First Aid For Your Bird

by Bob Doneley BVSc FANZCVS (Avian Medicine) CMAV

First aid for birds is, like first aid for people, not a substitute for veterinary care. But first aid can be the difference between life and death for a sick or injured bird. All bird owners need to familiar with the basics, and need to be prepared to implement them if necessary.

Recognising the sick bird

Birds are masters of deception. Because they are pretty low down on the food chain, they instinctively know that predators are drawn to a sick or injured animal like moths to a flame. They have therefore evolved over millions of years to NOT look sick or injured; to hide any signs of illness to avoid attracting the attention of a predator. Birds will only look sick when they are so sick that they can’t even hide it anymore. There are millions of years of evolution behind this – a few generations of captive breeding can’t change that. But there are subtle signs that an alert owner can detect.

  • A bird that is normally very vocal chattering and yelling, and flies or climbs around a cage all day long, but now is sitting quietly in a corner, of the cage is not normal. A bird that is fluffed up is not normal. Even if it appears normal when you approach, and then fluffs up again after a few minutes.
  • A bird that normally comes down and starts eating as soon as food is placed in the dish, but is now not interested in food, is not normal. A bird that eats continuously and ravenously is not normal.
  • A bird sitting on the floor of the cage is not normal.
  • A bird that starts to drink water excessively, or not at all, is not normal.
  • A bird that sleeps a lot, particularly if both feet are on the perch, is not normal.
  • A bird that starts sneezing a lot, or has a discharge from its nostrils, or rubs its eyes on the perch or with its foot, is not normal.
  • An excessive amount of water in a bird’s droppings (unless that bird is a lorikeet) is not normal. Diarrhoea is not normal. The urates (the white part of the droppings) turning green is not normal.
  • Bleeding from anywhere is not normal.
  • Bald patches appearing on your bird are not normal.

If you see these signs, now is the time to act. Waiting a few days “to see if the bird gets better” is often a death sentence to a bird struggling to recover its health.

First Aid for the sick bird

A sick bird has three main requirements: warmth, fluids and food.

A bird’s normal body temperature is 41 deg. C. This is reached by absorbing heat from the air around it (the ambient temperature), and then generating the balance by metabolising food to produce energy (and therefore heat). A sick bird is not eating much, and therefore its production of metabolic energy is decreased. Its body temperature starts to drop, so it fluffs its feathers to trap body heat (much as a doona does on a bed). If its temperature continues to drop it will become hypothermic, go into shock, and die. This will usually happen before the bird dies of whatever has made it sick in the first place.

So sick birds need to be warmed up – urgently. Putting a blanket over its cage won’t help the bird is not generating enough heat for the blanket to trap and keep warm. The most effective way to warm a bird up is to place it under a light (a bulb, not a fluoro). The heat generated by the bulb will raise the ambient temperature to 35- 40 deg. C. quickly, making the bird much more comfortable. The bulb should be nearly touching the wire of the cage, right beside a perch. This allows the bird to get right up to it if it wants, and to move away if it feels too hot. The light needs to be left on 24 hours a day, until the bird is no longer seeking its warmth. By warming the bird up, you overcome hypothermic shock and allow the bird to direct its metabolism towards getting better, rather than just keeping warm. Try not to disturb or handle the bird too much until it becomes more active. You need to curb your patience until it is feeling stronger.

Warming a bird up is the single most important thing you can do for it. Don’t try to do anything else for an hour or so, until the bird is becoming more alert and active. Once you have it under a light, ring your vet to make an appointment. Don’t ask us for a diagnosis or treatment over the phone it just can’t be done. All sick birds look the same it is only by getting a thorough history, doing a careful physical examination, and using appropriate lab tests that we can determine the problem and an appropriate treatment. Anything else is just a guess, and it is unfair to put us in that situation.

If it is going to be some time before you can get to the vet, the next thing to do is to get some fluids into your bird. If it is drinking well (and not vomiting), adding some glucose powder to the water may be all you need to do. Place 1 teaspoon into 100mls water, and let the bird drinks as much as it likes. If the bird is not drinking, or isn’t drinking enough, you need to give it the fluids, either with an eye-dropper or a crop needle. If you are comfortable injecting fluids, giving the bird 5% of its bodyweight twice daily under the skin is quite effective.

Offer your bird a variety of foods. If it isn’t eating, you may need to crop feed it. We use a hand rearing formula but if you don’t have this handy, a vegetable and/or fruit baby food works well.

Remember: don’t give fluid of foods to your bird until it has warmed up. A weak bird given fluids or food by mouth could easily choke on them.

First Aid for the injured bird

The basic requirements for an injured bird are similar to those of a sick bird: the bird needs to be kept warm, take in fluids and eat, if it is to survive. However, trauma has its own problems bleeding, the risk of further injury, breathing difficulties, etc. Try not to do too much, too soon, or too quickly. It is better to do something quickly, put the bird down for a while, and then pick it up and do something else. Trying to do everything at once can stress the bird right over the edge.

If the bird is bleeding, determine if it is still bleeding and where it is bleeding from. A small amount of blood can look like a lot spread over a bird’s feathers, and give the impression that it is bleeding to death.

If the bird is bleeding from a ‘broken blood’ feather (a newly erupted feather with blood in the shaft), try pinching the feather between your thumb and forefinger for 30-60 seconds. In most cases this will stop the bleeding. If it doesn’t, you will need to pluck the feather out, and pinch off the feather follicle to stop any bleeding from there. A bleeding toenail can be treated by pushing the nail into a wet bar of soap; the soap will form a plug over the nail and stop the bleeding.

If the bleeding is coming from anywhere else, or you can’t get it to stop, seek veterinary assistance urgently. If possible, maintain finger pressure till you get to the Surgery.

A broken wing or leg, left unsplinted, can get swung around, stepped on, bitten, and generally injured more than the original break. Sometimes this subsequent damage is so bad the limb has to be amputated. Taping the wing to the body with sticky tape, or strapping a broken leg, can prevent further damage. It also markedly reduces the amount of pain and stress your bird is feeling.

If your bird is having difficulty breathing – opening its mouth with each breath, heaving its body up and down (or tail bobbing) with each breath, or making audible wheezes, grunts or rattles with each breath go straight to the Surgery. Emergency treatment can save many of these birds, but not if they’re left for a day or two.

Things NOT to do

  • Do not give your bird alcohol or coffee as “a stimulant”
  • Do not give your bird old antibiotics or pet shop remedies. These rarely work, and waste time while waiting for a response.
  • Do not ring your neighbour, your uncle or another breeder for advice. Bring your bird to the West Toowoomba Vet Surgery as soon as possible. First Aid is NOT a substitute for veterinary care.
  • Do not assume that you know what is wrong with your bird. It might not be worms!

For many years birds have had a reputation for being ‘soft’ or weak healthy one minute, sick the next, dead the minute after. This is because people didn’t recognise that birds hide signs of illness as well as they do, and then they wait a few days to see if the bird gets better by itself. We are becoming more attuned to recognising signs of illness in birds, and by applying basic first aid and seeking veterinary assistance, many sick birds CAN be saved.