Why Your Bird Needs an Avian Veterinarian,
How To Find One, and
How To Tell If You REALLY Have One....

Liz Wilson
Parrot Behavior Consultant

 

Every time I talk to bird owners, I emphasize the importance of having one's pet bird checked out yearly by an avian veterinarian. Indeed, I generally refuse to work with a parrot with a "behavior problem" until after the owner has had the animal thoroughly checked out. After all, many so-called behavior problems are actually manifestations of physical problems.

I also routinely hear stories about veterinarians seeing birds who apparently do not have a great deal of information about them. A recent example would be the parrot who was diagnosed as having allergies simply because he had a runny nose -- but that diagnosis was evidently made by just looking at the outside of the animal. From the owner's description, no diagnostic testing was done. According to the Association of Avian Veterinarians (the AAV), bacterial infections are the most common cause of runny noses in pet birds, NOT allergies, and testing needs to be done identify the specific bacteria and the most effective antibiotic with which to treat it (bacterial culture and sensitivity testing). When I questioned the bird's owner further, she admitted that she didn't think this vet was a "real" bird vet.

Consequently, I am often asked just how a lay person is supposed to find a vet who is knowledgeable about birds, as opposed to a vet who will see birds...and how can a lay person tell the difference.

 

Disheartening Survey
When people get a new dog or cat, most of them know to seek veterinary care for their new pet. According to a survey done in 1989 for PET AGE MAGAZINE, 60% of dog owners and 68% of cat owners have their animals checked by a veterinarian. However, the same survey found that only 7.6% of bird owners take their animals to avian veterinarians, and that 92% of their respondents take their sick birds to pet stores to be treated.

 

Pet Stores and Pet Store Medications
These numbers are incredibly depressing, considering the fact that the average pet store employee has neither the training nor the qualifications to treat sick birds safely and effectively, nor does (s)he normally have access to the most effective drug therapies available. From my own experience, over-the-counter pet store medications at best only mask signs of a problem without correcting the underlying cause -- and at worst, these "drugs" waste valuable time that a sick bird simply does not have. They can also alter the results of proven avian diagnostic techniques such as bacterial culture and sensitivity testing as well as blood tests for chlamydiosis ("Parrot Fever").

Suffice it to say, if your foot is broken, you don't go to a shoe store for treatment. A corollary of this rule is that you don't take a sick dog to a cow vet -- so you shouldn't take

your sick bird to a dog vet.

 

So What Exactly Is An Avian Veterinarian?
Contrary to what many people seem to think, most veterinarians are NOT trained in veterinary school to deal with every species of animal they might come across in private practice. They are required to learn about the domesticated animals (dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.), but not what are termed exotic animals.

Most veterinary schools have a course in avian medicine, for example, but in most cases that course is classed as an "elective." In other words, veterinary students are not required to take it. They take the course only if they have a specific interest in these other types of animals. Also, not all veterinary schools even work with exotics. For example, for the last several years, the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania doesn't treat any species of exotics in their small animal facility in Philadelphia -- they treat only dogs and cats. Consequently, no matter how interested they might be, vet students at the U of P will get no hands-on experience with exotics unless they have spent part of their training in other facilities.

 

A Rare Bird
Avian vets are extremely dedicated individuals who, in their copious free time (joke) have sought additional training in the relatively new field of avian medicine. They are members of the AAV, so that they have access to all the most current medical information about birds. This is really important, since new information is discovered all the time, and we all want our birds to benefit from "state of the art" avian veterinary medicine.

 

So How Do You FIND These Vets?
You can find these specialized veterinarians by asking around, but make certain you are asking reputable sources for information. Do not automatically assume that the veterinarian recommended by a store or breeder is the best vet for your pet. For example, there is a large bird store in my area, and they use to void the guarantee on a sale if buyers took their new bird to the only board certified avian specialist in the area. The store preferred to refer their buyers to area vets who do not apparently always do the diagnostic testing recommended by state-of- the-art avian medicine (as outlined by the AAV). From my own experience, this sort of thing happens when a facility is famous with local avian vets for selling sick birds. (I heard recently that this facility also badmouths me, and that tells me I must be doing something right!)

Reputable sources of information would include educated members of local bird clubs, good avian pet stores, or your local dog and cat vet. You can also phone the national office of the AAV and ask for names of member vets in your area. The AAV Central Office is in FL, and their phone number is (407) 393-8901.

It should be mentioned that most avian veterinarians also care for the other animals defined by veterinary medicine as exotics -- such as reptiles, ferrets, amphibians, etc.. This does not mean they are not avian vets. There are few vets who can survive financially by seeing ONLY birds. There are also plenty of very competent avian vets who also treat dogs and cats.

It is perfectly valid to ask what percentage of a vet's practice is made up of birds. That will tell you how much experience the vet actually has with birds. If he or she only see one or two birds per month, for example, you may wish to go elsewhere. However, if you find a veterinarian who tells you he or she knows little about birds but would like to learn, that's ok. That person generally knows when to ask someone more experienced for help, and most of the top avian vets in the country are accessible by phone. It's the veterinarians who won't admit they don't know that really scare me.

And an extremely important question to ask is "What was the most recent continuing education avian veterinary seminar the vet attended?" This is really important because it will tell you just how committed a veterinarian is to providing the highest quality avian medicine possible. There are plenty of who are happy to take your money to see your companion bird. There are fewer veterinarians that are willing to spend their own money and their own time to attend a continuing education seminar having to do with birds. My own parrot deserves state-of-the-art medicine, and yours does, too.

 

How To Tell If You REALLY HAVE An Avian Vet
So there are lots of vets out there who will "see birds" who have perhaps less knowledge than one might wish. The following are a few tips that may help you differentiate between these people and their more knowledgeable colleagues. You don’t necessarily have a REAL avian vet if:

1. When you call for an appointment for a sick bird, the receptionist tells you it's too cold to bring a bird out. The vet may be experienced with birds, but his or her support staff is not. There are plenty of easy tricks to keeping a bird warm in transit -- which is definitely preferable to allowing the bird to die at home without professional help.

2. When you arrive at the hospital for your appointment and nobody knows what kind of bird you have. If you have a rare species, be fair -- but if they think your cockatiel is a cockatoo, there's a problem.

3. Everyone at the hospital is afraid of your two month-old baby macaw. Many bird vets have difficulty finding experienced avian technicians -- but the vet must know how to handle the animals if his/her support staff does not. If everyone on staff is afraid of a baby, no matter how big, then they have little or no experience with parrots.

4. The veterinarian does not remove the bird from its cage to do a full physical exam. The days of diagnosing from the outside of the cage are gone. To do competent avian medicine, a vet has to do a proper physical exam, and to do that, a vet must TOUCH the animal.

5. The veterinarian does not weigh your bird. Properly equipped avian vets will have an accurate gram scale with which to get weights on their patients every time the bird comes in. A current, accurate weight is not only necessary to properly calibrate a medication dose, but also to help the vet evaluate the overall condition of the animal. From my experience, "Feeling the keel" does NOT provide sufficient information.

6. The veterinarian and/or support staff does not spend considerable time discussing proper diet with you. The most common cause of medical problems seen in avian medicine in this country is STILL malnutrition, therefore proper diet is crucial and should be discussed in depth.

7. They schedule bird appointments every 10-15 minutes. There is a tremendous amount of time involved when seeing birds -- the avian vets I know schedule bird appointments for a minimum of 30 minutes, with most lasting considerably longer than that.

8. They don't think annual check-ups are necessary. The AAV recommends annual visits, especially with very young or old birds. A vet in my area recently told the first-time parrot owner of an unweaned macaw chick that he didn't need to bring the baby back in "unless he thought there was a problem." As far as I am concerned, that is very bad advice. Weaning is an extremely stressful period in a parrot's life, and a brand new parrot owner often doesn't know there is a problem until it has reached emergency status. This is NOT the best thing for the bird!

9. They consider a beak trim to be just as routine as a nail trim or wing clip. Generally speaking, a normal parrot beak does not ever need trimming, whether the bird chews on a "beak conditioner" or not. A change in the growth pattern of a parrot's beak could be indicative of a medical problem.

10. With a new bird check-up, the vet does a physical exam and pronounces the bird "healthy" without recommending any diagnostic testing. A properly done physical exam can tell an experienced avian vet a great deal, but by itself it simply isn't enough. Diagnostic testing must be done to rule out the possibility of latent disease.

 

The Grand Tour
If possible, ask for a tour of the hospital. Schedule one for later if the hospital is busy. If your veterinarian is serious about avian medicine, you should see some basic equipment:

  • a gram scale capable of weighing even tiny birds with great accuracy (already mentioned)

  • incubator cages for hospitalized birds

  • proper diet for hospitalized birds -- not just "parrot mix" and pellets, but vegetables and fruits, also.

  1. Ideally, a separate room for hospitalized birds, away from dogs & cats.

 

Proper Teaching
If your bird is sick and the vet wants you to medicate at home, it is incredibly important that you should be properly taught how to accomplish this. You should NOT, for example, be told with oral medications to "squirt it in the back of the mouth." Medicating by mouth incorrectly can lead to aspiration pneumonia and death, so it is critical (understatement) that you be instructed correctly.

 

Unrelated But Important
While I'm on the subject of avian veterinarians, I do want to mention something that is basically unrelated but extremely important. DO NOT ASSUME that your avian vet will be available off-hours if you and your bird have an emergency. After all, emergencies rarely happen during the working day. So an important question to ask is how does your avian vet deal with emergencies? Are they available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? If so, you can be sure they won't be for long --- NO ONE can live like that forever. If not, to whom do they refer? Does that hospital have experience with birds? If your vet does not have emergency back-up for avian patients, then you need to find someone who does. The LAST thing you need to do is to wait for an emergency to happen, and THEN start looking around for a bird vet. ASK YOUR AVIAN VET ABOUT EMERGENCY COVERAGE NOW.

 

In Conclusion.........
If your veterinarian fulfills all these criteria, chances are excellent that you have a qualified avian practitioner. Stick with him or her, be patient if they don't call you back in two minutes if you have a question. Ask them to explain things you don't understand, especially when it comes to the care of your bird. Be reasonable and don't expect them to spend hours on the phone with you answering every little question you might have. But most importantly, please, when it comes to the treatment of your animal, follow their instructions to the letter. The best avian veterinarians in the world can accomplish little without the full cooperation of their clients.

 

This article was first printed in THE PET BIRD REPORT, Issue #29.

Liz Wilson, Certified Veterinary Technician, has been assisting pet bird owners with parrot behavior problems for over a decade through lectures, phone consultations, and house calls in the Greater Philadelphia area

Copyright Elizabeth H. Wilson, April, 1998.
All rights reserved. Parts or whole may be reprinted, but not distributed without express written permission of the author.

 

About Liz Wilson To Contact Liz ArticlesLiz's Books