Learn more about how to provide a thorough review of older parrots to help them maintain the best quality of life
Speaking at the 2023 Veterinary Meeting & Expo (VMX) in Orlando, Florida, Susan Orosz, PhD, DVM, DABVP (Avian), DECZM (Avian), owner of the Bird and Exotic Pet Wellness Center in Toledo, Ohio, focused on a niche population in veterinary medicine, patients with geriatric parrots.1 What classifies these birds as geriatric? It varies from each species, however, Orosz finds in clinical practice that around the age of 20 he begins to see signs of decline.
The “fountain of youth”
Birds have longer life spans than similarly sized mammals.2 The Russian explained: “[Birds] they have a slower aging rate, their cellular mechanisms are different and this allows them to have a longer life span. And we know it’s potentially true, or we think it’s true, because birds fly.” Flying is thought to help these animals avoid predation, and this, along with their body systems, provides them with a “fountain of youth”. However, like all other living creatures, they inevitably begin to age and suffer from conditions such as cancers, chronic liver disease, heart injuries, and everything in between. To help identify these diseases and maximize their quality of life, Orosz detailed how to successfully perform health exams on geriatric parrots.
Geriatric parrot health exam
The health exam should be tailored to each unique parrot. While some may only need annual visits, they are more likely to have to show up for a checkup twice a year. There are several components to this examination including the exploration of physical, behavioural, cognitive and orthopedic changes in the aging animal.
Some physical signs to look for in older parrots include feather quality and color (for example, shedding, change, and wear), impaired moulting, and preening. “That color starts to diminish, the amount of grooming will start to decrease…often there may be less grooming than overgrooming,” Orosz said. It is also important to examine the quality of the feet and grip strength as well as the posture of the wings. “Do they keep their wings like they used to or do they drop them? Don’t use them? she added.
Also, watch your ears and eyes for signs of cataracts and any masses that may develop with age or weight changes. Additionally, you emphasized performing auscultation. “We have this louder, wider sound [in the heart], maybe even a murmur? It’s ours [heart] rate the same, is our pace the same? So after listening to the heart I switch my focus and want to listen to the lungs for crackles or changes. She noted that the respiratory recovery time should be around 3-5 minutes.
To get an idea if the bird’s behavior has changed, ask customers questions about their movement, such as if they fly or move more often or if there are changes in where and how they perch in their cage. Orosz said behavioral changes can indicate pain or mental impairment.
Veterinarians should also assess and detail a geriatric parrot’s cognition. The complexity of thinking varies by species—for example, Orosz noted, “I’m an Amazon owner, so I’m the first person to tell you that Amazons aren’t as smart as cockatoos.” Therefore, it is important to keep in mind any cognitive changes for that specific patient from the owner’s perspective. These are often subtle, so any photos or videos the client can provide can be helpful in detecting something wrong with the bird.
Orosz shared that it’s invaluable to not only look at, but also feel the animal. “We want to feel around the head. You want to look for bulges, you want to look for changes in how the beak is sitting on the bird, you want to feel the crop. Also, feel each wing and joint; as birds get older, they can get arthritis in various places, such as the shoulders or legs. He recommended looking at the feet and “particularly the plantar surfaces which will tend to become smoother. You will get redness on one foot in relation to the other” if an orthopedic problem is present.
- S Oroz. Geriatric parrots: diagnostic and therapeutic options. Presented at: Veterinary Meeting & Expo; Orlando, Florida. 14-18 January 2023.
- Mittermeier JC The surprisingly complex science of bird longevity. American Bird Conservation. January 29, 2021. Accessed January 18, 2023. https://abcbirds.org/blog21/bird-longevity