As our birds are bipeds, they put a fair amount of use on their tootsies. As such, birds do have some common problems with their feet.
The most common problem is a malady called pododermatitis, also known as bumblefoot. This can exist at many points along a spectrum and can be either very mild (virtually unnoticeable by an untrained eye) or severe enough to allow a huge infection down into the bones, tendons, and ligaments of the feet.
Skin health from the inside is one of the best ways to prevent this. And one of the best ways to encourage skin health is to make sure the bird is getting a proper diet, one with plenty of vitamin A precursors (such as in the form of beta carotine). Read our bird care handout for more information on the diet details.
The next step is to make sure the surface that the birds rests the surface of it’s feet on is healthy. As far as determining that, you have to go closest to the original environment the bird came from. Trees.
Use natural branches for most of your perches- and mostly fairly rough-barked. No dowels. No plastic. And minimize smooth wood like manzanita. One perch being mineral/ terracotta (a nail conditioning perch) is okay but don’t position it where your bird spends all it’s time on it. And NO sandpaper covers, they abrade birds’ feet tremendously. If your bird chews up the perch, that’s great- the bird has something to do that is a natural behavior. Just replace it when it looks a little snaggled.
Smooth surfaces like dowels, manzanita, and plastic provide less ‘grip’ and the bird will either fall off frequently (which isn’t good for the bird’s health or confidence), or be forced to grip tightly. The foot as it shifts around will have tiny friction buffing which smoothes off the pattern on the bottom. This is the first step in pododermatitis. A rougher surface will allow the foot to hold with less slippage and less wear on the surface. This may seem counterintuitive at first but I have seen many cases of mild to moderate pododermatitis respond simply to a change in the perching material.
One cannot use just any natural branches. Some generally safe woods to use includes dragonwood, bottlebrush, citrus, hibiscus, seagrape, maple, pine (make sure it is dried a bit and isn’t so sappy- what a mess!), grapevine. There are plants too risky to use and here is a good list to examine further for what NOT to use.
Other concerns, even using a safe wood, include making sure the wood doesn’t come from a plant recently treated with pesticides, or coming from next to a heavily traveled roadway where road debris and exhaust chemicals may coat it. Give it a look to make sure no wild animals have left their ‘mark’, wash well with soap and water, and air dry. If there are any further concerns you can soak the wood in water and bake it at 200 degrees in an oven. If you do so you do this at your own risk- we do not take any liability for these instructions.
Some pet supply companies will sell wood (including dragonwood, bottlebrush wood, and grapevine) that has already been sterilized, and you might find this option more convenient.
Naturalizing the environment around our pets is always an important consideration. We are asking our animals to live with us and therefore, we need to provide them with an environment as close to what their ancestors came from as possible. They are optimized for the forest (or desert, or plains, or mountains, orâ€¦ etc!) and not so much for our living rooms.