Do you have an avian veterinarian that you trust 100% and to whom you take your birds on a regular basis? If so, you are profoundly lucky and your birds are even luckier. The majority of parrots never see a vet until there is a health crisis. Since it is a crisis, often the time is not there to choose a vet carefully, which decreases the chances of a positive outcome unless you get lucky.
If you don’t have such a veterinarian, you may want to think about the many benefits of establishing and maintaining such a relationship. For one thing, if you have chosen an excellent avian vet, he will recommend annual exams.
The Value of Routine Care
There is no substitute for an annual exam performed by an experienced, skilled avian vet. During such a routine exam, the vet will look closely at your parrot’s skin, ears, eyes, and nares. He will check the choanal cleft in the roof of the mouth. He will check the health of the cloaca. He will listen to the heart. He will weigh your bird and determine a body condition score, so that you know whether your parrot might need to lose some weight or gain some.
He or his knowledgeable staff will take a thorough history so that he knows what your parrot eats, how often he is bathed, and what type of exposure he has. If diet changes need to be made, he will make recommendations and then follow-up on your success. He may even be able to either assist with basic behavior problems or know someone to whom he can refer you.
Five primary benefits accrue from bringing your parrot in annually for an exam:
- Problems can be caught early; you are much less likely to be surprised by a serious health crisis.
- Your parrot learns over the years to tolerate the stress of the veterinary visit and be comfortable in the exam room. Should he ever become ill, the stress of the illness will not be compounded by the stress of his very first vet visit.
- Your vet gets to know you and how you relate to your parrot, giving him the ability to make you more comfortable. He will also be less shy (if he has a tendency in that direction) when making recommendations. Many professionals in the veterinary community feel a bit hesitant about making recommendations that they know are going to cost the client a lot of money. You don’t want a vet to minimize recommendations for diagnostics or treatment, if your parrot really needs them. You can always say “no.”
- You develop a sense of trust in your vet. You know you can trust him not to recommend anything that isn’t really in the best interests of your bird. You’ve also been able to speak to him over the years about affordable care. This makes coming up with a treatment plan much quicker and easier at times of illness.
- Lastly, having to get your parrot into a carrier once a year means that you are perhaps a tad more motivated to provide enough training to maintain compliance with basic requests (step up, step off, stay there, go into the cage, go into the carrier).
Strength of Commitment
There is one more, very important, benefit to you that derives from such a relationship. If the vet and his staff know you and your commitment to your parrot, they will be more likely to move heaven and earth to get your parrot in to be seen should an emergency or illness occur. Perhaps it shouldn’t be this way, but that is the reality. The commitment they show may very well mirror the commitment that you have shown over the years.
I have worked as a licensed technician for two different avian and exotic veterinarians since 2002, although I just retired this past January. The emergency clinic in our town doesn’t have an avian vet on staff. However, they still see birds. Both of the vets for whom I worked did not feel overly confident in that care, so both would come in on days off…take birds home…anything they could do to help an established client with a sick bird. If you do not have such a relationship, you may not get that level of commitment from a new vet. If they are busy that day, you may very well be referred elsewhere.
Finding Your Vet
Finding the right avian vet can be challenging. An avian veterinarian is merely someone who is willing to see birds. Anyone can call themselves an avian vet. Therefore, this task is not as easy as consulting Google. Research is required.
Some believe that finding a certified avian veterinarian is the best choice. Such a vet has obtained certification from the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP). In order to obtain this, veterinarians must have maintained for six years a high-quality, full-time practice experience with birds. They must be able to document a commitment to continuing education of high quality. They must demonstrate the ability to communicate professionally and scientifically by preparing written case reports. They must also pass a very rigorous examination.
Board certification is only one quality that is important. It is without doubt a desirable factor. However, I consider handling skills and length of experience treating birds to be even more important. I once took a young African grey to a board certified avian veterinarian who turned him on his back to listen to his heart, much to the distress of my parrot. On the other hand, the two vets for whom I worked were excellent, amazingly skilled veterinarians, well able to both think outside the box and demonstrate humility and compassion with clients. Neither were board certified.
To search for a board certified avian vet in your area, you can go to the ABVP website.
A more diagnostic attribute when seeking an avian vet is membership in the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV). If a veterinarian is a member and chooses to regularly attend continuing education provided by this organization, he will be staying up to date with recent advances in avian medicine. This is important. The Find A Vet Form on the AAV website allows you to search for a member vet near you.
Ten Characteristics You Want in a Veterinarian
When seeking an avian vet, it helps to know what you are looking for.
- A reception staff familiar with birds and triage. They know the right questions to ask to assess urgency. They understand the basics for patient comfort – they get you into an exam room right away rather than have you sit with your parrot next to the Mastiff with diarrhea. They also have a general knowledge of parrot species. They are able to tell you that your parrot is an Amazon after you have described him as a green bird. (Happens all the time.) I purchased Rosemary Low’s book Parrots in Aviculture to help the receptionists at my clinics. It’s out of print but still available on Amazon.
- Technicians who are skilled at restraint and who take a true interest in you and your parrot. They can determine the existence of and prioritize husbandry concerns to address and perhaps even provide education accordingly.
- The entire staff has a commitment to low stress or Fear-Free veterinary care. The Fear Free organization offers certification to individuals committed to alleviating the fear, stress and anxiety that pets often feel when coming to the vet. They have now finalized their education for exotic vets, which should broaden our ability in the future to locate those vets who work to minimize stress for our birds.
- The veterinarian has excellent handling skills himself. He is able to gain access to the parrot in a way that minimizes stress. He holds the parrot no longer than is absolutely necessary. He understands body language and can assess the parrot’s stress levels and respond accordingly. He prioritizes your bird’s stress over his busy schedule.
- He is a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and regularly attends high-quality continuing education (at least once a year).
- He has lived with parrots himself or at least really seems to like birds.
- He is respectful and answers questions patiently, providing clear explanations.
- He displays a willingness to research and consult other, more experienced, veterinarians when faced with a new challenge.
- There is coverage for emergencies, whether the veterinarian provides the care himself or a referral to another clinic.
- The practice sees at least five to ten birds a week.
I don’t require that my veterinarian have knowledge of behavior problems and their solutions. Behavior is a very complex subject. Many vets have shown a real commitment to learning about behavior. However, if your primary focus is medicine and you have limited hands-on experience solving problems, your knowledge is going to be severely restricted. A better quality in a vet is one who maintains a relationship with and refers without hesitation to an excellent certified behavior consultant.
I don’t ask about fees. One of the clinics at which I worked has a reputation for being “expensive.” We were. Our annual fee review always found we were in the 75% percentile. That meant that we were more expensive than 75% of other clinics in our geographical area.
But guess what? That clinic had up to date equipment. The staff was encouraged to go to continuing education and were paid for it. Our compensation was commensurate with the stress and long hours of the job. And because of this, we all went the extra mile for clients and were able to provide higher quality care. When it comes to veterinary care, you often get what you pay for.
If money is a chronic issue, consider pet insurance. More companies are beginning to cover care for birds. Don’t get coverage for routine care. Make a monthly deposit into a savings account for that. Instead, cover yourself and your bird against the unexpected.
My last bit of advice: Be prepared to travel. I sometimes hear folks complain that their avian vet is too far away. Honestly? Be happy if you have a truly excellent avian vet within two hours of driving. Yes, it’s inconvenient. But, at least you have a truly excellent avian vet. Consider yourself lucky.
Narrowing the Search
After you have located the “avian” vets in your area, make a telephone call to each. Be armed with a list of questions. Call and say, “Hello, I am looking for a new avian vet and I’m wondering if someone there might be able to answer a few questions for me.” The response should be friendly and eager. A good clinic will be happy to take the time to answer any questions for a potential new client. If someone isn’t available at once, you should receive a call back before the end of the day. Once you get someone on the phone, you can ask the following questions:
- How many years has the vet been seeing birds?
- How many birds does the clinic see in a week?
- What percentage of the practice is avian?
- Do you recommend annual exams?
- What types of diagnostics do you recommend annually? Do the recommended tests change with the age of the bird?
- How do you minimize stress for the parrots who come in?
- What provisions do you have for emergencies? Is there an emergency clinic that sees birds or do you make some arrangements for after-hour care?
- Is the veterinarian a member of AAV?
- Does he have any birds himself?
Ask for A Tour
You may not be able to find a clinic who provides desirable answers to all of those questions, but if the results are at all positive, ask if you can come in for a tour. A really excellent clinic will jump at the chance to show you around.
They should, without being asked, take you into every area of the clinic except the doctors’ offices, any quarantine areas, and the surgery. That said, you should at least be able to look through the door into the surgery room.
Schedule a Wellness Visit
If you are impressed by the tour, schedule a get-to-know-you visit. This will allow you to see for yourself the way the staff behaves with your parrot and evaluate their skill at restraint.
If you have any niggling worries while there, try to address them by asking questions. If that attempt is not successful, go onto the next clinic for a phone call and tour.
Your Part in Identifying Health Concerns
It may be that you can’t find an avian vet who meets the criteria suggested above. Depending upon where you live in the world, you might not have access to a vet at all. If so, the suggestions below may be helpful in maintaining your parrot’s health and avoiding emergencies. Even if you do have a great avian vet, you should practice these same things anyway.
First, feed an excellent diet. In order to do so, you have to know what an excellent diet is. Even if you think you do know, conferring with a professional knowledgeable about avian nutrition is the best idea.
Second, weigh your bird weekly at about the same time each day. Weight loss is often the first sign of illness. Remember that your bird is a prey animal and will hide any signs of illness until the very last minute. If he does fall ill, you may not get much warning. By weighing your parrot, you stand a better chance of catching things early. You can use a kitchen scale that weighs in grams, as long as you create a non-slip surface. Alternatively, Old Will Knott Scales sells those made specifically for parrots.
Third, examine his droppings daily. Just use plain newspaper (printed or not) in the bottom of the cage. Learn what normal droppings look like. If you see changes that persist, such as increased urine, unformed feces or urates that change from white to tan or green, you may have a sick parrot.
Fourth, really look at your parrot daily. That may seem silly to say. But, I don’t mean just look at his face when you talk to him. Instead, really look at every part of him. I do this when I’m feeding. Look closely at the feet, the tail and wings, the feathers…any part that you can visualize without actually restraining him. You would be surprised at the number of times parrots are presented for exams with obvious visible problems that have gone unnoticed. Hone your observational skills!
If you think at any time that your parrot may need medical attention but don’t have a vet who sees birds in your area, see if you can find a vet who will consult with an avian vet by telephone. You will likely have to pay for this, but a lot can be accomplished through this type of coaching. It’s better than no care at all.
Please realize that you need to partner with an avian veterinarian. Finding the right one takes work. But, to do so is a gift to your parrot. It will increase his quality of life over the long run. It will give you peace of mind, knowing that you have a skilled professional on your side should illness or injury strike.
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!