Posted: July 20, 2006, 12:00 a.m. PST
Excerpt from BIRD TALK Magazine, September 2006 issue, with permission from its publisher, BowTie Magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. To purchase digital back issues of BIRD TALK Magazine, click here.
When discussing pet birds with non-bird people, two inaccuracies repeatedly crop up: 1) All parrots live as long as people and 2) in contradiction, birds are fragile creatures that don’t live long at all. Neither statement is totally accurate.
As with humans, the concept of old is subjective. Thanks to variations in nutrition and activity levels, some people act quite elderly in their 60s, and others remain spry into their 80s. Research suggests that this divide is more tied to lifestyle than genetics.
Tremendous disparity exists in the estimated life spans of avian species. On one end of the scale, large psittacines have the potential of a human life span. At the other end, tiny species like hummingbirds might survive only two to three years.
By Gina Cioli/BowTie/Maria Brown
As a parrot grows older, it can suffer from medical problems like fatty liver disease.
Although companion parrot species can live to be quite old, this happens less often than we would like. According to Birds for Dummies by Gina Spadafori and Brian L. Speer, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, ECAMS, “Poor diets and lousy care limit the life expectancy potential of many birds.” The authors also point out that, “Most of the pet population is gone long before the age of 50, with geriatric problems showing up in [Amazon parrots] as young as 20 years old.”
According to Avian Medicine: Principles And Applications (Ritchie, Harrison and Harrison, Winger’s Publishing, 1994), the domestic pigeon averages a 15-year life span, and canaries can live as long as 20 years. I know of a finch that lived into its teens and another that has been with its owners for 20 years now.
Physical Changes In Older Birds
An aged bird is not as obvious as an aged human, but some physical changes do take place, especially in the eyes and the rest of the face. Facial skin might thin, and miscellaneous bumps, warts and colored moles rarely seen on young birds appear. The iris often lightens and becomes more irregular in shape.
An elderly bird’s feet appear gnarly with heavier scaling and thickened skin on top, whereas the scales on the bottoms of the feet often are worn smooth. You might notice postural changes, too. In Clinical Avian Medicine (Vol. I, Harrison, Lightfoot; Spix Pub., Palm Beach, FL; 2006:83), Teresa Lightfoot, DVM, Dip. ABVP — Avian stated that older birds often sit with a lower stance due to arthritis of the hock joints. Lightfoot also noted eye color changes, with “the yellow iris thinned so the dark retina could show through, producing a dark ring within the iris.”
Cesar, a wild-caught, blue-and-gold macaw that is estimated to be 60 to 80 years old, exhibits many of these changes. For instance, his feet are deformed and weak. “Cesar is most comfortable perched on top of his large cage,” said Bonnie Wallace, his current caretaker along with other members of the Long Island Parrot Society. “He hunches over and, at times, is in a sleeping position.”
Many birds exhibit feather changes as they age. They also might experience feather loss similar to male-pattern baldness in humans, according to Liza Clark, VMD, in Pennsylvania. This is what she diagnosed in my 50-plus-year-old blue-and-gold macaw, Sam. During the past 20 years, Sam gradually ceased to replace molted contour feathers and now is completely bald in some areas. A few years ago, I noticed an identical feather-loss pattern on a 35-plus-year-old blue-and-gold hen that lived at the Gabriel Foundation in Colorado.
Shari Beaudoin of Parrot Island in Minnesota has three double yellow-headed Amazon parrots of varying ages, and each has a different amount of yellow on its head. “I think it is neat to see the color variation with age,” she said. Rascal, her oldest, is now an astute 30-year-old with a full head of yellow that projects authority over his neighbors, 10-year-old Lt. Columbo and 13-year-old Samantha.
Unfortunately, some of these physical changes appear earlier in chronically malnourished birds, causing young birds to suffer from age-related conditions.
Medical Issues In Older Birds
Hundreds of thousands of wild-caught parrots were imported into the United States during the 1970s and 80s. The grim reality is that few of these birds survived. As a result, avian medicine has less experience with geriatric medicine than the canine and feline branches of veterinary care. According to several of the vets I interviewed, however, things are improving.
The list of known medical problems in older pet birds mimics those found in older dogs, cats and people. Characteristic conditions include kidney and liver disease (i.e., hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease), cataracts and heart disease. Articular and visceral gout and some cancers also occur as birds age. Chronic malnutrition can result in immune suppressive diseases such as aspergillosis and chronic sinus infections, according to Susan Orosz, DVM, Dipl. ABVP — Avian, ECAMS, of Ohio. She recommended a diet that balances Omega-3 and Omega 6 fatty acids to stimulate the immune system and reduce inflammation.
Most vets agree that older birds require at least one annual trip to the vet and might need more regular blood work and radiographs (X-rays) to watch for these problems. If abnormalities appear — such as a heart murmur or borderline abnormal blood chemistry values — regular vet visits become more important, because these conditions need to be monitored closely in case emergency intervention becomes necessary. Arthritis afflicts many older birds, as it does humans. Analgesics (pain killers) can be helpful with arthritis, but Lightfoot noted that their use necessitates blood work to closely monitor organ function.
Food & Environment Changes For Pet Birds
Although owners of older dogs and cats can choose from several senior commercial diets, this innovation has not yet spilled over to the avian world. All three veterinarians with whom I spoke stressed that senior birds likely need specially formulated diets. For example, birds with kidney and/or liver disease need high-quality protein sources that are easily digested.
Obesity, too, increases with age and requires an adjustment to the diet. There is a common misconception that if a diet is well-balanced, obesity will not occur, Lightfoot commented. “For some individuals this is true,” she said. “However, many Amazons will overeat, even when fed a balanced, formulated diet. Obese birds need a diet with decreased fat and decreased calories.”
Some geriatric birds benefit from environment changes. Older birds, especially those with arthritis, seem to appreciate pliable perches. My macaw prefers her soft rope perches over harder wood. Some birds might require a higher room temperature, too. As always, owners should observe their birds’ body language after making gradual modifications to see what seems to make the birds more comfortable.
Behavioral Changes In
Most of the behavioral changes that we see in older birds correlate with physical conditions, Clark said. Just like elderly people living in chronic pain, arthritic birds tend to be more unpredictable and more tentative in their movements. Pain can cause them to act crabbier at times and less patient with bumbling human handling.
Birds with discomfort might vocalize less, and their activity and interaction levels slow, too. The judicious use of analgesics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can make a huge difference in an older bird’s comfort levels. Avian veterinarians are increasingly helpful at assisting with this.
Dimming vision often causes older birds to startle more often as they become frightened by things they cannot see easily. This can result in aggressive behavior.
People who do not recognize a bird’s infirmities might misinterpret such behaviors as the birds becoming mean, but nothing is further from the truth. On the contrary, my experience with elderly birds indicates that when they are handled with understanding and respect, they show an increased potential for affection. As with some elderly humans, they appear able to see right through the layers of superficiality, and right to the core of the situation. Looking deep in their eyes, you know you are dealing with an Old Soul.
Muffet, a 28-year-old cockatiel, is “the sweetest little soul you can imagine,” said Debbie Speer, who received him as a Christmas present in 1978. She attributes his longevity to love, because he wasn’t always on the best diet.
“When I say ‘It must be love,’ I mean Muffy has always been treated as an integral member of the family,” she said. “He has been talked to, whistled at and engaged in interaction throughout every day of his 28-plus years.”
Muffet has started to slow down. “He doesn’t move quite as fast, bob his little head up and down as often or sing quite as much as he used to, but he’s still very alert, sociable and has a pretty good appetite,” she said. “Every so often, he still bursts into his little signature song and knocks his mirror around.”
Life With Older Birds
Sam and I have been together for 32 years. From what little I know of her history prior to my entering her life, it is likely that Sam is considerably older than 50. Over the years that we have shared (more than half of my life!), her activity has slowed gradually. She isn’t as noisy as she used to be, and she seems to need more sleep, choosing to go to bed much earlier than before. It is rare, now, that she stays up late enough to join me in my characteristically late dinners.
Fully flighted for more than 30 years, Sam now chooses to walk instead of fly. I used to toss her up in the air to send her flying back to her tree in the living room, but we discontinued this routine some time ago. With arthritis in her legs and feet, flying and landing must be uncomfortable, so I carry her to her perch instead. Her arthritis also makes her more prone to losing her balance when sitting with me. I try to avoid quick movements that could cause her to slip.
Play is still important to her, but, like me, her style has become more sedentary. Instead of flapping and screaming, she prefers to quietly shred a paperback. You shouldn’t picture Sam like an old granny sitting in a rocker, however, because that isn’t the case. She still perks up and boogies along with loud rock ’n’ roll and happily shouts at the kids on the street that she sees out the window. She adores the warm days of summer, when there are more children at which to yell.
Although Cesar has the temperament of a “cranky old man,” Wallace reports that he too is still a generally happy parrot. “Many people have suggested that we have him euthanized,” she said “but looking past his not-so-perfect physical condition, he is content, pretty healthy and should be allowed to live out his golden years with dignity,” she said.
Too Old to Learn? — Never
In all the years that I have lived and worked with parrots, I have never encountered one that I considered too old to learn. Indeed, the older birds I have known seemed to relish change, which was a way to add spice to their lives. A 45-plus-year-old Timneh named Peter that boarded with me was totally rejuvenated by the addition of a college student to her life. In a stunningly short period of time, Peter almost doubled her vocabulary and learned several songs.
My old macaw seems similar, and she continues to enjoy learning tricks — as well as creative approaches to manipulating the humans around her. I suspect that older parrots get bored with their routines and are delighted to have an opportunity to climb out of a rut. People who help re-home parrots frequently comment on this. Rather than moping over a lost home, many older parrots seem to look around their new surroundings and say, “Hey, something new. Cool!”
Achieving Old Age
The keys to longevity in pet birds are the same as with humans. Encourage your avians to exercise daily, flying if their flight feathers are not trimmed and flapping happily if they are. Remain vigilant about their food consumption, making certain that they eat a healthy, balanced diet. Don’t allow them to slip into malnutrition thanks to sloppy eating habits. Humans have total control over a companion bird’s diet, so feed only small amounts of high-fat and low-nutrition treats.
Annual checkups with your avian veterinarian help to identify problems before they become serious. Trying to save money on preventative medicine likely will cost you and your bird greatly in the future.
The good news for bird owners is that more companion birds are living into old age. According to the avian vets I interviewed, percentages of elderly avian patients are increasing substantially thanks to the significant progress in avian nutrition and medicine in the last two decades. Avian veterinarians surveyed 20 years ago estimated that only 1 percent of their client base were geriatric, but that fraction has increased exponentially. Some avian veterinarians now report that 25 to 33 percent of their practices consist of older birds.
Orosz emphasized the importance of owners of geriatric birds working closely with experienced avian veterinarians. With a smile she said, “We want them to grow old gracefully.” Fortunately for those of us who are blessed with the company of beloved elderly birds, avian medicine is constantly increasing its knowledge about the medical conditions and physical changes characteristic of the geriatric bird.
Bird Cataracts: How, Why & What to Do
By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM
Most cataracts are age related, although some can be due to heredity, trauma or diabetes mellitus. Typically, a cataract is the result of the lens becoming opaque, which then causes cloudy or blurry vision and poor night vision. It can occur in one eye or both.
There is clear evidence of familial cataracts in Yorkshire and Norwich canaries, and senile cataracts often affect macaws greater than 35 years of age and older Amazons. Old age cataracts occur as the proteins in the lens begin to clump up abnormally, resulting in opacity and degeneration.
In macaws, a cataract often remains immature for years, which is a good thing, because immature cataracts are less likely to completely interfere with sight. Because cataracts come on gradually, an owner might not notice a bird’s vision problem until it has significantly progressed, or until you can actually see the opacity behind the iris (the colored portion of the eye). Unless there is an underlying medical condition that can be controlled, there is not much you can do to slow the progression of a cataract.
The decision to have surgery performed to remove a cataract is one that should be made by the bird owner, primary avian veterinarian and veterinary ophthalmologist. According to veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Michele Stengard, surgery can be performed on any bird with cataracts; the tiny size of the canary eye, however, makes surgery more difficult but not impossible.
The surgery takes 45 to 60 minutes, so anesthesia is also a concern. Unlike human cataract surgery, a new, artificial lens is not implanted into the eye of a bird that undergoes this surgery, so vision after surgery will not be as sharp.
The bird will likely be far-sighted in that eye. Another consideration is that a topical steroid eye drop often is required for several days post-op, and steroids can cause potentially dangerous immunosuppression in birds. Due to potential problems with steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory eye drops can be used instead, although they are not quite as potent anti-inflammatories.