Posted: June 23, 2011, 1:45 p.m. PST
Excerpt from BIRD TALK Magazine, August 2007 issue, with permission from its publisher, BowTie Magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. To purchase digital back issues of BIRD TALK Magazine, click here.
It is a well-known fact that parrots are extremely long-lived. With advanced age comes a wide variety of health problems for pet birds, including arthritis. Arthritis is more of a syndrome than a specific disease: it simply translates to “inflammation of a joint.” (Arthros is Greek for “joint” and itis Greek for “inflammation of.”) This inflammation can be caused by a bacterial infection, called septic arthritis; age-related degeneration of joint tissue, called osteoarthritis; the accumulation of toxic-waste products in the joints, called articular gout; or immune-mediated processes, called heumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis, gout and septic arthritis are of primary concern in avian medicine.
Osteoarthritis In Pet Birds
Osteoarthritis occurs in older birds due to degenerative changes in the joints. Pet birds typically stand on their feet for a large percentage of the day and sleep on one leg. That amounts to a lot of skeletal stress over time, which can lead to pathologic changes in the foot and leg joints. Overweight pet birds and those that are injured on one leg (and thus must bear double the weight on the opposite leg) are particularly susceptible to arthritis.
Gout In Pet Birds
Uric acid is a by-product of protein digestion. After a bird eats a meal, protein is converted into ammonia in the intestinal tract. Ammonia, which is highly toxic, is then circulated to the liver, where it is converted into a less-harmful substance called uric acid. Finally, the kidneys filter the uric acid from the bloodstream, and the bird expels the urinary waste (the white component of a bird’s dropping) through the cloaca. A bird with damaged kidneys is unable to filter out uric acid from the bloodstream; consequently, the blood becomes saturated with this waste product. Over time, uric acid crystals can settle into the joints and cause debilitating arthritis.
Gout can occur secondary to kidney failure, exposure to nephrotoxic drugs and improper pet bird nutrition. Therefore, emphasis must be placed on avoiding certain practices and becoming familiar with the signs of kidney failure.
Chronic kidney failure occurs in all animals, and is characterized by the slow, gradual loss of viable kidney tissue over time. When a bird’s functional kidney reserve is below what is required to sustain normal life, the uric acid concentration in the bloodstream sharply rises. This excessive uric acid is deposited throughout the body in a crystalline form; soft tissues (such as the kidney) and joints are common sites of deposition. If the crystals form in soft tissues, the bird’s prognosis is poor. If the crystals simply get deposited around and in the joints, the bird may survive for several years, but the associated arthritis can be severe. Therefore, observe your bird frequently and consult a veterinarian if any abnormal behaviors develop. Birds that have developed articular gout may exhibit swollen joints and generalized signs of arthritic pain, such as reluctance to support their body weight and decreased activity level.
An unbalanced diet (too high in protein or too low in certain vitamins) can also lead to gout. Avoid nutrition-related gout by providing a predominantly pelleted diet to your pet bird. A diet consisting only of seeds and nothing else are inadequate and further predispose a pet bird to arthritis by causing obesity.
Gout is irreversible, but affected pet birds can benefit from allopurinol therapy (a special drug that reduces uric acid production) and a reduced-protein diet. Annual exams and basic blood tests are recommended to help identify renal disease in its early stages.
Septic Arthritis In Pet Birds
Septic arthritis is a potentially life-threatening condition in birds. Any time a bird’s skin is cut (compound fracture, severe pododermatitis, superficial scrape), bacteria have access to the animal’s internal network of vessels, joints, cavities and soft tissues. Bacteria that migrate to a bird’s joint, either through the bloodstream or by direct contamination, can cause severe inflammation of the surrounding tissue (septic arthritis).
A septic joint appears swollen and may feel noticeably warm to the touch. Advanced cases carry a poor prognosis. If diagnosed early, septic arthritis can be treated with an extended course of antibiotic therapy.
Pain relief protocols have been developed for most companion animal species, but inappropriate dosing can cause serious harm. If you believe your bird might be suffering from arthritis, ask an avian veterinarian to confirm the diagnosis, and he or she can help you develop a safe pain-prevention plan.
Paths To Arthritis Pain Relief In Pet Birds
It is a pet owner’s responsibility to provide a comfortable, stress-free life for his or her pet bird. For older pet birds with arthritis, pain management is critical.
Pet Bird Cage Considerations
How a pet bird's cage is setup can make a huge difference in terms of offering a comfortable existence for an arthritic bird. Dr. R.W. Thomas, owner of the Animal Clinic of Queens in Middle Village, N.Y., recommends perches and branches that vary in diameter. This setup constitutes a form of physical therapy because it allows the pet bird to consistently use different sets of muscles and joints while perching. For pet birds with advanced arthritis, a nest box with a perch-free interior or a platform-style perch serve as a resting retreat. The pet bird can lounge comfortably without having to use its toes to grasp.
Keep The Extra Weight Off Your Pet Bird
Improper nutrition (a seed-only diet) can lead to obesity and predispose a bird to osteoarthritis. Work with your avian veterinarian to develop a feeding plan. After establishing your pet bird’s ideal weight, conduct regular weigh-ins on a gram scale to monitor unhealthy fluctuations in body weight.
By Gina Cioli/BowTie Inc.
One way to prevent arthritis in pet birds is to provide a variety of perches.
Thomas stressed the importance of a balanced commercial (pelleted) diet and regular exposure to direct sunlight (not glass-filtered). Natural sunlight allows birds to properly metabolize Vitamin D and calcium, which is integral for bone health. Thomas also recommends at least 40 minutes of free-flight exercise each day. Aside from promoting mental health, frequent flying helps maintain normal musculoskeletal health in pet birds.
Watch Your Pet Bird's Feet!
Leg and foot ailments, such as bumblefoot, should be promptly cared for to prevent excessive weight-bearing on the unaffected leg. For example, a pet bird with severe pododermatitis of the right foot may, over time, develop arthritis in the left knee due to uneven load-sharing in that joint.
Overgrown toenails can predispose a pet bird to pressure sores and other foot ailments, which can indirectly lead to arthritis. Regular grooming is required to keep the nails at an appropriate length.
Use With Caution
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin and meloxicam are often administered to dull arthritic pain. Avian species can also benefit from these drugs but only when used judiciously. An aspirin overdose can be fatal, so it should only be administered by an avian veterinarian, who can compound the appropriate amount into a palatable suspension. Never administer more than one type of NSAID simultaneously. If a bird has been prescribed meloxicam, a few doses of aspirin during the same time period can cause serious health problems.