One of the worst issues that bird owners have to deal with is a sick or injured pet. While they can call a pet store in a panic and look to the staff for advice and information—even if that just consists of asking for an avian veterinarian’s phone number—it’s better to be knowledgeable and prepared. The old saying "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" certainly rings true for all pets, although for our avian ones, it may be more accurate to say, "an ounce of observation is worth a pound of treatment."
It’s a sad fact that despite appearing healthy the night before, pet birds can be found dead on the cage floor the next morning, contributing to the (false) stereotype that they’re fragile creatures. That’s exactly what happened when Alex, the famous African grey parrot who was the first to prove birds could understand concepts such as color, size and numbers, passed away in his early 30s.
Unfortunately, spotting a problem is difficult because pet birds are notorious for covering up their illnesses until they’re too weak to keep up the charade, but by that point, it’s usually too late to help. Caged birds act this way due to survival instincts, as sick birds are targeted by predators in the wild.
The first signs that there may be something wrong with a pet bird are changes in its routine, which may only be slight at first. For example, one of the bird’s regular habits might be cleaning its feathers after eating in the morning. If the pet’s not feeling well, it may not preen as much, or it may stop preening altogether. Note that too much preening, scratching and/or agitation might indicate a parasite infestation or other issue that should be checked out by a veterinarian.
Another behavioral shift that’s often seen in pet birds is a change in vocalization. Almost all bird species kept as pets will sing, call out and babble. If a pet bird that’s generally loud in the morning is suddenly a lot quieter, and no changes have occurred in or around the household (such as a person visiting or new construction outside), it could indicate health issues. However, it’s important to note that these changes could be due to other factors. For example, male canaries usually don’t sing while they’re molting.
Of course, if an owner notices that their pet bird is showing any outward signs of illness—such as respiratory distress, which includes labored breathing that may move the tail up and down—or if the pet appears lethargic, disinterested and not as alert, the bird needs to see the veterinarian immediately.
Other signs that a bird needs to be seen as soon as possible include discharges coming from the nostrils, eyes or mouth, or growths coming from those areas, legs and body; changes in their usual diet; and changes in color and consistency of their droppings that can’t be accounted for by dietary changes, such as blueberries, which can turn their poop purple.
If birds are available for purchase at a pet store, it’s the duty of the staff taking care of them to watch for any signs that could indicate health problems. This means they must be observant and aware of what is "normal" for the store birds. Outward physical changes are easily noticed, but behavioral changes that have no obvious explanation are often the first indicator that the bird may be unwell. Catching a health issue early can mean the difference between life and death, especially for pet birds.
As for injuries, tame parrots are more likely to be hurt than untamed birds, considering how often they’re outside of their cage. One of the most common injuries that can occur is breaking a blood feather. These new feathers, called pin feathers, have a shaft that is filled with blood. Once the feather is mature, the shaft is empty, but until then, it is connected to a blood vessel and will bleed profusely if broken. The bleeding must be stopped right away, or the bird can die.
A broken blood feather must be removed as soon as possible, since pressure generally does not work for this type of injury. Blood clotting agents, such as styptic powder or cornstarch, can be used in a pinch, but they usually don’t stop the bleeding from broken blood feathers. However, every bird owner should keep one of those powders on hand, preferably styptic, for any broken toenails or other bleeding issues.
To remove a broken blood feather, the shaft must be held with either tweezers, small, needle-nose pliers for larger feathers or, if available, a hemostat. The feather should be gripped as close as possible to where it comes out of the bird’s skin and pulled out quickly in the same direction that the shaft grows. Clotting powder needs to be present in case there’s any other bleeding in the skin area where the feather was pulled.
Other frequent injuries that birds face result from their inability to see glass as solid. If they fly into a mirror or window, it can cause a broken wing or even put them in shock. Even if the bird appears to be OK, it still needs to be watched for at least three to four hours after the incident to be sure. If it has been injured, the bird needs to be wrapped gently in a soft towel, keeping any injury—like a hurt wing—immobile, and brought to the veterinarian.
Keeping the wings clipped is a great way to prevent flying-related injuries or escape.
Clipping the wings is painless and the feathers will grow back, meaning that the wings need to be trimmed as often as needed to keep the bird from being able to get any lift. Both wings need to be clipped evenly, otherwise the bird will spiral and injure itself. When done properly, the bird should be able to glide slowly down to the floor.
In general, caged birds are healthy pets when housed in the right environment and fed the correct diet. They usually do not require any vaccines or annual health checks, like dogs and cats, and some can live for many years, even decades, without any health issues. Unfortunately, accidents do happen and illnesses can occur at any time. Bird owners and pet store staff need to know what to look for and how to act if their bird is injured or showing signs of sickness. Pet store employees have the extra task of knowing how to help by asking the right questions and encouraging the bird owner to seek medical help right away. PB
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.