I spent most of last year wondering when I’d be writing a post saying that the worst had happened and my elderly Galah Cocky Boy had died from his heart condition? Every day felt like a battle and there did come a point where I found myself realizing that difficult decisions were coming. He seemed happier with treatment but his weight kept dropping. His body condition deteriorated with his decreased weight and it became obvious that if his weight dropped below 350grams, his condition would be so poor that there were real ethical problems with continuing to treat him and keep him alive. 350 grams is perfectly normal for some Galahs, but not for a bird of Cocky Boy’s size and usual body condition. His normal healthy weight was previously 465 grams. We’re talking a weight drop of 25% of his normal weight – so it was amazing that he was still alive.
Cocky Boy turns 64 years old this year. Yes you read that right. No I’m not drunk. Yes I mean human years. That’s based on how far back I can trace his life with humans. It’s possible he may even be older. So considering the textbooks say the galah lifespan averages 30-40 years… you can see why I thought this might be the end.
Well as it turns out – it wasn’t. Cocky Boy got went down to 351 grams, so yes it was a very close thing but it was at that point that he suddenly stabilized. That took a full six months of pretty much living under a heat lamp before I could call him stable. Gradually his weight started to increase and now he’s sitting on a new healthy average of 395 grams. Cocky Boy’s body condition is now at the lighter end of ‘normal’ and for a bird with a heart condition, a lighter normal is desirable.
The trick seemed to be finally getting his combination of medications right. Most of his medications are not off the shelf bird drugs. They are readily available for cats and dogs, but not for birds. Finding a parrot in Australia that has a heart condition, which has been detected early enough to treat, is not common enough to make the drugs readily available. Which explains why I was crushing and dissolving tablets while his vet experimented with doses. Once his vet was happy with the dose, a pharmacist had to specially compound the medications into a liquid for a bird.
The end result is a bird that is on 5 different drugs, each taken twice a day. (Some are for arthritis, others for his heart condition.) So that’s 10 doses of something a day and some of the drugs can’t be combined but need to be spaced out. There is no end date for this. This is permanent ongoing treatment for the rest of his life. Doses might change, but at the end of the day this is a bird that will see multiple syringes every day for the rest of his life. That’s pretty daunting. Especially as it had got to the point where he’d cringe when he saw a syringe.
There is a happy side effect to having to get medications specially compounded though. I can control what flavour the drugs are. Cocky Boy hated the taste of the crushed and dissolved tablets but he loves honey. So with every script that goes to the vet’s pharmacist, in goes the request for ‘honey flavour’. This has solved the problem of him cringing. Now if I’m 10 minutes late with his medication round he starts screaming: “WHERE’S MY PEANUTS????” and he angrily bashes toys against cage bars. I will never be allowed to forget!
I would have thought 10 doses of medication a day, should drastically impact on a bird’s quality of life in a negative way, but it hasn’t. Since introducing the honey flavoured version of his meds, he approaches them as a treat. The results the medicines have achieved are nothing short of a miracle.
This was a bird that was crippled with arthritis. He couldn’t fly (hadn’t for years) and he also couldn’t perch or walk like a normal bird would. He has needed a disabled cage setup since he came to me.
Under his new medication regime, his posture has changed, making him taller. It was like he suddenly grew an inch. I had to adjust perch heights and ramp angles to accommodate that. The biggest change though has been the fact that suddenly Cocky Boy can fly – and fly well.
You can probably imagine the shock of having a crippled bird suddenly not be crippled any more? His legs are still very badly deformed, but he’s smart enough to look for soft landing places such as a pillow. I believe the difference is the increase in anti-inflammatory medication for his arthritis in combination with the pain meds for his heart. He has been on anti-inflammatory medication for years but I’m inclined to wonder if this means that he was still hiding pain that was restricting movement? Higher doses seem to have helped.
I don’t personally believe in clipping wings unless there is a very good reason. This is the first time I’ve found myself considering it for a member of my flock. The problem with Cocky Boy suddenly flying is the stress that puts on his enlarged heart. How do you tell a bird that suddenly joyously discovers flight again after who knows how many years of being unable to, that he shouldn’t fly? And if I clip what impact would that have on a bird that has some serious balance issues due to his deformed feet and legs? But if I let him fly he could have a heart attack, or in the very least might end up in some serious angina pain? Yeah you can hear those and other arguments spinning around my head I’m sure.
In the end, I didn’t clip his wings but I have kept him in a disabled cage where he can still move around on his deformed feet, but it’s too small to fly. I haven’t encouraged him to fly around the house (distracting him with toys and treats) and that seems to have worked. Fortunately he seems content to just occasionally zip across a room. It still shocks me every time.
Reality is, he could still have a heart attack at any time, but it’s less likely now that he is on regular medication and his condition is generally good. He went back for a vet checkup last week and passed with flying colours. His increased agility has allowed him to play with different types of toys and interact with my other birds more than ever before. It’s also made him better at throwing stuff at the cat with more force. I’m not entirely thrilled about that and neither is the cat but if it makes him happy…
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.