The Importance of an Annual Well Bird Exam

Q: I have two yellow naped amazons that are the picture of good health. Do I really need to take them to the vet once a year?
– Byron L., Jacksonville, FL

A: Many of us who have had parrots for a while know what signs to look for when they are ill. We feed them an optimum diet, watch and regulate their weights and observe their droppings on a daily basis. These are great practices to follow, but they do not tell us everything. The onset of disease is a slow process that in most cases won’t present itself in the form of symptoms until until it has progressed. By the time you can see these symptoms in a bird, it is often by then very ill. This is where the annual well bird exam is so valuable.

The exam will begin with the vet weighing and assessing the outward appearance and demeanor of your bird.  During this time he will ask you several questions about your bird’s environment and diet. It is very important that you be honest with the vet in answering questions. If your bird is not eating well, you should disclose this so that the vet is aware of the potential effects of that on your bird. He may also offer you some helpful suggestions in making necessary changes.

Following this is be the very important CBC, which checks the blood count and can tell you, among other things, if there is infection present (as indicated by a high white blood count).

Next is the equally important blood chemistry panel, which is a series of different tests checking for the levels of glucose, uric acid and calcium in the body and a test for liver function. There are more tests that might be required by your vet based on your bird’s history and current findings.

The last test that must be performed is the gram stain. Your vet will take a cloaca and colon swab from your bird and check it on a slide for the amounts and types of bacteria present.

These are the most basic and most needed components of the well bird exam. A proper exam should never exclude any of these tests, and might necessitate more.

These test results will provide your vet with a baseline that can be used as reference as to what is normal for your bird in subsequent years. Without these tests, you remain the dark as to your bird’s overall health. The onset of illness and disease can be derailed early, cutting vet costs for you considerably down the road, and perhaps saving your bird’s life.

I want to stress the importance of having an avian certified veterinarian. A bird’s physiology is is different from that of mammals.  A vet without avian experience might be unaware of the specific needs of a parrot, unaware of the diseases they are prone to, and unaware of how to treat them. At the very least, you might be sent home with a medication intended for use in dogs and cats when there are those available to better treat avian ailments.  A vet without avian expertise may not understand species specific inclinations, and may not know what to look for in test results, or how to advise you in terms of diet etc for the species of bird you have.

If you live in an area where an avian certified vet is not available, choose the nearby vet that has the best experience. Ask questions, get references and ask him if he has avian certified colleagues with whom he can discuss the more difficult cases.  Check to see if your local university has a veterinary department (hopefully handling exotics) that might be able to help you in times of need.

A number of people have voiced their concerns over the years that they are hesitant to take their healthy bird into an establishment where an unhealthy bird may just have been. I understand this, and have given it considerable thought. My opinion is that you should share these concerns with your vet. A clean examining table and room should be one the of the first considerations you make when selecting a vet. If you are unsatisfied in this area, you should shop around for a new one.

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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