This is the longest blogpost that I have ever written so I give you that warning and apologise for the length but I’m trying to be fairly comprehensive as this information isn’t easy to find if you need it. (Don’t worry – I believe in using pictures to break things up!) This post contains information for a stage of life we all hope our birds will get to. If your bird reaches old age or has a disability, there might be some helpful ideas here for you.
I have been dreading this day. This is the day when my elderly galah, Cocky Boy’s state of health has deteriorated to the next stage of age-related issues. I’ve been dreading today because I had run out of ideas of how to make his environment any more ‘disability friendly’ than it already was. I had thought that if anything else came up, apart from having his medications adjusted, there wouldn’t be much else that I could do to help maintain his quality of life. I’m pleased to say that my fears were unfounded – it turns out that there is yet another stage to adjusting a cage to suit a very old, very disabled bird.
Older birds have an increased need for health intervention. They are prone to a range of things, including (but not limited to): heart, liver or kidney diseases, cancer, musculoskeletal issues (so think arthritis, weak bones, bumblefoot), feather issues (particularly feather loss), eye problems and reproductive issues (particularly in females). There is also evidence to suggest that their immune system is in decline so they’re more susceptible to contagious diseases. Don’t think that they’re immune to younger bird problems either. My Galah Cocky Boy might be around 64 years old but he’s just as hormonal (prone to human hand humping) as his younger flock mates.
Considering that I’m moving on to the next stage of care with Cocky Boy – I thought it was timely to do a summary of the different things that have helped Cocky Boy in the last 4 years because there isn’t a lot of information out there about what to do when a bird becomes a geriatric.
Cocky Boy came to me through another wildlife rescuer’s intervention 4 years ago. The rescuer had been to a house to rescue a baby wild bird and had spotted Cocky Boy (who was clearly very ill) in a rusty old cage behind the house, without shelter from the weather. She called me in to find a resolution. The family that owned him weren’t cruel people – they just had no idea what to do with a bird. Considering that he’d put their daughter in hospital, (having bitten her finger through to the bone) they were too scared of him to have him in the house near the children or to even put their hands in his cage to put food or water in. Instead seed was tipped in from above and a hose was used to fill a very dirty water bowl.
Cocky Boy had only been with them for about 3 months. He had outlived his previous owners and had been inherited by the 13-year-old daughter. The mother told me that she didn’t know the exact age of the bird, but could trace him back 60 years. Her ex-husband’s parents had had the bird their entire married life and she could remember the 50th Wedding anniversary a few years back. Her ex-husband’s father had owned the bird prior to being married for a few years at least, so that put the bird at around the age of 60. Due to divorce, she hadn’t really had much contact with that side of the family and knew nothing of Cocky Boy’s medical history or even how he was cared for. All she knew was that he was disabled and asked for peanuts a lot. So she gave him peanuts (salted) and a seed mix heavy with sunflower seed – because that’s what the supermarket sells for parrots.
The family were very relieved to re-home Cocky Boy somewhere where there were other birds to give him some company. They didn’t believe he was a bird that could be tamed. They believed that he was vicious and dangerous and had only been tame for the one person and that those days had ended when that person died. After 60 years with an owner, they had a point. This was a bird that was grieving the loss of his owner, his long time home and basically everything he had ever known. Aside from that, he was malnourished, suffering from severe crippling arthritis; even the lightest touch hurt him. No wonder he was biting.
The first stage of dealing with Cocky Boy was relatively easy. It was a matter of getting him to a vet, onto a better diet and treating the arthritis. This worked. Environment wise, I gave him a cage with horizontal bars so that it was easier for him to climb around. I wouldn’t normally recommend a cage with horizontal bars for a flighted bird (can damage feathers), but for Cocky Boy it was perfect. In terms of perches, he appreciated a good curve that sort-of gripped him on either side.
The next stage came about when Cocky Boy started to show signs of having balance problems. I noticed the issue when reviewing my surveillance camera footage. If he thought no one was watching him, when he was sitting on a perch, he’d lean forward and steady himself by grabbing a cage bar, approximately every 30 seconds. He also didn’t move around as much. He didn’t display this behaviour when he could see you, so without the camera I might have missed it. This led to the most drastic environment change that I’ve had to make with him.
I introduced him to wooden platforms with perches resting on them. If he wanted to sit on a flat surface he could, if he wanted to use a perch – he could. The idea was to prevent foot problems (e.g. bumblefoot) that can be caused by uniform perches. It also worked to prevent him falling and hurting himself. The other advantage was that it seemed to give him confidence to move around again. The key idea was to give him a choice of surface while minimising the risk of injury.
I connected the platforms with a series of ramps. I also used wire grills instead of wood in certain choice places that I knew he tended to use as a toilet, allowing droppings to fall through to paper below. The other thing that I found necessary was a change in food/water bowls. Shallow ceramic dishes became essential, as he just couldn’t get into anything deep.
This worked for a while. However, I wasn’t convinced that his arthritis was being managed properly. He went back to the vet and medications were again prescribed for erratic use on a “as needed but not long term” basis. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me as his condition was a permanent one and you don’t get much more long term than that? Repeated vet visits with ongoing issues and I began to get very frustrated that I wasn’t being heard. Three days of prescribed treatment seemed beyond ridiculous for a permanent condition. It occurred to me that even a very qualified vet could be wrong and that I had a responsibility to question his treatment. In fairness, a bird in his sixties isn’t something a vet sees everyday. So I got a second opinion and changed to a different avian vet. I was so happy with the new vet, that despite the previous vet having my flock’s histories, I brought all of my birds across to the new vet.
Consistent medication made a drastic difference to Cocky Boy’s quality of life. He began to get around more easily. His legs were still seriously deformed and he still couldn’t fly. Which brings me to the next stage – what happens when a galah is active? Mess is what happens. Lots of mess. Suddenly the wooden platforms weren’t so wonderful. They were VERY hard to clean and very disruptive to replace. So I removed them. I replaced them with wire grills/ferret platforms and placed ceramic tiles on top. The tiles were a matte finish, so they weren’t slippery and weren’t cold to touch. Cleaning became easy again, as they simply lifted out without removing the whole platform. I kept the ‘toilet’ gaps by cutting some smaller tiles.
This worked for a while, but things didn’t stay great. His health deteriorated again and this time something was really wrong. The vet discovered a heart condition. For a while, I figured this really was going to kill him, but I was wrong about that. Medication worked again. Except this time the medications needed to be specially compounded because they’re not off-the-shelf drugs for birds. Apparently the world has a shortage of 64-year-old galahs demanding heart medications? We had a minor setback when he had an allergic reaction to a medium the pharmacist used to mix the medications up, but fortunately we could easily identify it was the medium and not the drug (as I’d been compounding the drug by hand with water while we worked on the dosage and he’d been fine then).
The heart condition led to yet another environment change for Cocky Boy. This time the change was an addition of a heat lamp. I started with a red globe, but he had a really bad reaction to that – screaming at night. It was his: “I’m in pain” scream, not his: “Give me a nut” scream. I did some research and found some studies that linked red globes to eye problems in chickens, others said they didn’t cause eye problems. It was incredibly frustrating to find such contradictory results. I think in 5 years time, we might have an answer to what the best heat globe is – which doesn’t help me now. So in the meantime I purchased a ceramic heat globe that emits no light and isn’t Teflon coated – problem solved in more ways than one.
The heat globe is on 24-7 unless it is a really warm day. He sleeps next to it. The globe is on the outside of the cage, because any direct contact will result in a burn (that rule applies to human fingers too). Talking to others with elderly birds – they’ve also found added heat essential, whether their bird has a heart condition or not. Healthy birds don’t need an added heat source, but a frail old bird does. I can’t stress that enough. He wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the heat lamp. If he doesn’t need it, he’ll move away to another part of the cage. How much time he spends huddled near it gives me a pretty good idea when he isn’t doing well and needs his medications adjusted.
The vet changed up Cocky Boy’s arthritis meds again and suddenly I had to readjust platform heights in Cocky Boy’s cage because his posture changed. He was now able to sit up more, which made him taller. I have the platforms at different levels of the cage so that he can choose what height he is at (choice is a big thing around here). Suddenly Cocky Boy needed his platforms lowered to prevent him hitting his head on the cage roof. Cocky Boy also recovered the ability to fly. You can imagine my shock in having a crippled bird suddenly fly again. His cage is intentionally small because flight puts a strain on his heart. This way I can control the amount of flying he does; limiting it to out of cage supervised play.
You can see why I thought I had reached my limit with arranging a disabled cage? Ramps, platforms, special perches (cactus perches turned out to be great because the holes helped him get a decent grip), heat, allocated toilet area, shallow food dishes, a diet that had been adjusted to his needs, toys that weren’t hanging but that could be played with on the ground, patches of grass and foliage, specially made medications… what does that leave to do?
This brings me to his current stage. A side effect of the heart medication is that he is on the lighter side when it comes to body condition. His feathers and posture disguise just how thin he is. His keel bone is prominent. He can’t afford to lose weight and consequently has a slightly different diet from my other birds, to help him keep the weight he has. He also has a very minor bald patch on his lower abdomen, where (due to his deformed feet) he rubs it as he walks or rests on a perch/surface. (Feather loss is something older birds deal with.)
Cocky Boy recently developed a pressure sore at the base of his keel bone. It was bad enough to trigger an emergency vet run. Rather than add more medications to the mix (5 meds twice daily is a lot), the vet prescribed a topical treatment. This helped to stop the wound from getting infected but it didn’t stop the problem of him resting on this one spot. I needed to make another environment change.
Padding his perches was an obvious solution. A layer of felt, covered by vet wrap did the trick. Vet wrap is a self-adhesive veterinary bandage that doesn’t actually contain adhesive (which could be toxic); instead its texture allows it to stick to itself. You can usually purchase it through your vet. In this case it covered and waterproofed the felt. Wrapping the last layer of Vet wrap loosely, gave the perch a wrinkled texture, making it easier for Cocky Boy to grip the perch. I didn’t do every perch in the cage, just a few main ones. Again, giving him the choice of what he wants to sit on is important to me.
This didn’t entirely solve my problem. He was still choosing to sleep on a flat surface like a hen rather than a perch, which meant the sore was still resting/rubbing on the tile. In fact, to relieve this he’d often go to sleep in his food bowl. You can imagine how hard it was to keep his wound clean.
Ironically Cocky Boy himself had given me the answer. He particularly liked to sleep in a dish that contained seed, pellets or sprouts. This reminded me of something hospitals do here to prevent pressure sores in human bed-ridden patients – they use a “pressure mattress”. A pressure mattress contains some sort of grain, so it moves under the person and prevents the development of sores. Consequently, I found myself getting a re-sealable plastic sandwich bag, filling it with brown rice while being careful to seal the bag without trapping air in it. I placed the bag in a pillowcase to prevent the bird being able to access the plastic, and to make it less slippery. Suddenly I had a pressure mattress for a bird that I could place on the tile near his heat lamp. He loves it. A week later and the pressure sore is gone.
There is no how-to guide for an elderly or disabled bird. If you’ve got one, 90% of what you do is going to come down to your own creativity and if you’re lucky, your vet’s ideas will help. Caring for one isn’t an easy thing. It’s expensive. Vet checkups can be necessary every couple of months.
I’ve got a cat vet that thinks I’m a mental case because I laughed when she told me that having a newly diagnosed diabetic cat would mean a “confronting lifestyle change” for me. Apparently I need to get used to the idea of keeping spreadsheets of information, being with my animal at certain specific times like clockwork in order to administer injections, watching for subtle changes and not being able to easily leave the animal in someone else’s care? She didn’t see the humour in that because she had no idea that a few extra statistics noted on my clipboard and a 12 hourly injection sounded like heaven to me compared to what I face with Cocky Boy. There’s not a lot of difference between looking at the colour a strip changes to when stuck in cat urine, to looking at the colour and texture of a bird’s poo when you really come down to it. So much for a lifestyle change!
Ethically speaking, euthanizing is something that you wonder if you should be considering? Personally, I do weigh up his quality of life. He sleeps more than a younger bird but I’m confident he’s pain-free; he still plays with toys; destroys stuff and interacts with my flock. He might require a supported environment to achieve those activities, but as long as he’s enjoying it – I’ll put in the work to keep him happy. It’s a fine line I walk.
If you have a disabled or elderly bird, please share your ideas in the comments below. I know I’m not alone in constantly looking for more ways to make a bird’s life comfortable. I’m back to dreading the next stage because I can’t imagine what it’s going to be and for now – I’ve run out of ideas again…