Veterinary visits are experiences that most pet birds have occasionally throughout their lives. There are many components to this experience to which a young bird should be gradually and gently acclimated: the carrier, the car ride (or other mode of transportation), towels, and restraint.
Most young birds have not yet had opportunity to become phobic of towels, although they may exhibit neophobia (fear of novel objects). Ideally, the towels used during the veterinary visit should not be highly patterned and should be of a neutral color, remembering that psittacine birds can see into the ultraviolet and infrared portions of the spectrum, so that a plain white towel might seem disturbingly bright to them. If the owner has acclimated the bird to towels at home, the bird may have a preferred towel that it is used to, and the owner should be encouraged to bring this to the visit.
While the technique of quickly grabbing the bird with a towel from above and behind unfortunately may sometimes be needed in the case of an adult bird which is not tame (especially in many small species), this is not at all necessary and may be extremely frightening for the pediatric patient. Instead the towel may be offered to the young bird to explore and chew, and then gently wrapped around the bird starting from the front. Some avian behaviorists recommend speaking to the bird first, calmly explaining what will happen next.[i] While different species and individuals may vary widely in how much of this monologue they may understand, it often does seem to have a remarkably calming effect. If the owner has already acclimated the young patient to towels, the owner may prefer to wrap the bird herself and hand him or her to the veterinarian.
Handling during the veterinary visit must be gentle and practiced; aggressive handling during the veterinary visit may precipitate phobic behaviors in psychologically sensitive species such as rose-breasted, citron-crested, and triton cockatoos and African greysi as well as Poicephalus species. The practitioner and staff should enter the examination room calmly and quietly to avoid startling a bird, particularly if the bird is out of the carrier, as injury may occur.
Actual restraint should be as brief and gentle as possible. With many pediatric patients, this author often finds toweling and restraint is not necessary at all. The pediatric patient may stand calmly cupped in an assistant’s hand (figure), and allow a thorough physical examination including oral and caudal coelomic palpation, with the veterinarian softly speaking to the patient and maintaining eye contact. This author prefers to use words and sounds recognized and enjoyed by the parrot if these are known, or those commonly preferred by the species if the individual preferences are not known (such as soft clicks for the African species). Additionally, as noted previously, sidelong glances with slow blinks are more psittacine and less threatening than the unblinking forward stare of a predator. Stethoscopes are occasionally somewhat alarming (possibly because of their resemblance to snakes or simply because they are novel), and if the bird is seen to withdraw or appear apprehensive, this author will often stop and demonstrate the harmlessness of the instrument by tapping the bell lightly on her own cheek, and possibly that of the assistant as well, all while maintaining an encouraging eye contact and speaking softly to the patient. Once the young bird seems to accept this, the bell of the stethoscope is lightly stroked over the bird’s toes, until this too is accepted, and only then is auscultation of the heart and lungs attempted.
When returning the bird to the owner, allowing the bird to run across the table to the owner for comfort is helpful, and can strengthen the owner-parrot bond. However, for any juveniles which seem highly stressed by the examination, returning the bird directly to the owner sometimes seems to result in an association made by the bird between the owner and the visit, and phobic behavior toward the owner can ensue.i
When seeing pet birds, behavioral considerations during the veterinary visit can make the experience much less stressful for the patient and much more pleasant for owners and staff. When the patient is a juvenile parrot, keeping the examination low-stress can help prevent a lifetime of fearful and phobic behaviors associated with the annual examination.
Adapted from: Simone-Freilicher, E, and Rupley A. “Juvenile Psittacine Environmental Enrichment” in Rupley A (Editor): Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice, Volume 18, Issue 2, May 2015.
[i] Wilson, L. Considerations on Companion Parrot Behavior and Avian Veterinarians. JAMS 14-4(2000): 273-276.