In Case of Emergency

Well-informed retailers can help bird owners be prepared to handle pet birds' most common medical emergencies.


Accidents happen. Even the most conscientious pet owners and retailers can experience an emergency with a pet bird, whether in the store, at home or while traveling. Knowing what needs to be done as soon as something bad occurs can, in many cases, be the only way to save a bird’s life. Retail employees need to know how to handle an emergency if it happens at the store, and what to ask and tell a bird owner who calls on the phone in a state of panic.

Stop the Bleeding
One of the most common emergencies that can occur with pet birds is bleeding, and this usually happens when a toenail or beak gets cut or broken up into the blood vessel, or a new feather shaft gets damaged.

Styptic powder will stop the bleeding in a nail or beak by causing the blood to clot. The pet owner or retailer should put the powder on the area that is bleeding right away, and apply gentle pressure. The bleeding will usually stop within a minute or two unless the break is very bad.

Pet stores and bird owners should always have styptic powder on hand, including when traveling with birds. On a flight, I had three kakarikis (New Zealand parakeets that are the size of a cockatiel) in a carrier under my seat. The birds like to climb and were crawling up and down the bars at the top of the carrier. I heard a funny noise at one point and looked down to see the female bleeding from a toenail. I took her out and noted she had broken the nail completely off. I did not have any styptic powder on me, so I put pressure right at the end of that toe. It took about 15 minutes before the bleeding stopped, and another 15 minutes to calm myself down. If I had the styptic powder, this episode would have been much less stressful for the bird and me. Thankfully, I did have a light coat that I used to wrap the bird in to keep it calm while I was putting pressure on the toe. It’s important that whenever dealing with an injured bird to wrap the bird snuggly—but not too tightly—in a towel or other material, as a bird may bite or try to get away.

If the bleeding is coming from a feather, chances are a blood feather has been broken. Blood feathers are developing feathers that look like shafts. This shaft has blood in it while the feather is growing out. When it matures, the blood recedes and the shaft opens to reveal the feather inside. The large flight feathers on the ends of the wings and the tail have very large shafts, so they can bleed profusely if broken. Styptic powder doesn’t usually work to stop this type of bleeding. The damaged feather shaft must be pulled out quickly. If the broken shaft cannot be found easily, clean the area with hydrogen peroxide to find the broken feather. Then, grasp the shaft as close to the skin as possible and pull hard and straight, almost like pulling a tooth. If the shaft is hard to get a hold of, use pliers. Once the broken feather is pulled, styptic powder and some pressure can be used on the skin if it is bleeding from where the feather was pulled. If there is no styptic powder on hand, cornstarch or flour can work in a pinch to stop the bleeding.

A bird that is not behaving normally or that has suffered a serious injury, such as a broken beak or profuse bleeding, may still have to see a vet once the bleeding has stopped. If the bird seems to be OK and is acting normally, it needs to be observed for at least a few hours after the bleeding stops to be sure it doesn’t start again.

Accidental Poisoning
Another common emergency is when a bird ingests something poisonous. Retailers should tell customers that a poisoned bird needs to see a vet immediately. Perhaps even more importantly, retailers should teach customer how to prevent poisoning in the first place.

There are several common household products and foods that can be poisonous to pet birds. These include chocolate and avocado, as well as soaps, cleaners, certain houseplants and other common household items. Retailers should warn parrot owners to be sure their birds will not come in contact with any such items, particularly while climbing or flying. Stores can help by providing customers with a list of safe and toxic houseplants. This information is also available on the Internet.

Birds can get metal poisoning from things put in their cage over time, and the effects can be cumulative. Owners should be sure that everything their birds can get their beak on is safe for them to chew and note that if it wasn’t made for birds, it’s probably best not to give it to them. Metal poisoning, often from zinc, can cause anything from weight loss, lethargy, seizures and an increase in the urine part of the feces. Even feather plucking has been connected with metal poisoning.

One last type of emergency that can be seen often with birds is caused by them flying into a window, mirror, or out an open door or window. Birds cannot recognize glass as something solid, and they can hit hard enough to injure or even kill themselves. Therefore, tell owners that if they are not going to get their bird’s wings trimmed regularly— something that should be highly recommended unless the bird will be bred or kept in a large flight—then they need to be sure all windows and mirrors are covered when the bird is out.

If the bird ends up escaping outside, chances are slim that the bird will ever be found and brought back. Placing the bird’s cage outside and calling if the bird is strongly bonded to its owner can sometimes help if the bird has not gone too far. The owners should also call every pet store, animal officer and vet clinic in a large radius to let them know about the escaped bird.

Keeping a bird’s wings trimmed prevents this from happening. Note that it is a good idea to be sure the bird’s wings are trimmed properly before going on any trips, as there is much more of a chance that a bird may escape while traveling.

Many years ago, I was working at the front counter in my father’s pet store when I heard someone yell from the back of the store that a bird was out. Just as I heard the yell, the front door opened and I watched a cockatiel fly straight out the door, across the parking lot and disappear over the trees. The timing was perfect for the bird’s escape, and we never saw that cockatiel again.

As people who work in pet stores and as pet owners, we hope never to deal with these emergencies. But when an emergency does occur, be sure to know what to do or ask, have the supplies needed, and know the resources to contact such as an avian veterinarian as necessary.

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

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