Recognising a sick bird in the aviary firstly requires knowing what is normal for your birds and when these normal signs change and become abnormal.  Appetite, behaviours, body condition and droppings may change from normal. Sick birds may hide their illness until they are critically ill.  This is called the preservation reflex.  Therefore, it is vitally important to recognise the very early signs of illness to give the best chance of survival and recovery.  The more you check your birds and the closer you look, the better the chance of detecting something abnormal.

Sick birds often show typical signs such as:

  • Fluffed feathers – this a sign of hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Closed eyes
  • Head down
  • Difficulty perching, or bird found on bottom of the aviary or in a food dish.
  • Often called the “sick bird look”

Also look for abnormal signs such as:

  • Bleeding
  • Lameness
  • Dropped wing
  • Seizures or balance loss
  • Difficulty breathing or head bob (dyspnoea)
  • Straining to pass droppings or an egg
  • Prolapse of cloaca
  • Discharge around face or vent

Minor, uncomplicated problems such as hypothermia, simple wounds or minor trauma may only need first aid treatment, but other more serious problems may require not only first aid treatment but furthermore intense or even veterinary treatment.  Many diseases may present with similar signs so ongoing treatment after first aid requires a diagnosis to be made.

What to do if you notice a sick bird

  1. Catch the bird and put it into a carry cage/box and bring inside.
  • Quick distance assessment before picked up
  • Check movement in aviary/breeder cage
  • Body position
  • Respiratory effort
  • Level of responsiveness
  • Check any droppings near the bird
  • Usually not that difficult to do when they are sick.
  • Use towel, net or even hands.
  • Be gentle but quick.
  1. Triage (priority of patients’ treatments based on the severity of the problems present).
  • What abnormal signs are present?
  • Generalised “sick bird look”
  • Specific signs such as bleeding or limb injury that need immediate attention
  1. Clinical Examination
  • Be systematic, thorough and quick.
  • Enclosed room with exits closed.
  • Have your First Aid Kit or any items required ready to use.
  • Weigh – digital scales with 1g increments
  • Head
  • Eyes, nostrils, cere, ear canals, beak, oral cavity, choana
  • Discharges, symmetry, feather loss, blood, colour, plaques/nodules
  • Neck and crop
  • Any crop distension? Is food palpable in crop?
  • Chest
  • How much fat cover/pectoral muscles/keel protrusion – ie. body condition
  • Listen for increase in respiratory noises
  • Abdomen and vent
  • Distension of abdomen/coelom? Masses/lumps?
  • Droppings around vent, cloacal prolapse, inflammation of vent
  • Wings
  • Bleeding from feathers or skin wounds
  • Drooping of wing, asymmetry, fractures
  • Legs
  • Lameness – swellings, deformities, tight ring
  • Wounds – skin thickening/scale, nails bleeding, ulcers/inflamed areas on feet
  1. Address any specific problems
  • Bleeding or wounds – clotting powder nail, pull bleeding quill, antiseptic on wounds
  • Lameness – splint fractured lower leg
  • Dropped wing – tape up wing to tail and body
  • Seizures or balance loss – into hospital cage, soft floor, low or no perch, dim lighting
  • Difficulty breathing or head bob (dyspnoea) – minimise handling, into hospital cage ASAP
  • Straining to pass droppings or an egg – clean vent, treat for egg binding if appropriate, treat for parasites if not done recently
  • Prolapse of cloaca – clean with saline and replace ASAP, treat for parasites, electrolytes
  • Discharge around face or vent – clean feathers, electrolytes in water in hospital cage/box
  1. Put your patient into a hospital box or cage and begin warming to 27 – 30 degrees Celsius.
  2. Once warmed up and is more stable then assisted feeding is indicated unless the bird is eating OK.  Provide electrolytes (such as Spark by Vetafarm) in drinking water if any diarrhoea, vomiting or regurgitation.  An avian critical care formula can by crop fed.
  3. Phone your vet if an emergency situation presents or if bird not responsive to first aid treatment in the first hour (see list below).

When to call an avian vet?

Immediately Same day
Uncontrolled bleeding Loss of balance (not responsive to first aid) Diarrhoea
Burns Not eating Vomiting/regurgitation
Convulsions/seizures – active Convulsions/seizures – not currently active Self-mutilation
(sooner rather than later)
Severe breathing difficulty Mild breathing difficulty, sneezing Eye irritation
Collapse Lameness Sudden swellings
Blood in vomit and/or diarrhoea Dropped wing – after bandaging “Sick bird look” – persisting after first aid treatment
Known poisoning Known trauma (mild) Increased thirst
Moderate/severe trauma Continual straining with no egg passed after first aid treatment for egg binding
Cloacal prolapse

Hospital cage

In an emergency, any form of cage or box will suffice to be used as a hospital cage.  A show cage or similar cage with enclosed sides and only one open side (the front) will be suitable.  A specifically designed hospital cage with built in heating (or an incubator) is best.  This ideally should be thermostatically regulated to keep the temperature between 27 and 30 degrees.  A wire fronted cage with a ceramic heat lamp from the front will be suitable.  A cage in a heated room (NOT heated with a wood or gas fire) or a heat mat place under half of the cage bottom are options too. Simply covering a cage with a blanket or some sort of cover will not warm the bird.

A cold bird should be put into a cage at room temperature and then warmed up over a short period of time rather than put into a hot cage from a cooler temperature.

A light bulb inside a cage will provide heat but this needs to be thermostatically regulated to avoid overheating.  The light bulb has the disadvantage of producing light when it provides heat.  This light needs to be dimmed to allow resting time for the bird to recover.  A thermometer inside the cage or box is required to monitor the temperature.

Perches should be low down, especially as a weak bird may not be able to climb onto a normal perch.  Water and feed dishes need to be at a level that the bird can reach, especially if it is too weak to perch.  A water dish also helps to provide some humidity to the hospital cage.

The cage should be easy to clean and disinfect to prevent cross infection to a future patient.  F10 SC is a very safe and effective disinfectant to use.

Feeding

Provide a selection of normal food to the patient. Soft food will be tolerated better, especially if regurgitation or vomiting has occurred.  A critical care formula such as PolyAid Plus or Avian Crittacare by Vetafarm can also be offered in a small dish.

Often the bird will not eat on its own so crop feeding will be required with one of the critical care formulas mentioned above or a well-balanced hand rearing formula.  Food should be freshly mixed and warmed to 38-40 degrees before feeding.  Don’t heat in a microwave oven and mix well to uniformly spread out the heat in the food mixture.

Typically, a crop can hold about 5% of the bodyweight of the bird.  Therefore, a 50g budgie crop could hold up to 2.5mL of food or water.  A bird that hasn’t eaten recently or that is sick probably won’t tolerate that volume in its crop initially.    Start with 1mL initially, given slowly and steadily.  A slightly more dilute mixture may be tolerated better at first.  Stop if any food appears at the mouth.  Using your thumb of your hand holding the bird, mild pressure can be placed on the neck (oesophagus) as the crop needle is withdrawn to minimise any regurgitation.

A 14 – 16g crop needle is suitable for a budgie (14g for a larger bird and 16g for a smaller bird).  Using a small amount of water soluble lubricant on the tip of the crop needle and using a twisting motion when inserting it will help.   Aim to gradually increase the volume fed per meal until 2-3mL is given 2 to 3 times daily.

Polyaid Plus also contains electrolytes so extra electrolytes such as Spark added to the drinking water is probably not required. If not using Polyaid Plus then adding Spark to the water at a rate of 1mL per 50mL of water is a good idea.

First Aid Kit

  • Poly Aid Plus
  • Spark electrolyte concentrate
  • Calcivet
  • Crop needle(s) (14 &) 16g
  • Sterile lubricant sachets
  • 10mm Micropore surgical tape
  • Latex/nitrile gloves
  • Cotton buds
  • Sterile saline ampoules
  • Sterile wound dressing (eg. Melolin, Telfa)
  • Cohesive bandage (e.g Vetrap) – 5cm (cut down to narrower widths as required)
  • Scissors
  • Torch/light
  • Locking surgical forceps
  • F10 SC disinfectant
  • Clot It wound clotting powder
  • Syringes to use for crop feeding – 1 and 3mL
  • Sterile wound swabs
  • Notebook and pen
  • Antiseptic cream – Flamazine is ideal
  • Leg ring cutter