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Posted by Kendra on January 04, 2002 at 12:41:12:

Hello all. I have some sad news, my little girl Luna passed away last night. I had taken her to an emergency vet on New Year's Day after I noticed her constant fluffing, lethargy and diarrhea for nearly a day previous. I should have taken her in sooner. I have posted a memorial message in her honor on the memorials page. Please, please, please take your keet to see a vet without delay if he or she starts exhibiting these symptoms. The vet said that, had I brought Luna to him sooner, it might have saved her life. Please don't make the same mistake I did. Take care of your little ones as though they are your own children.

Why every sick bird is an EMERGENCY

What is the first thing you do after buying a dog? You take it to the vet for vaccinations! Dogs and cats require more routine trips to the vet than birds do, yet most bird owners refuse to take their bird even once when their pet is critically ill. Dogs see the vet to have their teeth cleaned, birds see the vet when they are dying.

BIRDS ARE NOT MAMMALS. People too often see bird illness like their own- just annoying symptoms that aren't very serious. Birds can take injury quite well, but illness is another matter. In the wild an unhealthy bird can attract predators, spread disease and may be driven out of the flock. Because of this they do their very best to hide the fact that they are ill. Experienced breeders will notice illness early, but by the time a pet owner sees their bird is sick, the condition is very serious. Tack onto this the delay an owner makes before bringing the bird to a vet, and you have an animal at deathís door. Even worse, the owner may not seek veterinary care, thinking things will just get better on their own, and the bird winds up dead.

    If a bird acts ill:
  1. Take it to a vet immediately or it will die.
  2. Keep it in a warm, quiet place and isolate it from the rest of your flock.
  3. Do NOT try to treat it yourself.
I think owners are actually more likely to seek vet care if their bird is bleeding or injured than if the bird is sick. While injury can certainly be serious, it is usually not life-threatening (except for cat attack cases). Iím not saying that you shouldnít take a bird to the vet if it is injured, but that you need to view illness as being much more dangerous.

Choosing a Vet

Not everyone has the luxury of being able to choose their vet. Extremely rural areas may have only livestock vets to choose from, or none at all. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere like Southern California, youíll have your choice of vets. Donít be afraid to be picky! It is your petís life! Beware of vets claiming to be "avian specialists" or something like that. Not all vets are qualified to treat birds. Try to stick to vets that are members of the Association of Avian Veterinarians. Members of this organization are more likely to be up to date on current research, treatments and other information. They may not be completely qualified either, but at least theyíll be working on it and have access to better information. See the AAV website for a list of members in your area.

Aside from being an AAV member, there is one other quality I require of my own vets: communication skills. Theyíve got to be willing to talk to me about the problem itself and the options for treatment. Cost estimates are also important.

Case Study:
Choose Carefully

Iíve had a total of four avian vets. All were AAV members but not all of them were good. Donít get me wrong, they were all qualified, but it takes more than knowledge to make a good vet. Iím telling you right now- the key to a good vet is communication. A qualified vet is nothing without this skill.

My first vet was fairly qualified and great at communication. He was good at talking to customers and was also more casual. One time he sat on the floor while he flipped through a book, looking up something. I ended up sitting down next to him. He was easy to talk to. The willingness to chat had a downside though. Once I brought in a very sick quail to be euthanized. The poor girl looked dreadful and I just wanted to end it as soon as possible for her. My vet came in with the shot but instead of administering it right away he struck up a conversation with me, "Howís school?" and all that. I was fidgeting the whole time. I really wanted him to just shut up and give the shot. The bird expired on its own literally an inch before the shot got to her. It was really disconcerting.

The chattiness was also detrimental to his business. As the only vet in that practice, he worked constantly and appointments could be very lengthy if he had a lot to say. Eventually he fell ill from stress and overwork and had to hire another vet. After that, I always ended up getting the new guy on my appointments. He was a small animal vet but completely new to birds. My first vet was teaching him but he just wasnít as good. I also had no rapport with him. I was mildly insulted when he started asking me about the diet and care of my birds (alas, my reputation does not precede me) and I felt like introducing myself, "Hi, my name is Karen Trinkaus. Iíve worked with psittacines for over 10 years, run a website on proper bird care and majored in Avian Sciences for two years at UC Davis." Okay, so he wouldnít know this, but my chart would still show how long Iíd been a customer, and he should be able to get the gist of my knowledge level just by talking to me. I hate when I see bird "old timers" lecturing obviously experienced people on the basics, particularly kids. You can usually tell right away whether people know anything or not. While at UCD I met a 10 year-old who bred and handfed lovebirds. As soon as I heard this I readjusted my manner of speaking to match her level. I had started out talking below her.

I mention the expertise thing mainly because of the following case. I brought in a kak purchased from Magnolia Bird Farm (wholesale buyer), which means it could have come from any breeder in the area. Jet seemed to be in great condition when I bought him but had then begun acting ill. I took him to the vet and got the new guy. I told the new guy that kaks are susceptible to aspergillosis, a particularly nasty fungal infection that is hard to diagnose and even harder to treat. He thought it was a bacterial infection and prescribed a pink antibiotic I was unfamiliar with. Jet got much worse in only a few days. I mentioned the aspergillosis thing again. He said the bird probably had an allergic reaction to the first antibiotic and prescribed Baytril (another antibiotic I am familiar with, most vets use it first thing). Weeks went by and Jet continued to worsen until he ended up in a heated plastic hospital container with bad feces, constant sleeping and fluffing up. I kept in touch with the vet but I donít remember it doing and good. I weighed Jet daily through all this and his weight stayed the same. Odd. Finally, a day or two before he died, the weight plummeted. I called the vetís office and informed them Iíd be dropping off the body for a necropsy.

The receptionist told me the necropsy would cost $65. This was ridiculous. My bird had died while under their [poor] care and I have to PAY to find out why? This vet had never charged me for a necropsy before, EVER. He saw them as good practice and educational (for him too). Apparently he no longer did them in-house. Instead he sent them out to the state lab, which did a full necropsy (lab work and dissection). I didnít even have the option of a simple gross necropsy (dissection only). I was very irritated but left the body anyway. It burned me all day though and I ended up calling the office back to tell them Iíd be taking the body elsewhere. I picked it up and took it to another vet Iíd used on occasion.

I asked the receptionist at the other vet how much they charged for necropsies. "Fifteen dollars, if we charge anything at all." I told her about the $65 at my regular vet. She was astonished. I was going to give her a brief history but instead she just called the other office and had them fax over the file on Jet. I thanked her and left feeling a little better (not much better though, after all I had a dead bird on my hands). Guess what the necropsy results were? MASSIVE ASPERGILLOSIS INFECTION. Big surprise... I switched vets permanently after that.

I once tried a new vet out after hearing him give a talk on polyoma at my bird club. This was long before the switch mentioned above (I was still in highschool then). My original vet (the chatty one) was pretty good but not always great at diagnosis. I felt more comfortable bringing him birds when I already knew what was wrong (tumor, infection, etc.). He was the vet Iíd first brought Toast to, and the one who failed to notice that her left leg was dislocated as well as splayed. So I tried to test out this other guy using Toast. He was the complete opposite of my original vet. Not very chatty or willing to discuss options. Still, he seemed a bit more competent.

I ended up bringing him another kak chick that wasnít doing so hot. He examined it and started going on about antibiotics. I only had so much cash on me and told him so. I was hoping heíd say they accepted credit cards (my dad had let me borrow his) or maybe knew where an ATM was. Instead he just gave the bird a shot of water to hydrate it and escorted me out of the examining room. At the front desk I asked the receptionist about meds but she said there were none. Confused, I left. I was younger then. Today I probably would have said something.

The chick got really bad over the weekend and I ended up paging the vet (he was also large animal and mobile) and leaving frantic voicemails. By the time he called me back the chick had been dead a few hours. I was upset because I felt heíd kicked me out of the office as soon as he thought I didnít have much money. I had wanted to go with the antibiotics but he had eliminated that as one of my options. This is a case of really bad customer service. He should have discussed all the options, methods of payment and let me decide.

Communication, communication, communication. It does take two, but in the cases above the vets were unwilling to listen or talk.

    A good vet should always be willing to do the following:
  1. Listen to the client.
  2. Discuss all the possible ailments, diagnostic tests, options for treatment and potential costs before anything is performed.
  3. Answer any questions.
Donít be afraid to speak up! It is YOUR pet, YOUR money and YOUR decision. Not everyone can afford the best treatment for their pets and most vets realize this. They should be open to whatever option you decide to take. If you donít understand what the heck they said, ASK questions. You have a right to know. How can you make a good decision if you donít know what is wrong with your animal? WHAT is wrong? HOW could it have been prevented? WHAT are your options for treatment? If your vet isnít chatty you may need to be more forward. Tell them straight up, "I need to know what is going on and [youíre not being very forthcoming/I donít understand what you said]. I want to help my animal, but in order to do that I need to know what exactly is wrong with it and what my options for treatment are." Call them with progress reports too. The first treatment is often just an educated guess (unless lab work was performed). If the animal is getting worse, CALL!

The First Visit

Ideally, the first visit should take place immediately after purchase, for several reasons. It gives you the chance to get a feel for the vet before really needing one. It gives the vet a chance to see your bird when it is (hopefully) healthy. The birdís normal weight will be recorded and will help provide a reference point for later exams. The vet can talk to you about basic bird care. Do you know why exotic animal exams generally cost $10 more than cat and dog exams? It is because they typically take longer- the vet may have to spend an hour giving the owner a lecture on the proper diet. You might learn key information on the first visit that will keep your bird healthy and prevent further visits. Thereís also the possibility that you bought a sick or unweaned bird. Most breeders are reasonable and give you 24 hours to see a vet and verify the birdís health. Some places now offer a free vet exam with purchase. If something is wrong you can catch it right away and return the animal.

What to Expect

Most visits include only a physical exam. The vet will weigh your bird and look it over. They may listen to pulse/breathing, check the vent, mouth, etc. Depending on what the problem is they may send you away with medication or recommend that tests be run. Birds, unlike dogs and cats, can be very difficult to diagnose without tests. Vets can usually accurately diagnose cats and dogs just by looking at them or giving them a physical exam. Birds are different. All sick birds look pretty much the same. Unless tests are run, the initial diagnosis a vet makes for a bird is typically an educated guess. This does NOT mean that the vet doesn't know what he/she is doing. In many cases this initial diagnosis is correct. They know we aren't made of money and that most people are unwilling to pay the added cost for cultures or bloodwork. Many won't even bring up the topic during an initial visit. However, if the first treatment fails YOU NEED TO LET THE VET KNOW. It's not as if everything is settled once you leave the practice. Like I said, it is often just an educated guess. If it happens to be wrong how will the vet know unless you say something? Bring the bird back as many times as needed to fix the problem. My current vet has no extra charge for rechecks (additional procedures cost more, but the exam does not).

Lab work is always better when performed before any medications have been given. If a bird has been on antibiotics or other meds this can mess up the results. If you want the vet to do labwork before any medications are prescribed, ask for it!

What YOU Need to Do

Animals canít tell the vet what is wrong. As discussed earlier, dogs and cats are easier to diagnose at a glance. Birds are not. You need to tell the vet everything. Iím dead serious- every little detail about their illness. You see the animal every day and youíll notice tiny abnormalities that a vet couldnít notice. Cut and paste the following questions into Word or whatever program you use. Print them out and answer them before every trip to the vet. Hand the paper right to the vet or just use it to refresh your memory and keep track of what to say. I guarantee your vet will love you for it.

  1. What are the symptoms?
  2. Behavioral changes?
  3. Breathing problems, voice changes or discharge?
  4. Decreased vocalizations, eating or play?
  5. Any changes in the animalís environment?
  6. Has the animal been chewing on anything weird?
  7. Do the feces look any different than normal? If yes, describe.
  8. When did the symptoms first start? How have they progressed?
  9. List any weights youíve taken, from older to more recent:
  10. Has the bird been treated for anything previously? (if at another hospital)

Preferably, start writing down the answers as soon as you notice something is wrong. Wait too long and you may not be able to remember subtle changes or when the symptoms first occurred. Do I actually do this? For long cases and necropsies, yes. Most of the time I am good enough to recall everything to a vet without notes. In long cases it is important to track the progress of an illness. Weights in particular can be helpful (discussed later). With necropsies I usually just drop off the body and get the results over the phone. A note of events is essential in this situation, particularly since the vet doesnít know what exactly they are looking for.

Case Study:
Observation & Communication

On February 16th I had a double vet appointment. My panther chameleon, Zap, had become ill and was no longer eating. Iíd made the appointment a week in advance. Unfortunately, my poor chameleon had gotten much sicker since then. I also wanted to get my yellowfronted kak hen checked out.

Zap.  Click to enlarge. I pay attention to my animals, not just interacting with them but observing them. I told the vet everything I could about Zapís condition. Iíd bought him in May 2001 (age in relation to size) as a captive bred baby (no parasites). His last shed, about a month prior, didnít seem to go well (possibly the problem). He shed his tail but I found no evidence of anything else shedding. His appetite had decreased steadily until the past week when he stopped eating completely, even his favorite, waxworms. I could not figure out if he had stopped eating because he was picky (many chameleons do) or because he felt sick. I hadnít weighed him but could feel a difference in weight (which must be considerable for me to even notice without a scale). His grip was weaker and often his feet didnít even hold the perch completely. When he slept, he was no longer a compact little body, tail curled tightly like a whip. His tail was half-curled and drooping. He was very lethargic, hanging out by the drip bottle all day, and sleeping in longer in the morning. Before heíd always started moving about as soon as the lights came on. Now he would sit and sleep. Iíd touch him and instead of opening his eyes heíd turn a color Iíd never seen previously, dark smokey green/black and yellow, and puff up. Chameleons communicate through color (the camouflage thing is a myth) and it is often a good indication of health. He was still bright green most of the time; black would be a very unhealthy color (dead chameleons turn black/drab). She asked if heíd turned black and I told her he hadnít. His left eye also seemed to have a problem. When he wasnít keeping it closed completely he was flexing/blinking it (normally both eyes are wide open and moving constantly).

My scalped hen (right) and her mate (left). I also gave her quite a bit of info on my female kak. Iíd purchased her two years prior with her mate, who has always been healthy. Sheíd been scalped a year and a half ago by something, probably a rat or another bird. She was blind in one eye, partly bald and always looked awful. She was an aviary bird. Every so often sheíd start looking sick so Iíd bring her in, weigh her, and keep her in until she put on a few grams and looked better. This was probably the third time Iíd done this. Sheíd always been a lightweight. Currently she weighed in at 45 grams (female kaks normally weigh around 55). Iíd only been able to get her up to 47 previously. Sometimes her breathing seemed off and her tail had a tendency to droop. The vet asked about the possibility of worms. I told her my birds live on concrete floors but that she could have been kept in a dirt aviary before Iíd purchased her. However, her mate had always been in excellent health. I told the vet my main concern was aspergillosis, because Iíd had four kaks die total, three from aspergillosis and one from pneumonia. I wanted to know if it would even show on a blood panel. She took my concern seriously (in fact, she was the vet who'd necropsied the kak mentioned in the last Case Study) and said that it would indeed effect the results.

I do have a point here. Can you give your vet such detailed information on your pet? Symptoms, history and recent vs. previous behavior can all be important factors when trying to determine or rule out a diagnosis. You are the one who lives with the animal. You are the one who must bring the vet up to date, and how well you communicate can affect how good the treatment is. By the way, it can also affect your bill! Your observations may rule out the need to test for certain ailments and prevent the animal from being treated for something it doesnít have.

Back to the visit...thought Iíd leave you hanging didnít you? My vet said that chameleons are very difficult to diagnose. She opened his mouth, which seemed fine, but couldnít get a good look at the eyeball from inside (he was instinctively covering it with his tongue, chameleon heads are pretty much all eye and tongue). He might have an infection in the eye. What else was wrong was hard to say. Blood work? No, chameleons donít do needles well, she informed me. Hopefully it was just an infection. She gave me eye ointment and Baytril (antibiotic). Iíd also have to force feed him, something I was nervous about because he seemed so delicate.

I had blood work done on the kak. The results would come back in a day. She also took a fecal sample to possibly test on Monday if the blood work didnít tell us anything. The tests came back fine, except for very low levels of calcium (weird). I told them to go ahead with the fecal (it was only $20 more), which basically showed that there were no parasites. They gave me a calcium solution and I went home relieved about the kak.

Paying for Vet Care

Vet care can be darned expensive. A basic exam costs about $30-40. Meds are usually under $15. Plan on having to cover both of these expenses. Lab work (blood panel, cultures) is $60 or more. Surgery can cost several hundred dollars. A gross necropsy (dissection only) should be free or at least under $15. Biopsies and other lab work for a necropsy will cost extra. After hours/emergency care also costs extra, if it is offered. Back when I attended UCD and utilized their clinic, an emergency appointment was $90 instead of the usual $35. It was worth it just for the peace of mind. Fretting over your pet as it slips farther and farther away is no way to spend a weekend.

Keep in mind these are general prices based on my own experience. So how does one pay for all of this?

Having worked in banking, it is not without much trepidation that I suggest this next bit. With the exception of the elderly, Americans are the worst savers on the planet. Still, Iím going to suggest it anyway: open a savings account solely for veterinary expenses. Put money into it with every paycheck. Heck, just put $20 in a month! Thatís not much- probably the cost of your internet service provider. Try to save up a few hundred for emergencies.

Pet insurance is available for birds. As a breeder, insurance is impossible for me (coverage is per bird). I donít know how good it is, but it is worth looking into if you only have a few pets. Also ask your vet office ahead of time if it offers payment plans.

Preventative Medicine and Detecting Early Signs of Illness

The best preventative medicine is quality care. A good diet is extremely important to keeping your bird healthy. There is absolutely no excuse for feeding your bird a seed only diet. "But they wonít eat anything else" is nonsense.

Buy a gram scale and weigh your bird monthly or even weekly. Weight loss is a good indication of illness and will show up before most other symptoms. Some fluctuation is normal but the weight should not be steadily going down. Drastic changes in weight suggest a serious problem. However, not all sick birds lose weight so donít rely on this alone. If a bird acts sick and the weight is fine you still need to see a vet. The bird may have a mass/growth that makes it seem heavier when it is in fact losing weight (recall the Case Study above where a bird with aspergillosis did not lose weight until a few days before death).

If you only have a few pets take them in for annual vet exams. Youíll want a physical, weights taken and a blood panel done.

Feisty Feathers
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