To me, the loss of a pet is like the loss of a family member. It takes a long time to fill the void they leave behind. I lost my aged cat just shortly before I moved here to Orlando. He was a snuggly little thing and my constant companion. My ex-husband used to tell me that I preferred cuddling with my cat at night to him. He was correct. My cat never hogged the covers or elbowed me in the face by accident in the middle of the night. Every night when I crawl into bed, I feel the ache of realization that he will not be joining me.
The same holds true for the loss of Abu, my first umbrella cockatoo, about six years ago. Even after her cage was later occupied by Linus (my current umbrella cockatoo) who eventually handed it down to Theo (my goffins cockatoo), it still felt like Abu’s cage. When it came time to move here, I had a very hard time letting go of that cage, even though it was old and had been around the block a few times.
It is sometimes hard to make clear headed decisions and look to the future when your heart is broken by loss. However, it is really important, at this time, that you consider the well-being of any remaining birds when there has been a death in the flock, or if you think that you might eventually get another single bird. This is a learning experience that could improve the life of your new bird, or current birds, and keep them safe from whatever claimed this one.
A necropsy is an autopsy that is performed on an animal to determine cause of death or to find the underlying cause of the suspected cause of death. Nobody, no bird, just drops dead. There is always a reason for a failure in the system. Hearts don’t just stop beating, lungs don’t stop demanding air, livers and kidneys don’t cease to function without a reason. A necropsy will help tell you why. For those of us with multiple birds, we need to consider the ramifications of this death, especially if contagious disease is a consideration.
Here’s an example: When I lived in Chicago many years ago, back when I had my first birds, I had some friends who owned a pet shop specializing in birds. They also were cockatiel breeders. I got Henry from them. He was my third cockatiel, and was born with some congenital defects. Though none of them were serious, we felt sure that it would be a reason for him not to find a good home, so I took him, as I did other babies with more serious problems. Several months into his life, it was determined that he was not as well off as we had hoped. His poops were continually runny and no cause could be determined, but these were not avian vets, if any even existed at that time. I was told, and agreed, that Henry would not last the remainder of the year. I decided to make him as comfortable as possible.
Henry fooled us all, and was laying eggs in her third year (Henry was now called “Hen”), but in her seventh year she started eating frantically, wouldn’t let the other birds near the food dishes, and I started noticing a weight loss. I took her to the vet and within a week she lost another quarter of her weight. She was literally starving to death, all the while eating constantly. Her condition was dire and I had to make that horrible decision to put her down. We considered PDD as a possible cause and the vet recommended a necropsy be done, especially since she was housed with the other three cockatiels, and there were other birds in the house as well.
Hen’s results came back as inconclusive. There were signs of extreme malnutrition, which we expected to see since she had been eating excessively, but losing weight dramatically. But we still had no idea why her body was not utilizing the food she was eating. What we did know is that she showed none of the signs of PDD, and that the rest of my flock was safe. Sometimes birds with congenital defects have defects internally, the problems from which don’t surface until later in life. I had to satisfy myself with that as an answer.
I’m glad I had an exhaustive necropsy done. It gave me peace of mind if nothing more. I often think about a woman I know who lost five of her flock of eight to PDD because she didn’t follow through with the necropsy, assuming her older amazon had died of age related illness and not disease.
In cases where the cause of death has been determined to be something controllable, such as poor diet, unclean conditions, or simply the lack of awareness of basic care, this knowledge can save your current flock or a new bird from possibly facing the same manner of death.
Your vet can tell you how to find a pathologist to perform the necropsy, or will have one of their own to use. The first thing you want to do is quickly preserve the body as best you can. Place the bird in a ziplock bag (larger birds will need to go into a trash bag with the end tied off tightly) and put it into the refrigerator. NEVER FREEZE the remains. This will cause damage to some tissue that might be needed for accurate testing. While transporting, place the bird in a styrofoam ice chest with ice packs in it. Place newspaper in between the bird’s body and the ice to prevent freezing.
Bring along your bird’s history (your vet can send their records to the pathologist) as well as information about the age and species of your bird, the diet it was fed and anything relevant to its death, such as recent seizures or inability to stay balanced, regurgitation etc. This history will help give clues as to what a pathologist is looking for.
Very basically, the necropsy procedure is this: first, the external body is examined for signs that might tell the pathologist what he may be looking for, then the organs are examined. Many times, the pathologist will have a very good idea as to the cause of death from the condition of the organs. At this point, it is determined which blood, body fluid, bone, feather or tissues samples may go out for further testing. The initial results take only a few days, but the testing of samples may take several weeks and the cost will vary according to what tests are being run.
It’s hard to think about the death of one of your birds, but at some point, you will probably be faced with it. In the midst of your heartbreak, try not to let your bird have died in vain. Not only does a necropsy help you identify a potential disease in your home and protect your existing flock, but each necropsy helps advance avian sciences.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.