By Dr. Colin Walker BSc, BVSc, MRCVS, MACVSc (Avian health)
Many people are unfamiliar with what avian veterinarians actually do. I recently had to pick up my son James and his friend Luke from school. As I arrived I could see the two boys relaxing on a bench outside the school. I pulled up and the two 16 year olds jumped into the back. They were keen to tell me about their day. After a few minutes Luke asked me about my day. I explained that I had just seen a blind, giddy budgerigar. “ A blind, giddy budgerigar?” Luke repeated, looking across at James, “Gee, what did you do with that?”. I explained that I had drawn blood from the bird. “You drew blood from a budgie?” Luke sounded surprised. Yes, and before that I had seen an Indian Ringneck parrot that was sexually imprinted on it’s owner. The owner was concerned because the bird kept wanting to mate with her foot and had in fact done just that during the consultation. The two boys smiled at each other. I went onto explain that before that I had seen a pet chicken with a large mass in it’s abdomen and that we had operated. “You operated on a chicken?” said Luke, his voice sounding a bit agitated. Yes, I said, we had found the mass to be a large tumor. “Did you put the bird down?” was his next query. No, we removed the mass and the bird would likely start chemotherapy. Luke sat back in his seat and looked at James. “Is this one of those Gotcha shows?” was his reply.
Avian vets, these days, can do many things that were just not possible years ago. There are however still significant differences in the way many people approach avian health compared to that of other species. To most people if they buy a puppy or a kitten it just seems natural to take it to the vet to have it checked and yet this still only happens with a small proportion of birds. A veterinary post-purchase exam gives an opportunity to check the birds over, screen for the common diseases and discuss the birds basic dietary and general care requirements.
I recently was presented with a 10 month old budgerigar by a father and his 14 year old daughter. The bird had become unwell the previous few days and had been taken to the local vet the night before who had suggested the bird come to us. On presentation the bird was semi-conscious and had lost the use of its legs. I explained to the owner that the bright green urates in it’s droppings may indicate a liver involvement and that accurate diagnosis could be protracted and costly because many things could affect the liver. I took a sample of the droppings and examined these under the microscope while the owner waited. I found literally 30-40 round worm eggs in each microscope field. I went back into the room and explained to the owner that we had had a bit of luck in that the cause of the problem may have become quickly apparent. Roundworm larvae migrate through the liver and where one or two could not account for the birds symptoms, the number I was seeing certainly could. I advised that a range of effective drugs were available which could not only kill the adults but also the larvae. Frustratingly at this point in the consultation the bird actually died to the great distress of his young owner. It was the classic emergency that could have been seen at any time in the previous 10 months and totally avoidable. A worming preparation worth less than 20 cents could have saved this birds life.
So much of our veterinary care should be about maintaining health. Birds are remarkably robust little critters and given the basics of care often prove themselves to be very tough. Most avian vets prefer to see healthy birds regularly for checks rather than sick birds presented for emergencies. Certainly some genuine emergencies do occur but it seems that some in our practice could be avoided with routine checks and care.
In another instance I was presented with a very sick 5 year old rainbow lorikeet with multiple black lines over it’s feathers and a pale yellow beak. The bird had been an injured wild bird originally and had been taken home by the owner after rescue and put in a cage with her budgie. Neither the budgie nor lorikeet had been seen by a veterinarian. The potential for disease transmission from the wild bird to the pet budgie or alternatively from the budgie to the clinically normal wild bird had not occurred to the owner and no professional advice had been sought about the dietary requirements of the lorikeet. A friend had advised however that lorikeets did not eat seed and that an artificial nectar had to be prepared made of rice powder and sugar (only). This had been the lorikeets diet for all those years. Now severely unwell samples were taken for diagnostic work and a more complete diet provided. Several hours after admittal the bird started fitting and died shortly after. The owner had done a good job in that she had been prepared to offer the bird a home and provide ongoing care and yet for some reason it had not occurred to her to contact a vet.
I had a client say to me the other day that it seemed really strange to take a bird to the vet. You can imagine how strange this sounded to us at a bird only practice where this is what people do all day. Birds have a similar intelligence range to that of dogs, have a similar sense of pain perception, are just as socially interactive and many live 2-4 times longer and yet many bird owners delay in taking their unwell bird to the vet where they would take their pet dog promptly.
Perhaps part of the answer is the difficulty of some owners to appreciate just how sick their unwell bird really is. Part of the reason here may be the inability of a birds facial muscles to show expression. Their faces are like masks and are unable to show the grimaces or wrinkling that mammals faces show with pain or concern. The smooth open face of a bird can mimic that of a mammal in repose even when the bird is in pain or distressed. Similarly although birds do make different sounds when frightened, distressed or in pain they are not as readily recognisable as the moans or cries of a mammal in pain. Many people seem to find it easier to place human emotions on mammals because they can relate to them more readily. Outside the clinic we often have several wild Sulphur Crested cockatoos feeding by the roadside. One of these was hit by a car the other day and brought into the clinic. The bird was a magnificent mature cock in breeding condition with many years of life ahead of him. He had broken his thigh bone and an x-ray showed it would never heal without surgery. We decided the right thing to do was to operate so that after 4-6 weeks in care the leg would heal and he could be released. After surgery this bird moved to the front corner of his pen, held the wire with his beak and lent into the corner to take the weight off his injured leg. He did not move for 3 hours. Despite being given a pain killer he was obviously in pain but at a quick glance did not look that different to the healthy cocky in the pen next door.
I was on the phone yesterday when a clients bird actually died while she was still deciding whether the bird was sick enough to warrant a visit to the vet. She had also phoned the clinic several hours earlier and been advised that with the symptoms the bird was showing she should come down straight away. This situation if nothing else shows the hesitancy of some owners to take a bird to the vets.
A clinical history as outlined by an owner stating that 3 of 12 birds in an aviary have died and now the fourth one is sick and so they thought it was time to call the vet may not raise an eyebrow and yet if a similar story involved cats in a cattery the RSPCA would be involved.
One thing I have noticed is that there is a difference in the expectation of older and younger clients. The experience of older members of the population is of a time when avian vets perhaps could not do so much for birds and so their expectation when they present their unwell bird to a vet is lower. In fact often they wait until the bird is very unwell and then bring it in for a humane euthanasia. In most younger people their expectation is very different. They anticipate a similar level of care and positive outcomes as they would any other pet.
Some bird owners will use a local pet shop as a primary source of information and yet pet shop owners although experienced often have no formal training. Pet shops form part of the pet care network. Some of the pet shops near our clinic involve us in the care of their birds. Local pet shops can provide good information about pet care to bird owners through the experience they have gained. Some people however will use a local pet shop as a source of veterinary information and will be reluctant to consult a vet even when urged to do so by the pet shop. Delaying accurate diagnosis and correct treatment can cost a bird it’s life. Similarly giving the wrong medication can actually make it worse. We had a sick lorikeet come to the clinic last week with a history of being unwell for over 2 months. The owner had tried an over the counter sulfur based antibiotic (increasing the risk of thrush), two over the counter tetracycline antibiotics (risk of liver injury, predisposition to thrush, risk of developing Chlamydia resistance), added additional multivitamin to an already complete diet (risking toxicity), added additional sugar to it’s water (increasing the risk of dehydration and diabetes), sprayed it with carbaryl (a potentially toxic insecticide particularly in a debilitated bird), wormed it (worms are uncommon in lorikeets) and tried several homeopathic remedies which had apparently worked well in her mammal pets (with their different diets and metabolisms). Incredibly the bird survived all this and the two months delay in effective treatment. Many birds would not.
One factor stopping people going to an avian vet can be the cost. These days the medical and surgical treatment of birds offers similar success rates to that of dogs and cats. Of course the costs of these treatments together with the diagnostic work required is no cheaper than that for dogs and cats. Pet birds have a high emotional value while avicultural birds have a recognized financial value and some rare species also have genetic value. These recognised values can make the decision whether or not to incur the cost of diagnosis and treatment an easier one. With lower value birds I would encourage owners not to just look at the sick individual bird but rather view it as a representative of an aviary. What we are in effect doing is maintaining the health of the many birds in that aviary.
At times however it can be hard to predict an owners expectation. We recently had ‘Turbo’ a young blue quaker (a bird of comparatively lower value) with splayed legs come in to the clinic. Under anaesthetic both legs were broken, realigned and external fixaters applied so that they would heal straight. ‘Turbo’ (now termed a parrot–plegic by his owner) should heal in about 6 weeks and left the clinic with quite a high bill. Conversely on the same day we had a rare species of conure (less than 20 in the country) come in near death. Blood tests showed the birds blood sugar level to be 121. Normal is less than 24. The bird died 2 hours after admittal. Effective treatment for this very valuable bird’s advanced diabetes would have been available if it had been presented earlier.
The last 20 years has been an exciting time to be involved in avian practice. There has been amazing transition from a time where veterinarians were severely challenged with bird diagnostics and treatment and at times were left frustrated that they could not do more to now where avian practice parallels the more established care of dogs, cats and other animals. During this time safer anaesthetics, better surgical techniques, more effective drugs and better diagnostics have all been developed. Avian lectures now form a significant part of university veterinary courses where 20 years ago only 2-3 lectures where given. This means that today’s graduates are much better equipped to handle avian cases. The recovery of sick birds that 20 years ago seemed remarkable is now in many cases anticipated and expected. Success in aviculture have mirrored these advances in veterinary practice with many species once regarded as difficult to maintain having large established aviculture populations. Continuing these trends promises further exciting time ahead.