Sick Birds at Home: First Aid
The Off Colour Bird: Any bird that is off-colour should be kept warm! Birds that are ill will be using energy to fight their illness and to facilitate healing. They may also be consuming less calories, as their appetite will often be reduced. Being warm-blooded, birds use a significant amount of energy to generate body heat and stay warm, thus if they are kept warm, less heat is used for this and more can be used for getting better. It is important not to go too far the other way though, as birds can also suffer from heat stress which could make things a lot worse. Birds usually have a higher body temperature than mammals. The ideal temperature for a “hospital cage” should be somewhere between 25 and 30°C. It’s worth having an infra-red heat lamp or similar stored for this type of situation, or even a dedicated heated hospital cage if you have lots of birds. Care should be taken in cases of head trauma as sometimes supplemental heat can make swelling in the brain worse. Speak to your avian vet for further advice.
Bleeding: Birds are often quite small and as such, they don’t have a huge amount of blood inside them! Bleeding can quickly become life threatening. In a small budgerigar for example, a few ml of blood lost could be considered a severe life-threatening haemorrhage. Bleeding wounds can be covered with a piece of clean cloth, or some gauze swabs (useful to have in an avian first aid kit). Applying pressure for 5-10 minutes will often allow clotting to happen and the bleeding to stop. If bleeding is not significantly slowed or stopped by 5 minutes, the bird should be rushed to an avian veterinarian as quickly as possible. In the case of a bleeding blood-feather, apply styptic powder and pressure for a few minutes, before arranging to see your avian vet. In the absence of styptic powder, corn starch can be used instead. Ideally do not pull the blood feather, as this is a very painful procedure and there is also a significant risk that the feather follicle will be damaged and the feather won’t grow back.
Wing Trauma, Dropped Wings, Possible Broken Wings: Birds will often be in a great deal of pain and steps to minimise flapping or movement of the wings should be instigated to minimise this and also to avoid the bones from becoming too displaced and moving around too much in the case of a fracture. Placing the bird in a small, darkened transport cage is recommended such that it cannot extend its wings. Pad the bottom with something soft, like towels. The ends of the primary flight feathers of the wings can be taped together with a small amount of micropore tape, to avoid further flapping. An appointment should be sought with an avian vet at the earliest opportunity for examination and potential x-rays.
Irritating or Toxic Substances in the Eyes: The most important initial step where possible is decontamination. In the case of possible toxic substances in the eyes, the eyes should be flushed with water for 20-30 minutes. For small birds, an eyedropper can be used. For larger birds, a cup can be used to pour water over a birds eyes gradually. The bird should be given periodic “rest” periods of a few minutes during the flushing to minimise stress.
Toxin Exposure of the Skin: Again decontamination is extremely important. Room-temperature or tepid water in a spray bottle may be used to gently “mist” the bird and dilute the toxin on its skin and feathers, until the substance can no longer be detected by seeing, feeling or smelling. When removing sticky substances, a small amount of olive oil or peanut butter should be gently worked through the feathers until the substance breaks down and can be rinsed off. When cleaning substances from the feathers, a small amount of hand dishwashing detergent diluted in water can be applied, but this should all be thoroughly rinsed off with water afterwards. If birds are becoming stressed by washing, the procedure should be aborted and advice sought immediately from an avian vet.
Ingestion of Toxic Substances: Providing birds with juicy fruits is recommended initially, to dilute potential toxins. In the case of certain toxins, a small amount of activated charcoal mixed in with a favourite treat can be given as an “adsorbent”. This is not recommended for caustic substances, or for heavy metal, petroleum or ethanol ingestion. For further advice, call your avian vet.
Avian Veterinarians & Putting Together a First Aid Kit
While some basic first aid can be given at home and can really make a huge difference to the outcome, advice should always be sought from an avian vet when birds are unwell. The Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV) maintains a list of practitioners with an interest in avian medicine, as does the BVZS (British Veterinary Zoological Society). The RCVS (Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons) & EBVS via ECZM (European Board of Veterinary Specialisation and European College of Zoological Medicine) provide information on vets that are recognised specialists in avian medicine and surgery. All birds or collections of birds should be registered with an avian vet.
It is a really good idea to put together a first aid kit for your bird(s) in-case you ever need to use it. There are several items mentioned above that could be included, for example an eye-dropper, gauze swabs, micropore tape, wound powder and a heat lamp. For more information, consult your avian vet.