Insight on providing a thorough exam on older parrots to help them maintain the best quality of life
During a lecture at the 2023 Veterinary Meeting & Expo (VMX) in Orlando, Florida, Susan Orosz, PhD, DVM, DABVP (Avian), DECZM (Avian), owner of Bird and Exotic Pet Wellness Center in Toledo, Ohio, focused on a niche population in veterinary medicine, geriatric parrot patients.1 What classifies these birds as geriatric? It varies from each species, however, Orosz finds in clinical practice that around 20 years of age she begins to see signs of decline.
Birds have longer lifespans compared to similarly sized mammals.2 Orosz explained, “[Birds] have a slower aging rate, their cellular mechanisms are different, and it allows them to have a longer lifespan. And we know that is potentially true, or we think it's true, because birds fly.” It's believed that flying helps these animals avoid predation, and this, coupled 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 tumors, chronic liver disease, heart lesions, and everything else in between. To help identify these diseases and maximize their quality of life, Orosz detailed how to perform successful health exams on geriatric parrots.
The health exam should be tailored to each unique parrot. While some may need just annual visits, it's more likely they will need to come in for a check-up twice a year. There are several components of this exam including exploring physical, behavioral, cognitive, and orthopedic changes in the aging pet.
Some physical signs to look for in older parrots include feather quality and color (eg, loss, change, and wear), altered molt, and preening. “That color starts to diminish, the amount of cleaning will start to diminish… oftentimes there might be less grooming as opposed to overgrooming,” Orosz said. It’s also important to examine the quality of the feet and grip strength as well as the posture of the wings. “Do they keep the wings the way they used to, or let them droop? Do they not use them?” she added.
Additionally, look at the ears and eyes for signs of cataracts, and any masses that can develop as they age or weight changes. Plus, she emphasized performing auscultation. “Do we have this louder broader sound [in the heart], possibly even a murmur? Is our [heart] rate the same, is our rhythm the same? Then after I listen to the heart, I change my focus and I want to listen to the lungs for crackles, or changes.” She noted that the respiratory recovery time should be about 3 to 5 minutes.
To get an idea if the bird’s behavior changed, ask clients questions about their movement, such as if they are flying or moving as often or if there are changes in where and how they are perched in their cage. Orosz said that behavior changes may indicate pain or altered mentation.
Veterinarians should also assess and detail a geriatric parrot’s cognition. Complexity of thought varies by species, for example, Orosz noted, "I'm an Amazon owner, so I'm the first person to tell you Amazons are not as smart as cockatoos.” Thus, it’s important to bear in mind any changes in cognition for that specific patient from the owner’s perspective. These are often subtle, so any photos or videos the client can provide can be useful in detecting anything off with the bird.
Orosz shared it’s invaluable to not only look, but also feel the animal. “We want to feel around the head. You want to look for swellings, you want to look for changes in how the beak is sitting on the bird, you want to feel the crop.” Also, palpate each wing and the joints; as birds age, they can get arthritis in various places, such as the shoulders or legs. She recommended to look at the feet and “particularly the plantar surfaces that will tend to get smoother, you'll get redness on one foot in relationship to the other," if an orthopedic problem is present.