First Aid For Avian Emergencies
By Dr. Jeanne Smith, DVM Avian Health Service
It is important for bird owners to know some basic first aid procedures and to be prepared for avian emergencies. Avian veterinarians are still not as common as small animal veterinarians so there may be delays in getting your bird to a veterinarian in an emergency situation. Also, because of their small body size and high metabolic rate, birds need proper care and attention very quickly.
Most accidents can be avoided by using common sense and by being aware of common bird hazards. If you look at your bird's environment with the attitude of "what could happen", you will probably be able to eliminate most potential hazards. This is especially important when you have un-caged or free flying birds. Any room the bird has access to must then be "bird proofed". Even when you provide a relatively risk free environment accidents do happen, so keep some first aid items on hand and know how to use them. In this article I will present several commonly encountered problems and the appropriate first aid treatment.
Broken blood feathers When primary and secondary feathers of the wings and tails are coming in there is a risk of injury to the shaft, causing the bird to bleed from the broken end of the feather. Usually this happens when the bird crashes into something, falls off a perch, bites of it's own blood feather, or has a cage-mate bite off it's blood feather. The feather should be plucked to stop the bleeding, although you can stop the bleeding a lot quicker and safer just to pluck the feather. Firmly grasp the feather's shaft within 1/2 to 2 inches (depending on the size of the feather) of the skin. Use your other hand to support and put gentle pressure on the skin at the base of the feather so you don't tear the skin or follicle. Pull the feather with one quick, strong tug straight out from the follicle. If the follicle bleeds at all apply gently pressure with a cotton ball or gauze pad.
Broken toenails Toenails can be broken or torn off if they become caught on cages, toys, or carpet. This is most likely to occur if the nails are allowed to overgrow. Apply gently pressure and a chemical cautery agent such as Kwik Stop or silver nitrate to the bleeding nail or nail bed. If you don't have a chemical cautery agent on hand, flour may work. If the whole nail has been pulled off, take steps to make sure the nail bed stays clean until a new nail has grown in. Clean and disinfect perches and clean the bottom of the cage daily to prevent the nail bed from becoming infected. You should also clean the nail bed daily by flushing it with hydrogen peroxide and a povidone iodine solution.
Inhaled Toxins Birds are very susceptible to fumes from aerosols or paints, burnt Teflon pans, smoke, carbon monoxide, etc. If a bird is exposed to any of these potentially toxic fumes, immediately take the bird out into fresh air. If the bird acts depressed or is breathing deeper and faster than normal after the exposure, it should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible to be given appropriate drug therapy.
Ingested Toxins If your bird has eaten a small amount of a toxic chemical or plant, use an eyedropper or a feeding tube to give the bird mineral oil (about 4 drops/cockatiel sized bird) or peanut butter and Metamucil to help the substance move through the GI tract faster. Mix the Metamucil according to label directions and give 1/4 teaspoon and 1/4 teaspoon peanut butter per cockatiel sized bird. Alternatively, you can give the bird crushed activated aquarium charcoal mixed with milk of magnesia (1 teaspoon charcoal mixed with 10cc milk of magnesia), giving the same volume of this mixture as for the Metamucil/peanut butter treatment.
If your bird has eaten a large amount of a toxic substance, you should only give the above treatment if you cannot get to an avian veterinarian within about 30 minutes. These treatments simply help the toxic material pass more quickly and prevent less from being absorbed. With large exposures, this is not sufficient treatment to safeguard your bird. The veterinarian may need to surgically remove the material from the crop or stomach, if possible.
Cuts and bite wounds Birds are often the victims of attacks from other birds, cats, or dogs. They also may cut themselves on toys, household objects, or during crash landings. Except for the most minor, superficial flesh wounds, these birds should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. In the meantime, apply gently pressure to any wounds still bleeding. If an extremity is bleeding profusely (steady stream or dripping of blood) apply a rubber band tourniquet only as tightly as is needed to slow or stop the blood flow. Loosen the tourniquet every 10 minutes and watch for renewed blood flow, repositioning it if still needed. Flush flesh wounds, especially bite wounds, with hydrogen peroxide and let it foam for a few minutes. Then flush wound repeatedly with a povidone solution such as Betadine diluted 1:10 in warm water, followed by repeated flushing with clean warm water. Blot dry the wound with clean gauze or toweling. Do not flush a deep wound that you suspect may communicate with the abdomen or chest cavity. Keep the bird warm (about 85 degrees) en route to the veterinarian's office. This can be accomplished by using hot water bottles or zip lock baggies filled with warm water.
If it is a minor wound that you are going to treat yourself, keep the wound clean and apply and antibiotic, anti-inflammatory cream to the wound daily. Make sure you use a cream, not an ointment. Ointments are oil based and gum up bird feathers. Neosporin-Plus topical cream is a good choice that is available over-the-counter in pharmacies.
Burns In the case of chemical burns, wash the offending chemical off using warm or cold water (depending on whether the chemical has an oil base or not), a mild soap such as Dove or Ivory, or dry cornstarch. In the case of hot temperature burns, flush the area with cold water. With mild burns, keep the area clean, apply a light cream-type (not ointment) antibiotic dressing, and allow it access to air. If the area must be bandaged to keep it protected or clean, use Telfa pads and light, non-airtight bandaging. More severe burns should be seen and treated by a veterinarian. Oral burns caused by biting a live electrical wire or a hot surface should be seen as soon as possible by your veterinarian.
Hypothermia When a bird is severely hypothermic the extremities are cold to the touch and even the body may feel cool. A bird's feet may normally feel cold in cold weather because the bird will decrease blood flow to the feet to conserve heat. But if the legs, wings and/or head feels cold and the bird appears weak or depressed, it is probably hypothermic. Get the bird in a warm environment (85-90 F) and immerse it's feet into warm water (100-105 F). Once the bird has initially warmed up, keep it at 80-85 F for several hours. Watch the bird for any signs of later consequences of the chilling, such as digestive or respiratory problems.
Hyperthermia Short exposure to very hot temperatures or prolonged exposure to low- to mid- 100's can result in hyperthermia. The bird will feel hot to the touch, especially the feet because the bird will increase blood flow to the feet to try to dump heat, and will appear weak or depressed or comatose. Wet the feathers with rubbing alcohol, diluted half and half with cool water, then spray or pour cold water on the wetted feathers. Immerse the feet in cold water (50-60 F). Due to complications of hyperthermia, the bird should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Upper respiratory infections (colds) Birds often show signs of mild upper respiratory infections, especially at times of stress or weather changes. The signs usually consist of increased sneezing, a mild nasal whistling or snuffling sound, reddened nostrils, depression, fluffed feathers. Some of these colds can be stopped simply by providing the bird with access to supplemental heat that it can either move into or away from, such as a 100 watt bulb or heat lamp at one side of the cage. Run a warm air humidifier in the room or simmer water on the stove to increase humidity in the air, especially in times of low humidity. If mild signs do not clear up within 24-36 hours or if more severe signs are seen, call your veterinarian.
Emaciated, found on bottom of cage or flight Birds often mask signs of illness extremely well and fluff out their feathers to hide a razor thin keel. When they do this you may not realize anything is wrong until you find your bird lying on the bottom of the cage, severely weakened and emaciated. If the keel bone is very prominent the bird is probably hypoglycemic and dehydrated. These birds are often hypothermic also. Warm the bird up immediately and use an eyedropper or a feeding tube to give him a small amount of warm (90-100 F) water with Karo syrup or sugar dissolved in it. These birds should be seen by a veterinarian for more supportive care and to determine the underlying cause of the condition.
Egg binding Single female birds or breeding hens may become egg bound. Whenever you have a female bird acting quiet or depressed, perching in a hunched over posture, with abnormal appetite and droppings, feel her abdomen to see if you feel a firm swelling between the end of her breastbone and her vent. If she has been laying eggs suspect egg binding if she has gone more than two days since laying the last egg. If the bird has just started showing signs and is still active and eating, put her in a warm, humid environment. One solution is to put her cage in a small, heated bathroom and fog the room up by running a shower with hot water. Many cases will resolve within a few hours of providing moist heat. You may also give her calcium, injectable is best but oral calcium is better than nothing. This can be in the form of Neocalglucon, about 0.1 cc per cockatiel sized bird. If your bird is severely depressed and unable to pass droppings administer injectable drugs such as calcium, oxytocin, or prostaglandins. The smaller the bird, the less time you have to resolve the egg binding without endangering the bird's life. If you cannot be seen by a veterinarian right away, you may attempt to break the egg and remove it via the vent. Carefully break the egg shell and remove pieces with tweezers. Be careful to avoid letting the shell edges cut the vent or cloaca. Once the shell is completely removed, treat the bird as described for the emaciated bird. In all the above situations, it is best if these first aid procedures are used to stabilize the bird before it can be seen by a veterinarian or if a veterinarian cannot be seen. They should not be used instead of seeking veterinary care. An appointment should still be made as soon as possible.
Situations Requiring Immediate Veterinary Attention:
Gasping for breath
Bleeding that you cannot stop, heavy blood loss
Convulsions or seizures
Ingestion of large amounts of toxic material
Ingestion of a sharp foreign object
Constriction of legs, feet, or toes that is causing swelling below the constriction
Moderate to severe dehydration
Shock- very sleepy, unresponsive, cool or cold extremities
First Aid Supplies for Birds
|gauze sponges (2" x 2")||local pharmacy|
|chemical cautery (Kwik Stop)||pet shop, vet clinic, feed store, on-line mail order|
|Karo syrup||grocery store|
|Lux or Ivory dish soap||grocery store|
|povidone iodine solution (Betadine)||local pharmacy|
|activated charcoal||local pharmacy|
|mild of magnesia||local pharmacy or grocery store|
|hydrogen peroxide||local pharmacy or grocery store|
|rubbing alcohol||local pharmacy or grocery store|
|hot water bottle or||local pharmacy|
|heat light (75 watt black or red)||pet shop|
|rubber feeding tubes (human urinary catheters)||home health care pharmacy, on-line order|
|Metamucil or similar fiber product||local pharmacy or grocery store|
|mineral oil||local pharmacy|
|Neosporin Plus cream or equivalent||local pharmacy|
|eye droppers or 1 cc syringes||local pharmacy, feed store, or vet clinic|
|calcium gluconate 23% solution||feed store or vet clinic|
|saline or lactated ringers with dextrose||vet clinic|