Article for Feathered Follies 7/5/00

Marilyn Koski, D.V.M.

My Bird Looks Fine - Why Take Him/Her to the Vet?

After extensive research, numerous visits to breeders and pet shops, you have finally found the ideal feathered friend to join your family. You purchase the appropriate cage, excellent food, an array of toys, and you joyously take him home to meet the family. You have done your homework and are well aware of the husbandry, nutritional and behavioral needs of your new “child”. So why are friends telling you to take him to the veterinarian? He looks fine. Besides those vets will just want to run a bunch of tests that will cost more money. You’ll just wait and take him to the vet if he shows signs of problems.

Preventative medicine is often a difficult concept for people to grasp. After all, how many of us put off our own annual medical examinations? If it weren’t for health insurance or the requirements of work and/or school, would any of us go on a regular, PREVENTATIVE, basis? Would we really bring our dogs and cats in for regular health checks if it weren’t for those vaccine reminder cards or county rabies requirements? With busy lives and so many priorities, we all have the tendency to put things off.

When it comes to our avian friends, the need for regular health checks can be crucial to their health and well-being. Most birds that are kept as pets are prey species (with the exception of raptors). In the wild, avian prey species are always at the risk of being some creature’s meal. To avoid this fate, birds will do everything they can to “look normal”, because a sick bird is a vulnerable bird, and soon a dead bird. This adaptation for survival carries over to the pet bird population, and these birds will also hide their illnesses as long as possible.

Regular examinations by an avian veterinarian are important to ensure your bird’s well being and can be a source of further education for you about your pet. It is a time when the veterinarian can discuss the specific husbandry and nutritional needs of your pet. The needs of a cockatoo in a large outdoor, breeding facility are not the same as the single pet in a home. The physical examination allows the avian veterinarian to use his/her expertise to palpate, auscult (listen with a stethoscope) and visually assess your bird’s health status. A change in feather color, a slightly puffy eye, decreased muscle mass, or an almost imperceptible tail-bob noted as your bird perches, could all be signs of serious illness. Changes in the quantity, color or texture of your bird’s droppings may also alert the veterinarian to serious disease. Something as seemingly benign as decreased singing, less interest in play or longer periods of sleep, may be signs of illness.

Although a great deal of information can be derived from a good physical examination, the bird’s stoic nature often necessitates other diagnostic tests to assess health status. As avian medicine advances and more diagnostic tests become available to the avian veterinarian, the ability to diagnose and treat more complex diseases will improve. At present, we have a wide array of diagnostic tests to call upon, but the specific tests run should reflect the needs of the patient and address the clinical suspicions of the examining veterinarian. I will explain a few of the more commonly used diagnostics.

The Complete Blood Count or CBC. This test involves obtaining a small blood sample (as little as 0.2 mls or about 1/25 of a teaspoon). With this sample, a count of the total and individual white blood cells is performed; an evaluation of the morphology of the cells and a general evaluation of the percent of red blood cells (packed cell volume - PCV) and the blood’s proteins (total protein - TP) are run. This test can offer evidence of bacterial or viral infections, or identify anemia, inflammation, dehydration, and toxicity.

The Blood Panel includes the CBC, with the addition of a chemistry panel. A slightly larger blood sample is needed for this panel, but it offers greatly expanded assessment of a bird’s health. The chemistry panel gives the veterinarian information about the bird’s kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, liver, blood electrolytes, pancreas, muscles, bound calcium, blood sugar and cholesterol. This panel gives a GENERAL picture of a bird’s health, at a particular point in time. It cannot give trends, or reveal progressive changes, and it may not identify a specific disease, but it can offer information as to where a problem lies - what organ system is affected and whether or not it is infectious or metabolic.

Additional blood tests that your veterinarian may suggest depend on the abnormalities found in these tests or the specific physical abnormalities seen. Serum Protein Electrophoresis is one such blood test that is a very valuable aid to the preliminary diagnosis of many diseases. This test analyzes the various proteins in the serum or plasma to make presumptive diagnoses of a variety of chronic infectious and inflammatory diseases like Aspergillus, Chlamydiosis, and Mycobacteriosis (Tb). This test will not identify specific agents of disease, but it will help the veterinarian to further focus his/her diagnostic efforts.

Other blood tests that your veterinarian may suggest include; evaluation of heavy metals (like zinc and lead), bile acids (to check liver function), and specific assays and titers to assess possible fungal, bacterial or viral infections (eg, Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease).

Although there are a myriad of diagnostic tests that a veterinarian may use to assess your bird’s health, a few of the more commonly used tools should be mentioned. Radiographs or “X-rays” are an excellent way to get a look “inside” your pet nonivasively. The radiographic images have their limitations, but can reveal numerous abnormalities such as, respiratory infections, foreign bodies like metals or objects lodged in the gastrointestinal tract, masses or possible cancerous lesions, fractured bones, lodged eggs in the reproductive tract, and congenital abnormalities, just to name a few. These films can often be obtained quickly without the use of anesthetic, or in the case of a very frightened, painful bird, with brief gas anesthesia.

Cytology, or the microscopic evaluation of cells, can also be an extremely valuable diagnostic tool. A skin scraping, sample of crop contents, aspirate of a mass or smear of feces, can be stained with various materials to help identify abnormal body cells, bacterial or viral inclusions, or cancerous cells. This, often in-hospital test, can provide quick results and invaluable diagnostic information.

Bacterial or fungal cultures involve the growing of an infectious agent on a special media. Samples from your bird may include; nasal discharges, feces, crop contents, aspirates of masses or washes of the respiratory tract. These cultures can be grown in-hospital or may be sent to local laboratories for identification. This test can identify specific disease agents and the appropriate antimicrobial drugs to combat them.

This discussion offers a brief introduction into the array of diagnostic tools available to the veterinarian for your pet birds. Pet birds and their stoic nature often present a challenge to the pet owner and veterinarian when assessing health. Excellent husbandry and appropriate environmental enrichment are vital to a pet bird’s good health, but not to the exclusion of regular veterinary check-ups. As more varied avian species become available to the pet owner, species are being placed in environments and among other birds they would never, naturally encounter. With these new situations arising, we need to be alerted to potential health risks and do all we can to ensure your bird a safe, happy, and disease-free life.

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