I have a story I tell a lot when I’m discussing the signs of illness in Parrots. It involves a young man on the phone at the avian and exotic veterinary hospital where I worked many years ago. He had just purchased his very first Parrot and he’d had the bird for a few weeks .
“He’s wonderful,” the young man said. “He’s so nice and quiet.”
“Then there is likely something wrong and you should get him checked out by an experienced avian veterinarian,” I said.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “He was the quietest Parrot in the store.”
“No,” I said. “YOU don’t understand. It is not normal for a Parrot to be that quiet for that long. Please get him checked!”
Fortunately, the young man did. He brought him in to our hospital and the avian veterinarian diagnosed what laymen call Parrot Fever. The bird went through treatment and did fine. A month later, the owner called back and asked for me.
“Remember when I told you my Parrot was normally quiet and you said I didn’t understand?” he said. I did remember and I told him so. “Well,” he said. “I understand NOW!”
A dire warning is repeated often in Parrot literature and internet chat lists – that you cannot tell if a bird is sick. This makes perfect sense when you remember that Parrots are prey animals, and that looking sick is tantamount to wearing a sign that says, “Eat Me” for any predator to see.
However, this places extraordinary stress on caring owners, causing many to fret constantly about the health of their beloved Parrots. This can have the negative effect of equally stressed Parrots, as the empathetic nature of psittacines certainly appears to key them into the worries of their owners – especially when those worries seem to focus on them. The safety of the flock depends on the health of the flock, after all, and when health is compromised, so too is safety.
However, from my twenty years of experience as a veterinary technician nursing birds (as well as other exotics), I have rarely found that the bird showed no clinical signs of illness (“symptoms” in human medicine parlance) prior to the veterinary visit.
Perhaps due to my previous occupation as an elementary school teacher, veterinarians with whom I worked frequently used my communicative abilities for many of the staff-client interactions. This gave me tremendous insight into how owners often perceive things.
When clients would bring in a seriously ill Parrot who invariably “just got sick today”, the first agenda was purely medical. We needed to stabilize the patient and explain to the client what was going on, and what needed to be done. Once this first stage was accomplished, it often became my job to educate the clients so they would not encounter this life-and-death situation again.
So I would spend some time in the exam room with them, asking pointed questions about their birds’ behaviour in the last few weeks. Did eating patterns change at all? Were the birds quieter than usual? Were there any other behaviour changes the owners had noticed?
We would then reach the stage I called the Come-to-Think-of-It’s:
Come to think of it, the bird hasn’t been talking as much...
Come to think of it, he hasn’t been banging on his toys like usual...
Come to think of it, she hasn’t been eating her walnut and that’s her favourite food...
Come to think of it, he hasn’t been as aggressive lately, or...
Come to think of it, he’s been a lot more aggressive lately...
So the reality was not that the bird showed no signs of illness. The reality was that the owners they did not recognize their importance and act on them. Indeed, from my experience, most of the Parrots brought into avian veterinarians because they just got sick have actually been found (by weight loss, body condition, etc.) to have been sick for at least a week or two.
The owners just recognized the problem because the bird has now gotten so sick that it was too weak to try and hide it anymore.
I often use the analogy of dogs and cats. From my experience, no one could miss the signs of dogs being sick. Dogs are quite blatant when they don’t feel good, staring mournfully at their owners and practically pulling on their pant legs, whimpering that they don’t feel good!
Cats, on the other hand, are much more subtle about not feeling up to stuff. Maybe they don’t meet their owners at the door as quickly as usual, or they don’t come sauntering over as fast as usual when dinner is served. Maybe they don’t come and whiiiiiiiine like normal when dinner is late. So if someone who is only acquainted with dogs is taking care of a cat, they would likely miss the subtler signs of a cat who is feeling ill and not recognize that the feline needed veterinary intervention.
Well, birds are more subtle than cats.
The thing to remember is that changes are what matter: changes in vocalization, attitude, posture, droppings, breathing patterns, appetite, etc. The tiniest change can be very important when it comes to assessing if there is possibly a problem. And when a tiny change is identified, you need to immediately bring your avian veterinarian into the picture. You should not waste time calling your avian veterinarian to ask her opinion on this. You just need to make an appointment and take the bird in.
My dear friend Morgan recently had a bit of a scare. She said her Grey Oliver’s voice had changed a tiny bit over the last day or two and when questioned, she thought he was maybe also a little quieter than usual. An immediate avian veterinary visit with bloodwork revealed an elevated white blood cell count (often indicating some kind of bacterial infection) and Oliver was put on antibiotics.
After a few days, I got the happy message that “Oliver’s back!” – meaning he acting himself again, talking, banging toys, and throwing food around. Excellent news, indeed, but if Morgan had waited for more conclusive signs, she and her avian veterinarian would have had to contend with a MUCH sicker bird.
I had a situation with my Blue and Yellow Macaw Sam many years ago that taught me quite a lesson. Sam and I had lived together for about 15 years at that point, and I knew enough to know that when she was in nesting behaviour, she acted different. Raging hormones and all that. So I tended to watch her more carefully during those times, since I was concerned I might miss it if some problem cropped up in the background at the same time. After all, how could I tell the difference if she was already acting different?
That year, she started acting VERY different. There was nothing I could put a finger on or describe coherently, but she was, well ... DIFFERENT in a different sort of way. So I immediately scheduled an appointment with my avian veterinarian Liza Clark and hauled her in (with her singing along off-key to the radio for the entire trip, per usual).
After my vet had done a physical, she said that Sam “seems like a perfectly healthy hen in reproductive mode.” But I was worried, as my old friend was DIFFERENT and I insisted that we do diagnostic testing. (I also obviously had too much money in my pocket.) So we submitted tests and I took Sam home. Dr. Clark did not put her on any medications because she didn’t see anything wrong.
I am fuzzy on the details of the timing because this was 25 years ago, but I think it was three days later that we got our diagnosis. Sam, bless her heart, laid her first egg! So I was right and so was Dr. Clark.
I was right that there was something DIFFERENT because Sam hadn’t laid an egg with me before (or with her previous owners of 12 years). And Dr. Clark was right that there was nothing WRONG. Egg-laying is, after all, what female birds do – even though it took Sam (that we know of) at least 30 years to get around to it.
I never resented the money I spent that day because I did exactly what I needed to do as an educated owner. Sam’s behaviour had changed and that necessitated a visit to the avian veterinarian. It was up to the veterinarian to decide if there was a problem or not. And Sam provided a full explanation for those changes when a few days went by!
And by the way, 25 years later, Sam is still laying 2-3 eggs most years. My avian veterinarian figures she is at least in her 60s and possibly substantially older and she still lays eggs. (Infertile, of course, as she’s my only bird.) What a waste of effort!
I do need to also mention a Moluccan Cockatoo I worked with many years ago. He had been hospitalized for a couple of days when I came back from a weekend off, and he was written up for the full regalia of critical care nursing procedures: injectible medications, subcutaneous fluids and tube feeding. His treatments were the last thing I did before leaving that night.
When I came back on duty the next morning, I was extremely upset to find that he'd died overnight. Sure, he was sick – after all, he was hospitalized with lots of treatments – but he hadn’t struck me as being at death's door.
So I was tremendously relieved to hear the owners had agreed to a necropsy as I needed to know what I had done wrong. There was no doubt in my mind that I must have caused the bird's death but I needed to know for sure.
At that point in my career, I'd been nursing birds for 7 years. But I was new to that hospital and I was not sure the avian veterinarian would tell me the truth if I'd screwed up and killed the bird. So I insisted that I be allowed to watch the post mortem.
When the avian vet opened the body we both gasped out loud. There was NOT ONE normal organ. Everything was ravaged by massive systemic disease. I had not made a mistake that killed that bird, but he surely did fool me as to how desperately sick he really was.
We Parrot owners need to know our birds, because it is only by recognizing what is normal for them that we can learn to recognize what isn’t normal. Once we know them and we pay attention, we will recognize the subtle changes that can be hallmarks of a problem developing so we can provide timely intervention. When we are new to a bird, we might make mistakes and get it vetted when there turns out not to be a problem, but that is how we learn. The alternative is totally unacceptable, don’t you agree?