While you’re likely familiar with cats’ incredible ability to hide illness signs, birds are more skilled at this act for survival. In the wild, predators are likely to attack birds who show weakness, although their flock mates will go so far as to drive the predators away, or attack them to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

Your pet bird has kept these same instincts, and will act healthy when flock members (i.e., you and your family) are nearby. To fool you, your bird may smooth her feathers, stand up straight, peck at a toy, or pretend to eat by cracking seeds or crumbling pellets. Close observation and monitoring is vital for keeping your avian friend happy and healthy, since she has many tricks hidden up her feathers to appear healthy. 

Signs of illness in birds

By the time you notice that something is not quite right with your bird, she may have been ill for days. Birds are often seriously ill before they display signs of sickness or disease, or at least signs that their owners can see. At the first subtle hint of illness, contact your primary care avian veterinarian. Sickness signs in birds include:

  • Reduced appetite
  • Fluffed or ruffled feathers
  • Partially closed eyes
  • Change in the quantity or consistency of droppings
  • Inactivity
  • Inability to perch, and resting at the bottom of the cage
  • Decreased preening
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Sneezing 
  • Discharge from the eyes or nose
  • Changes in clarity or color of the eyes
  • Soiling or matting of feathers on the head or around the nose
  • Voice changes
  • Tail bobbing while at rest
  • Sudden feather loss
  • Open-mouth breathing while at rest
  • Gagging and neck stretching
  • Regurgitation or vomiting
  • Limping
  • Swollen feet or joints
  • Bleeding
  • Weight loss

This list is long, but any noticeable difference in your bird can be a life-threatening emergency. To ensure your bird remains in good health, monitor her appearance, attitude, appetite, and droppings daily. Also, weigh your bird regularly with a gram scale to measure her health status, as birds can easily hide weight loss. If she loses weight for three consecutive days, or suffers a 10% decrease in total body weight at one time, contact your primary care veterinarian.

Medical emergencies in birds

Although you may be tempted to wait and see if your bird recovers to full health on her own, some situations require immediate emergency care, such as:

  • Bleeding that does not stop
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of balance
  • Deep puncture or cut
  • Straining to pass droppings or an egg
  • Toxin exposure
  • Blood in droppings or regurgitated fluid

Contact your primary care veterinarian the same day if you notice these other important illness signs:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Eye injury or irritation
  • Foreign object ingestion
  • Fluffed and ruffled feathers
  • Lameness or drooped wings
  • Diarrhea
  • Self-mutilation
  • Sudden swelling
  • Excessive thirst or urination

When speaking with your primary care veterinarian about your bird’s health status, ensure you can answer the following questions, so your veterinarian has as much information as possible about your bird’s condition:

  • How much does your bird eat and drink daily?
  • How much does your bird usually weigh?
  • How many droppings does your bird usually pass in a day?
  • What is the color, consistency, and size of the droppings?
  • What do you consider normal behaviors for your bird?
  • What sounds does your bird normally make?

By knowing your bird’s “normal,” detecting any abnormalities in your feathered friend will be easier. 

How to provide supportive care to your bird

Most of your bird’s emergency conditions will benefit from general supportive care until you can reach your avian veterinarian. Create a hospital cage at home, using a small aquarium or cage that you fill with her usual amenities, such as food, water, and a perch. Keep your bird warm with a heating pad rather than a lamp, as heating lamps can dry out mucous membranes, burn skin, and disturb your bird’s normal day and night rhythm. General supportive care for your bird includes:

  • Placing your bird in the hospital cage, ensuring the temperature remains at 85 degrees
  • Providing easy access to food and water
  • Providing normal ambient light throughout the day, to encourage eating and drinking
  • Avoiding handling your bird, unless absolutely necessary to keep her calm and quiet
  • Monitoring your bird for changes

If your bird has experienced head trauma, whether by flying into a ceiling fan or window, do not provide supplemental heat, as this can cause more brain swelling. Keep her quiet by dimming the lights, or covering part of the cage, until you reach your avian veterinarian.

How to provide emergency care for wild birds

At Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care, we are available 24  hours per day, seven days per week, to provide urgent care for Raleigh’s wildlife, including crows, hawks, owls, and other birds of prey. If you find an injured bird, contact us regarding your next step. Ideally, you can safely capture the bird using a towel, thick blanket, or cardboard box, and bring the injured animal to us for treatment. When you arrive at our hospital, we will assess the bird’s condition, provide stabilizing care, and contact local wildlife rehabilitation specialists for continued treatment.

Caring for birds can be challenging, since they’re so skilled at hiding signs of illness or injury. But, if you come across a sick bird, whether your own or a wild animal, contact us for advice.