When Your Bird is Sick

Posted by Kendra on January 04, 2002 at 12:41:12:

Hello all. I have some sad news, my little girl Luna passed away last night. I had taken her to an emergency vet on New Year’s Day after I noticed her constant fluffing, lethargy and diarrhea for nearly a day previous. I should have taken her in sooner. I have posted a memorial message in her honor on the memorials page. Please, please, please take your keet to see a vet without delay if he or she starts exhibiting these symptoms. The vet said that, had I brought Luna to him sooner, it might have saved her life. Please don’t make the same mistake I did. Take care of your little ones as though they are your own children.

Why every sick bird is an EMERGENCY

What is the first thing you do after buying a dog? You take it to the vet for vaccinations! Dogs and cats require more routine trips to the vet than birds do, yet most bird owners refuse to take their bird even once when their pet is critically ill.

BIRDS ARE NOT MAMMALS. People too often see bird illness like their own- just annoying symptoms that aren’t very serious. Birds can take injury quite well, but illness is another matter. In the wild an unhealthy bird can attract predators, spread disease and may be driven out of the flock. Because of this they do their very best to hide the fact that they are ill. Experienced breeders will notice illness early, but by the time a pet owner sees their bird is sick, the condition is very serious. Tack onto this the delay an owner makes before bringing the bird to a vet, and you have an animal at death’s door. Even worse, the owner may not seek veterinary care, thinking things will just get better on their own, and the bird winds up dead.

If a bird acts ill:

  1. Take it to a vet immediately.
  2. Keep it in a warm, quiet place and isolate it from the rest of your flock.
  3. Do NOT try to treat it yourself.

Many owners are actually more likely to seek vet care if their bird is bleeding or injured than if the bird is sick. While injury can certainly be serious, it is usually not life-threatening (except for cat attacks). I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take a bird to the vet if it is injured, but that you need to view illness as being much more dangerous.

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How to Know if your Bird is Sick

Birds mask signs of illness. Usually the owner will sense something is “off” before they can point to actual symptoms.

  • decrease in weight
  • decrease in apetite
  • lethary
  • not as interested in play
  • voice change or decrease in vocalizations
  • drastic change in poop that is unrelated to food change

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Choosing a Vet

Not everyone has the luxury of being able to choose their vet. Extremely rural areas may have only livestock vets to choose from, or none at all. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere like Southern California, you’ll have your choice of vets. Don’t be afraid to be picky. It is your pet’s life! Beware of vets claiming to be “avian specialists” or something like that. Not all vets are qualified to treat birds. Try to stick to vets that are members of the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Members of this organization are more likely to be up to date on current research, treatments, and other information. They may not be completely qualified either, but at least they’ll be working on it and have access to better information. See the AAV website for a list of members in your area.

Aside from being an AAV member, there is one other quality I require of my own vets: communication skills. They’ve got to be willing to talk to me about the problem itself and the options for treatment. Cost estimates are also important.

The Initial Visit

Ideally, the first visit should take place immediately after purchase, for several reasons. It gives you the chance to get a feel for the vet before really needing one. It gives the vet a chance to see your bird when it is (hopefully) healthy. The bird’s normal weight will be recorded and will help provide a reference point for later exams. The vet can talk to you about basic bird care. Do you know why exotic animal exams generally cost $10 more than cat and dog exams? It is because they typically take longer- the vet may have to spend an hour giving the owner a lecture on the proper diet. You might learn key information on the first visit that will keep your bird healthy and prevent further visits. There’s also the possibility that you bought a sick or unweaned bird. Most breeders are reasonable and give you 24 hours to see a vet and verify the bird’s health. Some places now offer a free vet exam with purchase. If something is wrong you can catch it right away and return the animal.

What to Expect

Most visits include only a physical exam. The vet will weigh your bird and look it over. They may listen to pulse/breathing, check the vent, mouth, etc. Depending on the problem they may send you away with medication or recommend that tests be run. All sick birds look pretty much the same. Unless tests are run, the initial diagnosis a vet makes for a bird is typically an educated guess. This does NOT mean that the vet doesn’t know what he/she is doing. In many cases this initial diagnosis is correct. Vets know we aren’t made of money and that most people are unwilling to pay the added cost for cultures or bloodwork. Many won’t even bring up the topic during an initial visit. However, if the first treatment fails YOU NEED TO LET THE VET KNOW. It’s not as if everything is settled once you leave the practice. Like I said, it is often just an educated guess. If it happens to be wrong how will the vet know unless you say something? Bring the bird back as many times as needed to fix the problem. My current vet has no extra charge for rechecks (additional procedures cost more, but the exam does not).

Lab work is always better when performed before any medications have been given. If a bird has been on antibiotics or other meds this can mess up the results. If you want the vet to do labwork before any medications are prescribed, ask for it!

    Common Procedures:

  • Antibiotics kill bacteria. Each antibiotic attacks only certain types. Most vets start out with a wide spectrum (common/general types) and move on to something more specific if that doesn’t work. Antibiotics do NOT work against fungi or viruses and should only be used under veterinarian supervision.
  • Anti fungals kill fungi. Antibiotics can promote the growth of fungi so many vets will prescribe this along with antibiotic treatments. If you have reason to believe that your bird has a fungal infection, demand that your vet provide an antifungal in addition to an antibiotic.
  • Lactobacillus (it may be called something else) is “friendly bacteria.” We need bacteria to live. Much of our digestion is aided by beneficial bacteria in our intestines. This bacteria also helps by giving bad species little or no room to colonize. If a bird is on long or harsh antibiotic treatments a vet will usually prescribe this to increase the good bacterial population.
  • Blood Panels are more for detecting if their is a problem. They don’t help much with diagnosis but a vet can look at a panel and see if anything is amiss. Certain problems will affect different parts of a blood panel. This procedure is best for annual exams and cases where the bird has been treated but nothing seems to be working (the panel may point the vet in another direction).
  • X rays are used to see abnormalities that might show up: masses, fractures, ingested metals, tumors, etc.
  • Cultures are used to determine what exact species is the culprit of an infection. Like I stated before, antibiotics each treat a specific range of bacteria. A culture will help the vet narrow down which bacterial/fungal species needs to be dealt with.

What you need to do

Animals can’t tell the vet what is wrong. You need to tell the vet everything. I’m dead serious- every little detail about their illness. You see the animal every day and you’ll notice tiny abnormalities that a vet couldn’t notice. Write down/type the answers to all these questions and bring them with you to the veterinarian.

  1. What are the symptoms?
  2. Behavioral changes?
  3. Breathing problems, voice changes or discharge?
  4. Decreased vocalizations, eating or play?
  5. Any changes in the animal’s environment?
  6. Has the animal been chewing on anything weird?
  7. Do the feces look any different than normal? If yes, describe.
  8. When did the symptoms first start? How have they progressed?
  9. List any weights you’ve taken, from older to more recent.
  10. Has the bird been treated for anything previously? (if at another hospital)

Start writing down the answers as soon as you notice something is wrong. Wait too long and you may not be able to remember subtle changes or when the symptoms first occurred. If you have a food scale, weigh your bird (in grams) and bring your records with you.

Detecting Early Signs of Illness

The best preventative medicine is quality care. A good diet is extremely important to keeping your bird healthy. There is absolutely no excuse for feeding your bird a seed-only diet. If you are having trouble getting your bird to try new foods, go here.

Buy a gram scale and weigh your bird monthly or even weekly. Weight loss is a good indication of illness and will show up before most other symptoms. Some fluctuation is normal but the weight should not be steadily going down. Drastic changes in weight suggest a serious problem. However, not all sick birds lose weight so don’t rely on this alone. If a bird acts sick and the weight is fine you still need to see a vet. The bird may have a mass/growth that makes it seem heavier when it is in fact losing weight.

If you only have a few pets take them in for annual vet exams. You’ll want a physical, weights taken and a blood panel done.

© 1997-2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

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