In my previous “Tips for Bird-keepers”, I focused mainly on day-to-day care of your birds and ensuring that both they and you can cope during this Covid-19 “lockdown”.
On each occasion I have mentioned avian health but have not gone into any detail. In this blog I want to expand on the question of what to do if one or of your birds appears to be sick.
Experienced bird-keepers do not need to be reminded that “Prevention is better than cure”. Keep your birds healthy with sound management (hygiene, ventilation), good feeding (including supplements during the current breeding season) and regular, careful, checking and observation of all your stock. Encourage normal behaviour, including bathing.
Supplementary feeding includes the provision of appropriate vegetation picked from the wild. It also provides “environmental enrichment”, keeping the bird mentally and physically active. Preventive medicine!
A cockatiel that looks bedraggled but is in fact very healthy. It has just had a bath – always a tonic!
Another part of preventive medicine is to have to hand some simple items that can be called upon if a health problem arises. Many bird-keepers will already have put together a small first-aid kit that can be used if a bird needs attention. This should contain simple antiseptic/disinfectant preparations (not antibiotics) for cleaning wounds, appropriate eye-drops, cotton-wool, soft absorbent lint, small scissors and forceps (tweezers), a roll of plaster and items such as cocktail sticks, that can be used as splints to immobilise a broken leg (a fracture) or to help hold a “slipped claw” or similar anomaly in place. Now is the time to supplement the first aid kit by making up some saline solution that can be given, if necessary by hand in a teaspoon or syringe, to any bird that is dehydrated or not drinking. The composition of this saline solution is most important – critical. It should be the same concentration as blood or tissue fluid; that is 0.9%. This formula equates with one gram (1g) of common salt, sodium chloride (NaCl), in 100 grams (100g = 100ml) of water. If you can’t make up this solution confidently and accurately, don’t use it: stick to ordinary water.
Remember, as pointed out in a previous “Tips for bird-keepers”, that the provision of warmth and fluids is always the first vital step in treating sick birds, this applies to patients ranging from those with minor signs of ill-health (such as fluffing-up of feathers, mild diarrhoea), to more immediately serious problems (e.g. egg-binding).
It’s also important to remember that subdued lighting helps to quieten and calm birds. This is, however, not so easily achieved on these lovely May days of lengthening daylight. Remember that reducing light intensity must not be done too enthusiastically. A bird needs to be able to see if it is to feed.
A cockatiel enjoys a session in the sunshine. A chance to preen and to benefit from ultraviolet light
Talking to fellow fanciers is also a good thing. Others with experience of nursing birds may be able to talk you through your problem.
What, then, about the bird that very definitely needs veterinary treatment? To paraphrase the Queen’s comment about Easter “Access to vets is not cancelled this year”. Indeed, veterinary surgeries have been listed as an exception to coronavirus pandemic restrictions requiring businesses to close. Veterinary professionals can continue to work but must only provide urgent treatment and emergency services, offered in a manner that avoids all unnecessary contact, maintains a safe physical distance, and ensures that only those animals that absolutely need to be are seen face-to-face.
Practising veterinary surgeons are therefore still expected to offer the public a 24-hour service, or to recommend someone else if they cannot provide this themselves. In other words, there should always be a vet to whom you can talk on the telephone, even if you cannot visit the surgery. If you don’t have a veterinary surgeon of your own, consult the internet (if necessary, get a younger or more computer-wise member of the family to help you) and go to the webpage of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) https://www.rcvs.org.uk/home/ and search under “Find a Vet”
In the light of the Covid-19 outbreak, the RCVS has relaxed some of its usually strict rules about the provision of veterinary advice and the treatment of animals. For example, under normal circumstances the RCVS Code of Professional Conduct does not permit veterinary surgeons to prescribe veterinary medicines unless the vet has first carried out a physical examination of the animal. This requirement has temporarily been suspended and, instead, a veterinary surgery can advise and even prescribe “remotely”. In other words, the vet does not necessarily have to examine your bird physically. Many veterinary practices remain “open” to see patients, but access is not always easy in the present lockdown and, in any case, some bird-keepers may be unwilling or unable to get the patient to the practice because this may cause stress.
Many vets, like human doctors, are now giving much of their advice by telephone. This also applies to avian specialists, who again are listed on the RCVS website to which reference was made earlier. Sometimes, if circumstances and technology permit, the veterinary practitioner or specialist is asking for photographs – or, better still, asking to see video clips of the sick animal. Such photos or videos - on-screen - also help give the vet a better idea of the bird’s environment (the interior of the bird-room, for example) and other background information. It may even be possible to have a video conference, using skype or zoom, with the vet and/or a knowledgeable veterinary nurse (RVN) in the practice.
Bird-keepers should take advantage of these new Covid-driven arrangement to build a closer relationship with the veterinary profession. Vets can learn from you, you from them. A team effort is needed. Young vets, in particular, are keen to expand their knowledge and experience. This will help your bird(s) – and hopefully lead to better care of avian patients in years to come. If you want to know more about how bird-keepers and vets can work together, consider borrowing or buying a copy of the book “Captive Birds in Health and Disease”, written by my wife and myself and published in 2003, but still very relevant to avian health and welfare. We wrote it to encourage closer collaboration between bird-keepers and veterinary surgeons; the emphasis is on maintaining health and preventing disease rather than treating ailments.
"Captive Birds in Health and Disease”, a book written to foster closer links between bird-keepers and veterinary surgeons.
If one of your birds dies, it is possible to have a post-mortem examination performed. Your vet can advise.
These are difficult days and talk of ill-health are constantly in the air. Hopefully, this won’t extend to you or your birds, but as HM Government would say, it is important to “Stay Alert”.
I am grateful to Scarlett Delacroix, Laney Davidson and Sarah Pellett MRCVS for their help and kindness in providing photographs.
John E Cooper FRCVS
Veterinary Advisor to Haith’s.