As I answer questions for this wonderful website’s Parrot Q&A I find myself constantly emphasizing the importance of having one's pet bird checked out yearly by an avian (bird) veterinarian.
From the owner's description, no blood work or other diagnostic testing was done. According to the Association of Avian Veterinarians [see addendum], depending on species, Psittacosis ("Parrot Fever") is the primary reason for runny noses in Parrots, and bacterial infections are next, NOT allergies, and testing needs to be done to make certain nothing else is going on.
When people get a new dog or cat, most of them know to seek veterinary care for their new pet. According to a survey done in the USA 20 years ago (the most recent I could find) for PET AGE MAGAZINE, 60% of dog owners and 68% of cat owners have their animals checked regularly by a veterinarian.
Pet Stores and Pet Store Employees
These numbers are incredibly depressing, considering the fact that the average pet store employee has neither the training nor the qualifications to treat sick birds safely and effectively. Suffice it to say, if your foot is broken, you don't go to a shoe store for treatment. A corollary of this rule is that you don't take a sick dog to a cow veterinarian – so you shouldn't take your sick bird to a dog veterinarian.
So What Exactly is an “Avian Veterinarian”?
Contrary to what many people seem to think, veterinarians are NOT trained in veterinary school to deal with every species of animal they might come across in the world of companion animals. They are required to learn about the domesticated animals (dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep, etc.), but not what are termed exotic animals.
A Rare Bird
Avian veterinarians are extremely dedicated individuals who, in their copious free time (joke) have sought additional training in the relatively new field of avian medicine.
So How Do You FIND These Veterinarians?
You can find these specialized veterinarians by asking around, but make certain you are asking reputable sources for information. Do not automatically assume that the veterinarian recommended by a store or breeder is the best veterinarian for your pet.
How to Tell If You REALLY HAVE an Avian Veterinarian?
Now that pet birds have become so popular, there are lots of veterinarians who will "see birds" who have perhaps less knowledge than we might wish. The following are a few tips (in no particular order) that may help you differentiate between these people and their more knowledgeable colleagues. You do not necessarily have a REAL avian veterinarian if:
1. When you call for an appointment for a sick bird, the receptionist tells you it's too cold to bring a bird out. The veterinarian may be experienced with birds, but his or her support staff is not. There are plenty of easy tricks to keeping a bird warm in transit – which is definitely preferable to allowing the bird to die at home without professional help.
2. When you arrive at the hospital for your appointment and nobody knows what kind of bird you have. If you have a rare species, be fair – but if they insist that your cockatiel is a cockatoo, there's a problem.
3. Everyone at the hospital is afraid of your two month-old baby macaw. Many bird veterinarians have difficulty finding experienced avian technicians – but the veterinarian must know how to handle the animals if his/her support staff does not. If everyone on staff is afraid of a baby, no matter how big, then they have little or no experience with Parrots.
4. The veterinarian does not remove the bird from its cage to do a full physical exam. The days of diagnosing from the outside of the cage are long gone. To do competent avian medicine, a veterinarian has to do a proper physical exam, and to do that, a veterinarian has to actually TOUCH the animal.
5. The veterinarian does not weigh your bird. Properly equipped avian veterinarians will have an accurate gram scale with which to get weights on their patients every time the bird comes in. A current, accurate weight is not only necessary to properly calibrate a medication dose, but also to help the veterinarian evaluate the overall condition of the animal. From my experience, "Feeling the keel" does NOT provide sufficient information.
6. The veterinarian or support staff does not spend considerable time discussing proper diet with you. The most common cause of medical problems seen in avian medicine is STILL malnutrition; proper diet is therefore crucial and should be discussed in depth.
8. They don't think routine check-ups are necessary. The AAV recommends annual visits, especially with very young or old birds. A veterinarian in my area recently told the first-time Parrot owner of an unweaned macaw chick that he didn't need to bring the baby back in "unless he thought there was a problem."
9. They consider a beak trim to be just as routine as a nail trim or wing clip. A normal Parrot beak rarely if ever needs trimming, whether the bird chews on a "beak conditioner" or not. A change in the growth pattern of a Parrot's beak could be indicative of a medical problem.
10. With a new bird check-up, the veterinarian does a physical exam and pronounces the bird "healthy" without recommending any diagnostic testing. A properly done physical exam can tell an experienced avian veterinarian a great deal, but by itself, it simply isn't enough. Diagnostic testing such as blood work must be done to rule out the possibility of latent disease.
The Grand Tour
If possible, ask for a tour of the hospital. If your veterinarian is serious about avian medicine, you should see some basic equipment:
If your bird is sick and needs you to medicate at home, it is incredibly important that you should be properly taught how to accomplish this. You should NOT, for example, be told to "squirt it in the back of the mouth." Medicating by mouth incorrectly can lead to aspiration pneumonia and death, so it is critical (understatement of the century) that you be instructed correctly.
Unrelated but Extremely Important
While I'm on the subject of avian veterinarians, I do want to mention something that is unrelated but extremely important. DO NOT ASSUME that your avian veterinarian will be available off-hours if you and your bird have an emergency. After all, emergencies rarely seem to happen during the working day. So an important question to ask is how does your avian veterinarian deal with emergencies?
If your veterinarian fulfils all these criteria, chances are excellent that you have a qualified avian practitioner. Stick with them, be patient if they don't call you back in two minutes if you have a question. Ask them to explain things you don't understand, especially when it comes to the care of your bird.