Providing a Heat Source in a Bird Health Emergency

When something goes wrong with a bird, it can deteriorate into a crisis very quickly. It has been one of those weeks for me again!

With 9 birds in my personal flock and plenty of rescue work; it’s getting to the point where not only does my vet know my birds and I (without having to look up our names in his computer), but I think he could almost tell you my star sign, favourite colour and what everyone in my family had for breakfast. There are days when I feel truly sorry for him!

This week, my elderly Rosebreasted cockatoo/Galah, “Cocky Boy” became extremely ill.  The beginning signs were subtle and mixed. His weight was stable and his appetite was good, so it was possible to think nothing was wrong. He was destroying toys, coming up with new words and was very affectionate. So on the one hand – I was quite happy with him.

On the other hand, his poo had  decreased in size (for him) and increased in frequency. Admittedly, his poo was normal for any of my other galahs but importantly it wasn’t normal for him.

The other sign was that he had decided to sleep on a flat surface instead of on his favourite sleeping perch. I have become accustomed to watching for that in order to tell how his arthritis is affecting him. If he is reluctant to perch – I usually need to increase his pain medication to the temporarily higher prescribed dose. So this is what I did.

Cocky Boy sitting under a heat lamp.

How the light looks without my camera flash!

I knew my vet wasn’t at the clinic for the next two days (why do birds always get sick out of hours or on your vet’s day off????) I knew my vet’s next available appointments would be filling quickly so I booked the first available just in case.

It wasn’t at the emergency stage yet. It was likely just his arthritis BUT I figured it couldn’t hurt to play it safe and if nothing developed – I could have Cocky Boy’s arthritis medication reassessed. There was also a cyst that I wanted the vet to look at too.

For the next 2 days, I kept Cocky Boy warm and quiet. Nothing major happened but he was still giving me mixed signals so it was obvious to me that the increase in pain medication wasn’t fixing the issue and that there was possibly something else going on.

The morning of the appointment came and things had changed very quickly. Cocky Boy was sneezing, shivering on and off and looked like he was about to drop dead on me at any moment. On the flip side, he was still eating and his weight was still stable. Go figure!!! I was suddenly very glad I had made that appointment.

The appointment was scheduled for late afternoon as my vet had surgeries scheduled for the first part of the day. I still had to get Cocky Boy through the day. It was time for some emergency critical care.

A few hours of 'critical emergency care' and he started perching properly again and became stable enough to travel.

The first thing I address in a situation like this is always temperature. A bird’s normal temperature is 40.5 degrees Celsius/104.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Birds find it hard to maintain this when their system is under some sort of stress. An external heat source is extremely useful in these circumstances.

For a short term, a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel, a sock filled with heated rice… those sorts of things will work. A much safer way of doing it though would be to have some sort of heat source in your bird’s First Aid Kit. I personally have three options on hand.

My favourite heat lamp with 50W red globe. The ceramic surround absorbs and continues to give off heat for several hours after it has been turned off. It also gently glows in the dark.

The most useful is a heat lamp. My favourite, is one with a ceramic bowl surrounding the globe fixture. I use a 50W red heat globe. The ceramic bowl helps direct the heat and actually absorbs some of the energy, continuing to provide warmth after the light is switched off. The higher the wattage of globe, the warmer it is. The aim isn’t to cook the bird, so 50W is adequate. This is actually a reptile product. It’s safe for birds as long as you ensure the bird can’t access the electrical wires or touch the lamp. So set it on the outside of a cage!!!

Ceramic heat globe with cage fitting that allows some of the heat to escape.

I have found that the light can disturb a bird at night. So my second option is actually a ceramic globe that emits no light. These globes tend to generate more heat than the red heat globes, so they can get too hot. 60W is the lowest wattage that I have been able to purchase. Consequently I have a different fitting that I can put this globe into. Instead of the ceramic bowl, I have a cage fitting that allows some of the heat to escape. The globe will still fill into the bowl fitting though, which in this particular instance I have used at night for Cocky Boy as we’re having particularly cold nights at the moment. If it were summer, I’d be using the cage fitting.

My heat mat and car/wall adapters. The black pouch is padded and helps protect the hard green surface.

My third heat option isn’t a reptile product but a cat/dog one. It’s a heat mat. It has a padded protective case, and multiple temperature settings. Obviously a bird might chew on this, so it isn’t ideal. However, there are situations when it is perfect. If the bird is really far-gone and you want it to lie directly onto something warm, this mat is perfect. It’s a very gentle heat. When I say far-gone I mean unconscious or not capable of chewing anything.

The heat mat has another significant advantage. Mine has an adapter that allows me to plug it in to the cigarette lighter of my car – meaning I can still provide consistent heat to an animal while I transport it to a vet.

My rescue basket. There is an unconscious galah in there (hit by a car on freeway). Note the cord for the heat mat is coming out and running to my car's cigarette lighter. Heat and dark are both important for treating shock.

I have lost count of how many times this instant form of heat has saved an animal for me. I credit it with saving Fid (my Blue and Gold Macaw), when he passed out while traveling back home from a vet appointment (bad reaction to an injection). Similarly, this helped save my galah Nemo, when I first got her and pulled her unconscious from the mouth of a cat. I’ve also used it in a lot of rescue cases, so for everything from a possum to an echidna.

On his way to the vet, Cocky Boy looks deceptively healthy compared to how he was at home.

Back to Cocky Boy: he stabilized under the red globe during the day. He slowly improved and climbed onto a perch next to the lamp. He was still fluffed but not about to drop dead on me any more. The sneezing had stopped.

I’d also given him some Quik Gel, which is an Australian vet’s product (Rob Marshall) that I keep on hand for these sorts of emergencies (think like an energy/electrolyte drink but for birds). It’s fantastic but different vets recommend different things like this, in different countries (it’s not really a phone thing), so I’d advise talking to your vet before using/buying something like this.
By the time Cocky Boy got to the vet, he looked almost normal. This is where the Visual Health Record that I keep was important. I was able to photographically show the vet what had happened at home, so he didn’t think I was exaggerating and could judge the symptoms accurately himself.

Visual Health Record photo extract. This is Cocky Boy on the morning of his vet visit. He didn't even have the energy to sit up. (Taken a few hours before the above traveling pic, it's hard to believe it's the same bird.)

Cocky Boy’s poo test showed he is dealing with a mild infection. So he’s on antibiotics. His blood tests have confirmed that it’s nothing particularly serious. It’s just that when a bird is over sixty years old, even a minor illness can suddenly become dangerous. So needless to say, he’s been pretty touch and go.

The heat lamp has become essential. It’s no longer a case of keeping him going until I can get him to the vet but it’s actually part of the treatment. If I didn’t have my own little hospital set-up at home, he’d actually need to be hospitalized at the vet’s.  It’s a relief to avoid stressing him out with that!

At the vet's. This is picture of a bird (not mine) that was hospitalised with complications caused by PBFD. This is a reptile tank, with a red heat globe (with black casing ). The aim is to keep the tank at about 26 Degrees Celsius/79 Degrees Fahrenheit, to help keep the bird stable.

The heat lamp has been on 24-7 and while he is improving and comes away from it to eat or play, he still goes through bouts of shivering and goes back to sleep under it.  The arthritis is still a problem and is still being worked on.  I’m in daily contact with my vet and we’re monitoring how the infection is going and where we’re at with the arthritis. In the meantime, he’s warm and happy enough to be throwing bits of broccoli at the cat – so I think he’s ok for now.

Cocky Boy next to the heat lamp, a few days after seeing the vet. Stable but still 'under observation'.

 Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.


shirley martin

I use a 10 gal. aquarium with a heat panel that has a thermostat control when I pull my babies for hand feeding. You can get the panel for a 10 0r 20 gal. aquarium. It works great for a sick bird also. I have saved several birds with this. You can order it from Avitech.

shirley martin

thank you for sharing your great information, you have/will have helped a lot of birds and their owners — (:)>

Deb Wickenheiser

I got Diva when I turned age 50. She was only 5 months old at the time. Here we are 8 years later and your article makes me hope Diva has such a wonderful, caring, knowledgeable person to take care of her in the years after we are gone. God Bless you Mel, for your loving compassion for our “lesser” creatures (and NO I don’t believe that word “lesser” is anywhere near accurate). Cocky Boy is so lucky to have you in his life.

Deb Wickenheiser
Patsy Jessup

Best wishes to Cocky .Hope he recovers soon…

Patsy Jessup
Ayesha Sultana

‘’It’s just that when a bird is over sixty years old, even a minor illness can suddenly become dangerous.’’ did you just say he is over sixty years old??? :O

Ayesha Sultana

Yeah and that’s not a typo! He has outlived his previous owners by a LOT. Amazing isn’t it?


Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published