If your bird is on a healthy diet and the environment is kept ideal, then the last part of keeping up with your bird’s general health is to know what a healthy and an unhealthy bird looks like, and to make sure your bird gets routine veterinary visits. We recommend bringing your bird to see our avian veterinarians at least once a year (twice a year for older birds or those with ongoing problems). We also recommend yearly blood work to screen the organs and to check for infections. This is good not only because we will establish normal blood values for your individual bird, but it often allows us to catch diseases early before they become a serious problem. We do not recommend any routine vaccinations for the average pet bird at this time.
Basic maintenance health care for birds includes the following:
Regular Weight Checks
This is a vital part of routine care for your bird. Once your bird reaches his or her adult weight, that weight should not fluctuate by a large degree. A lot of parrots will have subtle weight loss days to weeks before they display symptoms of being ill, so many disease processes can be caught by routine weigh-ins for your birds. We recommend weight checks at least once a week. Keep a log of your bird’s weight trends and seek veterinary attention if your bird has dropped a large amount of weight (>5-10% of original body weight) suddenly or has shown a steady drop in body weight over time. You will need to purchase a gram scale to weigh your bird because regular scales do not break down into small enough increments to get accurate weights on such small patients. Gram scales can be purchased from most stores. Food scales usually weigh small amounts of food and can weigh in grams.
Some birds will keep their nails filed down simply by walking on perches, but the majority of birds will need a nail trim at some point. If nails are excessively long, then they can get caught in the carpet, in toys or on perches. This can break or damage the nail bed, causing bleeding and potentially fracturing toes, legs or causing infections. Also, birds are not patient when it comes to having their toes caught in something – most birds would rather chew off their toe than allow it to stay trapped until you get home.
It is the owner’s decision whether to trim your bird’s wings or allow your bird to have the ability to fly. The benefit of allowing flight is that your bird can more easily exercise and is able to escape from danger (such as a curious dog or cat). It is also good for overall mental health since this is something birds instinctively want to do and is a normal behavior for them. The downside is that some birds with the ability to fly are more confident and sometimes aggressive with their owners, and dangers such as ceiling fans, windows, and the potential of flying outside open doors are present. Baby birds should always be allowed to learn how to fly before their first wing trim – this allows them to develop mentally and gain confidence. Birds that never learn to fly can be shy and anxious and lack confidence to be outgoing and friendly. After a baby bird is comfortable flying, you should decide what the best option is for you and for your bird. We do not recommend trimming wings at home, since an inappropriate wing trim can be debilitating for birds, but if you wish to learn how to trim wings then consult with one of our avian veterinarians before attempting this at home. Blood feathers should never be clipped (the shafts of blood feathers will be purple because these feathers have an active blood supply).
Birds come from natural habitats with high humidity levels that rain consistently, especially New World birds like Macaws, Conures and Amazons. Indoors, the humidity levels are greatly reduced and birds need to bathe almost daily in order to maintain healthy skin and feathers. Some birds enjoy being sprayed, while others like to bathe in the shower or under a dripping faucet sink, and others prefer a dish or bowl to bathe in. Once you figure out which bathing method your bird prefers, daily bath time can be a fun activity! Make sure to use lukewarm to slightly warm water so not to chill your bird.
A healthy bird should be alert, bright eyed, have smoothed feathers and should vocalize normally. An unhealthy bird may range from looking completely normal to having any of the following symptoms: decreased vocalizations, change in appetite, weight loss, lethargy or depression, fluffed feathers, closed eyes, inability to perch, increased water consumption, changes in stool or urine, or trouble breathing (open mouthed breathing, tail bobbing).
At the first sign of illness it is important to see an avian veterinarian immediately. Because birds are prey animals, they tend to hide any symptoms or pain until the very last possible moment. In the wild, individual birds who show evidence of disease will be the first to succumb to predators, which is why our pet birds do not give us any clues they are sick until they are seriously ill. Even the most astute owners may not notice early symptoms of disease, so by the time birds show signs of illness the bird has usually been deteriorating for days or even weeks. A sick bird is an emergency.
Quarantine New Birds
Regardless of where you obtain a new bird, you need to protect your current flock from disease. A 30-60 day quarantine period is key to prevent any hidden infections that your new bird may have from spreading to your healthy birds. House your new bird in a separate room, and keep food bowls, water bowls, and toys separate during the quarantine period. Handle your current birds before handing your new bird. If you wish to return to handling your current birds, wash your hands thoroughly and change shirts as an extra precaution. This process is done because parasites, contagious respiratory disease, and contagious viral diseases may take weeks to show up once your new bird is in your home.
It is also important to see an avian veterinarian within 1-2 days after bringing your new bird home. We can check for viral diseases, bacterial respiratory diseases, and parasites to make sure your new bird is healthy and will not expose you or your current birds to any diseases.
Common Avian (Parrot) Diseases
Upper Respiratory Infections (URIs
Far and away, one of the most common disease processes we see in practice. Most of these URIs occur in newly purchased or adopted birds, or birds that are on a solely or predominantly seed-based diet. These diets are poor in Vitamin A, which is an essential vitamin to eye, respiratory and immune health. If your bird is Vitamin A deficient for a prolonged period, there are microscopic changes that occur in the tissues that line the respiratory tract that make your bird more prone to chronic URIs, and eventually those changes can lead to oral cancer.
Symptoms of URIs include: conjunctivitis (red, swollen inner eyelids), eye discharge that can range from clear to white or yellow/green, sneezing, reddened nostrils, and the bird may be fluffed up and depressed. Antibiotics are usually needed to clear the infection. Improving diet and nutrition (offering a diet composed of 70% pelleted food with healthy vegetables and fruits and minimizing seeds and nuts) will greatly improve the immune system and overall health of the bird. For newly acquired birds especially, we always recommend a Chlamydophila psittaci test. This is one bacterial cause of URIs in birds that can be quickly spread among the birds in the house, can be transmitted to people, and can ultimately be fatal as it affects other organs such as the liver. If antibiotics do not resolve the initial URI, often times a culture is needed to see what type of organism is causing the disease and to guide future antibiotic therapy.
Many pet birds are overweight. This is due to a combination of factors, including diets that are high in fat (seed/nut based diets), decreased exercise compared to their wild counterparts (via the inability to fly from having clipped wings), and some species (Amazon parrots, Quaker parrots) are genetically prone to developing a weight problem. Just as in people, obesity in pet birds can lead to a slew of problems. Atherosclerosis, or fatty deposits inside the blood vessels that cause high blood pressure and heart disease, is a common secondary problem to obesity that usually goes undiagnosed until the later stages of the disease. Joint problems and arthritis, fatty liver disease, increased risk of diabetes, and the appearance of fatty skin tumors also occur in obese birds. There is also a much higher risk when handling obese birds in the hospital, as they are prone to overheating and do not tolerate the stress of handling as well as lean birds. To avoid obesity in your bird, regular exercise is needed (even flightless birds can be exercised by teaching a flapping trick or different climbing exercises!) and a proper diet will ensure that your bird stays at a healthy weight.
Broken blood feathers
A blood feather is a growing feather that still has an active blood supply in the feather shaft. You can easily recognize these feathers because the shafts are purple instead of white or clear like the shafts of mature feathers. Occasionally these feathers are damaged, and because of their good blood supply, will bleed quite readily. Sometimes the bleeding stops immediately; other times it continues. It is important to seek immediate veterinary attention if your bird is bleeding – blood loss can be fatal, especially in smaller species of birds. Cold water can be run over the feather to slow bleeding at home, and cornstarch can be used as a cautery powder temporarily while you get your bird to a vet. The broken feather must be pulled out in order to stop bleeding since feathers.
The Fluffed Bird
Many times when we see a bird there are nonspecific symptoms. There can be a wide range of nonspecific symptoms, but most birds are depressed, fluffed up in the cage, and just seem to not feel well overall. We always warn our clients that it can be dangerous to handle sick birds. They are at a higher risk of stress-induced death during handling; however, a physical exam must be performed as quickly as possible in order to start treatment. Most of these birds will not improve without veterinary care. Sometimes the physical exam will give us clues as to what is affecting your bird, but more often than not the physical exam findings are unremarkable. This is where further diagnostic testing is required.
For a sick bird, the tests that we most often recommend to help guide treatments are a full blood panel (complete blood count and biochemistry panel), full body x-rays, urinalysis and a fecal test. This usually gives us a good starting point for treatment. If a bird is too sick to do all the diagnostic testing at once (which is often the case), then supportive care is started until the bird is strong enough to undergo the necessary tests. This could be hours or it could mean waiting a day or two before testing begins. Common supportive care includes fluid therapy, frequent feedings with highly digestible recovery food to maintain body weight in birds that are too weak to eat on their own, antibiotic or antifungal therapy when indicated and pain management if needed.
Sick birds also benefit from warmed cages and oxygen therapy. Once a diagnosis is made, appropriate therapy can then be started. Hopefully, the bird’s condition can be treated. Unfortunately, sick birds sometimes will succumb to their diseases despite having the best treatment. We typically to not see these birds until their disease has become very advanced, and this make it that much harder for a successful recovery.
Symptoms that Warrant Emergency Care
Finally, there are some symptoms that in birds warrant immediate attention. The following list of symptoms means that your bird is in distress and needs to see one of our avian veterinarians immediately. Signs include:
• Rapid breathing, tail bobbing when breathing, or open mouthed panting • Depressed and fluffed at the bottom of the cage • Any bleeding that does not stop immediately • Seizures, fainting, or falling off perch • Not using a limb or wing • Self-mutilation • Not eating and/or rapid weight loss • Any interaction where the bird could have been bitten/scratched licked by a cat • Any sick neonatal/baby bird • If your bird has been sick for >24 hours, it needs to be seen ASAP