What exactly is pain? It is a really uncomfortable feeling that let's an individual know that something is wrong and that it's time to start taking better care of itself. "Pain serves a protective function by warning the animal of real or impending tissue damage" (Miesle, unknown date).
Every person who was in the hospital once knows how to rate and describe their pain, so your doctor can get a better sense of what it is they are trying to treat. As humans, we recognize classic signs of pain like persistent vs intermittent, throbbing/stinging, burning sensations, pinched nerves, or any number of others.
There’s no secret that many people describe pain as “one of the most uncomfortable experiences you could have” (Mellor & Bayvel, 2011). Pain has both physical and emotional consequences. This goes for our pets too.
Your bird may experience pain the same way you do. Birds may experience pain from an injury, illness or chronic health condition. A bird’s pain may range from mild discomfort to debilitating levels of pain.
Birds are pretty delicate and can really go off the rails quite quickly. As your bird’s caregiver, your pet depends on you to look after them when they’re not feeling well. Usually, birds won’t even appear sick or in pain until their illness is at its final stages.
Controlling parrot pain is an important part of responsible bird ownership, according to the Richard M. Shubolt Veterinary School at USC Davis. One of the root causes of difficult behaviors in our pets, such as picking up feathers, screaming, aggressive behavior and high levels of anxiety, is pain. Preventing pain and controlling pain are key components to controllable parrot behaviour.
A closer look at the picture. Birds have a tendency to stop eating when they’re not feeling well. Birds are seriously fragile. They have such high metabolisms and digest their food super quickly. That means one bird can go downhill really fast, before you even realize it is sick. And the smaller the bird, the quicker health declines.
A second issue with bird pain is that many painkillers have not been thoroughly tested on birds. And due to the high mortality rates among birds, vets are wary of prescribing any drug without FDA approval for use in birds. To add insult to injury, birds tend to be sensitive to more “aggressive” treatments like cancer care.
Don't mean to be too sad, but I've already established how a bird can go from seemingly normal, healthy behavior to death in just hours. This makes it especially important for pet bird owners to be able to discern the subtle cues of pain, injury, illness, and shock.
Being in extreme, or chronic, pain is stressful, and it can leave a bird in shock. However, since birds are known to cover up their symptom of pain and act like all is well, you could fall behind the eight ball if you don't know how to read the cues. It has been proven that managing bird pain accelerates recovery. (J. Paul-Murphy)
While it’s a little grim to think about, knowing thetop 10 killers for pet birds can help you plan your prevention strategy.
One or more conditions could be causing birds pain. Birds can suffer acute pain (short, temporary pain) from accidents and injuries. And they can suffer chronic pain (long-term pain) due to ongoing health issues, such as arthritis.
According to Malik (2017), “Husbandry-related (pain) issues are frequent. Egg-binding, GI or respiratory conditions caused by inappropriate diet or environment and feather-destructive behavior are all conditions that have the potential to cause some discomfort or pain” in our pets.
A common problem that is seen in birds is joint pain, especially in their feet and backs as they age.
Birds which lack adequate exercise can develop stiff joints, strained muscles, ligaments and tendons. Also, a bird that has a history of experiencing trauma or injury could have pain in this one particular area of the body.
This is just part of the reason it's so critical to get into the habit of checking on your bird for any signs of pain, illness, or injury each and every day.
Get into the mindset that, at some point, your bird is going to experience an injury, illness, or crippling pain. Here’s exactly what you need to do to spot pain early and provide relief for your bird fast:
One of the first signs that a bird is in pain is when it starts losing weight. With such high metabolisms and the propensity to stop eating when they feel unwell, birds can lose weight very quickly. But birds are extremely light creatures, so you can’t tell if your bird is losing weight just by picking him up each day. You’ll need a bird scale that weighs in grams to detect even small changes in weight.
Although some small weight loss may seem like nothing to sweat about, a 10% drop in the bird's mass is cause for serious concern.
That would mean if your 350 gm African grey parrot lost just 35 grams, or a little more than 1 oz., it could be detrimental. That's where a gram scale comes into play.
When you weigh your bird every week, roughly at the same time each day, you will be able to spot any small changes in weight early on, which will allow you to take necessary action before things get too dire.
Keep a daily log of your bird's weight so you can tell if your bird is losing weight. If your bird loses about 10% of its body weight, it’s time to get some help from your vet.
Buying a bird scale does not have to cost an arm and a leg. Sure, it's nice to have a perch attached to an ordinary gram scale, but you can buy an affordable kitchen scale that weighs in grams on Amazon for as little as $25.
I've trained my birds to simply stand on the scale platform. But for a larger bird, you could easily rig up an affordable perch and tare the scale out to zero before placing your bird on the scale.
Here is the gram scale that I use every week to monitor my birds weight:
It is important to have a bird first aid kit on hand so that you can handle minor emergencies yourself when time is of the essence. If you haven’t done so already, create anavian first aid kit.
Check the first aid kit at least annually to ensure that all the products are within their expiry date.
Having your bird vet's contact info handy is crucial. Your bird is beloved, so scheduling annual wellness exams is critical for catching any disease process early on. Also, I would suggest finding an emergency animal hospital that treats birds since pet emergencies don’t always come between 9 and 5.
I recently encountered Kiwi, my green-cheek cub. She flew to the floor just as I was feeding my dogs and may or may not have tripped over something. Not sure since I picked her up really fast. But Saturday morning, Kiwi isn't herself. She showed some of the signs that I described above.
Now you guys know I live in Denver, CO. So you'd think there would be an emergency exotic vet on the weekend. Let me tell you it wasn’t so easy to find one! Knowing how to care for your sick or injured pet during “off-hours” is very important! Kiwi is fine. She wasn’t hurt. But, I’m glad I had checked her out.
It's extremely important to learn how to rapidly stabilize a sick or injured bird before transporting them to the veterinary clinic. This is where a bird hospital cage comes in.
I described earlier how birds tend to go downhill really quickly. That's why it's important to have some equipment on hand that will help you quickly stabilize your bird.
Create a bird hospital cage so that you can provide important critical care for a sick or injured bird ASAP when minutes count. You’ll need a small, transparent bird carrier or small cage. You'll want to be able to lower the perch since your bird may be weak and unsteady. You’ll also want the food and water dishes to be easily accessible.
If the carrier has a wire door it will be easier to mount an infrared heating device, like K & H’s Snuggle Up to keep your pet warm. Otherwise, heating pad will help. Be sure to watch the video referenced above and practice setting up the hospital cage so that you can do so quickly in an emergency.
If your bird is ill or injured but not bleeding it should receive supportive care immediately. If your bird is bleeding, try to stop the bleeding before administering supportive care.
A supportive care program can literally save a bird’s life. It involves placing an unwell or injured bird in a heated hospital cage or carrier, a brooder or incubator with a warm (at least 85-degrees Fahrenheit) enclosure in a quiet, comfortable environment, providing water and food. Your goal is to stabilize your bird.
"The less energy a bird has to expend to maintain its body temperature, the more likely they are to recover.
Extreme pain caused by a traumatic injury can instantly put a bird in shock. A bird in shock is very fragile. Birds in shock appear weak, nonresponsive, puffy and breathe in slowly and out quickly. Place your bird in a calm, semi-dark, quiet environment and turn on the cage heater.
When the body goes into shock the blood vessels constrict and the body reacts with these symptoms:
Make sure you call your vet to let them know about the incident. The receptionist will probably ask you a bunch of questions to determine if it's an emergency. If they want to see your bird, make arrangements to get it to the clinic quickly.
Infographic by Diane Burroughs, LCSW, 2021
Even when it looks like your bird is in pain, don't assume. Download this FREE version of the Bird Pain Assessment. It will help you know when to take action.
Assuming you've been routinely monitoring your bird's health like the ones listed above, you'll start to notice subtle differences in your bird's behavior "early on," which is when a full recovery is most likely.
If you notice your bird over-preening a specific body part, changing its behavior to become more timid or aggressive, or starting to ‘shield’ certain body parts to avoid a painful encounter, you'll want to take action. Advocate for your pet.
If needed, clean the inside of the hospital cage. Set the perch low in the cage, add some fresh food and water, and set up your bird inside. Try to create a warm, safe, comfortable and quiet area to house your bird.
Get in touch with your Avian veterinarian or an exotic pet emergency clinic to discuss the situation. Follow the experts advise.
Continue to monitor your bird every 15 minutes during waking hours and take your bird to the clinic should the situation worsen.
Your vet will have to identify the cause of pain so they can prescribe a treatment regimen that not only helps stop your pets from suffering, but reduces the long-term damage and complicating factors associated with chronic and intense pain.
It’s important for your vet to determine the exact source of the pain and how it has been caused so that you can alleviate your pet’s suffering. This can obviously be tricky when dealing with our exotic pets, who are sensitive, fearful and have a strong need to cover up their pain. But, drugs will help your pet get over these things:
Both acute and chronic pain activate immune system messengers in your pet and inflammatory process. The more intense the pain and the longer the duration, the worse the damage.
Lots of people think that the best way to comfort their pet is to give them over-the-counter painkillers. This can be really dangerous. And it's probably not worth the risk of your pet accidentally dying.
Never give your bird Tylenol, aspirin, baby aspirin or any pain medication without first talking to your vet.
There are many medications that are not safe for our pets, especially birds. It usually takes a well-trained Avian Veterinarian who is familiar with the right dosages, administration techniques, and bird anatomy to determine the best course of treatment. Also be aware that most over-the-counter products, including antibiotics, bird respiratory supplementation, and diarrhea cures, are not FDA approved and are made according to unspecified quality standards.
If you're concerned about how much it's going to cost to bring your bird in for a check-up and prescription of painkillers, remember that an exam and prescription usually cost around $100-200. Of course, diagnostics will add to the cost, but they’ll guarantee a proper treatment program and dosage. The treatment for giving human-grade painkillers on the other hand can easily run into the thousands or more.Don’t let your pet suffer unnecessarily. Your pet bird masks its pain more than any other pet does, so if it displays any of the above signs of pain, there's a good chance that she is in severe pain.
Avian Veterinarians study bird-specific medicine and know which products to prescribe to ease pain and inflammation. But it’s not uncommon for the bird to need a prescription just to relax.
There are a few ways to support your bird if it is in pain. The goal is to reduce inflammation and, if indicated, support the joints.
Two bird safe foods that support inflammation are hemp seeds and coconut oil. Aloe Vera has anti-inflammation properties, too. You can support the painful area with Aloe Vera Spray. Tumeric is another bird safe support pain alternative.
According to Dr. Scott Echols, of Parrish Creek Veterinary Clinic, Inc.,
"The spicy, curry taste usually appeals to our feathered friends, and makes a nice, minced addition to fresh veggies, cooked oatmeal, birdie breads and the like. The key to serving any fresh herb or spice is to offer it in moderation and mixed in food. You wouldn’t offer an entire hand of ginger to your parrot; you won’t offer an entire finger of turmeric to him either."
Many people these days are turning to Hemp Seed and CBD Bird Food for supporting chronic pain in their avian pets. Avian veterinarians get asked about these products frequently, so don’t be afraid to ask your vet if these supplements may safely support your bird’s chronic pain.
Both Hemp Seed and CBD for birds can support minor pain and inflammation in pet birds. According to Calyx, "Humans and animals function best day to day in a state of homeostasis that ensures both the body and the mind are healthy. CBD oil is a natural and organic way to provide the body with nutrients and anti-inflammatory treatments that enable the body and the mind to remain in the states of well-being that they should."
Ask your vet first before giving a food supplement or medication to your bird.
https://www.drexotic.com/pain-and-the-avian-patient/ (Jeffrey Jenkins, DVM)
Miesle, J. MA, AAV. https://www.beautyofbirds.com/avianpainmanagementpart1
Miesle, J. MA, AAV. https://www.beautyofbirds.com/avianpainmanagementpart6
Miesle, J. MA, AAV. https://www.beautyofbirds.com/avianpainmanagementpart7
Muir, W III. Pain and Stress. In: Handbook of Veterinary Pain Management. Ed: James Gaynor, Wm Muir III. Mosby Inc. 2009.
Paul-Murphy J. Pain Management for the Pet Bird. In:Handbook of Veterinary Pain Management,Ed. Gaynor J and Muir W III. Second Edition, Mosby Inc., 2009. p. 467
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17415349.2017.1395304#:~:text=Painful%20conditions%20in%20pet%20birds,-Pet%20birds%20often&text=Husbandry%2Drelated%20issues%20are%20frequent,cause%20some%20discomfort%20or%20pain. Pain in birds: a review for veterinary nurses
Lender, S."Toss In Some Tumeric." http://www.omagdigital.com/article/Toss+in+Some+Turmeric/2457141/0/article.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.
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