By Dr. Becker
The Modesto Bee recently shared the story of a 2-year-old pet canary named Henry. His owner, Margaret, loved to enjoy her coffee in the morning while listening to Henry sing. But one day, Henry stopped singing. Margaret worried that taking him to see an avian veterinarian would be too stressful, but as the author of the article — Jeff Kahler, a Modesto, California veterinarian — put it, once your pet bird starts showing symptoms, he likely needs veterinary care right away:1
“Henry is at the point at which he no longer can hide his symptoms. The ‘catch 22’ now is that his disease has progressed and he is symptomatic, so any undue stress might throw him over the edge of no return. This whole scenario is precisely why people commonly think birds are delicate vulnerable creatures. The real truth is that they are very tough — but once symptomatic, they are far down the path of their disease process.”
In Harvey’s case, the problem may have been due to air sac mites, as Margaret had noted he seemed winded when moving around. These mites can cause respiratory problems in birds and are easily treatable, provided your bird gets to a knowledgeable avian vet.
Keep in mind, this is different than a general small animal vet. Avian veterinarians will be best-equipped to notice and diagnose the often-subtle symptoms that birds may display. Even better is an integrative exotic animal practitioner who will start with non-toxic treatment options whenever possible.
How Often Do Birds Need to See a Vet?
I recommend at least annual exams for your pet with an avian veterinarian. These exams should be thorough and include blood tests to detect changes in or issues with organ function. You should also schedule a visit if you’ve recently adopted a bird to be sure he’s in good health, and any diagnostics performed at that first visit can serve as a valuable reference point in the future. As mentioned, birds are masters at hiding their symptoms; this is an essential skill that helps protect them from predators in the wild.
There’s a good chance that if your bird is unwell, you won’t notice the initial symptoms or the beginning stages of disease, which is why regular visits with your avian veterinarian can help uncover any issues while they’re still in the early stages and treatable. If your bird starts to display symptoms such as difficulty breathing, weakness, lameness or loss of voice, urgent veterinary care is needed.
Also be aware that emotional and behavioral issues may pop up just as often, if not more so, than physical ones, particularly if you aren’t giving your pet the cognitive stimulation he needs. Feather-destructive behavior, aggression, inappropriate noise making and/or excessive vocalization and other behavior problems are all-too-common in pet birds, which are intelligent and social creatures.
If you expect to keep your pet bird in its cage for most of the day, interacting only at feeding time, you can expect to have an emotionally unhealthy and behaviorally challenged bird on your hands (and therefore shouldn’t adopt one).
Birds Require Substantial, Unique Care
One of the most common myths about pet birds is that they’re easier to keep than dogs or cats. This is simply not true. They need to visit an appropriate vet just as often and require as much, if not more, daily attention. Experts recommend that birds such as parrots be allowed out of the cage to interact with their human family members for several hours every day. I recommend birds spend their days outside their cages and use their cages primarily for sleeping.
This will require that your home be bird-proofed, including keeping electrical cords hidden away to prevent electrocution and removing any small objects that your bird may try to eat. Even fabrics, such as draperies, can be a hazard if your bird’s nails become stuck in them, and you should pull down shades or put decals on your windows so your bird doesn’t try to fly through the glass.
Nutrition is another important factor, one that is crucial for keeping your bird healthy. You may find, especially if you adopt a bird, that he’s become accustomed to eating just one type of “junk food.” You should work with your avian vet to expand his palate, incorporating foods such as freshly sprouted seeds, fruits, vegetables, whole nuts in moderation, grains like quinoa, barley and wild rice as well as bugs for omnivorous parrots.
Additionally, adding small amounts of coconut or orangutan-friendly palm oil to your birds' food every day will help ensure they're getting enough essential fatty acids. You can even give your bird herbal teas for their enjoyment (and health!). Aside from food, your bird’s cage will need to be cleaned daily with a nontoxic cleaner, and he may need to be bathed often (which some birds love).
Perhaps most importantly, potential bird owners need to understand that birds thrive on regular interaction and will need a variety of organic, natural chemical-free toys to keep them mentally stimulated and emotionally happy.
Vocal Changes Can Be a Sign Your Pet Needs Veterinary Care
Getting back to Henry’s story, if you’re a bird owner and you notice any changes in your bird’s voice or vocalizations, it’s time to seek help. Similar to humans, if you don’t feel well, you probably don’t feel like chatting or singing, either. It’s the same in birds, especially canaries. As Petcha reported:2
“‘If your bird feels sick, he may simply not feel confident enough to vocalize,’ added Jeffrey Jenkins, DVM, an avian veterinarian in San Diego, California. 'With male canaries in particular, the No.1 reason they are brought in for veterinary exams is because they stopped singing,' according to Jenkins.
‘To a canary, to sing is almost a threat to the birds around him; it’s an open invitation to ‘take me on; any time you boys feel like taking my territory you just come try,’ kind of thing. But if he’s not feeling well, he doesn’t do that because he knows he’s going to get beat up,’ Jenkins said.”
Diseases of the airway, aspergillosis, a respiratory disease, pneumonia and tracheal tumor may also cause vocalization changes in your bird, as could getting a foreign object stuck in their trachea. So if you notice changes of any kind — from stopping vocalizations altogether to changes in how they sound — don’t delay, see your avian vet right away.
One of the best ways to catch any type of disease process early is to weigh your bird weekly. Long before clinical signs appear most birds lose weight. By having a baseline weight of your healthy bird you can easily detect subtle changes in body weight that allow you to catch illness early.