Because birds are so adept at pretending to be healthy when they are actually quite sick, owners must learn to be more observant and pick up the more subtle clues that their bird is not doing well. It is much more difficult for bird owners to become aware of their pet’s poor health than it is for people who own dogs and cats. Most bird owners do not recognize that their bird is ill until the bird is so sick that it is fluffed up on the perch with its eyes partially closed. The owners of these sick birds often report to their avian veterinarian that their bird looked perfectly healthy the day before. The truth is that these “suddenly” sick birds have probably been sick for weeks or even months but have been able to maintain a relatively normal appearance until now. In other words birds that are presented to a veterinarian with a history of being sick for “one day” are almost always much sicker than their dog or cat counterpart with a similar history.
Because birds have such a high metabolic rate they eat much more often then dogs and cats. Consequently, it is usually hard for an owner to detect when a bird’s food consumption drops by 10 to 20 %. One way to detect when a bird’s appetite has decreased is to keep count of the average number of droppings your bird produces daily. If the number decreases by as little 10% for two to three days in a row then your bird is very likely ill and needs veterinary care.
A second way to detect your bird’s decreased appetite is to weigh the bird daily at approximately the same time. Unfortunately, for birds the size of cockatiels or smaller you need a scale that can detect changes as small as 1gram. Keep in mind that a 30 gram parakeet needs only a 3 gram weight loss (10%) for his or her condition to become a concern. These digital scales are available but are relatively expensive ($150.00). For bigger birds a good food scale that measures in “tens of grams” is sufficient and much less expensive. Weighing your bird regularly may save your bird’s life and is well worth the expense and time involved.
Because birds have feathers, it is very difficult for a bird owner to just look at his or her pet and see that it has lost weight. Birds presented to me are frequently at the point of emaciation and yet their owners are totally surprised when I informed them of the seriousness of their bird’s condition. Consequently, it is very important to learn how to handle your bird and give it a quick exam on a regularly scheduled basis (preferably weekly). If you do nothing more than feel the thickness of your bird’s breast musculature and the prominence of the keel bone (breast bone) as it passes down the center of the chest, you would be doing your bird and yourself a great favor.
A healthy bird should rarely sneeze. Because of a bird’s size the sound of a bird sneezing often goes undetected until the problem becomes more advanced. Consequently, by the time most owners here their bird sneeze a well established sinusitis or upper respiratory infection is present. Discolored feathers directly above a bird’s nostrils (nares) or plugged up nostrils are subtle signs that the bird is not well.
Bird owners should examine their bird’s feet carefully. If the bottom of the foot is developing reddened areas then the bird should be seen by an avian veterinarian who can prevent the bird from developing a full blown case of “bumble foot” or infectious pod dermatitis. Excessive flakiness on the legs and tops of feet and toes is often an early indication of malnutrition. Rough looking feathers and overgrown beaks and nails are often signs that a bird is less active and not grooming itself as much.
The point I would like to make is that birds need to be regularly examined and keenly observed by their owners in order to detect the more subtle signs of illness as early as possible. Any bird that does not act or appear physically normal for more than 24 hours should be examined by a veterinarian that day. Waiting to see if your bird will improve in the next 2 or 3 days or using patent medicine for a week will waste valuable time and perhaps jeopardize the life of your bird. The sad fact is that much too often I am presented with a bird that “just got sick” 3 days ago but is now at deaths door.