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).
As humans, we can identify the traits of pain such as steady vs. intermittent, throbbing stabbing, aching, pinching, or in many other ways. If you've ever had surgery, you've learned how to rate and describe your pain so that your doctor has a better idea of how to support you.
A lot of people describe pain as being “one of the most negative experiences possible” (Mellor & Bayvel, 2011). Pain has both physical and emotional effects. It’s no different for our pets.
Your bird can feel pain just like you do. Bird’s might experience pain due to an injury, an illness, or due to chronic health issues. A bird's pain can range from mild discomfort to a debilitating level of pain.
As your bird’s caretaker, your pet depends on you to take care of it when it's not feeling well. Birds are pretty fragile and they can go downhill rather quickly. Usually, they don't even appear to be sick or in pain until their disease is in advanced state.
According to the Richard M. Shubolt Veterinary School at USC Davis, managing pain in parrots goes a long way toward improving their overall quality of life. One of the root causes of challenging behavior in our pet birds, like feather plucking, screaming, aggression, and high levels of anxiety is pain. Pain prevention and pain management are an important part of responsible parrot care.
Complicating matters, birds tend to stop eating when they don't feel well. And, with such a high metabolism rate and low body fat levels, they can decline rapidly. So, as you can see, it is imperative that you learn the subtle cues that birds demonstrate when they're not feeling well.
Another thing to consider regarding bird pain is that many pain medications have not been well studied in birds. And, with birds having a high mortality rate, veterinarians are hesitant to prescribe medications that have not received FDA approval for use in birds. On top of that, birds tend to be fragile when it comes too “aggressive” forms of treatment, such as cancer treatment.
And finally, birds are really fragile. They have such high metabolisms and digest their food very quickly. This means that a bird can go downhill really quickly before you even know it's sick. The smaller the bird the faster the health digresses.
Not to be morose, but I've already established how a bird can go from seemingly normal healthy behavior to dying in a matter of hours. This makes it especially critical for pet bird caretakers to be able to recognize the subtle cues of pain, injury, illness, and shock.
Being an intense or chronic pain is stressful and can put a bird into shock. Managing bird pain has been shown to speed up recovery. (Paul-Murphy, J.) But, since birds hide their symptom of pain and pretend that all is well, you're behind the eight ball if you don’t know how to read the cues.
While it’s a little grim to think about, knowing thetop 10 killers for pet birds can help you plan your prevention strategy.
A number of health bird pain. Birds can experience acute pain (short, temporary pain) from accidents and injuries. And, they can experience chronic pain (long-term pain) related to ongoing health issues, like in the case of 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.
As your birds body ages it may experience more pain. Joint pain is a common problem that is seen in birds, especially in their feet and back.
Birds that don't get enough exercise may experience stiff joints and tight muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Also, a bird that has had a history of a traumatic injury may experience pain in that particular area of the body.
All of these reasons are why it is so important that you get into the habit monitoring your bird for pain, illness, and injury each and every day.
Develop a state of mind that at some point, your bird will experience an injury, or illness, or debilitating pain. Here's exactly what you need to spot pain early on and support your bird fast:
One of the first signs that signs a bird is in pain is that it starts losing weight. With such high metabolisms and the propensity to stop eating when they don't feel well, birds can lose weight very quickly. But, birds are extremely lightweight creatures and you can't tell if your bird is losing weight just by picking it up each day. You'll need a bird scale that weighs in grams in order to detect slight weight changes.
While it may seem silly to worry about a few grams, a 10% weight loss in your bird is cause for great 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.
By weighing your bird weekly at approximately the same time of day, you'll be able to detect minor weight loss has that allow you to take action as needed before things get critical.
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:
Create a routine in which you will weigh your bird at least weekly. Ideally it should be the same time of day. For instance, weighing first thing in the morning before breakfast will give you consistent results.
Keep a running log of your birds weight so that you can tell if your bird is losing weight. If your bird loses approximately 10% of its weight, it's time to seek help from your veterinarian.
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.
However, it's important to have your avian vets contact information readily available. Your bird is loved, so it's important to line up a qualified avian veterinarian before you need one. You should also find an emergency exotic bird specialist because emergencies don't always happen between 9 and 5.
I had a recent experience with Kiwi, my green cheek conure. She flew to the floor just when I was feeding my dogs and may have gotten stepped on. I wasn’t sure since I picked her up really fast. But, on Saturday morning, Kiwi what's not herself. She showed some of the signs that I described above.
Now, know, that I live around Denver, CO. You'd think that there would be an easily accessible emergency exotic that available on the weekends. Let me tell you that it wasn't that easy to find one! Knowing how to care for your ill or injured pet on “off hours” is very important! Kiwi is fine. She wasn’t injured. But, I’m glad that I checked it out.
It's very important to learn how to stabilize a sick or injured bird quickly before you transport it to the Veterinary Clinic. That’s 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 and 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.
"A bird that is ill or injured but not bleeding should receive supportive care immediately. Birds have high metabolic rates, and their body temperature is much higher than our own, averaging 103-106° F.
Supportive care includes a heated (at least 85 degree F) enclosure in a quiet, restful environment, hydration and nutrition. Placing an ill or injured bird in a heated hospital enclosure or carrier, brooder, or incubator can literally save their life.
The less energy a bird has to expend to maintain their body temperature, the more likely they are to recover."
Intense pain from a traumatic injury can immediately put a bird in shock. A bird that is in shock is very fragile.Birds that are in shock appear weak, unresponsive, fluffed up and breathe in slowly and out quickly. Place your bird is in a quiet, 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 to give your vet a call just to cover all bases. If your vet wants to see your bird, you’re all set to make the trip.
Infographic by Diane Burroughs, LCSW, 2021
If you’re not sure whether your bird is actually in pain, download this FREE version of the Pain Assessment in Birds. It will help you to know when to take action.
Assuming that you've been monitoring your birds daily health as described above, you'll notice the subtle differences in your bird's behavior “early on” when a full recovery is more probable.
If you start to notice that your bird is over-grooming a certain body part, it has behavioral changes like becoming increasingly shy or aggressive, or it starts “guarding” certain body parts so as to avoid a painful encounter, you'll want to take action. Advocate for your pet.
Clean everything up, if needed. Place the perch low in the cage, add some fresh food and water, and place your bird inside. Try to create a warm, safe, comfortable, and quiet area to support 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. This activates liver involvement which can contribute to a complicating factor called Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS).
Your avian vet will want to assess the source of the pain in order to prescribe the appropriate medication regime to help stop your pets suffering, but also, to reduce long-term damage and complicating factors associated with chronic and intense pain.
It is necessary for your vet to identify the cause of the pain and where exactly the tissue damage originates to relieve your pets suffering. Of course, this can be challenging when treating our exotic pets who are sensitive, scared and hav a strong need to hide their pain. But, drug therapy will support your pet to resolve 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.
A lot of people think that the best way to comfort their pet is to give it over the counter medicine. That is usually not the case. And, it's probably not worth the risk of accidentally killing your pet.
NEVER use over-the-counter pain medications like aspirin, baby aspirin, ibuprofen, or Tylenol on your pet bird, ever.
Many over-the-counter (OTC) are not safe for our pets, especially birds. It usually takes a well-trained Avian veterinarian who knows the correct dosages, administration techniques, and bird anatomy to determine the best course of treatment. Also know, that over the counter supplements, including antibiotics, bird respiratory supplements, and diarrhea treatment have not been approved by the FDA and they are manufactured to unknown standards of quality.
If you're worried about how much it will cost to take your bird to the vet for pain medication keep in mind that a wellness exam and prescription usually costs around $100 -150. Of course, tests will add to the cost but they'll ensure for the appropriate treatment program and medication. Treatment for ingesting human-grade pain medications, on the other hand, can run up to $2,000 or more.Don’t let your pet unnecessarily suffer. Your pet bird masks its pain more than any other pet will. If it is showing any of the above signs of pain, it is likely to be experiencing intense pain.
Avian veterinarians study bird specific medicine and they know which products to prescribe that will support pain and inflammation. It's not uncommon that the bird may also need a prescription simply 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."
A lot of people these days are turning to hemp seed and CBD for birds to support chronic pain in their pet birds. Avian veterinarians get questions about these products all of the time, so don't hesitate to ask your vet if these supplements might safely support your birds 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."
Always, discuss the use of over the counter pain management supplements with your avian vet first.
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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