The How, What, Why, When, and Who of taking your Bird to the Veterinarian

Dr Heather Johnston


Why birds are birds?

A domestic animal is one that has been selectively bred for generations to interact with humans for a specific purpose. Birds are not domestic animals. Besides a handful of species, most birds are one or two generations from their wild counterparts. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have taught most birds how to avoid becoming someone else’s next meal. With several exceptions, most of our pet birds are considered prey species. As prey, birds have learned that any sign of weakness or illness places them at risk of being killed or passed over by a mate. By the time most birds show obvious signs of illness (on the bottom of the cage), a human in a similar state would be admitted to the ICU. Pay attention to your birds. Spend time watching them. Most birds will put on a show of normal behavior when an owner first enters the room, but over time will slip back into a puffed up ball of feathers on their sleeping perch in the middle of their normal play time. Become familiar with their routine and schedule. Many astute owners have caught an illness in their pet bird early because of a subtle change in voice or change in activity pattern. Also expect that a bird with mild signs at home may act perfectly normal at the vet’s office.

When to go to the vet?

When a bird exhibits changes in normal daily patterns, changes in voice or feather condition, pay close attention. If there is no explanation for the change: overnight guests, a change in the house, molting, etc…it is time for a check up. Changes in appetite or drinking can be the result of disease or stress, and again, if there is no explanation, check with your vet. Droppings are another important indicator of health or illness. Normal bird droppings have two components, the feces or solids and the urine or liquid. Changes in color or consistency can result from hormone levels, dyes in pellets, color from food (berries), and stress or illness. Dehydration results in a decrease in urine production and a dark black to brown stool. Even though it is not a lot of fun, become familiar with size, number, and color of your birds droppings so you will notice changes. The following are a partial list of when to go to the veterinarian:


  • Change in or loss of voice
  • Decrease in activity
  • Sleeping more or during abnormal times
  • Changes in appetite
  • Sneezing, coughing, wheezing, or clicking with breathing
  • Fluffed up feathers
  • Drooped wing(s)
  • Change in feather condition or color
  • Weight loss
  • Sitting on the bottom of the cage
  • Changes in dropping color, number, or consistency
  • Tail bobbing with breathing
  • Lumps or bumps
  • Bleeding
  • Discharge from eyes or nostrils
  • Regurgitation or vomiting
  • Droppings clinging to vent
  • Tissue protruding from vent
  • Swelling of feet or other body part
  • Open beak breathing

Preparation: toweling, perching, confinement, handling

Every bird in a pet home should be familiar with toweling. Although under normal circumstances your bird may be easily handled and examined, birds that are frightened or in pain should not be trusted. A towel provides a safe way for you to restrain your bird while preventing injury to yourself and your pet. Toweling is a skill and must be practiced at home so when the need arises, both you and your bird are familiar with the procedure. If you teach your bird that a towel is nothing to be afraid of and associate it with pleasurable experiences (bath time, peek-a-boo, wrestling), when an emergency presents itself the towel will help to calm and reassure your bird.

A second skill that birds should know is how to remain on a perch.  This skill provides us with a means of taking a bird from room to room with us, a means to allow the bird to be near us without being directly in physical contact with us, a place from which to start training sessions, a place to administer medication, and a place to get a weight. By teaching a bird to entertain itself on a perch we can prevent the development of Velcro-bird syndrome, which down the road can lead to feather picking, mutilating, chronic egg laying, screaming and other undesirable behaviors. Although birds were initially imprisoned by humans to be looked at and not touched, time has taught us that this is not an acceptable relationship. Time must be taken to develop boundaries, basic skills, respect, and trust with our birds. This will not happen overnight, but over time will provide both you and your bird with a more enjoyable relationship.

Thirdly, your bird must be comfortable or at least accepting of confinement. Hopefully, we will all live with our birds without illness or injury or extended absence, but for such long-lived species this is an unreasonable expectation. If your bird has a travel cage or carrier and is accustom to car rides, this not only provides a safe means to transport them to the vet’s office, but also to the park for a picnic, on vacations, to evacuate in the event of a hurricane, or to visit an owner in the hospital. It is well known what can happen to a human without a seatbelt during a car accident. Apply that same trauma to your bird…please confine your bird during car rides. Once arriving at the location, please continue to confine or harness your bird. While your bird may never leave your arm at home, will it remain put when a screaming child runs by or a dog jumps towards it?…please confine your bird until you are in a room and a controlled situation. Tragedy is best avoided with thorough planning. Finally, should your bird ever require hospitalization, it will most likely be in a smaller incubator (similar in size to a carrier). This confinement in a strange place will be stressful, if your bird has not been taught that small spaces are okay.

What’s in an exam?

There are different types of exams for your bird. They are based on the purpose of your bird (pet or breeder), health of your bird, size of your bird, and financial consideration. The following is a brief over view:

  • Pre/Post-purchase: an exam to determine if there are any potential health concerns before a bird is bought or sold. Can include a gram stain, CBC (complete blood count), chemistry (serum chemistry profile), viral screening, and physical exam. This exam is based on the health history of the bird and what type of home or aviary the bird originated from or is going to.
  • Yearly exam: an exam preformed annually to survey the over-all health of a bird. Ideally includes a gram stain, physical exam, a CBC, and a chemistry. A yearly exam may be tailored with more specific tests if there is a history of disease.
  • Illness or injury: an exam preformed to evaluate the presenting complaint and to try to determine the cause or illness. This exam can include any of the tests we will discuss and is extremely variable based on the presenting complaint and the health of the patient.

To completely evaluate the patient there are varying parts of a medical exam. First, a history is taken: how long has the bird been in the home, with how many birds, what is the diet, how long has the presenting complaint been present, and many more questions. An important part of this history is the use of the bird. While many birds are in pet homes, there are some birds that “work” for a living. Whether that “work” is a parrot performing tricks at the local amusement park, a falcon that hunts from the glove, or a bird in a production or breeding facilities, the general demands on these birds are different than those of our pets. This extends into the medical approach to these individuals, because a simple less painful procedure to repair a fractured bone may work for a perch potato, but a trained Hollywood “athlete-bird” may be better served by a more difficult procedure to restore full athletic use of the bone. After the history is finished, a thorough physical exam is performed.  This exam includes, but is not limited to, the evaluation of skin, feathers, beak, eyes, nails, listening to the heart and lungs, feeling the abdomen, getting a body weight, looking in the ears, in the mouth, in the nostrils, and examining the droppings. Once the physical is completed then other tests may be taken. The following is a limited description of the testing:

  • Gram stains: a swabbing is taken from the throat and droppings. Samples are rolled onto microscope slides and stained with two types of stain. Gram-positive bacteria hold stain and show a dark blue color. Most normal flora in a bird is gram positive. Gram-negative bacteria lose the dark stain and hold the second stain, which is pink or red. If more than 10% of bacteria are gram negative, this is considered abnormal. Most gram-negative bacteria may cause infection in birds. Gram stains are a screening tool, but do not pick up all types of infections
  • Culture: a swabbing of a particular area is rolled onto a culture plate and grown out to determine the exact type of bacteria. Next, the bacteria are grown on a plate with antibiotic discs. The disc with the largest ring of area without bacteria growth indicates which antibiotic is most effective to treat the infection.
  • CBC: a Complete Blood Count, which counts and evaluates the type and number of red and white blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the body and carbon dioxide waste away from the cells. White blood cells are soldiers for the immune system. Both cell types can change in size, shape, color, and number in response to various insults.
  • Blood Chemistry: a serum chemistry, which evaluates different chemicals in the serum or liquid portion of the blood. Used to detect organ or metabolic problems

Liver: AST, GGT, Bile acids                               Kidney: uric acid, electrolytes

Muscle: CK, some AST                                       Mineral: calcium, phosphorus

Electrolytes: sodium, potassium, chloride              Glucose: blood sugar

  • Endoscopy: the insertion of a pencil size tube containing a camera, into the air sac to directly visualize the organs within the abdomen and chest. Biopsies and cultures can be taken of various tissues. Sex can be determined. Some minor surgical procedures are starting to be done with endoscopy.
  • Radiographs: x-rays can be taken to evaluate the size and shape of organs. They are also good at detecting broken bones, metal foreign bodies, larger tumors, and changes in the silhouette of organs.
  • Viral Testing: generally done on blood. A common test is called PCR and it looks for the DNA of various organisms. Polyoma, PBFD, PDD, and Chlamydophila* (* chlamydophila is not a virus but frequently behaves similar to a virus because it lives inside host cells) are the most common organisms screened.
  • Histopathology: microscopic exam of tissue for changes in cell structure, agent, or agent specific changes. Often preformed on surgical biopsies or necropsy samples to determine specific diagnosis. Necropsy or autopsy is a difficult decision to make, however, at times learning about the cause of death may help other pet birds in the home or help your veterinarian learn so we may better help future patients.


It used to be said that if a cage was large enough for a bird to extend its wing and not touch either side, the cage was large enough. Would you like your bedroom to only be as wide and as long as your arms reach? The species and that species’ energy level heavily influences the cage size requirements. Another key aspect of cage size is the amount of time a bird is confined to the cage. An individual who works out of the home and has their bird out for hours each day can get buy with a smaller cage than an individual who works away from the home and only has their bird out for short periods. Individual bird personality also influences cage size requirements. For example a conure generally needs a larger cage in proportion to its size than an amazon because the conure tend to be extremely active while many amazons are less physically active.

Once the sizing is settled one must consider where to place the cage in the home. Again the species personality will influence this location. Some birds thrive on being the center of attention, while others prefer to be a quiet by stander. In general we recommend that your birds cage be in a room in your home in which you spend a significant portion of you time (living room, family room) or that a perch or play-stand be provided. Some birds enjoy the view out a window, while others fret over imaginary predators lurking in the bushes outside the window. You may need to try several locations before you find the one that will work with your bird and your lifestyle. When placing your bird’s cage remember drastic, quick temperature changes are not healthy for them, such as in front of a heat duct or air conditioner vent. Healthy birds can easily adapt to gradually changing temperatures, but drastic shift should be avoided.

Many birds need 10-12 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Some individuals will tolerate activity around them once they have gone to bed on their sleeping perch…others will not. A solution to this problem is having a nighttime cage in a quiet room where the bird can be put to bed and still allow the humans to stay up late. As with people there are some birds, which, do not need as much sleep or that prefer to stay up later (or get up earlier). As for covering birds at night, it is not necessary to keep them warm, however, certain individuals do feel more secure when their cage is covered.

In general cage papers should be changed several times a week to daily, depending on the size of the pet and the amount of waste they produce. Corncob or shredded paper bedding do not make good substrates because they are difficult to clean and provide a breeding ground for insects.

Cage furniture such as perches, toys, swings, and platforms should be cleaned frequently. Not only do bird drop feces on these objects, they also use them to clean their beaks of food material, which can quickly lead to bacterial or mold growth. An easy and safe means of cleaning furniture as well as feed and water cups is a one to twenty bleach solution. First clean the objects of debris then allow them to soak in the bleach solution for 10 minutes, rinse thoroughly, and allow to air dry(this may fade or stain some colored objects). Food and water cups should be cleaned at least once daily (more frequently with birds that dunk their food in their water). An dirty water bowl is the perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to grow.

Grooming and Bathing

For most pet parrots grooming is a convenience for their human owners. With the exception of nail trimming, most birds do not require beak trimming or wing trimming. Because captive birds do not use their nails as much as their wild partners they do need trimming if they over grow. Occasionally, for similar reasons their beak may need groomed.

It used to be thought that all birds should be wing trimmed for their own safety. Currently, it is believed that most birds benefit from having full flight. Again every case must be evaluated individually, considering the species (are they prone to feather damaging behavior?), the amount of variables in the home environment (children, pets, open doors), and the personality of the parrot (aggression, insecurity, behavior problems). If your bird’s environment and personality is such that flight can safely be allowed, we strongly encourage you leave your bird’s wings untrimmed. A parrot in flight is amazing to watch. However, when trimming is required we recommend conservatively trimming both wings to provide an even controlled descent without lift.

Finally most of our parrot species come from tropical environments where rain is an everyday occurrence. To keep your parrot happy and the feather healthy we believe daily or at least bi-weekly bathing is critical. Many birds will bath on their own, however, we can encourage them by misting them with warm water in a clean spray bottle, the sprayer in the kitchen sink, or a perch in our shower.

One last point, we recommend removal of all bands, unless required for identification purposes. Bands are placed on birds for identification through the sale and historically quarantine process. Open bands (incomplete circle) indicate the bird was captured from the wild (importation was halted in 1992). The letters and numbers on these bands designate the quarantine station and number identity of the parrot. Close band (complete circle) indicate a captive bred bird. Generally the band includes state of origin, year of hatch, initials of breeder or aviary, and bird identity number. Once birds are in a home, we recommend removing the band. If permanent identification is needed a microchip is much safer and cannot be altered.


Many people believe birds eat seed and they do. Unfortunately, birds fed a diet composed totally of seed are NOT receiving a balanced diet. Many seed diets are high in fat and low in vitamin and mineral content. Fat contributes to both health and behavior problems in pet parrots. A more balanced alternative is formulated pelleted diets. These allow a known amount of fat, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to be fed to the birds. The addition of fresh vegetables, fruits, and grains will help better approximate a wild birds diet. Most parrots will preferentially eat high fat foods because they are calorie dense and would provide more energy per volume to a wild bird who has to “work” for a living.

Several strategies can be employed to switch birds to a new diet. First any individual being transitioned to a new diet should be in good health. Changing a sick or stressed bird’s diet will only compound the problem and could be life threatening. Next most birds will need to have restricted access to their current diet. For instance when switching away from seed, determine how much seed your bird eats in 24 hours (preferably by weight, but a measuring cup or measuring spoon set will also work). Decrease that amount by 25 percent or one quarter. Take the remaining 75 percent and allow the bird access to the measured seed volume for two to three short periods per day (generally 15-20 minutes). At all times the bird should have free access to water, the new diet (pellets and fresh food). Over time the bird will begin to sample the new diet. Make sure that the bird has no access to the old diet during peak eating times. For most birds this is first thing in the morning and when the humans are eating. Introducing new fresh foods can be done by sharing or by handing food you are nibbling directly to your bird. It is not recommended to allow your bird to eat directly from your plate as it encourages inappropriate behavior and exposes your food to contamination from your bird.  In the wild flock birds do not eat what they are not familiar with unless they see other members of the flock eating it. This is how young birds learn what is safe and what is not safe to eat. Several important ways to monitor your bird during this transition are to keep a daily weight chart (a loss of greater than 10 percent body weight means its time to check with your veterinarian) and also monitor number and color of droppings (if droppings become black or very dark green it can be a sign of too little food).

Overview of Disease :


A virus is a particle of genetic material that gains access to a cell and uses that cell to reproduce itelf. In most viral diseases there are three outcomes. One, the animal is exposed to the virus and its immune system eliminates it before it causes illness. Or two, the animal becomes infected with a virus, develops signs of illness, and its immune system eliminates the virus. Or three, the animal becomes infected with or without illness but does not eliminate the virus, and remains infected for life. Quarantining individuals that test positive for 60-90 days and retesting them will help sort out persistently infected birds. The most common viruses in pet avian patients are Polyoma, PDD, PBFD, Papilloma, and Herpes virus. A brief summary is presented:

  • Polyomavirus: or fledgling disease, results in sudden death (frequently of fledglings) and unexplained bruising. New World species including conures, macaws, and budgies seem most susceptible. Vaccination is available, but it is recommended for situations where susceptible populations are mixing (pet stores, bird fairs).
  • PDD: proventricular dilitation disease or Avian Bornavirus, results in a complex variety of signs. The two main forms are characterized by gastrointestinal and or neurologic signs. Some birds can live for years with this disease, others die rapidly from associated complications. There are some individuals that appear to never develop signs of the disease but maybe able to spread it to uninfected individuals. It appears close contact is required to pass the virus to another bird. At this time there is no vaccine available.
  • PBFD: pcittacine beak and feather disease, a Circovirus that produces abnormal beak and feather growth. Birds ultimately die from immune deficiency. Old World birds such as African greys, cockatoos, and cockatiels seem most susceptible.
  • Pacheco’s: herpes virus that results in sudden death and liver inflammation. It is most common in New World species such as macaws, conures, and amazons.
  • Papilloma: herpes virus, which produces excessive tissue growth in the mouth and cloaca. It is transmitted through reproductive contact and in some individuals may develop liver cancer. New World species are most susceptible including macaws and amazons, but can be seen in African grays.


Please review the notes under gram stains. One of the most talked about bacterial infections is Chlamydophila. This is an intracellular bacteria, which can be transmitted to humans and other mammals. In birds it produces upper respiratory signs and frequently is associated with liver inflammation. This produces discharge from the nostrils and eyes, and through liver compromise, turns the droppings fluorescent green. New World birds are most susceptible including amazons, cockatiels, and parakeets. Treatment is possible, but usually requires weeks of medication.  While it is contagious to humans, those that are immune compromised (infants, geriatric, immune disease) are most at risk. There are many, many types of bacteria that cause variable infections, thankfully general hygiene procedures discussed under husbandry can prevent their occurance.


The two most common fungi in birds are Candida and Asperiligosis. Candida or yeast generally cause infection in the gastrointestinal tract. They are generally not life threatening, but can be irritating to individuals and often may be difficult to completely clear. Asper is a common respiratory fungus that is found throughout our environment. It generally develops as a secondary disease, but can become life threatening. It is sometimes difficult to treat and may require extended hospitalization for intravenous injections. It is more common in African grey parrots because of their smaller tracheal size as it compares to their body size. Fungal infections are generally slower to develop than bacterial infections and therefore require a longer treatment to cure.


A parasite is an organism, which lives within or on another organism drawing nutrition and shelter from the host. Parasites are uncommon in most indoor pet birds. Giardia is a single celled parasite that lives in the intestinal tract. It is more common in small birds such as cockatiels. Scaly face mites are external parasites that live on the skin around the face and nail beds. They are most common in budgarigars, finches, and canaries


Trauma can result in many injuries from loss of a beak, to lacerations, to broken bones. Other than small cuts and bumps, your veterinarian should be contacted for advice. The most common injuries are a broken blood feather or a broken toenail. Both can be treated with styptic powder (flour or corn starch will work but slower) and three minutes of direct pressure. If this does not stop the bleeding, and you are unable to get to your veterinarian pull the feather (grasp at the base with needle nose pliers and pull with a firm twisting motion) or trim the nail and apply styptic and another three minutes of pressure. While pulling a feather could result in the formation of a feather cyst or deform future growth, it is possible for a bird to lose a significant amount of blood in left untreated.

Lameness can result from something as simple as a sprained toe to something as serious as a broken bone. If the lameness is mild and there is no bleeding, confine the bird to a small cage for 12-24 hours. Your veterinarian should be immediately contacted if any of the following occur:

  • Bleeding does not stop within three minutes of applying direct pressure
  • The end of a bone is visible (cover with a clean bandage)
  • If any organ is exposed (including the crop)
  • A limb is obviously deformed or lameness does not start to resolve in 24 hours

First aid kit

Veterinarians phone number and backup               Styptic powder

Gauze pads                                                        Clothe tape

Vet wrap                                                           Non-adherent dressing

First aid cream or triple antibiotic cream               Eye irrigation solution or saline for contact lenses

Nail trimmer                                                      Scissors

Hemostat or needle nose pliers                             Masking tape

Towels                                                              Hospital cage (sweater box, small cage)

Heat lamp (ceramic or red)                                  Carrier (envelope with brief medical history)

Contact information and book list*

Good Bird Book, Heidenreich. 2004 ISBN 1895270278

Sally Blanchard’s Companion Parrot Handbook, Blanchard. 1999. ISBN 096712980X

My Parrot, My Friend, Doane and Wualkinbush. 1994. ISBN 0876059701

The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship, Burger. 2001. ISBN 0679463305                          The Association of Avian Veterinarians               a site with detailed information about wild parrot species

Behavior                       Barbara Heidenreich, avian behaviorist and magazine               articles on birds and behavior   a site newsletter with lots of behavior information                        a site newsletter with lots of behavior information                        a site with lots of parrot information        and behaviorists     a cockatoo breeder with information on cockatoo specific problems                       an eclectus breeder with information on eclectus specific problems

Nationally recognized rescue groups with great link sites                         The Parrot Education and Adoption Center          The Gabriel Foundation                       The Oasis