Avian Emergencies Part I

In this month’s column, I would like to discuss some emergencies that may arise with your bird. Some emergencies such as landing on a hot stove or eating lead solder from a planter can be prevented. Many, however, occur at the worst possible time. In many cases, a veterinarian needs to evaluate and care for your bird. Here are some of the more common emergencies and how you can handle some of them at home. I will cover more next month.


The sight of blood often strikes fear in all bird owners. Don’t panic! Instead, try to determine where the blood is coming from by wiping the general area with hydrogen peroxide. The most likely places will be flight feathers of the wings or tail or a broken toenail.

Developing flight feathers have a vessel within the shaft and are known as “blood feathers”. When cracked or broken, they will bleed. Using Quick Stop powder to stop bleeding is not a complete solution because the feather will bleed when it brushes against the perch or is groomed by the bird. The damaged feather must be pulled. The best way to do this is to have the bird restrained in a towel by another person while you gently hold the wing (or tail) and use a pliers to pull the feather out, holding the feather as close to the skin as possible. If the feather has broken too close to the skin to grasp, then you will need to have a veterinarian remove it. After removing the feather, apply gentle pressure on the follicle with gauze to stop the bleeding. The follicle should stop bleeding within 1-2 minutes. If not, then keep the pressure on it and get to a veterinarian. Loss of too much blood is a serious matter.

If a toenail is broken or the beak tip is injured, bleeding can be stopped by blotting and applying cautery powder (Quick Stop) with gentle pressure for 30 seconds to a minute. If Quick Stop is not available, flour or corn starch can be used. Keep an eye on your bird for a couple of hours to be sure bleeding does not resume.

Bite Wounds

Bite wounds from dogs and cats may appear to be minor, but must be treated very aggressively. The wound should be gently cleaned with betadine (a sugiscrub) and the bird taken immediately to a veterinarian. Bacteria from the dog or cat can get into the bird, causing a generalized bacterial infection known as septicemia. This can be fatal if not treated. The veterinarian will start the bird on aggresive antibiotic therapy.


A seizure is a spontaneous, uncontrolled, neurological activity. A bird might be twitching, paddling or convulsing. Seizures may be mild, generalized or partial. Mild seizures last a short period of time. The bird may appear disoriented and unable to perch. Generalized seizures are more severe. The bird loses consciousness, vocalizes and flaps its wings uncontrollably. Partial seizures are characterized by a continuous twitching of a wing or leg.

A variety of causes may trigger seizures such as, disease in the brain, head trauma, low blood sugar, low blood calcium, metabolic problems, toxins and an inherited predisposition. The bird should be placed in a quiet dark box and taken to a veterinarian immediately. Injectible medicine – such as valium – will be given to stop the seizures. Blood tests will be taken to try to determine the cause of the seizure. Antibiotics, fluids and glucose may be administered to stabiliaze the bird.

Crop Burns

Crop burns occur when a bird is fed food that is too hot. This often occurs in handfed babies that are fed microwaved formula that has “hot spots” due to improper mixing. Several hours after feeding, the skin over the crop appears red. Owners may miss the early signs and only realize there is a problem when food or fluid leaks out of the crop onto the bird’s feathers. The veterinarian will place the bird on antifungals and antibiotics while waiting for the extent of the burn to become apparent. Surgical repair will be necessary to remove damaged tissue and close the crop and the overlying skin.

Regurgitation and Vomiting

It is very difficult at times to differentiate these and so I will discuss them together. Both involve bringing up food and expelling it from the mouth. Regurgitation to a mate, person or toy is a normal part of breeding behavior. A bird that is regurgitating or vomiting will make a head-bobbing and neck-stretching type of movement. Food will be brought up and deposited on the bird’s toys or mate. Food may become caked on the bird’s head giving it a spiky, matted appearance.

Bacterial, viral and fungal gastrointestinal causes, obstructions, toxins and liver or kidney problems may also cause regurgitation or vomiting. If you suspect that this behavior is the result of illness, a veterinarian should examine your bird. If there are toys or mirrors the bird is “feeding” these should be removed as some birds can become obsessed.

Acute Dyspnea

Acute dyspnea is the sudden onset of openmouthed abdominal breathing and tail bobbing in a previously healthy bird. It may be caused by inhalation of a piece of food, the dislocation and subsequent inhalation of a bacterial or fungal plaque (a bacterial or fungal colony which has attached to the bird’s tissues), or the inhalation of a toxin.

The bird should be seen immediately, as this is a life threatening emergency. The veterinarian may give the bird oxygen and then place a small tube – known as an airsac tube – in the side of the bird, enabling it to breathe. The trachea may then be examined and if a foreign body or plaque is seen, it may be removed. Other causes of labored breathing are possible. Your veterinarian needs to assess your bird.

Egg Binding

Although egg binding can occur in any female bird, it is most common in smaller birds such as lovebirds, cockatiels, budgies and finches.

Clinical signs of egg binding are loss of appetitie, depression, abdominal straining, and sitting fluffed on the bottom of the cage. Some hens may pass large wet droppings while others may not pass any droppings due to the egg’s interfering with normal defecation. If you suspect your bird is eggbound, she should be seen immediately. The veterinarian may be able to feel the egg in the bird’s abdomen. An x-ray may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes medical treatment will enable the hen to pass her egg. Occasionally surgery is necessary. Since a solitary bird may also lay an egg, although it won’t be fertile, pet birds can also have this problem.

Next month’s article will have additional information on handling emergencies. It is important to remain calm, know what can be done and be prepared for emergencies. Have a first aid kit and your veterinarian’s telephone number readily available.

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