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by Diane Burroughs September 08, 2021 14 min read

You've got a beautiful bird and you want to make sure to give it the best care that you can.  Or, maybe your pet bird is looking a little frail and you want to get it help before things get worse. But, finding a trustworthy avian veterinarian that can offer you the support that you need has been a hard.

A lot of general veterinarians will not see exotic birds for 3 major reasons. For one thing, birds are more fragile than other more common pets.  On top of that, birds have very different body systems than mammals. And, due to their high metabolism among other things, they tend to have a higher mortality rate. That's why you need an avian veterinarian in your corner. 

In this blog I will cover:

  • The importance of preventive health care for your bird. 
  • What “wellness” actually means and how to promote it in your parrot care routines. 
  • What an avian wellness exam consists of.
  • How to interview an avian veterinarian to determine if they’re a good fit.

WHY YOUR BIRD NEEDS REGULAR CHECKUPS

I've been a 'bird nerd" for almost 25 years. Birds make captivating, enjoyable pets. They're beautiful, intelligent, and very social. What other pet can talk to you in your own language? Plus, they are easily trained. These are just some of the qualities that make caring for a bird so endearing.

But, properly caring for a pet bird can be challenging, even for an experienced bird lover. Bird's need daily, weekly, and monthly care routines. 

 

Birds are fairly fragile when it comes to providing for their care. And, as stated earlier, they have a higher mortality rate than mammals when they get sick or injured. And just as important, they hide their illnesses, injuries, and pain. All of these issues make routine preventive health care extremely important for your pet bird.

These are the very reasons that general veterinarians may refuse to treat exotic birds. And, finding an exotic bird emergency veterinarian clinic to treat your pet on holidays or weekends is even more challenging. 

HOW MUCH DO AVIAN VETS COST? 

Despite the importance of providing your bird with preventative health care, just 12.4% of bird owners take their birds to the veterinarian. I find this to be a shocking and sad statistic.  It blows my mind to think how someone can acquire a beautiful bird and not provide with the proper care that it needs to thrive.

Many pet bird owners worry about the cost of a checkup. Bird health care care be more expensive for the following reasons:

  • Avian Vets have to go to 6 more years of training to get certified
  • Bird's hide pain so intricate lab tests are often required for a proper diagnosis.
  • The avian vet may have to overnight lab tests to specialty exotic pet labs, which. are more expensive

Plan on spending around $100 USD for an annual wellness exam.  More if your vet needs to run labs Prevention may be the best money you spend on your bird. Diagnosing and treating an existing illness is more costly.

Avian veterinarians

WHY DO I NEED AN AVIAN VET?

It's very important to have a good avian veterinarian in your corner who can address both preventive medicine and treatment of injuries and illnesses, should they occur. An avian vet can also help with specialized pediatric care and geriatric care so that you can properly support your pet throughout its lifespan.

Most general veterinarian training programs focus on treating mammals whose body structures and systems are a lot like ours. A bird's body could not be any more different than a mammals. As I mentioned above, a bird's body is designed to support flight, to live in large flocks, and to procreate. 

Parrots, whether flighted or not, must maintain their weight at a low level in order to fly miles through the jungle in search of food each day. This means that their bones are hallow and very lightweight.  They must process oxygen really effectively in order to fly. That's also why they have seven air sacs as opposed to our two lungs. 

Bird’s have a very high metabolism and a short digestive tract which allows them to process food intake much more efficiently. Birds tend to graze throughout the day. They process their food quickly and eliminate frequently. Forgetting to feed your pet bird can be deadly for it, especially if it's a small bird.

You probably get the drift!  Our exotic birds need a specialized vet who knows their body systems inside and out.  Becoming a certified avian vet is a lot of work! To get certified as an avian, they have to jump through a lot of hoops: 

  • Demonstrate six years of high quality, full-time practice experience with birds.
  • Take numerous avian specific continuing education courses.
  •  Demonstrate the ability to write scientifically-based case reports.
  •  Pass a rigorous written exam.

Could you imagine getting a doctorate and then having to go through six more years of intensive academic studies? And, even then, an avian veterinarian can specialize even more, such as in behavior, specific disease processes, surgery, and more.

You can find a certified avian vet near you by logging on to AAV.org - the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Beware, you may have to read each individual's profile to locate those who see pet birds as opposed to those that work in research, zoo’s, or the poultry business. 

Now, that said, it makes sense why avian vet's tend to flock toward larger cities where they can get plenty patients. Finding an avian vet if you live in a smaller town can be a challenge! 

finding an avian vet

But, don't worry, a lot veterinarian's specialize in exotics or even birds without jumping through all of the hoops to obtain the certification. They can get an ABVP certification. This certification is awarded to veterinarians who have proven knowledge and expertise above and beyond what is required to practice veterinary medicine. In this case, you'd search for an ABVP Certified that in Bird (search avian). Head over to ABVP.org to find a vet near you that loves birds.

Or, maybe they can't find a veterinarian that will see birds in their locality.  I suppose that a lot of people acquire a ”beginner bird” like a cockatiel or a budgie and they don't want to spend the extra money on veterinary care. That's sad since a properly cared for budgie or cockatiel can live to be about 20 years old.

Parrot wellness is the active process of making parrot care choices that support a healthy fulfilling life for your pet across its lifespan.  We know that that providing annual preventative health care services for your pet bird helps improve its quality of life, helps it live longer, and costs much less than treating an existing illness. 

Just think about it. For a pet that tends to hide its illness from its “flock,” by the time you notice that your bird is sick, it'sreally, really sick.

Let’s talk about this a bit. Wild birds live in large flocks and they rely on their flock mates to thrive and to provide safety. However, birds are low on the food chain. That means that a lot of animals hunt them. If one member of the flock gets injured or sick, predators will surround the flock and put the entire flock in danger.

The rest of the flock will abandon the sick member in order to save the entire flock. Sadly, the sick individual bird must hide its’ illness for as long as possible. Your pet bird considers you to be as flock and it  we'll hide its illnesses, injuries, and pain from you, as well.  For this reason, it's really hard to tell when your bird needs veterinary help.

Your bird puts off signals when it's not feeling up to par, though.You can learn those about those signs in this blog. When an illness or injury occurs yet isn't treated, we tend to see a “snowball effect” of declining overall health. 

WHAT DOES  WELLNESS REALLY MEAN?

Preventive health care is so important for your bird. Think of preventive healthcare as having two Important prongs. 

Parrot wellness care
Shutterstock under license

 

One prong revolves around your daily bird husbandry care that minimizes the probability of major health issues developing in the first place.  

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The Richard M. Shubolt Parrot Wellness Program at UC Davis Veterinary School describes 6 major components home-based parrot husbandry practices that support parrot wellness. These include the following:

  1. Preventative health care and annual exams.
  2. A species-specific diet of premium bird pellets and raw plant-based foods.
  3. A variety of parrot enrichment activities including foraging and exercise.
  4. Behavior training to include teaching your bird foundational behaviors and behavioral expectations.
  5. Pain prevention and management.
  6. Pediatric and geriatric care.

Learn more about how to improve wellness in your home care routine here:

What is Parrot Enrichment

The second prong revolves around annual wellness check done by an experienced avian or exotics veterinarian. The main purpose wellness checks is to catch an illness early when the treatment outcome is much better. It’s much easier and less invasive to treat your bird in the early phases of an illness then in the advanced stages. Plus, the price tag for treatment goes way down.

Getting back to The Shubolt Parrot Wellness recommendations, I strongly recommend that you  develop a daily parrot care routine that supports the steps described above. A birds body is so unique compared to the body of a mammal, like a dog or a cat. Everything about your birds body is designed to support flight, flock behavior, and rearing young. On top of that, our birds are from tropical areas like the rainforests of the Amazon or the jungles of Africa. 

I tell you this because parrots have unique care needs, that if not met, can result in an overall decline of your pets wellness. The bird's body is adapted a strict photoperiod (day versus night hours) near the equator, the availability of lush, plant-based nutrition, specific mating, and more.

Since parrots are not domesticated, their bodies have not adapted to captive life. So meeting their unique care requirements falls upon you as the caretaker. That's why learning how to properly care for a parrot and getting into a daily care routine is really important.

A bird whose physical and emotional needs are getting met daily is less likely to get stressed out and more likely to maintain optimum health. So, honing in on your parrot husbandry skills is really important to preventing illness in your pet.

If you're not sure where to begin, how about scheduling a bird behavior consultation with me.  

WHAT DO AVIAN VETS DO ON A WELLNESS EXAM?

I've already addressed why parrot wellness exams are so important for catching an illness early on. In this section I'm going to talk about what the veterinarian is looking for as they're doing the exam.  A parrot wellness exam will systematically  assess various body systems to look for any abnormalities.

A trained avian specialist will be focused on minimizing your pets stress during the examination, so they'll move quickly from one body system to another. A good exam only takes 5 to 10 minutes. That's how well-trained these specialists are!

Here are the systems that your vet will look at:

HEAD - to include eyes, nares,  ears, and inside the mouth.  The vet is looking for any signs of illness that might not be obvious to you. They are looking for plaques or growths on the mouth, nasal discharge or blockages, swelling in the ears, any abnormalities in the eyes, the condition of the beak, and more.

SKIN & FEATHERING: Next the vet will move on to skin and feathers. They're looking for feather quality, signs of under grooming or over grooming, follicular damage, cysts or tumors,  and words. Skin and feather quality can be affected by poor husbandry skills, malnutrition, disease processes, and more.

BONES & JOINTS: Your vet will want to examine your bird for signs of arthritis, pain, and range of motion. They’ll flex and rotate joints as they assess your birds skeletal structure.

SOFT TISSUE EVALUATION: Next, the vet will want to examine soft tissue and the body cavity. The doctor will palpate various organ structures to assess for abnormalities of the organs, body composition including the bird being underweight or overweight, abnormal lumps and bumps in the body cavity, and more.

FEET & CLAWS: Finally, you're a vet will shift Focus to the feet to ensure that they are free of ulcers, lesions, or growths. They will want to ensure that the toenails are normal.

As you can see, move that uses a systematic approach to assess various body systems in a particular order so that they don't miss a thing.  Again, it is so much easier to treat an illness or disease in its early stages before it's had a chance to advance into other body organs. That is why these yearly exams are so critical.

Of course, if your vet notices anything awry, lab tests will be suggested.  Lab tests are an important tool for determining our bird's health status. Lab tests are when the vet takes a sample of blood, urine, other bodily fluid, or body tissue to get information about your bird's health.

Bob Doneley BVSc FANZCVS (Avian Medicine) CMAV describes why lab tests are needed. "A critically ill patient that needs a correct diagnosis and treatment FAST if it is to be saved, but at the same time it doesn’t give away many clues as to what is wrong. So in many cases we have to use lab tests to get a fast diagnosis so as to save your bird." A wait an see approach is simply not advisable when treating a fragile, sick bird. In fact, getting the correct diagnosis is a matter of life and death for birds.

A good wellness exam will also include assessing your parrot husbandry skills end coaching you on anything Wellness oriented so that you can provide the optimum care for your feathered friend. The doctor and his staff are not judging you, but like any good practitioner oh, their goal is to coach you when the specialized care needs of exotic birds.


HOW DO I KNOW IF MY BIRD IS DYING?

Whether you're getting routine preventative check ups or not, it's very important to learn the signs  for when a bird is not feeling well.  A sick bird can go downhill very quickly.

Often, by the time that you notice our bird is sick, it is really, really sick. That's why it is so important that you learn to read your bird's body language that tells you when it is sick.

Print out this list for future reference.

SIGNS THAT A BIRD IS SICK

  1.  Runny or discolored droppings
  2.  Weight loss
  3.  Loss of appetite
  4.  Drooping wings
  5.  Sleeping more than normal
  6.  Fluffed up feathers
  7.  Dull or squinting eyes
  8.  Perching on the bottom of the cage
  9.  Quiet and inactive
  10.  Labored breathing
  11.  Food and fecal matter stuck to the feathers

Sick bird

Image courtesy of Getty images (picmonkey.com)

PRACTICE WELLNESS AT HOME

Make it a routine to check your bird's health status every morning. Keeping your bird healthy in the first place will give you peace of mind and save you money in the long run. 

Start with proper nutrition. Feeding your bird a proper diet is one of the best things that you can do support your bird. 

First thing in the morning, as you're feeding your bird and changing its water, take a gander around the cage to see if there's any blood, check on droppings, check the food dish, or any other signs that it may be sick.

Make it a point to pick your bird up look it in the eye and assess its activity level. Is it it's the same old chirpy self? Does it appear excited to  see you? Or, is it quiet, in active, and appearing chilled or weak. Is it’s tail bobbing up and down when it breaths, indicating labored breathing?

If you notice a couple of symptoms that seem out of the ordinary, get on the phone and call your avian vet. Get out your bird hospital cage and keep your bird comfortable and warm.

Get into the practice of weighing your bird each week with a gram scale.  Grams are a small enough weight measurement that will help you monitor your small animals weight. 

You don't have to buy a high-dollar ”bird scale” with a perch. Just teach your bird to stand on the platform.  

Try to weigh your bird at the same time each week, say every Sunday morning before its first meal. Keep a running log of your birds weight each week. if you start noticing that its weight is going down and can't find an explanation for it see if your vet a call. 

Anytime a bird loses 10% of its weight or more it's time for a checkup. So, for instance, if my African Grey Parrot weighs 400 grams and drops 40 grams, now weighing 360 grams,  it's time to find out what this weight loss is all about. 

Even as a conscientious bird owner, a slow loss as a few grams can go unnoticed unless you're measuring with a gram scale. That is why it is recommended to keep a log.

Now, I had mentioned you don't need to buy $150 bird scale. After all, a gram is a gram, whether it's in bird's weight or a bowl of food. You can buy an ordinary kitchen scale on Amazon for under $30.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN AN AVIAN VET PRACTICE

It's important to have a good, trusting relationship with your avian vet and the office team. I've already talked about how it takes a skilled eye to tell if your bird is sick. A good avian vet will help you keep your bird well, diagnose illnesses, guide you on basic care during various life stages, and help you with behavioral concerns.

When you've established a trusting relationship with your vet you'l able to make the occasional call to ask questions and triage care. 

But, what makes a good avian veterinarian in the first place? 

1.  One of the most important things to look for in an avian vet practice, aside from up to date avian care is their ability to make treatment as stress and fear free as possible. Of course, anytime that your bird is being handled by a "stranger,", it is likely to be a stressful event, unless you've taken measures to train your bird for a veterinarian exam.

2.  Next, you're going to want to look for is the ability of the clinic to triage care. That's a fancy way of saying that everybody on staff is focused on assessing the urgency of your pet's medical situation.

So, in this instance, the receptionist should be asking appropriate questions to assess how quickly your bird needs to come in for treatment. Then, when you arrive, you'll want to ensure that you get taken to an examination room quickly. Nobody wants their birds be exposed to a drooling, barking dog that acts like they just saw a new brightly colored toy.

3. Once you get into the examination room you'll quickly be greeted by the vet tech.  The vet tech should be skilled in the practice of avian restraint. A skilled vet tech knows how to safely hold a bird to support the veterinarians examination while minimizing stress. A good vet tech will also ask you pointed questions to assess your parrot husbandry skills and Coach you as needed.

4.  A good avian vet also knows how to hold a bird appropriately and engages in safe, force-free handling. The overall priority is helping the bird to remain calm during the course of the appointment. A good avian vet knows how to read parrot body language to tell when the bird is starting to stress out. 

It is best to choose a vet when your bird is well. That way you can assess your working relationship with the vet while they're doing the wellness exam. During these Wellness visits both you and the vet will experience less stress then if you're treating a critical illness or injury. At these Wellness visits you can inquire about your vest continuing education in the areas of physical health, mental health, behavior, and species-specific illnesses and treatments.

It is rare to find a vet that specializes in physical health as well as the mental and behavioral health aspects of bird care. That said, a great that is willing she dive into the research  as needed to support your pet. Furthermore, your vet has  likely developed relationships with other avian vet colleagues and with veterinary schools and they're not shy in reaching out  for consultation.

Finally,  no avian vets are going to work 24/7. And, accidents happen. So, make sure that your avian vet works with emergency clinics that treat Exotics.

IN CONCLUSION

This blog  post focused on what you need to know about choosing an avian vet and maintaining your birds help. I discussed why it's important to get a specialist for your bird, what avian vet, what wellness is, how to choose an avian vet that you can work with for the long haul, how to know if your bird is sick, and what your vet is looking for in a preventative wellness checkup.

If you found anything helpful in this blog post please comment below.  I'd love it if you'd share this post on your social media feed!

References:

https://abvp.com/vet_specialty/avian-practice/

https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/avian-medicine/#:~:text=So%20bird%20vets%20have%20to,tests%20for%20dogs%20or%20cats.&text=Because%20they%20are%20not%20like,usually%20sent%20to%20special%20labs.

https://birdtricksstore.com/blogs/birdtricks-blog/choosing-a-good-avian-veterinarian-for-your-parrot?_pos=4&_sid=2440d4dc2&_ss=r

https://blogpamelaclarkonline.com/2018/08/01/the-avian-veterinarian-tips-for-choosing-one-you-can-trust/

https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/veterinary-care-new-bird-visit

https://www.westtoowoombavetsurgery.com.au/bird-care/understanding-lab-tests-for-your-bird/

http://katemornementanimalbehaviourist.blogspot.com/2018/01/environmental-enrichment-ideas-for-your.html


Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.

Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.

TAGS: #AvianVeterinarian #AvianVeterinarian #BirdDoctor

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