Avian Emergencies Notes from Dr. Stahl’s Talk

Dr. Scott Stahl (www.seavs.com) spoke at the Phoenix Landing event in early January and shared how vets approach treating medical emergencies. These are the notes from his lecture gathered from a few audience members. Please consult your avian vet if you have questions about the information below.

All exams should start with . . .


Birds hide injuries, and there are many common household dangers. Proper handling is the key to success. You can contribute to a bird’s stress by over handling the bird, so patience is the key to any effective treatment. Vets should be cautions when treating a medical emergency, as it is better to have a live bird and no diagnosis than a dead one with answers.

Any vet exam starts with a good history. The vet asks for age, sex, and species, past history of trauma or disease, diet, how long the owner has had the bird, chance of exposure to toxins such as lead and zinc if the bird is free-roaming. (One way the bird can be exposed to lead is by chewing on the lead in stained glass.)

The vet should also be aware if the parrot is wild-caught, as these birds may have parasites or Avian tuberculosis – neither of which are common in captive birds. Has the bird been taken to a pet store for grooming? Many groomers in pet stores use the same towel for all birds, and pass along disease. The vet should dig deep.

Birds kept in an outdoor aviary could be exposed to parasites from wild bird droppings. Other causes of illness or trauma could be exposure to a new bird, children or other pets.

If the bird comes from an only bird household, and has been there for a long time, the chance of chlamydia is rare.

The substrate used at the bottom of the cage can also cause fungal problems. Critter litter and corn cob bedding can grow mold and fungus easily and can cause the fungus aspergillosis to take over in the bird’s body. Fungus is everywhere, all the time, but can overwhelm a bird with a compromised immune system.

It’s also important for the vet to know whether the bird has a cage mate, if the bird has an egg laying history, and whether there’s a possibility of passing bacteria from a human’s mouth to the parrot. No French kissing your parrot, or allowing her to eat out of your mouth.

Hands-on Exam

After the vet has gathered all the information in the bird’s history, the vet performs a hands-on exam.
The vet observes the bird’s posture, and how she perches, her response to stimuli, respiratory rate (a bird who is having difficulty breathing will have a bobbing tail). The vet will also want to see the droppings, which can indicate a lot about overall health. For example, a pinkish hue to the urates could be lead toxicity. A bird whose droppings contain no feces is not eating.

Another cause for concern is if the bird is sleeping in front of the vet.

The vet examines the oral cavity, heart and lungs, and cloaca, and palpates the abdomen (a swollen hard belly indicates egg binding)

Some birds need to be stabilized before handling. If there is excessive bleeding, or the bird can’t breathe, the vet must stabilize the bird before the exam can begin. The vet should be prepared to treat for shock with medicine and an oxygen tent. For birds who are really struggling, the vet may need to anesthetize, though anesthesia makes it hard for a bird to maintain its normal body temperature of 106-107 degrees.

If the bird has head trauma, they shouldn’t be put in a heated incubator, as it could make the brain swell. Otherwise, keep the bird WDQ-Warm, in a dark place, and quiet.

Fluid therapy may also be prescribed, as most sick birds are at least minimally dehydrated by at least 5 percent. Birds cannot eat when they are dehydrated, neither can they metabolize drugs. The fluid volume given to birds is 5 percent of body weight (a bird weighing 100 grams would get 5 mil of fluid). This is given twice a day. If a bird is really ill, 3-4 times a day. Pedialyte can be given orally, or fluids can be given subcutaneously, which may be less stressful.

Once the bird is stable, the vet can move on to other diagnostic tools.


A standing x-ray can be used to detect the presence of heavy metals such as lead. Zinc is more often found in a blood test. The Complete Blood Count (CBC) and Avian Chemistry Panel are also often used.

Why do vets prescribe antibiotics so often? Because we don’t get second or third chances with a sick bird. Bacterial infections are common, and antibiotics are safe. Fungal infections are much more rate, so antifungals aren’t used until there’s real evidence of a fungal problem. Once results are back from the CBC and chemistry panel, the vet may prescribe antimicrobials, such as antibiotics or antifungals, but a vet may start the bird on antibiotics before the results are received.

Meloxicam is a common NSAID that may be prescribed for pain, but this can also cause bleeding in the GI tract, so it cannot be used if there is any internal GI irritation.

If the vet must gavage feed, the food should be at between 100-104 degrees. The vet should administer enough food to equal 3 percent of the bird’s total body weight, but this amount will not be fed all at one time. The vet starts with a diluted mixture of the food, and makes sure the crop is emptying before giving any more.

In the case of acute trauma, CPR may be necessary, but may not be effective for really ill birds. This procedure involves establishing an airway, closing the bird’s beak, and putting your mouth over the bird’s nares and beak and breathing out with one quick puff. If you’re doing it right, you’ll see the chest move up and down as you breathe.

The most common fracture is of the leg bone, the Tibia Tarsus. This may be trauma that the owner doesn’t know about, because the bird may appear to be perching on the injured leg, but will not put weight on it.

Blood Loss

Parrots have a higher percent of blood in their body than we have, and are more tolerant to losing blood than we are. We need to be attentive to blood loss, but not panic. In one study, a bird lost 50 percent of its blood and did fine. To stop blood flow, use flour or corn starch. (One person in attendance suggested softened Ivory soap as an alternative.)

Black stool indicates internal bleeding.

To control a hemorrhage, the vet may use styptic powder, tissue glue, or even super glue.

If your bird breaks a blood feather, try to control the bleeding instead of pulling the feather, so that the feather can keep growing. If a feather must be pulled, pull it from the same direction it is growing. Ir you’ve pulled the feather out completely you should see a definite end. Blood feathers that are dangerous are the primaries and the tail feathers. Blood feather bleed out is rare, and it’s best to let the blood clot, and keep the parrot in a darkened quiet room while it does.

When a wing trim is performed on the bird, check for blood feathers. If you see one, do not trim one or two feathers on either side of the blood feather, so that the feather has support.

Treatment for bleeding can be fluid therapy, a transfusion if the bird has lost more than 10 percent of her total blood. There are no blood types for parrots in regard to transfusions, and birds can be transfused one time and tolerate it.

One thought on “Avian Emergencies Notes from Dr. Stahl’s Talk

  1. Thanks for posting this summary, Jenny. It is very informative. I really regret missing this class. I had no idea parrots can actually be transfused! (But I would feel kinda bad for the poor donor bird.)


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