Nervously sitting across from me in the veterinarian’s small waiting room was an obviously concerned couple. Placed in front of them, in an intensive care unit, was a mostly de-feathered, malnourished, very unhappy African Grey parrot. Unsolicited explanations came pouring out. “This is not our bird!” the husband anxiously declares. “We finally convinced the owner to let us bring this poor creature to the vet. He’s been sick for years.” The wife echoes in, “You know, she spends so much money on her dog, but won’t put out a single dime on the bird.” Satisfied that I, a complete stranger, believed them, they focused on comforting their psitacine friend.

What was their A.V.C.A.? Avian Veterinarian Care Attitude! Very simple, isn’t it? This intelligent bird was very ill and needed medical attention. But is it so simple? The owner had left this parrot in this dreadful state for years. Is this a common occurrence? Unfortunately, statistics show that it is. At the Animal Welfare Forum of the American Veterinary Medical Association on November 7,1997, it was quoted from the US Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook (Schaumburg A.V.M.A. 1997: 115) that “only 11% of bird owning households currently seek veterinary advice”. Hopefully these numbers are on the rise in the United States and Canada. However, from my experience in operating a bird specialty business in Vancouver Canada, the overwhelming majority of bird owners do not go to an avian veterinarian when their birds are having problems.

Unlike with many other types of animals such as dogs, many do not view medical care of their birds, including preventative check ups, as part of the responsibility of keeping pet birds. From Finches and Cockatiels to Conures right up to the large Cockatoos and Macaws, when birds are sick or misbehaving, it continually amazes me how many persons are likely to call a pet shop, breeder or boarding facility for advice. (In many cases hoping for quick inexpensive or even free fix). When you think about it, this is the equivalent of going to a medical supply store or daycare center for help when our loved ones are in need of medical attention. Oh sure, you may be able to find some willing soul to give you all kinds of advice, (maybe even some pretty good guesses), or perhaps to sell you an “over the counter” product to make you feel that you are doing something positive.

The truth is that it is unlikely you will find anyone in these areas of the pet industry qualified to diagnose your bird’s illness, unless there is a veterinarian clinic on the premises. Precious time may be slipping by. Early diagnosis is an important key in successful treatment of birds. To make matters worse, over the counter treatments rarely work. They can mask or prolong an illness and waste time, which could be used for proper treatment. They can even aggravate the situation or cause worse problems for your bird. For example, some products meant to stop bleeding can seriously complicate treatment once the bird reaches a qualified veterinarian.

Traditionally it has always been thought that little can be done to help an ailing bird. It is exciting to realize that in the 1990’s there was an explosion of avian knowledge, and more and more professionals emerging with on hands experience. Through the research of dedicated people, there are wonderful new techniques, medicines, vaccines and expanding surgical and treatment options. If we humans are willing, we have the means now to stop needless suffering of pet birds. Why, then, with so much information and help available, do so few really take advantage of it? Though technology changes rapidly, attitudes of people do not.


When a pet bird dies, you can always just replace it, right? As any involved bird owner knows, it seems impossible to replace that “darling budgie” who gleefully jumped on your hand every morning, talked a blue streak, and made you smile for years with his own particular brand of antics and silly personality. The African Grey who obviously adores you and waits longingly every evening to share a nibble from your plate, have a little scratch on the neck and some stimulating conversation in the bathtub, cannot be easily replaced by a new parrot who doesn’t know or possibly even like you.

Pet owners with this level of relationship with their bird are most often the ones who will go to any inconvenience or expense to find a qualified avian veterinarian when their bird is in need. Unfortunately many parrots are purchased as a curiosity, gift or an ornament for the home. Often people acquire birds simple because of their color, beauty or ability to talk, without recognizing the birds needs, such as proper environment, diet or their natural desire for social contact and stimulation. All too soon the novelty wears off and the parrot can become simply a lonely, unhappy creature in a cage.

More often than not, these are the very birds that develop poor eating habits, misbehavior such as biting and feather picking and ultimately need veterinary care. Too many of these beautiful birds do not receive help and many do not survive. Even when pet owners adore their birds and give the best of care, as with any living being, birds can get ill. Over and over I hear the same phases from distraught persons calling me, frantically wondering what to do. “She was just fine this morning, eating and whistling. Now she’s sitting at the bottom of her cage”. ” One minute the bird seemed normal and then he just died!” “This came on so sudden, so I must have nipped it in the bud. It can’t be too bad, right?”

In most cases, when this scenario is being played out, the bird is already very sick, and sometimes it’s too late. There’s much we pet owners can do to avoid this type if unhappy event. Those who keep pet birds can learn to recognize signs of sickness as early as possible. We can observe carefully and know what is normal for our own pet. We can learn and practice preventative measures. It’s also an excellent idea to find and introduce yourself and your bird to a qualified veterinarian before there’s a problem.

  1. Squinting appearance to the eye instead of full eye ring.
  2. Constant shaking or vibrating as if shivering to the bone.
  3. Abnormal respiration or sounding likes breathing through a straw, or clicking.
  4. Tail bobbing as if having trouble breathing.
  5. Trouble perching.
  6. Reluctance to feed or change in feeding habits.
  7. Drinking more water than usual.
  8. Discharge from nostrils.
  9. Weight loss (know your bird’s normal weight).
  10. Inactivity or no preening activity.
  11. Eyes closed most of the time or sleeping at unusual times.
  12. Unusual aggression or behavior changes (such as vocalization stops or Unusual tameness in a usually aggressive bird).
  13. Frequent sneezing.
  14. Color change of feet or beak.
  15. Unusual screaming or vocalization.
  16. Vent soiled or pasted with droppings.
  17. Bleeding anywhere.
  18. Visual protrusion from vent.
  19. Feathers lost in unusual amounts or lost and not replaced.
  20. Swelling anywhere on bird.
  21. Self mutilation of feathers or body.
  22. Regression to infantile behavior.
  23. Bird preferring to be on bottom of cage.
  24. Excessive or too long molt.
  25. Stress marks or dark barring on feathers or change in feather color.
  26. Unusual smell on bird.
  27. Frequent flicking of the head or head movements such as twitching.
  28. Running around in a circle with head to one side.
  29. Discolored or runny droppings – decrease or increase in number of droppings.
  30. Any change on beak.
  31. Lameness.
  32. Bird stretched out supporting self – hanging on cage bars. Debris in mouth.
  33. Sitting constantly fluffed (not to be confused with periodically fluffing out).

The current pet bird population is estimated to be 13 to 50 million. During the past 20 years, the number of birds owned as pets, the attitudes of bird owners and the skills of avian veterinarians have changed considerably. There have been great improvements in avian health care. Many owners now provide enriched environments, better diets and are more aware when problems develop. An important part of these changing attitudes is how we view the veterinary care of our psitacine pets.

You watch your Canary, Conure or Macaw with delight for hours. Although you can’t put your finger on it, one day you notice that his behavior isn’t normal. With a bird, if behavior really changes, let your bells and whistles sound. Maybe you feel silly bringing “Chirpy” to the vet for nothing. However, a veterinarian with experience may be able to tell you if the change is normal for the species according to nature’s plan, or if it is an early sign of illness.

For example for some birds, lying on their back with feet in the air would be unusual indeed. Our Lovebird, Fawn, does this to produce squeals of “good girl” from silly humans. Knowing your bird’s personality and habits can give you a good basis to recognize relevant changes in behavior. It is also a good idea to be aware of how much and what your bird normally eats and drinks. Sudden change in eating habits is certainly a reason for concern. Are the usual morning droppings not appearing? Does your friendly “Polly” suddenly not let you within ten feet of the cage? Does your chatter box Amazon refuse to utter a sound for days?  Within reason, of course, our psitacine friends have moods, feelings and hormone swings just like the rest of us. You are in the best position to get to know your bird’s individual personally. Each pet has it’s own schedule, likes, dislikes and little quirks. If or when the time comes, you may be of considerable help to your veterinarian during time of crisis, if you know your bird.

Susan Clubb DVM

“Article by Victoria Ballard.”

1 reply
  1. Gloria OConnor
    Gloria OConnor says:

    My parakeet is a joy to own. Recently I read that gravel paper was bad for her. But my bird seemed to be voraciously nibbling on it. Could she be hooked on the glue from the gravel paper? I removed it right away. Should I leave the grate uncovered, seems unsanitary. Do the bars hurt her feet? Please help. Thank you. Gloria


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