By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM, DABVP — Avian Practice
I will never forget BadBoy, a little budgerigar that challenged my skills, amazed me on several occasions and even drew blood on me once or twice! BadBoy came to me for follow-up to a trip to an emergency clinic visit after being accidentally stepped on by her owner.
BadBoy’s pelvis had been broken in several places after she had been stepped on, and while the bones had healed, allowing her to pass droppings normally, when she came to me, she had developed an egg which could not pass through her misshapen pelvis.
Since we knew that this could become an on-going problem, we decided to surgically remove the egg and “spay” her at the same time, to prevent egg-related problems in the future. Surgery went well.
The next time I saw BadBoy, about a year later, she had a swollen abdomen and obvious fluid build-up. Tests showed that she had a hernia (torn muscles at the pelvic floor) and a suspicious mass in her body cavity (the coelom). Her loving owner was all for surgery to see if I could correct her problems.
She was anesthetized and I was able to repair the hernia, giving her a “tummy tuck,” remove the excess fluid and discovered a tumor of her ovary that caused the fluid build-up. Her ovarian tumor was full of cysts (fluid filled pockets) and was quite large (about the size of a quarter). Since the ovary is so close to a major blood vessel, it is impossible to completely remove it without the risk of causing life-threatening blood loss. I dissected the tumor back as far as possible and sutured her up.
The tumor was sent off to the lab for microscopic analysis and the diagnosis couldn’t have been worse. BadBoy had adenocarcinoma of the ovary, and since I knew that I wasn’t able to remove the entire tumor, it was just a matter of time before it came back. We put her on a supplement called dimethylglycine (DMG) that is supposed to help prevent the spread of cancerous cells, also called metastasis. I told BadBoy’s owner to just spoil and love her, and we would monitor her condition periodically.
About eight months later, BadBoy once again had a swollen abdomen and another hernia, so we knew that the tumor had reoccurred. While I gave the owner a guarded prognosis, she wanted me to make BadBoy comfortable and perform surgery again to “debulk” the ovarian tumor. Once anesthetized, I was able to perform another tummy tuck and remove another large ovarian mass that was snuggly attached to a major blood vessel. The tumor had returned, as I had predicted, but surprisingly there were no signs of spread of the tumor to her liver or lungs. I removed as much of the tumor as I could, once again and sutured up her muscle layer and skin.
BadBoy awoke from her surgery hungry and ill-tempered, and she went home with her happy owner. We continued the dimethylglycine and she was prescribed pain medication until she had healed. When I took the sutures out, she was chirping and carrying on like a happy budgie. While her long-term prognosis was not good, she had another seven months of good health and fun times with her owner.
When she returned with a swollen abdomen again, we knew the tumor had come back. Since BadBoy was strong and in good health, other than the tumor, the owner elected to have the procedure to debulk the tumor performed one more time. Once again the surgery went without a hitch, and BadBoy’s recovery went well. She lived for another six months before the tumor finally eroded through a major blood vessel and she quickly passed away from blood loss at home with her owner.
This case stands out in my mind for several reasons. BadBoy was a fly-in, so the owner didn’t even purchase her initially; she was a free bird. The perceived worth of a bird isn’t often associated with the purchase price; an owner of a $25 cockatiel may love it as much as the owner of a $10,000 hyacinth macaw. It is often thought that little psittacines cannot be offered the same level of veterinary care as the larger birds, and this is just not so! Diagnostic procedures and tests available can be performed on any bird, although certain blood tests may require a larger sample than is easily taken from canaries, budgies, parrotlets and lovebirds, for example.
The thought of having surgery performed on a smaller bird is often frightening to owners, as it is erroneously thought that a small bird cannot lose more than one drop of blood. However, with excellent surgical techniques, the use of a radiosurgical unit (although not mandatory) and appropriate support care, even the smallest bird can successfully undergo surgery.
BadBoy’s owner loved her so much that she was willing to risk multiple surgeries to prolong her length and quality of life. BadBoy always bounced back from each surgery and was a happy, healthy little bird, in spite of her cancer. I smile when I think of her, even today, as the little bird with the big heart (and powerful beak, too!)