Inside Pepperberg’s Lab: Vet Visits Are Essential

Other Animals

Trips To The Veterinarian

African greyIn a previous blog, I mentioned all of our visits to the vet for Athena. Just to let everyone know, she’s doing really well. The dermatitis on her wing has healed and the feathers are growing back, though she’ll have her collar on for a bit longer to ensure that she doesn’t inflict any damage by over-preening the still-sensitive tissue. The events of the past month, however, have made me think in general about our trips for medical services.

I want to make it very clear that I believe that every parrot needs an annual “well-birdie” checkup, just as humans need their annual physical. In the case of elderly birds, one might even think about semi-annual visits. The reason is simple: Parrots try to hide any evidence of illness, and by the time we see the signs, the bird is likely very ill. Checkups can catch problems early when they are much more easily and successfully treated.

But why do our parrots act to hide disease? In nature, a sick parrot is shunned by the rest of the flock — it could infect the others, could attract a predator, or not be able to do a good job when it is time to take its turn as a sentinel for danger. And a shunned bird, separated from the protection of the flock, does not have much of a chance at survival. Hence their actions. It’s important for owners to understand that this ingrained behavior pattern of hiding sickness doesn’t change just because our birds are in captivity. (Remember, they are only one or two generations removed from the wild!)

Of course, our birds enjoy their vet visits about as much as we enjoy our checkups — who likes to be poked, prodded, have blood drawn, and intimate cavities explored? And despite their great intelligence, our birds are like pediatric patients. We can talk to them in soothing voices, and veterinarians can learn many techniques to make the visits less stressful, but there really is no way to explain to a parrot that what is happening is just a brief nasty interlude and that life will return to normal very soon. No matter what I’ve tried, none of my birds have ever been very happy about their visits.

Greys “Vocal” About Their Vet Visits

Alex developed a particularly strong dislike of anything having to do with medical procedures. This was because his bout of aspergillosis was so severe it required extended boarding while he was being treated. One of the vets treating Alex at the time said that he was the most difficult patient they had ever had in terms of his ability to squirm free of any attempts at restraint! He was more of a growler than a shrieker when being treated, but definitely was not a model patient.

For example, he’d spend the entire time he was confined to a nebulizer chamber demanding that someone “Come here!” or “Pay attention” or requesting to “Go shoulder!” or “Go gym!” This was better than shrieking, but not by much. My current veterinarian would look forward to the end of Alex’s visits. She’d put his carrier on the examination table and wait to be amused by his actions: He’d strut into the carrier, turn, slam the door tightly behind him, then in a very loud voice exclaim, “WANNA GO BACK!”

Griffin isn’t much better. His shrieks are so intense that one time Athena, who was waiting for her turn, was so stressed that she had a seizure. [Of course, if that occurs, the vet’s office is the best place for it to happen!] Not fun. My vet likes to give the birds a treat after their checkup — like the doctor who gives lollipops after an injection. But Griffin will not be bought off. He takes whatever she hands out and very deftly throws it back at her! Griffin’s visits are also complicated by the fact that he often gets car sick — particularly if we are in stop-and-go traffic, which in Boston is almost a given.

In fact, Griffin is so unnerved by his veterinary visits that he has made the association between the words “vet” and “veterinarian” and what happens to him to the extent that he starts acting really nervous whenever he hears those words. He even learned to add our veterinarian’s name into that mix! We now have to call her “she who must not be named.” We think that the string of sounds is too complicated for him to make the necessary association — at least for now!

Athena hadn’t been too difficult until this last round. She wasn’t happy, but standard examinations didn’t upset her all that much, as they were part of her life from the time she was a chick. [Another reason to start early and keep those visits on schedule!] The frequency and intensity of visits these past few weeks has, however, made her much less amenable. Fingers crossed that she eventually reverts to her earlier behavior.

Hopefully, sharing my experiences will make owners realize that although a visit to the vet might be a somewhat trying time, these visits are critical for a parrot’s health and well-being, and must be scheduled with appropriate frequency. Although the hope is that a parrot won’t be all that stressed by the appointment, owners should NOT be discouraged if there is a certain amount of negative behavior. Just remember how a toddler reacts to being at the pediatrician’s office (particularly if a shot is involved!), and that even birds who can express their needs and wants in plain English often use that ability complain loudly!

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