Avian First-Aid

Retailers can help the owners of sick or injured birds by assessing the problem and, if need be, recommending a visit to a local avian veterinarian.


Nothing is worse to a bird owner, or someone taking care of birds in a pet store, than having a severely sick or injured bird. When confronted with an emergency situation, or if called by a frantic bird owner, store employees should remain calm. First, assess what the problem is and then decide what needs to be done. In most cases, the bird will need to be brought to an avian veterinarian as soon as possible, although some injuries require first-aid right away or the bird could die before it reaches the clinic.

Stores should have telephone numbers on hand, including emergency ones, for any veterinarians in the area that specialize in birds. Give the numbers to owners that have a sick bird and tell them to call right away. Any birds showing signs of trouble at the store should be isolated from all other birds, kept warm and seen by a vet as soon as possible. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Common Injuries

If a bird has been injured, it should be checked carefully to see if it is bleeding. The most common injury that occurs in caged birds is when they break a large new pinfeather. It will almost always start to bleed profusely. This is an emergency situation since birds, especially smaller species, can bleed out and die very quickly.

Since the pinfeather acts like an open tube into a blood vessel, putting pressure on the broken end or using some sort of cauterizing agent will not usually work. The broken pinfeather must be pulled out quickly by yanking on it hard and close to the base where the feather attaches to the body. In some cases, the area the pinfeather has been pulled from may bleed. The area can then have some blood-clotting agent put on it, like styptic powder, and then pressure can be applied to stop the bleeding. If there isn’t any styptic powder available, cornstarch or flour can be used instead.

The second most common injury in pet birds is the breaking of a toenail where it meets the quick, which will start bleeding. A blood-clotting agent should be applied to the end of the nail and, if needed, pressure can also be applied at the base of the nail where it meets the skin of the toe. If the bird’s bill is broken, the same process can be followed. Be cautious, however, that the bird does not ingest the blood-clotting agent, and keep pressure on the injured part only. The bird should be taken to an avian veterinarian immediately after any severe injury, especially if the bird lost a lot of blood or is acting abnormal in any way.

If a bird owner or employee believes a bird is sick, find out what the symptoms are and how long the bird has been ill. Most bird diseases cause problems with the respiratory or digestive systems, although it is usually the bird’s behavior, or changes in behavior, that can show a bird is unwell.

A bird displaying any of the following signs is extremely sick and needs to be brought to a bird veterinarian right away: it is listless and acting tired; it stays fluffed up most of the time; it sleeps a lot; it is not eating or drinking as much or at all; it has trouble staying on the perch or is at the bottom of the cage; it has discharge coming out of the nostrils, beak or eyes; it has diarrhea or feces that are bloody or look different than normal; and/or it exhibits any obvious changes in its “normal” behavior. Make it extremely clear to bird owners that a bird will hide that it’s sick until it is so ill it can no longer  conceal the fact there’s a problem. They must bring their bird to the veterinarian right away if there is to be even a chance of saving its life.

It is best to always encourage bird owners to take their pet to an avian veterinarian if they believe it is sick or has been injured. Trying to diagnose what is wrong with a bird at home or even in the store is almost impossible, as many diseases can have overlapping symptoms. Employees should never try to guess what is wrong, especially if it is obvious that the bird is truly ill. Instead, stress to the bird owner that any delay to go to the vet can be extremely detrimental to a bird’s survival. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.

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