We’ve already covered the early warning signs of problems. Now we’ll cover physical signs that may indicate that an illness has developed. If you see these signs, immediate veterinary care is needed. It cannot be emphasized enough that when a bird looks sick it is very ill and may have been sick for a prolonged period. Birds wish to hide their illnesses, and their makeup is such that they suffer from an illness for prolonged periods. Remember that each bird is a unique individual; it won’t show the same signs as another bird with the same illness. Some of the sick- est birds may show only one or two of these symptoms. Don’t be fooled into thinking that things must not be so bad because only one or two symptoms are present.
Sick birds tend to slouch much of the time. They may hunker over with both feet on the perch, and their wings might hang down a little. Early in the disease, when the bird has some strength, it might perch on one foot all the time, trying to rest and conserve energy. Later, it may feel too weak to tuck one leg up and will have both feet on the perch, even when sleeping. The head often is held low down between the shoulders, usually a bit forward. The bird might wish to sleep all the time, taking several naps each day.
The hallmark symptom of a sick bird is a fluffed, huddled appearance, although this is not always seen, especially with the largest birds. A sick bird has trouble maintaining normal body temperature, so it holds its feathers out to retain as much heat as possible. The fluffed-up appearance may be more prominent along its backbone. After all, when we feel sick, don’t we often feel coldest along the back? Caretakers who do not understand what a fluffed-up bird looks like often think their bird has grown larger or heavier.
The bird’s droppings might undergo serious, consistent changes. There may be excessive urine or urates in them, or there may be diarrhea. There might be a yellow or yellow-green color change to the urine. Droppings might develop a foul
odor. Droppings with seeds or other food in them are an indication that food is passing through the intestinal system undigested. This is a serious sign of illness, as is seeing blood in the droppings.
In addition to the quality and character of the droppings, be aware of the normal number of droppings your bird produces daily. Although this will vary from bird to bird, your companion should remain relatively consistent. If the number of droppings increases or decreases significantly, there is often a problem.
Breathing may become labored. The bird might start bobbing its tail with each breath. Worse yet, the bird might be open-mouth breathing, fluffed, and sleepy. Any sign of breathing difficulties is always of great concern.
The sickest birds often are those that huddle on the floor while they sleep, those that close their eyes all the time, or those that are very weak, can’t fly well, and even have trouble climbing from perch to perch. Those that keep their heads hang-ing all the time are critically ill.
All bird owners need to own a gram scale suitable for weighing their birds. When there is more than a 5 to 10 percent weight loss, your bird is sick.
Vomiting is always of great concern in a bird. Birds rarely vomit unless they are very sick. Unfortunately for many caretakers, it can be hard to recognize when they are vomiting. A bird will not projectile vomit; rather, it regurgitates the contents of its crop into its mouth and then shakes its head back and forth to remove the food from its mouth. A vomiting bird often looks like it has something posted to the sides of its head. Its feathers will seem streaked back, or perhaps there will be a little crusty appearance to the feathers on the sides of its head.
There is a difference between vomiting and behavioral regurgitation. Birds will regurgitate for their babies or a mate. If they have a close, loving relationship with you, they may start regurgitation for you. When birds vomit due to illness, they will do it at any time. When they are regurgitating behaviorally, they only do it when they are excited, when they are with you or perhaps when looking into a mirror.
(They are regurgitating for their “friend” in the mirror.)
Under the tail around the vent, the feathers might become pasted with feces and urates. This is especially common in weak birds that are sitting on the cage floor and have kidney disease or diarrhea. Any bird you think might be sick should be turned over to check for this problem. If present, in addition to taking the bird to the doctor, you will have to clean off the vent. Otherwise, your bird may not be able to defecate due to the obstruction of the pasted stools cause.
Birds that should have powder down, including African Grey Parrots, Cockatoos, and Cockatiels, can lose that powdery feel and look to their feathers. If a Cockatoo or African Grey has lost its ability to produce powder down feathers, its beak will look shiny, and the feathers will tend to look a little greasy. Complete loss of all the powder down is always a serious problem. A milder decrease in the amount may indicate illness as well.
Some birds may exhibit discharges from the eyes, nose, or mouth. Learn how to look into your bird’s mouth to know what is normal and what is abnormal. Your companion might allow you to open its mouth, or you may need to look when it yawns. Many birds will yawn when you gently rub their ears.
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