A 6 monthly or annual veterinary health check is recommended to ensure that your bird remains healthy and happy. This examination is an important part of developing your bird’s potential as a companion pet. We also recommend bringing your bird to our veterinarians immediately after purchase for a new bird check-up.
The health check of your pet bird consists of the following:
At the beginning of the examination the assistant of our veterinarian takes a thorough history of your bird. You will be asked about any worries or symptoms, eating and drinking habits, previous diseases, the origin and the sex of the bird, its diet, cage and environment.
You could help to provide the necessary information by bringing samples of your bird’s food to the vet and taking photos of its cage and environment.
If your bird has diarrhoea or unusual droppings take a sample from these and bring it to our vet. Likewise, if your bird has abnormal behaviour, try to video this and bring the recording to the consultation.
The next step is the physical examination. This starts with the observation of the bird within its cage to notice problems with its posture, movement, breathing, and behaviour. Following the observation the weight of your bird is taken using a fine gram scale. Then the assistant gently restrains the bird using a soft towel to let our veterinarian examine it thoroughly. The vet inspects the eyes, ears, beak, nose, throat, legs, wings, feathers and skin. He/she checks the tone of the muscles and feels the belly of the bird. As a final step our veterinarian listens to the heart and lungs using a stethoscope.
The physical examination is followed by different diagnostic tests. The most common tests for birds are the microscopic examination and microbiological culture of the dropping or the crop content; blood tests; radiographic imaging (X-ray) and endoscopic observation of the different organs.
The blood test has several different purposes:
The Complete Blood Count (CBC) examination looks the numbers and appearance of the cells within the blood. This test is essential to investigate your bird’s immune system and helps to detect inflammations or infections.
The Clinical Chemistry Panel examines the enzymes, electrolytes and metabolites in the blood and could help to diagnose problems with the organs (e.g. liver, kidney) of your bird.
The serological and PCR tests look at antibodies and DNA and can detect exposure to different infectious diseases (e.g. Psittacosis, PBFD)
Examination of the DNA in the blood cells can be used to determine your bird’s sex.
The radiographic imaging (X-ray) is an extremely useful tool to examine the bones, the location and size of the organs and the appearance of the air sacs.
The endoscopic examination uses a special device, an endoscope to examine the interior of a hollow organ or cavity of the body. The endoscopic examination is a minimally invasive surgical procedure (also known as “keyhole surgery”). During the examination our veterinarian anaesthetizes your bird and makes a very small (3mm) on the side of the body of the bird. Through this hole a sterile endoscope explores the body cavity of the bird. This examination is usually performed if the previous tests (blood analysis, X-ray) revealed some abnormality and our veterinarian wants to understand the exact nature of the problem. The endoscope examines the organs using magnification; moreover it allows our veterinarian to collect tiny samples for further testing.
There are certain health concerns that are more common in older birds. Every old pet bird should receive a complete and thorough physical examination and health check regularly. For younger birds a yearly check-up may be enough, but older birds and birds with on-going problems will benefit from more frequent veterinary visits, perhaps as often as once in every two to six months. The examination of the older bird is similar to the general health checks.
The common problems with older birds are as follows:
– liver disease
– heart disease
– kidney disease and gout
– hardening of the arteries
Unfortunately, the wrong diet causes lots of problem in pet birds. Many birds are still fed on a seed based diet. It is a well-known fact that this type of food will result in long-term health problems, including vitamin A and calcium deficiency, fatty liver disease and secondary infections.
Even though the owner offers some healthy foods (e.g. formulated pellets and fruits), the bird will usually take mostly the food items it enjoys (e.g. sunflower seeds and peanuts), and will not eat enough of the healthy stuff.
For many birds health problems result from being fed a seed based diet or offering too many human foods (e.g. rice, bread, pasta, biscuits, and sweets).
These human foods are not better than seeds.
The appropriate diet for pet parrots is usually a premium quality formulated diet (e.g.: Harrison’s, Zupreem, Kaytee) supplemented with wide variety of vegetables and fruits, preferably organic.
Unfortunately, very often chicken pellets are sold as pet bird food in Hong Kong in the bird shops, therefore the owners should choose the source and the quality of their bird’s food carefully. What makes a chicken nice and fat before being killed for humans to eat will not be a healthy diet to keep a parrot alive for 50 years!
Do not give food with salt, sugar, alcohol, caffeine chocolate and excess spices.
Regulating food intake has behavioural beneﬁts as well. The favourite food of the bird can be used for training, motivation and as positive reinforcement. By providing a favourite food only when training, birds will often be very attentive and motivated.
During a consultation or ‘health check’ our veterinarians will be able to provide you with further advice on the exact quantities and types of food to feed to your bird to keep it as healthy as possible.
Offer a varied diet to your bird. The main food of the bird should be a premium quality formulated diet supplemented with a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, preferably from organic sources. Do not give avocado to your bird. Avoid food with salt, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate and excess spices.
Change water frequently, at least once or twice daily.
Use natural branches as perches with variable size and diameters. Do not use sandpaper perches as they can irritate the feet.
Do not use sawdust, wood shavings or sand on the cage floor where you cannot see the droppings. Newspaper and paper towels are suitable and should be changed daily.
Do not use medicines from pet shops or from the bird street on your bird. If your bird shows signs of a disease bring it to your veterinarian for examination.
Birds need lots of sleep, 10-12 hours usually. Cover the cage or put the cage in a dark room and provide a quiet environment for your bird during its sleep.
Mist your bird lightly with plain water daily using a clean spray bottle. Your bird even can take a shower with you if you install a waterproof perch on the wall of your bathroom (no soap please!)
Spend at least one hour with your bird each day. Take it out of its cage and let it play and interact with the family members.
Provide multiple toys from reliable sources for your bird. Change the toys time to time to provide a new form of entertainment. The toys should be made of “bird safe” materials in case the bird eats any pieces.
Never leave a bird unattended out of its cage, not even for a minute.
Do not keep your bird in the same airspace as the kitchen. The fumes and smokes from the kitchen can be poisonous for the bird or can contaminate its feathers causing feather damaging behaviour.
Do not smoke, burn incense or use sprays (air freshener, cleaner, perfumes) around your bird.
If your birds fight with each other separate them immediately, because they could become severely injured and they can even die after a fight.
The hospitalization requirements of birds are very different from dogs and cats. Therefore only specialized staff with high quality equipment can provide the necessary care for a sick bird.
In our hospital the birds are kept in a special “exotic ward” separate from the dog and cat wards. The temperature in this ward is always around 28 °C and the air is humid to provide the optimal environment for recovery.
Critically ill birds are kept in a special intensive care cage. These cages allow us to set up the temperature and the humidity more accurately; moreover, they can provide oxygen supplementation to the sick birds.
Our hospital can provide appropriate size cages to accommodate the smallest finch and the biggest macaw. The cages are disinfected daily and appropriate size perches, food and water bowls are used. If the bird needs additional warmth, a heat light can be directed into its cage.
While hospitalized every bird is thoroughly examined by a veterinarian each morning before its treatment and weighed using a fine gram scale. During the hospitalization the birds receive premium quality pellet based diet supplemented with fruits and vegetables. However, if the bird has not been converted to pellets yet, it is feed on its usual food, supplemented with the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
If the bird doesn’t or can’t eat we will support feed it using crop tubes and liquid diet. Some birds are very shy so the front of their cage will be covered and a comfortable hiding box provided. Other birds, especially hand raised ones are very social and prefer human presence. Our nurses and assistants are happy to spend couple of hours daily with playing, hand feeding and socializing with these birds. We believe that a happy bird can recover much quicker.
Birds with infectious diseases are kept separately from the other recovering patients. These birds are kept in an isolation ward until they are no longer infectious. When these patients are no longer a disease threat to the other avian patients, they are transferred to the main exotic ward.
Obesity is a very common problem in pet birds. In our hospital the most common species we see with this problem are amazon parrots. However cockatiels, cockatoos and budgerigars could be the victims. Obesity in birds could be defined as a weight that exceeds the optimum weight by 15% or more.
The causes of obesity in birds are similar to those in humans: excess calorie intake (eating too much) and lack of exercise. It is more common in older birds because an older bird may become lazier and the owner may not play with the bird as often or not let the bird out of the cage to exercise.
Unfortunately, in Hong Kong due to small home sizes the cages of the birds are also too small and their size does not let the birds fly or exercise. In one hand, the trimming of the wing feathers could help to tame the birds and could prevent accidents (e.g. escaping or flying to windows), on the other hand if the bird can’t fly it needs much less energy and can become obese more easily. At the end of the day low activity levels may result in weight gain.
Our hospital offers nutritional and weight loss advice to our patients either in consultations or a health check appointment.
During your bird’s first appointment, the vet will weigh your bird and set a target weight. This will be based on the bird’s species, age, health and individual needs. The vet will set a target weight and a time span to lose the weight over, then recommend diet changes and an exercise plan for you bird.
After the first appointment, your pet will require regular re-checks with the veterinarian so we can assess their progress and make any adjustments needed to their food.
Usually we will see your bird on a monthly basis, and when they reach their target weight, the vet will reassess your bird’s dietary requirements to help you maintain them at their ideal weight.
The trimming of the flight feathers of parrots is controversial. In one hand, it can prevent the bird from escaping or crashing into windows. It can also help the taming and training of some birds. On the other hand, ﬂight as a form of exercise is signiﬁcant for the physical and psychological health of the birds. Excessive wing trimming can cause injuries because the growing feathers (blood feathers) are very sensitive and without the protection of the other feathers they can easily become damaged resulting in severe bleeding. Moreover excessive trimming can prevent the bird being able to properly balance or glide to the floor after a fall. Totally flightless birds can easily fall and suffer injuries to the beak or the keel bone. Wing trimming can also increase the incidence of feather damaging behaviour.
If the owner chooses wing trimming, it should always be performed symmetrically on both wings to help the bird to keep its balance. The owners should keep in mind that even a wing trimmed bird can fly away if it is extremely scared or excited. Moreover the duration of the flightless period after wing trimming cannot be predicted as feather regrowth can be irregular.
Nail trimming of pet birds is performed for two reasons. The most important is the safety of the bird. If the claws grow elongated and curl more than quarter of a circle, the toenails may get caught in the cage. The other reason for nail trimming is for the comfort of owners. The natural growth of claws, in many parrots, results in a very sharp tip and can hurt the owner’s skin. Removal of the points helps handling and interaction of the parrot with the owner. Nail reshaping can be performed with sharp nail cutters or with fine files. It is important to know that cutting too short can result in bleeding which is sometimes difficult to stop without the appropriate tools.
Beak contouring or trimming can be done if necessary. It is neither appropriate nor effective to trim a beak to reduce the pain of a bite. Birds whose beak shape is very different from the natural shape and/or length may beneﬁt from contouring of the beak back to a more natural shape.
Abnormal beak shape and length may occur from disease, poor nutrition, genetic differences, or simply lack of adequate wear. In the case of disease or poor nutrition, the beak keratin can be of poor quality and split or flake.
Many birds are sexually monomorphic; this means that the appearance of male and female birds is very similar. In these species the gender of the bird can only be determined by endoscopic or DNA sexing or by seeing the bird laying eggs.
Knowing the sex of the bird is essential for breeders but it also useful for pet birds too. Some bird diseases are sex related (e.g. egg binding, ovary or testicle problems, hormonal problems), therefore knowing the sex of your bird is sometimes very important.
The DNA is the genetic material within the cells and it is different in male and female birds. DNA sexing can be performed with blood, feather or even eggshell samples. Blood from birds is an ideal source of DNA and for many years a blood sample was the only way to collect a DNA sample. However collecting a blood sample is inconvenient and difficult. With recent advances in DNA technology, we can now extract enough DNA from just a few plucked feathers to be able to test the sex. Feathers for bird DNA sexing must be physically plucked; moulted or fallen out feathers cannot be used for this test. Both blood and feather samples are equally reliable and provide the same level of testing accuracy.
The endoscopic examination uses a special small camera to examine inside a hollow organ or cavity of the body. The endoscopic examination of the internal organs is a minimally invasive surgical procedure (also known as “keyhole surgery”). During the endoscopic sex determination our veterinarian anaesthetizes your bird and makes a very small (3mm) on the left side of the body of the bird. Through this hole the sterile endoscope is inserted into the body cavity of your bird. A digital camera is attached to the endoscope and the internal organs of your bird can be seen as a magnified image on a monitor. This should allow the surgeon to see and identify the ovary or the testicle of your bird. The advantage of this method is that it provides much more information than only the sex of the bird because our veterinarian can visually examine all the internal organs (liver, kidney, spleen, intestines, lung and air sacs) and can identify hidden problems.
Psittacosis (or ornithosis or parrot fever) is a disease caused by a bacterial infection that is relatively common in pet birds in Hong Kong. The bacteria that causes this disease is called Chlamydophila psittaci. It is very contagious between birds and can sometimes be transmitted to humans.
This bacteria is shed in the faeces, and in the eye and nose discharge of infected birds. Some infected birds can appear healthy but still can shed the organism from time to time. Shedding can be worsened by stress factors, such as egg laying, rearing of young, moving cage, moving house, crowding, and chilling. The faeces containing the bacteria can dry and turn into dust and could be a source of infection. Pet shops and bird markets like ‘Bird Street’ are places where birds are likely to catch the disease. Birds that are imported illegally are also more likely to be infected.
It is very important to realize that a bird can have the bacteria and can spread the disease without showing any symptoms.
There are no specific signs that indicate that a bird has Psittacosis. However, the following signs may be suggestive:
– Discharge from the eyes and nostrils
– Excessive sneezing
– Lack of appetite
– Weight loss
– Depression, sitting fluffed at the bottom of the cage
– Watery, green/yellow droppings
Exact diagnosis of Psittacosis is difficult because there is no test that is 100% reliable in a live bird. Often, a working diagnosis is made based on the symptoms, history, blood tests and radiographs.
There are several testing options to diagnose this disease
– DNA testing (PCR): This test is performed in a special laboratory after taking swabs of the bird’s conjunctiva (eye), choana (roof of mouth) and cloaca (anus) by our veterinarian. Unfortunately, this test can be negative if the bird is infected with Psittacosis but is not currently shedding the bacteria.
– Blood test (serology): This test is performed using the bird’s blood sample. This method looks for antibodies in the blood of the bird to check if the animal has been exposed to the bacteria or not. Unfortunately this test can only detect exposure in the past, it can’t tell the difference between an old (and already cured) infection and an on-going infection.
The recommended treatment is a particular antibiotic for long term (45 days). The success varies according to how long the bird has been ill, its age, species and other concurrent infection. For parrots our hospital recommends weekly antibiotic injections once a week for 6-7 weeks although the medicine can be given by mouth as well.
As soon as a bird is diagnosed with Psittacosis, it must be isolated from other birds. Other birds in the house may need to be tested or treated as well. There is no immunity to the disease – birds are susceptible to re-infection even after full recovery from the infection.
Psittacosis in humans
It is relatively rare that the disease is passed on to humans and it is not contagious between humans. Human infection with psittacosis usually occurs when a person breathes in organisms in the air from dried faeces or respiratory tract secretions, from sneezing of infected birds. Other means of exposure include kissing birds and handling infected birds’ feathers and tissues. Humans that are potentially at a higher risk of infection include those whose immune system is not working well, the very young and the elderly. The incubation period of the disease is 5 to 14 days.
The seriousness of the disease ranges from a mild, non-specific illness to a severe illness with severe pneumonia. Signs of this disease in humans are similar to the signs of influenza: fever, chills, headache, muscle aches or respiratory signs (cough, difficulty breathing). It is important that anyone who develops these symptoms for an unusual length of time should mention to their doctor that he/she is in contact with birds.
Preventing psittacosis in humans
– During the treatment of your infected bird, try to reduce the contact with the bird to a minimum – do not kiss your bird or put them near your face/mouth as the bacteria can be shed from their eyes and respiratory tract. Keep them in a room or area that people do not spend much time in. Keep this area clean and well ventilated.
– When you are cleaning the bird’s cage use a mask and gloves in order to reduce the risk of breathing in faecal dust.
-Always keep the cage of your bird clean to decrease the build-up of the infected faeces. The cage can be disinfected with diluted bleach (mix 120 ml bleach in 2 L of water). The bleach must remain in contact with the cage for 10-15 minutes and then the cage should be rinsed with warm water. When you are bleaching the cage make sure that your bird is NOT in the cage or in the same room as the bleach. Bleach can be very irritating to their respiratory tract.
Preventing psittacosis in your bird
Quarantine your new bird for 6 weeks: this means do not let your new bird or its feed bowls etc have any contact with your previous birds for at least 6 weeks. Keep in a different room!
During the quarantine period any newly purchased bird should be brought to our veterinarians to be examined and tested.
Do not buy any bird that looks ill. Try to buy new animals directly from a reliable breeder and not from a pet shop or market. Stress caused by transportation to a pet shop and the mixing of birds from different sources are very common causes of illnesses.
Do not buy anything (live animal, toys, cages, or food) from pet shops with sick birds or dirty cages.
Do not allow your bird to come into contact with other birds – this includes other pet birds (when boarding, going to pet store for tail trims/wing trims) and wild birds.
Parrots are intelligent, curious, social creatures. Small, lonely and empty cages do not allow these animals to exhibit their natural behaviours.
Enrichment can help encourage your birds to display some of these normal natural behaviours, while in the process reduce abnormal behaviours (e.g. feather plucking or excessive screaming). Enrichment can take numerous forms:
Foraging is a natural behaviour for many species. Wild parrots spend around 4 to 6 hours daily searching for food, while captive birds only spend an hour or less. Foraging is a major portion of the daily activity of a wild bird, but this is not available to pet birds. Foraging enrichments are an effort to give back this primary physical and mental activity. Many pet birds have limited foraging skills, therefore programs should start with very simple challenges that the bird easily complete.
The foraging methods should be similar to the natural feeding behaviour of the particular avian species. Ground feeding birds such as cockatiels can be offered a foraging tray; a large, ﬂat area ﬁlled with shredded paper or other inedible material with food sprinkled among this material. The birds can then walk around and ﬁnd food as would occur in the wild. Birds that feed in trees can have foraging items hung around the cage and play areas.
Training is a useful enrichment technique and it increases the bird’s quality as companion as well. In addition to providing mental stimulation, training can also help to make the bird’s daily care easier (e.g.: step-up training to move the bird in and out of the cage).
Provide multiple toys from reliable sources for your bird. Change the toys from time to time to provide a new form of entertainment. The toys should be made of “bird safe” materials in case the bird swallows the pieces.
In our Retail Shop we sell a large number of veterinarian approved parrot toys.
All our bird toys have been tested by Dr Gail’s Macaws, Amazons and Eclectus parrots.
L. Shannon-Nunn, C. D’Arezzo – Parrot-toys and play areas: How to put some fun into your parrot’s life?
M.S. Athan: Guide to companion parrot behavior
M.S. Athan: Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot
Exercise has tremendous beneﬁcial effects in birds, just like with humans!
Physical activity is known to help in the prevention of many common physical and mental health problems.
Pet birds are generally inactive. As the birds are getting older, this worsens and contributes to a variety of health problems. There are many forms of exercise for birds. However, creativity may be required to encourage your bird to exercise without increasing stress. Birds are adapted to ﬂight and it may be the most natural form of exercise for these animals. Therefore, a safe area for ﬂight could be made available. This ﬂight area is usually easier to achieve with smaller and well-trained birds. Flight cages or large aviaries can be very difficult to maintain for most owners in Hong Kong due to having smaller homes. Special bird harnesses are available that can allow controlled outdoor ﬂight in a trained bird. However their use usually needs appropriate training and lots of patience.
Many pet parrots in Hong Kong have trimmed wings and they require another form of exercise. The bird can be easily trained to perform wing ﬂapping exercises. The wing flapping works well to burn calories and the birds usually enjoy it very much. You may train a bird to flap when sitting on our wrist or on a T – perch or rod. Once the bird is sitting comfortably raise your arm or the perch up and down. The bird should flap! Do it slowly and gently at first, and speed up as the bird gets used to it.
During a consultation or ‘health check’ please ask our veterinarians for more details.
Behavioural problems are very common in pet birds. The most common forms are the following:
– Feather damaging behaviour
– Excessive vocalisation
– Over bonding
If you suspect your pet bird has a behavioural issue, please bring your bird in for a consultation. When you bring your bird in also bring in photographs of your cage set-up at home and also if possible video tape of the behaviour.
Before dealing with a suspected behavioural issue our veterinarians will need to rule out any medical causes of behaviour problems. If your bird if found to clinically healthy then we be able to schedule ‘behavioural’ consultation with you and your bird to help to work with you to modify your birds behaviour.
This can at times be very time consuming.
Ideally please learn as much as you can about bird behaviour and help your pet bird lead as enriched a life as possible, this will help prevent problems developing.
It is generally easier to prevent a behavioural problem from occurring rather than trying to treat them after the bad behaviour has been established.
L. Shannon-Nunn, C. D’Arezzo – Parrot-toys and play areas: How to put some fun into your parrot’s life?
M.S. Athan: Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior
M.S. Athan: Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot