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.
Indeed, when I was still doing consultations, I often refused to work with a Parrot with a so-called "behaviour problem" until after the owner had the animal thoroughly checked out, and I do the same with questions.
I often find myself saying, “Get your bird checked by an experienced avian veterinarian and if he/she cannot find anything wrong, then message me again.” This is because many supposed “behaviour problems” are actually manifestations of physical or medical problems.
I also routinely hear stories about veterinarians seeing birds when that veterinarian evidently does not have a great deal of information about feathered creatures. A recent example would be the Parrot who was diagnosed as having allergies simply because he had a runny nose – but that diagnosis was evidently made by just looking at the outside of the bird.
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 I questioned the bird's owner further, she admitted that she didn't think this veterinarian was a "real" bird vet. [Note: the most common cause (etiology) of these bacterial infections is chronic malnutrition – specifically due to insufficient amounts of Vitamin A.]
Consequently, I am often asked just how a lay person is supposed to find a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about birds, as opposed to a veterinarian who will see birds… and how can a lay person tell the difference.
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.
However, the same survey found that only 7.6% of bird owners take their animals to avian veterinarians, and that 92% of their respondents take their sick birds to pet store employees to be treated.
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.
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.
[Note: Exotic animals are loosely defined in the USA in small animal veterinary medicine as anything that isn't a cat or dog. Hence, if you have a pet chicken, it is defined as an exotic animal.]
I do not know the situation in the UK, but in the US, most veterinary schools have a course in avian medicine, but in most cases that course is classed as an "elective" – in other words, veterinary students are not required to take it. They take the course only if they have a specific interest in these other types of animals.
Also, not all veterinary schools even work with exotics. For example, here in the USA, the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania has recently closed their exotic animal department, so they will only treat dogs and cats in their small animal facility in Philadelphia.
As a consequence, no matter how interested they might be, veterinary students at the U of P will get no hands-on experience with exotics unless they have spent part of their training in other facilities.
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.
They are members of the AAV, and/or they are board certified in avian medicine and/or (in the UK) they have taken the Royal College of Veterinary Medicine Zoo Vet Qualification or are certified through the European College of Avian Medicine and Surgery (ECAMS) [see addendum].
By so doing, this means they have access to all the most current medical information about birds. This is critical, since new information is discovered all the time, and we all want our birds to benefit from state of the art avian veterinary medicine.
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.
For example, there was a bird store in my area for many years that used to void the guarantee on a sale if buyers took their new bird to the only board certified avian specialist in the area. The store preferred to refer their buyers to area veterinarians who apparently did not always do the diagnostic testing recommended by state-of-the-art avian medicine (as outlined by the AAV).
From my own experience, this sort of thing happens when a facility is famous with local avian veterinarians for selling sick birds. (This facility also badmouthed me, which tells me I must be doing something right!)
Reputable sources of information would include educated members of local bird clubs, good avian pet stores, or your local dog and cat veterinarian. See the end of this article for contact information.
It should be mentioned that most avian veterinarians also care for the other animals defined by veterinary medicine as exotics – such as reptiles, ferrets, amphibians, etc. This does not mean they are not avian veterinarians. Depending on location, few veterinarians can survive financially by seeing ONLY birds. There are also plenty of competent avian veterinarians who also treat dogs and cats.
When contacting a veterinarian who claims to do birds, it is perfectly valid to ask what percentage of a veterinarian's practice is made up of birds. That will tell you how much experience the veterinarian actually has with birds. If he or she only sees one or two birds per month, for example, you may wish to go elsewhere.
However, if you find a veterinarian who tells you he or she knows little about birds but would like to learn, that's ok. That person generally knows when to ask someone more experienced for help, and most of the top avian veterinarians in the world are accessible by phone. The veterinarians that won't admit they don't know are the ones that really scare me.
And one other very important question to ask: “What was the last continuing education seminar about birds that this veterinarian attended?” Several years ago, the US branch of the AAV had their annual conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (where I live) and I was appalled how few of the veterinarians from the area that “do birds,” showed up to learn the most current information about avian medicine. I concluded that they were quite happy to take someone’s money to see their bird – but they were not going to spend their own time and money to really learn about them.
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.
7. They schedule bird appointments every 10-15 minutes. There is a tremendous amount of time involved when seeing birds – the avian veterinarians I know schedule bird appointments for a minimum of 30 minutes, with most lasting considerably longer than that. New bird clients are generally booked for an hour, as there is so much information that needs to be shared.
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."
As far as I am concerned, that is very bad advice. Weaning is an extremely stressful period in a Parrot's life, and a brand new Parrot owner often doesn't know there is a problem until it has reached emergency status. This is NOT the best thing for the bird!
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.
If possible, ask for a tour of the hospital. If your veterinarian is serious about avian medicine, you should see some basic equipment:
1. A gram scale capable of weighing birds with great accuracy (already mentioned)
2. Incubator cages for hospitalized birds
3. Proper diet for hospitalized birds – not just "Parrot mix" and pellets, but fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits, also.
4. Ideally, a separate room for hospitalized birds, away from dogs and cats.
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.
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?
Are they available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? If not, to whom do they refer? Does that hospital have experience with birds? If your veterinarian does not have emergency back-up for avian patients, then you need to find someone who does. The LAST thing you need to do is to wait for an emergency to happen, and THEN start looking around for a bird veterinarian. ASK YOUR AVIAN VETERINARIAN ABOUT EMERGENCY COVERAGE NOW.
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.
However, be reasonable, and don't expect them to spend hours on the phone with you answering every little question you might have. But most importantly, please, when it comes to the treatment of your animal, follow their instructions to the letter. The best avian veterinarians in the world can accomplish little without the full cooperation of their clients.
The Association of Avian Veterinarians
Central Office: P.O. Box 811720
Boca Raton, FL 33481, USA
Fax : 561-393-8902
The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners
530 Church Street, Suite 700
Nashville, TN, 37219, USA
European College of Avian Medicine and Surgery (ECAMS)
Emergency number 0160-90207752
Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons
62-64 Horseferry Road
London SW1P 2AF UK
Tel: (020) 7222 2001
Fax: (020) 7222 2004
List of Zoo Medicine qualified vets