Stabilizing companion birds in an emergency - Veterinary Medicine
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Stabilizing companion birds in an emergency
Are you prepared if a bird owner brings a sick pet to your practice? Familiarize yourself with these basic critical care steps to stabilize the patient, and then implement a controlled follow-up plan.


Bite wounds

Predatory pets, such as cats or dogs, may inflict serious wounds that can lead to sepsis. Attacks by other pet birds in the household can also be severe. Patients with respiratory compromise, shock, severe hemorrhage, or alterations in neurologic status require immediate attention. If a wound is known or suspected to be caused by a bite from a mammalian predator (cat, dog, raccoon), administer a broad-spectrum antibiotic as soon as possible and continue it for seven to 14 days. Many potentially pathogenic oral bacteria, especially Pasteurella multocida, contaminate wounds. Death due to septicemia may occur within 24 hours if appropriate antibiotic therapy is not initiated.16 Birds without skin wounds have also been known to develop Pasteurella species septicemia by grooming their feathers after contact with cat saliva. The choice of antibiotic and route of administration should be based on the organism suspected to be involved. Dosages can be found in exotic-animal formularies.17


Most avian long bones are covered by a small amount of skeletal muscle. When fractures occur, sharp bone edges often lie just below the skin surface. This predisposes birds to a greater risk of open fractures or more serious soft tissue injury than may be encountered in dogs or cats. In addition, fracture ends are often near large vessels or nerves. For these reasons, it is imperative to stabilize these fractures with some form of external fixation as soon as possible. Fractures requiring open reduction should be temporarily splinted until surgery can be done. Many fractures in pet birds, however, are amenable to closed reduction and external fixation. Anesthesia with isoflurane is necessary during reduction and stabilization. Try to stabilize the fractures with the lightest and most comfortable type of bandage or splint.

Fractures of the wing distal to the elbow may be immobilized by using a simple figure-of-eight bandage or wing wrap. Fractures of the humerus, coracoid, clavicle, or scapula may be immobilized or supported by using a combination of a figure-of-eight wing wrap and a wing-to-body wrap. Fractures of the pelvic limb distal to the femur may be immobilized by using an Altman tape splint. (To create this splint, apply multiple layers of white tape cranially to caudally across the fracture from the proximal tibiotarsal region across the ankle to the tarsometatarsal area.) Femoral fractures are more difficult to manage with bandages or splints because of the proximity of the body wall.18,19 If a bird has a femoral fracture, immobilize the bird with a leg-to-body wrap, and promptly refer it for surgical stabilization.

Surgical fracture repair techniques are beyond the scope of this article. In general, light-weight and comfortable fixation is accomplished by using positive profile pins because of the comparatively thin and more brittle nature of the cortices of bird bones.


The most commonly documented seizure disorder in birds is heavy metal toxicosis (lead, zinc). Suspect this condition in a well-muscled patient that presents with a history of an acute onset of seizures. Treatment generally includes parenteral fluids, edetate calcium disodium (CaEDTA) (10 to 40 mg/kg intramuscularly b.i.d.), and possibly diazepam (0.5 to 1 mg/kg intramuscularly). Seizures in a patient that is markedly underweight or has signs suggestive of other conditions may be more likely related to progressing health problems. In such patients, supportive care and prompt referral for diagnostics and treatment may be more appropriate.

Hypothermia or hyperthermia

Birds are generally efficient homeotherms. Normal core body temperatures are around 105 F (40.5 C). In an emergency situation, however, heat loss is often exacerbated in birds, particularly those that are in shock, very ill, or undergoing treatment for trauma with administration of fluids, oxygen, or general anesthesia. Most trauma patients should be maintained in environmental temperatures of 80 to 90 F (26.6 to 32.2 C). Monitor birds closely for signs of hyperthermia, such as panting and holding the wings away from the body, and adjust the temperature as needed. Humidify the environment to limit fluid losses. House traumatized birds in a darkened, quiet area during recovery.

Exceptions to these general warmth recommendations include birds with marked abdominal distention, obesity, or severe respiratory distress. When heated excessively, obese birds are less able to cool themselves normally and more vulnerable to hyperthermia. Birds with marked abdominal distention or respiratory disease may be unable to achieve evaporative cooling through the respiratory tract.


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