding, frequently losing toes.

The best way to prevent this? Don't let birds land on each other's cages. This is easier said than done, particularly if the parrot is flighted. (More on that in a moment.) There are a few tricks that can be used.

One last safety note with parrots. Birds of different sizes are much more dangerous to let physically interact. The larger parrot can easily seriously maim or kill the smaller without meaning to, and that's just not a good situation to get into. Keeping them physically separated, whether by clipping wings and different playstands, different rooms, or separate out times is the safest thing to do.

How to introduce parrots to each other

This is my own personal experience and my own personal acceptable level of risk. Parrot vs parrot can be exceptionally dangerous, particularly if the birds are of dramatically different sizes. I would never let flighted parrots out of their cages unsupervised, much less with other birds of different species. Some people do. It's a choice you'll have to make for yourself.

For me, I pay attention to the bird in question, their previous levels of aggression towards other parrots, and a good knowledge of almost certain fight triggers.

As a quick rundown, these are the current parrots in my household, and their opinions of other birds, particularly whether or not they're likely to be an aggressor.

Theodore, blue and gold macaw: Has shown some aggressive displays towards my Amazon, gets along very well with my grey. Is not physically capable of flight.

Cinereo, African grey: Gets along very well with every parrot I've ever seen him with, is slightly more likely to be bullied.

Kyklos, double yellow head Amazon: She will fly over and convince Cin to get off a perch, but has her one favorite perch when out of her cage. If Cin has another option, they do not fight.

All three of the above birds are allowed out of their cages at the same time, with supervision:

Three parrots out on play stands

Caviar, black lory: Caviar is extremely aggressive towards all other parrots, most mammals that aren't human, black plastic bags, and an enormous number of other things. He is never allowed out with other birds, regardless of size.

High Tea, sun conure: Tea has frequently played 'chicken' with larger birds by flying directly at their faces. With birds his size or smaller, he has never shown aggression, but will have arguments with smaller parrots if they start things. He gives up easily though.

Stilton and Anisette, green cheek conures: They are 70 grams of pure aggression. They will harass other parrots to no end, and will fly over to drive off Tea.

Two conures fighting

However, with a great deal of acclimation and some logical setups, they are capable of being out at the same time as Tea is and not bothering him overmuch. A lot of training and rewarding them for being close at the same time has helped.

Four parrots out in aviary.

Pineapple, lovebird: She is fine with other birds, as long as they are not near her cage. Near her cage, she's 50 grams of pure, spitting fury.

With a great deal of work, the four small birds can be out of their cages at the same time:

The three larger birds never really had any issues, and were sort of lumped together. The four smaller birds were not, and so I'll go into some details of how I handled introducing them. To start with, Pineapple was housed in a different room from the conures, for various logistic reasons.

A first note: If the parrots are showing any signs of aggression: chasing each other, beaking each other, or having small arguments, it's probably time to back off and try a previous step.

Step 1 -- Individual introductions in a completely neutral space, with great praise for any time spent near each other. I originally chose the least aggressive of the conures, Tea, to gauge Pineapple's level of aggression. At this time, Pineapple was partially clipped from her previous owner. Tea was fully flighted and more likely to go away.

Tea and Pineapple

Step 2 -- Group introductions in a completely neutral space.

I put up an 8' round aviary last year but the conures had not spent much time in it yet. We spent about three months putting them out in the aviary together and watching for signs of aggression.

All four, the first time they were out together (it was a bit chilly, thus the fluffed up sun conure)

Parrots in aviary

After probably six or seven times out in the aviary, with absolutely zero aggressive displays, I moved onto step 3.

Step 3 -- Single introductions in a non-neutral area.

This is where I hit a snag. Pineapple's cage was still upstairs, but I thought it would be okay to bring her down into the small bird room and have her hang out with the other birds. She was okay with Tea, the sun conure, but the green cheeks sat in their cage and put on an elaborate territorial display. I did not let them out together.

I figured that one of the reasons that they were displaying so much is that she was not housed down there. So, I backed off, continued the aviary interactions, and made plans to move Pineapple downstairs.

After she had been downstairs for approximately three days without any out time for any of them, the green cheeks settled down. Thus, I started over.

Tea and Pineapple decided they could share some millet.

Tea and Pineapple together

And after about an hour, I proceeded to step #4.

Step 4 - Group introductions in a non-neutral place.

I let the green cheeks out of their cage, and stood prepared with a dowel perch to separate them if need be. The green cheeks came out and essentially ignored all the other birds as they usually do.

With multiple other 'out times' that have worked in the same way, I consider them to be pretty safe to be let out alone with supervision.

Had they, at any point, shown aggression that did not decrease, I would have halted the experiment and either tried something different or stopped entirely. Having all the parrots out at the same time is mostly helpful for me, I don't think they care all that much either way.

Rodents, Ferrets and other small caged pets

I'd highly recommend that they not interact outside of their cages, and the advice involving parrot cages works here too. The main goal is to keep your parrot from crawling on, climbing on, or getting into the rodent cage.

A special note about ferrets: Unlike dogs and cats, ferrets seem to lack the mindset of what is and is not too big for them to kill. They will attack animals far, far larger than them, and they're fearless, efficient predators. I'm not familiar enough with them to say whether or not a strict training regime would work, but if you do have ferrets, be very, very careful with them in the same house as your parrots.


I'll go into more details on reptiles and parrots once I've done a little more research.

Fish Tanks

The only real danger with fish tanks and parrots is drowning. Parrots aren't good swimmers, so make sure your tank has a lid and make sure your parrot is supervised around your fish tank.

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