Recognizing A Sick Bird
An important thing to realize is that even the tamest and most loving of pet will excel at hiding or masking any sign on illness often until too ill to pretend. Therefore, it is our job as care takers of these wonderful creatures to be very in tune to the slightest of changes in our pets. Often times an owner will often just feel that something is not the same about their pet but may not be able to pinpoint any one thing. Please may attention to your instincts and have the bird examined by your veterinarian if you feel something is awry.
So we’ve established that birds attempt to hide illness but they will still give subtle clues to the attentive owner. Most commonly a bird this is not feeling well is just less active and will spend more time on a perch sitting quietly fluffed up. If the bird is also weak you may notice that the bird is not resting with one leg tucked up to the body or you may notice the bird wobble or rock with resperations. An extremely weak bird will no longer perch but rather will sit on the bottom of the cage.
Another early sign of illness is a change in the character or production of feces. Bird dropping are composed of
- urine is the watery ring
- urates are the white matter
- feces are the green matter
Any changes in any of these components can signify disease.
You may notice an increase or decrease in the amount or type of food ingested. For seed eaters it is important to pay close attention to the seeds. Occasionally a sick bird will appear to be eating but when the seeds are examined closely no shelled or cracked seeks are found. Also, pay attention to drinking as either increased or decreased water consumption may indicate a problem.
I highly recommend handling your birds on a daily basis not only for their enrichment but also to detect signs of disease early. Often the only way to determine that is bird is becoming thin is to feel it, the feathers hide too much! Additionally, when petting a bird you make notices massed, abnormal or missing feathers, abnormal breathing or diarrhea staining on vent, and even a weakened grasp to feet. So the take away message here is to pay attention to your instincts and to react quickly to prevent disaster.
SICK & INJURED BIRD CARE
The key here is to follow the advice of your veterinarian and to reduce any and all stress to your recovering bird. Some things to pay close attention to are
1. PROVIDE WARMTH:
Ill birds will sit with their feathers fluffed in an attempt to conserve heat. The effort to conserve heat places an additional burden on the already debilitated bird. Your veterinarian will determine if your bird requires hospitalization, but if home care is acceptable, I recommend creating a tent to keep your bird warm. A birds natural temperature is much higher then ours at anywhere from 103F-106F. Therefore, what often feel warm to us can be chilly to them and this is particularly true in sick birds. A simple way of providing heat is to cover 1/2 of the cage with a blanket and place a heat lamp on the other side as a heat source. Generally speaking we keep our sick birds at environmental temperatures ranging form 85-95F. This will vary greatly with the individual bird so it is important to monitor your pet to ensure that you are providing the correct temperature and of course seek your veterinarian’s advice. A bird that is too hot will have very sleek feathers held tightly to the body, will hold its wings (shoulders) slightly away from its body and may pant. If you see any of these signs your bird is much too warm and the environmental temperature should be reduced accordingly. For night warmth I recommend using a red light. Ill birds, just like ill people, require rest and if kept under bright lights all night they will become sleep deprived. Also, during the day it is important to provide light so that they may be encouraged to eat and can be monitored. Therefore, the entire cage should never be covered during the day. I don’t recommend heating pads because it is very difficult to regulate the temperature. If a bird is not perching and sitting directly on the pad they can easily become overheated or burned. And in my experience baby bird that are raised on heating pad quickly become dehydrated and again are subject to burns.
2. STRESS REDUCTION:
Debilitated birds must be kept in a stress free situation. Often what appears normal to us can cause stress in our feathered friends. I suggest taking a close look at your bird’s environment with a critical eye to determine what may be stress factors. Some common one include, the bird in the center of house traffic with no chance to rest, cigarette smoke or aerosols in the birds environment, lack of darkness/sleep time at night, other pets, small children, too much visual stimuli (cage directly in front of a window), competition from cage mates, too much handling, poor nutrition and temperature extremes (such as birds kept in kitchens). I recommend that sick birds be left in their cage and allowed to calmly recuperate. Think of this as bed rest for your pet! Too much handling can stress the bird and will require the bird to use additional calories. If the bird is housed with other birds, it is usually best to remove the bird to a single cage. Some birds can become too stressed when separated from the colony so you should seek your veterinarian’s advice on how to cage your sickpet. However, generally removing the bird from the group will reduce the stress of competition for nutrition and allow for medicating easily and better monitoring. Of course, if infectious disease is suspected, then the pet must be moved into an isolation cage and at least a separate room – preferably a separate house with no other birds.
3. ENSURE ADEQUATE NUTRITION:
If your doctor made dietary recommendations, now is not the time to implement change. Changes in the type of diet will cause enormous stress to your bird and should be started when the bird has recovered. Always discuss how and when to made dietary changes with your pet’s doctor. Generally, I recommend offering all the bird’s favorite foods during illness because many ill birds become anorexic and can be lost due to starvation. If your bird is a seed eater and not currently eating, try placing millets sprays in the cage which most birds enjoy. The important thing to remember is that it has taken months to years for the bird to become malnourished and this cannot be corrected in a day or as week. Slow changes are essential for the ill bird. If you are unable to get your pet to eat he/she should be hospitalized for gavage feeding and further care. Birds have a high metabolic rate and can quickly starve. Thus, a pet bird that stops eating should always be assumed to be critically ill, certainly the potential for fatality is present. Lastly, if your bird is a hand reared baby and is not eating due to illness, you can often revert them back to hand feeding (syringe feeding) during the convalescent period. A good hand rearing formula should be used. The formula should be mixed with hot water as directed on the bag and offered to the bird. Do not force the bird to eat. Pet owners should never force feed their birds. A bird can easily aspirate (inhale food) and develop pneumonia and force-feeding causes enormous stress to your bird. Reverting to hand feeding is only of use for those birds that willingly accept feeding from the syringe. Also, if hand feeding, the formula must be warmed correctly (follow the advice on the formula bag and that of your veterinarian to avoid food burns from too hot formula and crop stasis for formula fed at too cool a temperature.
- In water or Food
I prefer not to medicate in the pet’s water or the food. Medication given in this way often causes a change in the taste and can potential cause the bird to reduce their food and water intake. Thus, in my opinion the best routes are injectable and oral. Topical medication often is not of use to the pet and will cause oily feathers.
Prior to taking your bird home – You should be shown how to appropriately medicate your bird by the doctor or technician. Briefly, the patient should be held in an upright position and the syringe containing the medication should be gently introduced from the left side of the mouth and angled to the right side. Most birds will attempt to bite the syringe allowing it to be easily introduced into the oral cavity. Slowly depress the plunger on the syringe to dispense the medications into the lower portion of the beak. If the pet struggles while medication stop for a few moments and then try again. You should advise your veterinarian if you are unable to medicate your pet. Medication can be mixed with a flavoring agent (FlavorX), which will help to reduce some resistance. Occasionally, depending on the reason for treatment, your doctor may be able to give a long acting injection in place of oral medication but this has limited uses and thus is not available for every pet.
5. RECHECK EXAMINATIONS:
As soon as illness was detected in your pet he/she was taken to the veterinarian for a through physical examination and work-up. Unfortunately, many people will see that their pet is improving and don’t realize that a follow-up exam is necessary. I always suggest rechecking the patient at variable intervals depending on the state of debilitation. The recheck exam allows me to assess the patient’s response to treatment and the owner’s compliance with instructions. Many times in the course of treating an exotic pet the treatment must be altered somewhat to ensure the best response. These rechecks are also used as a ways to reinforcing the changes the bird requires to remain healthy. Additionally, lab values can be recheck to ensure that the patient is truly recovering and not just feeling well enough again to resume hiding any weakness. I can’t stress the importance of this follow up enough, it is extremely important to the health of your bird.
Common Medical Problems:
We commonly see malnutrition in birds. The cause is not the lack of food but rather years of feeding an incomplete and inadequate diet of seeds only. Yes, birds can live on seeds alone, but most experts now agree that their lives are shortened due to the chronic affects of malnutrition. The idea being that if you feed your bird better it will live a longer and healthier life. So what is a better diet? I don’t believe that there is only one answer to this question, partly because different types of birds will require different types of food, but also because we are still learning how to best feed our pet birds. However, there are some basics that you can utilize in the choice diet for your bird.
- A pellet-based diet is going to be more complete and balanced then a seed only diet.
- Veggies are good – you usually can’t go wrong by feeding your bird fresh vegetables daily. Typically, I advise my clients to convert their birds over to a good quality pellet diet, and to offer a mixture of leafy green and yellow veggies every day.
- Fruits are considered treats and should only be given in moderation.
- Avoid feeding any pits to birds (avocados can be toxic) and spinach should only be fed occasionally.
In general you need to provide a large variety of fresh food for your bird. Typically I recommend a core diet of an organic and color free parrot pellet. A large variety of fresh vegetables should be provided for both nutrition and mental stimulation. A small amount of seeds can be provided as a treat. Seeds should be clean and fresh. Sprouted seeds can also be offered and are a good way of introducing greens to the stubborn eater.
- Macaws: Again, variety will occur with the individual types of macaws. However, in general macaws require a higher fat content in their diet which can be provided with some of the large nuts as a part of their regular diet.
- African Greys: Are often subject to calcium deficiency and will require higher calcium content in their diet then other birds. The best way to provide this is by providing calcium rich foods such as cheeses and yogurt in moderation. Almonds are also a good source of calcium for birds.
- Eclectus: Often require more vitamin A in their diet than other birds, but you must be very careful with supplements because it is easy to create Vitamin A toxicity. Again, providing natural sources of Vitamin A is best. Feed leafy green and yellow veggies daily. Sweet potatoes are also a source of Vitamin A that many birds enjoy.
- Small Birds: Budgies & Cockatiels: These guys are my exception to the rule of pellets. In general I like to place my avian patients on a complete balanced pellet, but for budgies and cockatiels I recommend that the pellets be no more than 50% of their diet with fresh/clean seeds offered daily and of course fresh veggies.
Foods to Feed Only in Moderation:
(1)Those veggies containing a high amount of oxalates. Some common examples include: spinach, chard, and bok choy.
(2)Fruits, which can provide too much sugar in the bird’s diet.
(3)Diets that are based 100% on cooked beans calcium injections, medications to help the uterus contract and if all else fails may need to collapse the egg and remove it piece by piece. Some ways of preventing egg binding are to have your bird on a good diet, allow activity to provide good muscle tone, and prevent constant laying with breaks during the breeding cycle.
2. Feather Problems:
The most common feather problem is feather picking as discussed above. However, diseases can occur that will result in abnormal feather formation or growth. Viruses such as Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease and Polyoma Virus can often cause abnormal feather growth or feather loss. Feather cysts or ingrown feathers can occur and are common in some birds such as canaries. Changes in feather color can indicate organ disease such as yellowing which can indicate liver disease. Lastly, stress and malnutrition can both cause abnormal feather growth, delayed molt cycles and stress bars or weak points to the feather. So if a change is noted in the feather color, character or quantity the bird may have a disease condition.
3. Organ Disease
Birds like dogs, cats and indeed humans are susceptible to organ infection, inflammation, cancer and failure. The three most common organs involved include the liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract.
- Liver disease can be from infection or toxins and is also often related to chronic malnutrition. That is, a long term diet devoid of balanced nutrients can lead to liver disease such as hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). The best way to avoid liver problems is to feed a very balanced diet.
- Kidney disease can be caused by a variety of factors like liver disease but again malnutrition may often play a role. For kidney health ensure a balanced diet, avoid over supplementing vitamins and minerals and provide plenty of fresh clean water to keep your bird well hydrated.
- Gastrointestinal disease can involve problems anywhere from the mouth through the cloaca. Common problems include crop burn and injury in chicks, foreign body ingestion, toxins, viral infection, bacterial and yeast overgrowth. Pay close attention to your pet’s normal weight and food intake will allow you to identify a GI problem early.
4. Infectious Disease:
- Infectious disease includes parasites, fungus/yeast, bacteria, and viruses.
- Internal parasitic infections: are uncommon in birds raised and kept indoors but will be seen in aviary birds especially if kept on dirt flooring or cages with poor cleaning/hygiene. Signs may range from malnutrition and diarrhea to the absence of any symptoms. Fungal diseases: are common in birds housed in unsanitary conditions, those in more humid parts of the U.S. and those housed with poor ventilation.
- Fungal infections can be GI such as megabacteria, often seen in budgies as chronic wasting, or more commonly may involve the respiratory tract and cause wheezing or respiratory distress.
- Yeast: candidia is common in chick being handfed and is often related to overfeeding or feeding at improper temperatures. Yeast overgrowth may also be seen in birds on long term or numerous antibiotics. Common signs are regurgitation and weight loss, failure to thrive
5. Foot Trauma Commonly caused by other birds in the cage.
May be seen as wounds or bleeding on the toes. Additionally causes include constriction by material such as thread wrapping around the toes and causing necrosis and blackening. And trauma in the flighted bird allowed lose in the house – often perch on a door that is closed or landing on a hot surface.
6. Reproductive Disease
As with dogs and cats, reproductive disease in birds can take a variety of forms including dystocia (stuck egg or egg bound), ectopic egg laying, oviduct infection or rupture, hormonal problems and more. Signs of reproductive behavior can range from aggression to a weak and lethargic bird. The egg bound bird will often, but not always have a history of egg laying. She will attempt to pass the egg over many hours to days. The longer the egg remains the more gravely ill she will become. Illness develops from dehydration, malnutrition and pressure of egg on kidney’s. Typically the bird will be found sitting on the bottom of the cage often very lethargic and intermittent straining may be noted by the owner. The vent will often have feces present and an abdominal bulge may be noted. Care should be taken on handling the dystocia bird so as to not break the egg in her oviduct. The bird should be taken to your veterinarian as soon as a problem is noticed. Veterinary therapy will include hydration, lubrication, calcium injection and possible hormones. As a last resort surgery is performed to collapse the egg from within allowing delivery.
Constant egg laying:
Another common reproductive problem in pet birds and cockatiels see to be notorious for this condition. Many pet birds will lay eggs throughout the year with or without a mate. Unfortunately, owners often remove the eggs from the cage and this forces the bird to lay a new clutch. Repeated egg laying is very hard on the hen and can result in very low calcium and egg binding, among other problems. If you have a chronic egg layer I recommend purchasing a few plastic egg of the appropriate size and once the bird has laid her clutch (usually a set number of eggs each clutch) you should replace her eggs with the plastic and allow her to sit on the fake eggs.
This does two things
- prevents for from laying a new clutch for a short time and
- prevents fertile eggs (if a mate is present) from being hatched and causing a further drain on the hen. I also suggest attempting to reduce the hen’s daylight hours to mimic a winter environment in an attempt to bring her out of the breeding season. And of course, it is vital that a chronic egg layer be on an excellent diet that is rich in calcium and sunlight/vitamin D.
Occasionally, a bird will have internal problems associated with egg laying. This can include problems such as an ectopically laid egg and cystic follicles. In addition to a bird that is feeling and acting sick, you may notice fluid build up in the birds abdomen. Such birds should be taken to a veterinarian immediately.
Behavioral issues were discussed above. If behavioral problem persist it may be beneficial to contact a recognized avian behaviorist and of course consult with your veterinarian.
So, these are just a very small sampling of some of the medical and surgical conditions your veterinarian will see and treat on a regular basis. Please, if you are concerned your pet is showing signs of illness, have him examined by your avian veterinarian.
Converting Your Bird to A Pellet Diet:
Birds learn what to eat from their parent when they are very young. They are true mimic eaters learning what to eat in the wild by watching their parents and other flock members. This can result in some problem for us if the birds were not exposed to a variety of foods by the person rearing the chick. Many birds can be very stubborn about accepting a change in their diet and will actually starve to death because they don’t seem to realize that the new food is eatable. Therefore, any change in diet must be done with close supervision and monitoring or the bird’s weight.
1)Limit seeds to 2 timed meals daily: I like this method because if the owner is persistent it seems to always work. The idea is to take out all seeds and place fresh pellets in their normal food bowl. It is best to leave the pellets in for the first 1-2 hours every morning and then offer 15 minutes of their regular former diet so that they do not go hungry. Repeat this in the evening. The idea is to offer the pellets when the bird are most hungry but to starve the bird into eating
2) Choose a human grade bird pellet such as Harrison’s and allow the bird to see you eating the pellets. Birds learn by example and are likely to be interested in anything you show interest in. Do remember that birds and humans have different normal bacteria in their GI tracts do not offer food from your mouth.
3) Soak the pellets in sweetened juice or a favorite food to encourage eating based on flavor.
4) Make cornbread mix and place the old diet, veggies, and the new diet in the mix. Then feed birdie bread. Harrison’s now makes a powdered starter for birdie bread that I highly recommend.
5) Use a teacher bird. Similar to #2 this allows your bird to learn by example.
6) Feed chop with pellets mixed in: A variety of cooked fresh grains and chopped veggies offered as a warm dish