a.k.a. “Hormonal Behavior”

What you will read below has not been proven scientifically, so I have few resources of that nature to offer you to substantiate what I am about to say. However, my own anecdotal experience, as well as that of other respected professionals and the experiences of my clients, have convinced me of the veracity of the information in this post.

Those of us who live with adult companion parrots are familiar with behavior changes that occur at certain times of the year or in response to certain activities in which the parrot participates. We have collectively labeled these changes as “hormonal” behavior.

What is “Hormonal” Behavior?

The behaviors that typically result from this turned on reproductive desire include intense bonding with one person in the family, cavity-seeking behavior, paper shredding on the bottom of the cage, loud demanding vocalizations, and fierce territoriality (resource guarding). Parrot owners often initially consider it cute when their parrot wants to be with them constantly and becomes obsessed with getting into dark drawers or closets, but over time these behaviors become problematic.

While these behaviors may happen only seasonally in the beginning, they can progress in some individuals until they occur year round. In many cases, they lead to problems such as feather damaging behavior, self-mutilation, regurgitation of food, masturbation, chronic egg-laying, egg binding and cloacal prolapse. It is not unusual for these behaviors to surface when the parrot is well into adulthood, often coming as a surprise to the owner who has come to take for granted more stable conduct.

What Is Not Hormonal Behavior?

I want to make one thing clear before we go on. There is a lot of misbehavior that gets blamed on “hormones” that actually is the result of a lack of behavioral guidance and training.

For example, screaming for extended periods and biting are not “hormonal” behaviors. While a parrot may reach a more heightened state of arousal during periods of increased hormone production, which may predispose him to aggressive or excessively loud behavior, this does not automatically evolve into a behavior problem simply because of the presence of reproductive hormones. These problem behaviors instead reflect a lack of appropriate training and need to be targeted as such to effect a resolution, in addition perhaps to making the changes suggested below.

Our Lack of Preparation

Our decades of experience living with dogs and cats has done little to prepare us for the realities of living with parrots. We typically neuter dogs and cats. Further, having relatively short life spans, they do not change their behavior much once adulthood is reached.

We have yet to discover a safe way to neuter parrots en mass. Further, many parrots change their behavior with each year. I would be a rich consultant if I had a dollar for every client who has said to me, “Well…he never did that before!”  The bird you have in your home today is likely not the bird you had in your home a year or two ago.

I believe that we don’t quite yet grasp the ramifications of this for parrots in our homes and our responsibilities for guiding our parrots’ behavior so that these problems can be prevented.

Here is what we fail to understand: The scarily intelligent and reproductively driven adult parrot will be a genius at teaching us to provide for him the conditions that will support increased production of reproductive hormones.

We also fail to grasp how the conditions we provide in captivity differ from those in the wild. Since most of our parrot species are not yet domesticated, we must take this fact into consideration.

According to Dr. Fern Van Sant, there are two key issues that have lacked consideration. First, parrots in the wild are normally “turned off” or reproductively inactive when out of breeding season. Second, the “surroundings of abundance” which we provide in captivity often have the effect of keeping companion parrots reproductively active throughout the year. “As pets, the conditions of abundant food, bonded owners, comfortable cages and considerable physical contact seem to initiate breeding behaviors that become long term drives. Without the naturally occurring environmental pressure of dwindling food supplies, changing conditions, and competition for resources that limit breeding behavior in wild populations, breeding behaviors and hormonal drives persist unchecked.” (Van Sant, 2006)

A Serious Problem

This is a very serious problem. It is exceedingly difficult to control this phenomenon, once the parrot enters this physiological and behavioral tunnel. The complex of behaviors driven by reproductive hormones is at the heart of the vast majority of parrot behavior problems. It frequently leads to the parrot losing his home. For the parrot, it likely results in a constant state of frustration and chronic stress.

Getting your parrot out of this “hormonal tunnel” will require consistent effort over months and years. However, if you make the changes indicated herein, you will see slow and steady improvement.

These are the primary triggers that I believe sponsor this increased production of reproductive hormones:

  • Diet
  • Existence of a pair bond
  • Close physical contact and inappropriately affectionate interactions with the human
  • Ability to engage in cavity seeking and “nesting” behavior
  • A controlled environment lacking challenge

Trigger #1: Diet

I have a question on my behavior consulting intake form:  What are your bird’s favorite foods? 

The answers I receive are always the same: seed mixes, tree nuts, peanuts, white rice, mashed potatoes, pasta, grapes, bananas, dried fruit, crackers, bread, pancakes, pastries, peanut butter filled pretzels, French fries, chips and other human snack foods. These foods have a great deal in common. High in fats and/or simple carbohydrates, they provide more energy to the body. Energy is needed for breeding. Our parrots can show a strong preference for these types of foods, thereby “teaching” us to offer them.

Thus, the types and quantity of the foods you feed your parrots are the first triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. Foods that contain higher levels of fat and simple carbohydrates appear to trigger increased production of reproductive hormones. As Dr. Scott Ford explains in his article Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle, “An overabundance of food, foods high in fat and calories, and too many food choices can all ‘turn on’ your bird’s reproductive desire.” (Ford, S. 2009)

Dietary Action Steps

The best diet for limiting hormone production is one that incorporates appropriate amounts of formulated foods, fresh vegetables, limited whole grains and limited fruit. The foods listed above as parrot favorites should not be fed at all – ever.

The only exception that exists to this rule is that of using seeds and nuts as reinforcers for training. A best practice: Never give a parrot a treat (preferred food) for no reason.

We must also be on the look-out for excessive food consumption. While I believe a good quality pellet is a wise addition to the parrot’s staple diet, some birds will overeat even pellets. Look for your manufacturer’s recommendation about the correct amount to feed as a starting point. 

Know what your bird is actually eating. Remember the relative size of the creature you are feeding; your parrot probably only weighs one or two pounds at the most.

Trigger #2: The Pair Bond

Although some variation exists among species, parrots in the wild display a tendency toward social monogamy  – the primary breeding unit consists of one female and one male.

Therefore, companion parrots have a tendency to bond with one person or bird or animal within the home. Unfortunately, a pair bond between the parrot and one owner is the standard in most companion parrot homes.

The presence of this pair bond stimulates cavity-seeking behavior and increased aggression, which results from resource guarding around the preferred human. In other words, if another person or animal comes near the preferred human and parrot when they are together, biting of one or the other is likely to result. This type of aggression often worsens as the years pass.

A pair bond appears to be stimulated and maintained primarily through time spent physically close. Two parrots will often form a pair bond if kept in the same cage. Pair bonds between the owner and her parrot result from cuddling, allowing the parrot under the covers or down the shirt, petting down the back and under the wings, in addition to time spent perching on the shoulder, lap, knee or chest.

How do you know if your parrot has formed a pair bond with you? You may observe masturbation in any location and regurgitation when near you. The bird may scream non-stop when you leave the room. He refuses to perch independently and constantly seeks out shoulder time or other close contact. Egg laying may also result.

It is always best to prevent the formation of a pair bond in a companion parrot:

  • If you have two parrots who get along, keep them in two separate cages, while still allowing them to enjoy a communal play area. (This is a best practice for many reasons.)
  • If you have recently adopted a parrot, use great care in how you interact. Keep him off of your shoulder and reward him for perching independently. Keep your hands off of him, except for occasional head scratches (if he enjoys those).

If your bird has already formed a pair bond with you, this can be evolved over time:

  • Gradually reduce the amount of time the bird spends perched on your body by providing several appropriate perches and teach stationing so that he can still perch near you (but not on you).
  • As you decrease your time spent physically close, focus on training instead – teach targeting and other fun behaviors, as well as those needed for husbandry. Over time, he will come to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Walk away if he regurgitates for you or displays in other ways sexually – be friendly but clear that these behaviors are unwelcome.
  • Keep your hands off the bird! No cuddling or petting down the back. (Brief head scratches occasionally are the only appropriate physical contact. )

Trigger #3: Cavity Seeking

Many adult parrots, especially if they have a pair bond, begin to display cavity-seeking behavior. They will attempt to access closets, drawers, bookcases – any spot in the home that is at least partially enclosed.

Spots with less light around the home become more fascinating. African Greys may show a preference for hanging out in the bathroom for long periods. Your parrot may want to play inside of large cardboard boxes or brown grocery bags. Many parrots begin to roam the floor to access spots under furniture, in corners, and other spaces that are small and enclosed. Small cockatoos and others will dig in the couch cushions.

A parrot will tell you if he’s relating to a particular spot as a potential “nesting site” by the way he interacts with it. He will want to spend extended periods there and may strongly resist coming away from that particular place.

Again, the best solution is prevention. Keep parrots out of drawers and closets. Keep them off the floor by teaching them to station and work on this on a daily basis. Do not allow parrots to hang out in bathrooms in your absence. Do not provide cardboard boxes that your parrot can get inside of. The same advice goes for brown grocery bags. If your parrot displays an intense desire to access a particular spot in the house, prevent access.

Trigger #4: The Controlled Environment that Lacks Challenge

I have never seen any other professional address this as a potential trigger. However, I do believe that a home that lacks “benevolent” challenges will foster more production of reproductive hormones than one in which challenge exists. I do have some anecdotal evidence in the form of one story, as well as ongoing success with clients, to support this.

I once, as a veterinary technician, assisted with the rehabilitation of a budgerigar who chronically laid eggs. We tried Lupron injections. We removed the bird’s favorite toy. We did some training. All without success.

Finally, we made two changes that stopped the egg laying. We put a new object into the bird’s cage every day and began the practice of moving the cage into a different room of the house every day. These were pretty extreme measures, but chronic egg laying was a life threatening problem for this particular patient. And it worked! She went on to live a long, healthy life.

What type of challenges am I recommending? Learning opportunities that take the bird slightly out of his comfort zone:

  • The regular introduction of new toys, perches, and activities. (If he is afraid of new things, acceptance can be taught.)
  • Rides in the car (once you have trained the behaviors of going into the carrier and remaining calm while this is moved).
  • Visits to friends’ homes
  • Regular time spent in an outdoor aviary (not a small cage – the experience is vastly different)
  • Training – teaching new behaviors

Other Interventions: Day Length and Medications

Altering Day Length

There are some species who display increased signs of hormone production as the day length increases. Typically, these are New World parrots – those who originated in the Americas.

This observation has led to the blanket, frequently offered advice to artificially alter the day length the parrot experiences by providing 10-12 hours of darkness each night. However, the effectiveness of this measure is largely misunderstood.

First, it only works with New World parrots – Amazons, macaws, Pionus, etc. Old World parrots (African greys, cockatoos, etc) typically go to nest first as the day length decreases. Thus, providing these species with an increased period of darkness can make matters worse.

Second, this advice often strips the owner of an opportunity to interact socially with the bird at least once a day, which deprives both of training opportunities, which might be more beneficial.

Third, most who try this approach don’t understand that the darkness must be absolute. Simply covering the cage at night doesn’t work, if any light can creep under the cover at any time. Usually the bird must be placed in a separate room that is outfitted with black-out shades so that light can be 100% controlled.

Lupron Injections and Deslorelin Implants

These medications can be helpful, but they too have limitations on their effectiveness. They will help “around the edges,” but will not be appreciably effective unless you also implement the dietary, social and environmental measures in this post. Please consult your avian veterinarian as to whether one of these might be appropriate for an individual parrot. As a technician, I prefer to see their use reserved for extreme cases in which egg binding is a present danger.

A Plan for Prevention

If you are just starting out with a parrot, please take the following advice to heart. It will prevent much heartache for you and will go a long way toward ensuring the highest quality of life for you and your parrot.

  • Encourage your parrot to look to you for guidance, rather than physical affection.
  • Encourage independence.
  • Foster equal social bonds with all family members.
  • Provide plenty of enrichment, frequently.
  • Provide an outdoor aviary.
  • Feed an optimal diet.
  • Train new behaviors.
  • Reinforce stationing.

Thoughts for Your Consideration

Sometimes we can love our parrots a bit too much – often to the point of inhabiting the shifting sands of good sense. Many have asked me if perhaps the parrot doesn’t need a mate and close physical contact, even if breeding is not possible. Often to them, the plan I suggest (as it appears in this post) seems to be one of social deprivation.

Historically, there has been great debate regarding whether animals are more influenced by “nature” or “nurture” – by their biology or their learning experiences. Certainly reflexes, fixed action patterns, and inherited traits influence behavior in our parrots. In layperson’s terms, these are often lumped into one category and referred to as “instinctive behavior.”

Science has proven however, (1) that these are largely modifiable through learning, (2) that learning is necessary for their development, and (3) that learning plays a much larger role in the behavior we see than does genetics. For example, a young parrot may have the urge to fly, but it is only through the practice of flying that skills develop to competency.

So it is with pair bonding and cavity seeking. Sexual urges may exist in our parrots, but these will not become full-blown drivers of behavior unless practiced. Through practice they are reinforced and become ever stronger and more influential on the bird’s behavior.

Companion parrots live happier and healthier lives if never allowed to practice these behaviors. None of my own parrots has formed a pair bond with me and I believe that this is due to my relatively “hands off” approach with them. I interact with them frequently when training, reinforcing desirable behaviors when I see them, giving occasional head scratches, and providing care. Otherwise, we live a pretty parallel existence. They are not allowed on my shoulder. I don’t pet them. I don’t cuddle with them. We are all happier as a result.

References:

Brue, Randal. Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. “Nutrition.” Pages 23-46. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing. 1997

Chance, P. Learning and Behavior, 4th Edition. Pacific Grove: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. 1999

Ford, Scott, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (Date uncertain). Balancing Your Parrot’s Lifestyle. http://www.avian-vet.com/sites/site-2271/documents/asvsa-client%20handouts-balancing%20parrot%20lifestyle.pdf. [Accessed 3 Sept. 2009]

Hoppes, Sharman. DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Orosz, s. DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.  [Accessed 23 June 2018]

Ritzman, T. DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings. [Accessed: 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. (2011) Hormones: The Downside of the Good Life.[Blog] Phoenix Landing Blog. Available at: https://blog.phoenixlanding.org/2011/04/30/544. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. DVM. 2018. Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds – Introduction. [Newsletter] For the Birds DVM. Available at: https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. [Accessed 25 June 2018]

Van Sant, F. 2019. “Hormonal Behavior in Pet Birds, Part One. For the Birds Blog. https://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/hormonal-behavior-in-pet-birds-pt-1. Accessed 8/17/19.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter please visit http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

 

Atherosclerosis: The Hidden Killer

Atherosclerosis is a common disease in companion parrots – one we must all take seriously. If you have ever heard of an older parrot who died suddenly, without apparent cause, there is a good chance that this progressive disease was a primary factor in the demise.

What is Atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is one type of arteriosclerosis.  The word atherosclerosis derives from the Greek words athero, which means “gruel or porridge,” and sclerosis, which means “hardness.” This is a fairly descriptive term for the disease itself, in which cholesterol is deposited onto the sides of arteries, creating hard plaques. Once build-up is great enough, plaques can dislodge; these cause blockages, which lead to heart attack.

It is primarily a disease of inflammation. The more inflammation, the greater the risk of atherosclerosis.Blue and Gold by Engin Akyurt

Birds are more susceptible to atherosclerosis than any mammal, with the exception of humans. “The reported incidence rates in avian species range widely from 1.9% to 91.9%.”(Powers, 2015)

A Confusion of Information

While much is known about atherosclerosis in humans, this information cannot be readily transferred with reliability to birds. Reading through scientific papers about the disease causes consternation and befuddlement. Undeniable conclusions are lacking, although more recent research does point to strong correlations.

Much of the research has been done on bird species other than parrots, such as quail, waterfowl, and chickens. Diagnosis on parrot species who have succumbed to this illness has been conducted on a very mixed population, particularly those kept previously in zoos, who have been maintained under a variety of conditions and fed a mix of diets.

Moreover, the studies that are being done on risk factors that exist for parrots are being performed on the known risk factors for humans and other mammals. There may, however, be other risk factors specific to avian species that may take longer to uncover, such as individual species’ genetics.

Thus, I will warn you that what I write today may well be something I will edit extensively in another five years.  The danger is significant and real for our parrots, so an examination now of what we know is important. However, I have every expectation that some of what you read below may be proved wrong in the future, while additional details will in turn come to light.

Which Parrots Are At Risk?

While we have a very good understanding of risk factors in mammals, this is not so with parrots. But, a few things we do know.

Speciesparrot-2005767__340

It is currently agreed that Amazon parrots, African Grey parrots, quaker parakeets, and cockatiels appear to be at greatest risk. While the disease has been seen in cockatoos and macaws, they are not believed to be quite as susceptible. Many avian species, though not all, have been found to develop atherosclerosis in captivity.

Age

Increased age is a significant risk factor. However, while more common in older parrots, Nemeth states that atherosclerosis has been found in birds aged 1 to 42 years. (Nemeth at al, 2016) It is most common in companion parrots over the age of 10.

Gender

Female parrots have been proven statistically to be at greater risk. Female birds in reproductive mode generally have elevated levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and lipoproteins, as well as calcium, creating greater susceptibility.

Diet and Nutrition

“The inclusion of cholesterol in the diet of birds that consume non-animal protein, even as low as 0.25% of the diet, dramatically increases plasma and serum cholesterol levels.” (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013).

Petzinger also mentions a 2003 paper by Bavelaar and Beynen that found that African grey parrots fed a high-fat diet containing palm kernel oil (saturated fatty acids) had increased cholesterol levels.cockatiel-1213758__340

Petzinger also reports on the findings of yet another study from 2012. In this research, a total of 47 cockatiels who were supplemented with fish oil had lower plasma cholesterol than cockatiels fed flaxseed oil. The conclusion? “Thus, dietary fish oil (and possibly dried algae products) may be more beneficial than oils high in A-linolenic acid on reducing risk factors and prevalence of atherosclerosis in avian species.” (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013)

Another nutrient capable of lowering cholesterol levels in birds is pectin. Pectin is the soluble fiber contained in fruit and some vegetables.

The overall amount of food eaten may also contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. Overeating and obesity are proven risk factors for mammals. This correlation has been studied in birds with varying conclusions.

Physical Inactivity

Every research paper I read reported a presumed link between inactivity and the development of atherosclerosis. However, I could find no evidence that any link between exercise and this illness had actually been researched in avian species.Conure2

Since such a strong link exists between the two in mammals, including humans, it would be foolish to ignore it here and the papers I read did include recommendations for exercise in companion parrots.

Inflammation

The literature on human health names inflammation in the body as a primary cause for the development of atherosclerosis. In fact, inflammation is currently being discussed in what is being called “a unifying theory of disease.” (Harvard Health, 2006) In other words, inflammation is now considered as a significant factor in the development of many chronic human illnesses.

Nevertheless, inflammation as a process “remains a mystery.” (Anft, 2016) However, scientists are beginning to agree that lifestyle choices like diet and exercise may increase (or reduce)  inflammation.parrot eating cracker

Common foods that cause inflammation, which are often fed to parrots, are fried foods and those containing refined carbohydrates (white flours and sugars).

Co-Infection with Psittacosis

The disease Psittacosis, also known as Parrot Fever, is more accurately referred to as Chlamydia psittaci. This disease is still relatively common among companion parrots, especially those who have come from large collections. While researchers disagree about whether there is a conclusive correlation between infection with Chlamydia and atherosclerosis, some studies appear to agree on this.

Signs and Symptoms

Sadly, the most common sign of atherosclerosis is sudden death. In the late stages, there may be symptoms such as weakness, lethargy, neurological  signs (including seizure-like activity), trouble breathing and exercise intolerance. However, these may be less observable due to parrots spending long hours in cages. It is easier to identify exercise intolerance, for example, in parrots who fly.

At this point in time, diagnosis is extremely difficult. Most people will never imagine that their parrots are ill until they lose them unexpectedly, well before their time. With better imaging techniques, as well as a better understanding of identifying factors in serum chemistries, this may change in the future.

What Can We Do?

Atherosclerosis in companion parrots is still not well-understood. Direct and specific correlations from the human health field may only be suggestive. Thus, we do not have well-defined risk factors that would allow us to target flawless measures for prevention.

FoodSkewerMoreComplexSuggested lifestyle changes reported in the literature include “increasing physical activity by providing more opportunities for locomotion and foraging behaviors and decreasing the stress level  in their captive environment. Limiting dietary excess and obesity also seem to be a reasonable strategy, but species-specific dietary needs should be considered.”(Beaufrere, 2013)

“Birds should be provided ample opportunities for exercise and activities such as foraging, and even flight, if considered safe for the bird. Excessive energy content in the food should be avoided, such as excess carbohydrates and fats. Birds should receive regular preventative veterinary care with periodic bloodwork monitoring.” (Powers, 2015)

Diets that contain relatively high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the prevalence of the disease. (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013) Nordic NaturalsNewer research indicates that fish oil may be more effective in this than alpha-linolenic acid, the type of omega-3 found in plants, such as in flax seed oil. Supplementation with fish oil may be an excellent addition to the diets of many companion parrots, but this should not be undertaken without the advice of your veterinarian.

Pectin in the diet has also decreased the occurrence of atherosclerosis. (Petzinger and Bauer, 2013) Pectin is the soluble fiber found in fruit. Too much pectin can result in a decrease in the absorption of nutrients from the intestine, however. Thus, fruit should be fed in moderation for most species.

Reducing the overall amount of food, i.e. not over-feeding, can also decrease the prevalence of atherosclerosis. This  information too, however, could be harmful if implemented to the extreme. Hunger and malnutrition do nothing to improve overall health. It is best to consult with your veterinarian about the quantity of foods to offer.

Suggested Action Steps:

After as thorough a review as I could muster with the research I was able to access, I think the following steps are prudent:

  • Identify an avian vet who specializes in birds and schedule annual visits.
  • If your veterinarian tells you your bird is fat, take this seriously and formulate a plan for gradual weight reduction.
  • Discuss with your veterinarian supplementation with fish oil. (The correct dose is important and should be obtained from your vet.) Nordic Naturals is an excellent choice.
  • If you have a female parrot, do everything you can to minimize triggers for the increased production of reproductive hormones. (You should do this for males too.)
    • Discourage a pair bond
    • Avoid cuddling and other highly affectionate interactions
    • Prevent cavity seeking (getting into closets, boxes, etc.)
    • Feed a low-fat, low-carbohydrate diet013
  • Do not feed foods high in saturated fat (fatty meats, butter, margarine, cheese, coconut oil, palm oil, fried food, or snack foods).
  • Do not feed pasta, white rice, or any foods that contain white flour or sugar and other sweeteners.
  • If your bird eats a seed mix as a dietary staple, convert him to a pelleted diet with supplementation of fresh foods.
  • Avoid overfeeding. Remember the size of the creature you are feeding.
  • Encourage foraging and try to incorporate some physical activity into this.
  • Encourage exercise.
    • Determine whether you and your bird might be a candidate for flight in the home.
    • If not, work to discover ways to encourage as much movement as possible.Green And Red Healthy Food
  • Do feed foods high in pectin, in moderation (apples, pears, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, strawberries, guava, carrots and peas). Apples are especially high.
  • Do feed foods high in omega-3 fatty acids or that are otherwise known to reduce cholesterol (oats, barley and other grains, walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, edamame, almonds, beans, tofu, salmon)
  • Do feed foods that fight inflammation (green leafy vegetables, blueberries, salmon, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, peppers, grapes, celery, ginger, tumeric)

parrot-2960562__340Atherosclerosis is a scary prospect, given what we now know about the susceptibility of our companion parrots. However, I suspect that we have in our hands the tools for prevention, just as people do. Granted, risk factors outside of our control exist, such as age and gender. However, we do have enough information to take action and keep our parrots as healthy as absolutely possible.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant. My passion is helping people with parrots by offering behavior consultations and publishing information you can trust. To access free resources, schedule a consultation, or subscribe to my newsletter (which is a different publication from this blog), please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

References:

Anft, M. 2016. “Understanding Inflammation.” Johns Hopkins Health Review. Volume 3, Issue 1. https://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/understanding-inflammation

Beaufrere, H.  Dr. Med Vet, PhD, Dip. ECZM, Dip. ABVP. 2013. “Avian Atherosclerosis: Parrots and Beyond. Topics in Medicine and Surgery.http://dx.doi.org/10.1053/j.jepm.2013.10.015https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1557506313001754?via%3Dihub

Bavelaar F. J. & Beynen, A.C. (2004) “Atherosclerosis in Parrots: A Review. Veterinary Quarterly, 26:2, 50-60. https://doi.org/10.1080/01652176.2004.9695168

Nemeth, N.M. , Gonzaliz-Astudillo, V., Oesterle, P.T. Howerth. E. W.  “A 5-Year Retrospective Review of Avian Diseases Diagnosed at the Department of Pathology, University of Georgia”. Journal of Comparative Pathology. Volume 155, Issues 2–3, August–October 2016, Pages 105-120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcpa.2016.05.006

Harvard Health Publishing. April 2006. Harvard Medical School. “Inflammation: A Unifying Theory of Disease. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Inflammation_A_unifying_theory_of_disease

Petzinger, C. PhD, Bauer, J, DVM, PhD, Dip. ACVN. 2013. Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine. Volume 22, Issue 4, October 2013, Pages 358-365. “Dietary Considerations for Atherosclerosis in Common Companion Avian Species. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.jepm.2013.10.013

Petzinger,C BS, Heatley, J DVM, MS, DABVP, DACZM, Cornejo,J BS, Brightsmith, D. PhD; Bauer, J DVM, PhD, DACVN. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. March 1, 2010, Vol. 236, No. 5, Pages 523-528. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.236.5.523

Powers, L. DVM, DABVP. 2015. “The Silent Killer: Atherosclerosis in Pet Birds.” CVC in Washington, D.C. Proceedings.  Published on DVM 360. http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/silent-killer-atherosclerosis-pet-birds-proceedings.

Suspicions and Fears about Avian Veterinary Care

Recently, I received a message from someone asking how she could teach her parrot to climb again after a bout of egg binding. Clearly, a medical problem remained, yet the owner was reluctant to take the bird back to the vet as he had asked. She also posted on Facebook asking for advice.

It would be easy here to lapse into judgment, but that would serve no forward-thinking purpose. The bird’s owner clearly does love her, is trying to get help, and the advice she got on Facebook mirrored my own – get the bird back to the vet. We can hope she did.

Distrust and Suspicion of Veterinarians

I choose to discuss this here because her behavior is not uncommon. images (18)I worked as a technician for avian veterinarians for close to 20 years before retiring this past January. The suspicion, distrust, and fear behind such behavior are actually very typical of a certain percentage of pet owners. This is a problem that deserves examination.

As a technician, I became aware that there is a generalized distrust of veterinarians and their motives among many who live with animals. Some entertain suspicions that the veterinarian is just recommending services in order to make money. They don’t understand the diagnostics and procedures being recommended, so fear they are being taken advantage of. They are frightened of the expense that might be incurred and feel no ability to take control of this if they do take their pet in.

We Distrust What We Don’t Understand

I think it’s normal to suspect what we don’t understand. I hesitate to take my car to a mechanic. I don’t know anything about cars or what routine maintenance and repairs cost, so I wind up being afraid that I will be taken advantage of. I feel that I have no way to protect myself, so I hesitate due to my suspicion and distrust, as well as fear of the potential expense.

Demystifying Avian Veterinary Care

We need to demystify avian veterinary care, so that all bird owners can have a trusting relationship with a qualified avian vet that includes honest two-way communication. Hopefully, this blog post can serve as a beginning towards that goal.

Photo by Hush Naidoo on UnsplashFor those of you who don’t have a trusting relationship with a veterinarian, please read the blog post that I wrote earlier in the year – The Avian Veterinarian: Tips for Choosing One You Can Trust. If you already have a veterinarian you trust, you may not need the information below. However, if your thoughts lurk in the dark places between “I could never afford care for my parrot!” and “My vet always wants to do too much testing!” …then the information below may help.

 Allow me to share what I know to be true about veterinarians,  medical testing and procedures, and how to best take control of your situation when you do seek medical care for your bird.

Veterinary Fees and Motivations

First, I can set to rest any fears you may entertain about being taken advantage of financially. No one becomes a veterinarian to make money. Most that I know live modestly with spouses who provide a second income.

download (5)Even if it were the most lucrative profession on the planet, most would not pursue it.  If you don’t have either diarrhea or vomit on your shoes at least once during the day, you have had to defend yourself against physical harm from the chihuahua whose fear, distrust and suspicion exceeds his owner’s.

Being a veterinarian is difficult and being an avian vet is even harder. Even if a veterinarian’s true passion is avian medicine, he often still has to see dogs, cats, and other animals in order to make a living. Relatively few places in the United States have a large enough population of bird owners to sustain an avian-only practice.

Aside from the daily physical unpleasantness and danger from animals who resist their medical care, the schedule is grueling. Often there is no emergency service available for after-hours care, so avian vets wind up seeing patients on weekends and evenings if clients need them.

To suspect a veterinarian of recommending services photo-1535241556859-780cb9f395f2simply to make money reflects a profound lack of understanding about the nature of the profession. People become veterinarians because they love animals and want to help them (and perhaps because healing animals is more appealing than healing humans).  None of them are getting rich doing it.

Why is Avian Veterinary Care So Expensive?

Avian veterinary care can seem quite expensive, however. Partly, this is just a matter of perception. Clients with medical insurance of their own are used to having liability only for a co-pay and meeting a deductible. This leaves them out of touch with what the real costs are for medical care.

First, care is expensive because veterinarians receive exactly the same amount of training and incur the same amount of debt as human medical doctors. For avian vets, additional training is required not only for themselves, but their staff. Birds are different from any other pet we see and a great deal of study regarding new advances is required to keep up to date.

photo-1516665813681-197673df81eeNext, avian veterinary care is expensive because appointment times must be longer. Most dog and cat owners don’t need a lot of help with diet and husbandry.  Bird owners, however, frequently do need help with diet, husbandry, and behavior issues. Since these things can impact health and the human-animal bond, we must spend the time to address them.

Further, very ill birds may need to be hospitalized in order to perform diagnostics and initiate treatment. This too increases expense. Sick birds can be quite fragile.  The ancient physician’s oath, the guiding principle that permeates every branch of medicine, is “First Do No Harm.” 

Avian medicine is more expensive because we can’t use the same procedures and medications for birds as we do for mammals. We can usually take a radiograph of a dog without sedation. To x-ray a bird requires either conscious sedation or anesthesia. This requires additional staff, equipment, and medications, all of which translate into increased costs.

Last, medications for birds can be more expensive because they often must be photo-1522827585129-4ba47bae3e06compounded. You can’t pill a parrot.  It’s necessary to create a liquid from a tablet or capsule so that it can be administered orally. This takes expertise, time and additional supplies.

These are just a few reasons why avian medical care can seem very expensive.  I hope this explanation will allow you to set aside any suspicions you may have about your veterinarian trying to increase your invoice with unnecessary services. You can instead assume that your veterinarian is well-intentioned.  He wants the best for you and your bird. That fact is bankable.

Finding Comfort in a Foreign Land

For most people, spending time in a veterinarian’s office is about as much fun as spending time in a human doctor’s office. The physical surroundings are strange and too sterile. The vocabulary is foreign and you can wind up feeling stupid because you aren’t familiar with the terms used. Often the staff seems to be in a hurry, which makes asking questions uncomfortable. download (4)It’s easy to doubt the need for something that you don’t understand.

If this has been your experience, it can help to understand more about the standard testing that may be recommended, as well as the procedures that are used to address certain situations. Better familiarity may help you to feel like you have more control of the situation and are better able to communicate with less confusion.

Why are Laboratory Tests Necessary?

A physical exam reveals much valuable information: malnutrition and vitamin A deficiencies, respiratory illness and sinus or eye infections, feather abnormalities, problems with bones and joints, and external parasites.

However, there is even more that this examination will not tell you. This is why your veterinarian will at some point recommend doing some laboratory tests. Unfortunately, there is no one test that will reveal all necessary information to diagnose a problem. It is often necessary to perform a few different tests, each of which provides a piece to the diagnostic puzzle.

Below is a brief description of each, provided so that the next time you go to the vet you will understand more of what is said. Please save this post so that you can refer to it before your next vet appointment. These are the tests most commonly recommended.

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

This blood test looks at red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets (which cause blood clotting). download (8)The test reveals signs of anemia, infection, blood protein levels, inflammation, and the presence of blood parasites. When a bird is sick, the white blood cell (WBC) count will show the level of infection present. If this is very high, the test may need to be repeated after the first round of antibiotics to see if this therapy needs to be continued.

Your veterinarian may recommend this test even if your bird is healthy. Every bird is different. By doing a CBC when your bird is well, your vet then knows exactly what is normal for him. This information will help in the future if he does fall ill.

Serum Chemistry Panel

This blood test is often performed along with the CBC. It evaluates individual organ function and is invaluable for diagnosing liver and kidney disease, as well as diabetes. It provides electrolyte values, calcium levels, and cholesterol levels. This test is especially important for older birds, sick birds and those who have been eating a poor diet.

Fecal Direct Smear and Fecal Flotation

download (9)These tests are usually performed together and may be referred to as a “fecal analysis.”  They reveal the presence of intestinal parasites and any bacterial or yeast overgrowth. The direct smear can be invaluable in diagnosing avian gastric yeast (known previously as megabacteria). Your vet may recommend this when your bird is sick, but also as an initial screening test when you bring a new bird into your home.

Gram stain and/or Culture and Sensitivity

These tests are usually done for the same purpose – that of determining the type of organisms (bacteria and/or yeast) present in both the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. These tests also are valuable for routine screening on well birds, as well as to provide diagnostic assistance when the bird is ill.

Some vets seem to prefer Gram stains, while others find more value in doing a culture and sensitivity.  The Gram stain quantifies the number of organisms present and distinguishes between two different classifications of bacteria. It can also reveal the presence of a yeast overgrowth in the gastrointestinal tract or spirochetes in the oral cavity.

The culture and sensitivity also identifies organisms present, but in addition tests for which antibiotics will be most effective in treating them. This is very helpful in minimizing any guesswork when it comes to choosing a medication.

Cytology

If your bird has a lump or mass, a wound that isn’t healing, or some type of skin irritation, your veterinarian will likely recommend a cytology.  The sample obtained is stained with dye and then examined under the microscope to determine what type of organism is causing the problem.  Only in this way can your veterinarian know which type of medication is needed. In the case of a mass, he will be able to tell if this is malignant.

Radiographs (X-rays)

Radiographs can reveal pneumonia, fungal infections, foreign bodies, and bone fractures or abnormalities.  download (10)They are often recommended as a second stage in the diagnostic process, unless physical signs dictate their immediate need.

I once had a Red-lored Amazon who displayed signs of respiratory illness. We performed a CBC and chemistry panel.  The latter was normal and the WBC count was just slightly elevated, but we treated her with antibiotics anyway.

She initially improved, then worsened again. We took radiographs as a next step, which revealed a large inoperable thyroid tumor that was pressing on her trachea, making it hard for her to breathe.  This one additional test changed our treatment course completely.  It was clear that euthanasia was the best course to prevent further suffering.

These are only a few of the tests commonly recommended. I hope that you will openly discuss with your vet the advantages and disadvantages of anything he thinks needs to be done. Remember that he is on your side and wants the best for you and your bird.

Staging Diagnostics

I have heard many clients express frustration about having paid for initial diagnostics only to have additional testing recommended. While it may be easy to be suspicious in such a case, there is a good reason for this. SickAmazonMost veterinarians will stage diagnostics – they recommend certain steps initially in hopes that these will provide the needed answers. (Most vets are respectful of both clients’ pocketbooks and  patients’ stress levels.) If a diagnosis can’t be determined after these tests, others might be necessary.

If you encounter this situation, please remember that your vet isn’t just trying to get more money out of you. Further, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. This is a standard way to proceed in both veterinary and human medicine.

The Severely Ill Bird

It is also imperative at times to hospitalize a very sick bird in order to stage both diagnostics and treatment. Since companion birds have retained the ability to hide illness, your bird may be sicker than you have realized by the time you do get him to the vet. If this is the case, don’t be surprised if your veterinarian recommends keeping him at the clinic for a day or longer. Again, this isn’t because he is trying to jack up your invoice.

In the case of respiratory illness, your vet may even delay the physical exam until your parrot has been stabilized a bit. He may first just let him rest for a short time in a warm incubator, even providing a little oxygen. He might then administer subcutaneous fluids, putting his patient quickly back to recover from that. After another hour, he might attempt to collect a lab sample. After another rest, he might give an antibiotic injection. It is best to proceed slowly in such cases, so that the needed treatment doesn’t make the bird worse. Again, this very necessary process will translate into increased cost.

Preparing for Expense

You must assume that your bird will require medical care, just as do you and your other pets. If you plan ahead for this, you can take most of the fear out of the experience. Several options exist.

  • Put a small sum aside each month into a separate savings account ear-marked just for avian veterinary care.
  • Consider pet insurance. Unfortunately, the only company in the United States currently offering coverage for birds is Nationwide Bird & Exotic Pet Insurance (formerly known as VPI or Veterinary Pet Insurance).
  • Pet Assure offers a discount card, which may reduce fees at some clinics within their network.
  • Apply for CareCredit. This company offers help financing health care expenses. It is easy to apply for and can be used for your own health care also. Not every veterinarian accepts CareCredit, so check first before making an appointment.
  • If your veterinarian doesn’t offer to go over a treatment plan, which outlines the costs of the day’s services, request one. This process can seem a bit daunting and the most suspicious of us may imagine that this is an arm-twisting exercise. However, nothing could be further from the truth. A treatment plan is an invitation to have a conversation. It’s your chance to ask questions about what has been recommended and to frankly discuss any financial limitations you may have.

Conclusion

Your bird is going to need both routine veterinary care, as well as treatment for injuries and illness. photo-1521866337281-e7207a7159c9Birds always seem to get themselves into trouble in one way or another.

We can act on our love for them by planning for this, both by securing the financial means to pay and learning more about veterinary procedures and processes. Both will allow you to enter into a true partnership with your veterinarian. Remember, he has dedicated his life to you and your birds.

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. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

References

Association of Avian Veterinarians. 2018. “Bird Health Exam.” https://www.aav.org/page/healthexam

Magnuson, M. 2018. “Ask the Vet: Why is Veterinary Care So Expensive?” The Project Pawsitive Foundation: http://www.projectpawsitive.com/2018/01/17/veterinary-care-expensive

Rupley, A. DVM, ABVP Avian. 1997. Manual of Avian Practice. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company.

Sakas, P DVM, MS. 2002. “Understanding Avian Laboratory Tests.” Material was adapted from Essentials of Avian Medicine: A Practitioner’s Guide,  2nd Edition by Peter S. Sakas DVM, MS. AAHA Press. https://nilesanimalhospital.com/files/2012/05/Understanding-Avian-Laboratory-Tests.pdf

Credits: Featured image is by Benny Kirubakaran on Unsplash.