Avian veterinarians dread to see those cases that are extremely serious yet could easily have been avoided. One of the most frightening examples I have seen involved a beautiful young Hahn's macaw.
The owners had thoughtfully provided a variety of toys and homemade play items for the bird, securing some to the side of the cage with wire twist ties. The young parrot's foot became caught between a pine cone and the wire that secured it. The more the bird panicked, the tighter the entrapment became. The owners were not home at the time, and the little macaw was not found until many hours after the accident, hanging exhausted from the side of the cage.
After quickly supporting the bird's weight with a towel, the owners were able to free the foot and rush the bird to the hospital. Bone had been exposed and fractured in the accident, making it a "compound" fracture. This meant that infection could be a serious consequence if not treated vigorously. Shock and blood loss were also problems. The macaw had some good luck on his side - he was extremely tame and well trained, easily accepting human help and care. He had been on a healthy diet prior to the accident, and was in excellent condition.
After relieving his pain with a quick nap induced by inhaled anesthetic gas, treatment with heat, fluids and antibiotics could be commenced. The injury was gently but carefully cleaned and straightened or "set." A bandage and a splint were applied, and a decision was made not to apply an Elizabethan collar without giving the bird a chance to leave his bandage alone. As long as the bird can be carefully monitored, the restricting collar that prevents the parrot from reaching a bandaged area can sometimes be delayed or even omitted entirely. These collars can be upsetting to bird patients, and although we could not risk "Don Hahn" disturbing his injury, we were reluctant to add to his stress level with a big cone-shaped collar. Fortunately, Donny was a model patient and usually left his bandage alone, or at least did not dismantle it completely between bandage changes.
Cage, Toy and Bedding Traps
Foot injuries are common in pet birds, and can often be avoided by inspecting the cage for possible toe or foot traps. Bar spacing anywhere on a cage that is wider at the top than the bottom can be a problem. Fancy grill work or inlaid bar designs that can catch on a leg band or trap a toe should be avoided.
Toys or bells that contain teardrop-shaped openings, toe-sized holes or loops, or rope-ends that can be frayed must be evaluated carefully before they are given to your bird. Keep the nails trimmed whenever rope toys are used, because sharp nail ends can become entangled in the toy.
Avoid nesting material for finches, canaries and other small birds because they may have artificial fibers such as polyester contained within. These longer fibers have a tendency to wrap tightly around the toes and feet and may even cause loss of the foot. Natural cotton, clean dried grass, cleaned shredded burlap and finely shredded paper are all safe and suitable for small bird nest construction. Have your veterinarian discuss band removal with you. In some cases a band can become hung up on a sharp or protruding object. Larger birds should be microchipped if the band is to be removed.
It may surprise you to know that a bird's feet are prone to captivity-related problems. Pet birds spend a high proportion of their day resting on their feet. Activity may be limited by a cage or clipped wings, easy access to food, or obesity. Wild birds not only spend more time moving on their feet or flying, but are able to use clean resilient branches to perch on. The average pet bird roosts on the same plastic or wooden dowel every night and most of the day. It is not surprising that foot problems are frequent.
Last year I attended the Association of Avian Veterinarians Annual Conference in New Orleans. Several interesting presentations were given that involved the foot.
Perhaps because the feet are one of the few nonfeathered parts of most birds, veterinarians can readily note any skin changes in the area. Owners are also quick to spot changes to the skin of the foot or toes. The bird often interacts with its owner via the feet - for example, perching or stepping up onto a hand.
One well known but frustrating skin problem affecting the feet is called Amazon foot necrosis. This simply means that the skin of the foot experiences patches of devitalization (loss). Ken Welle, DVM, from the United States, spent some time discussing the latest in theories about the cause of this disorder, while Pat Macwhirter, DVM, from Australia, documented some excellent pioneering work on the study of allergens and their role in this and similar diseases. Allergies are poorly understood in birds, but veterinarians have long speculated that certain substances such as tobacco smoke, hand lotions, cosmetics or food ingredients might play a role in some skin diseases of the bird.
Infectious diseases such as virus infections, bacterial problems and even yeast or fungal infections are quite common in the foot of a pet bird. Luckily most of these problems can be treated successfully if detected early in the course of the infection.
In almost every case, predisposing factors such as stress or husbandry errors are involved. Bumblefoot is the most common of all foot infections and frequently seen in both the parakeet (budgerigar) and the cockatiel. Amazon parrots may also be prone to this disorder. Bumblefoot is simply a swelling on the bottom of the foot, often with a small crust or defect in the skin. The swelling usually shows signs of having been present for a long time, and a bacterial infection is generally present underneath the skin.
Inactivity, obesity, unhygienic perches and vitamin A deficiency have all been linked to bumblefoot. Affected birds may show an unwillingness to stand on one foot, although both feet can become infected. Check the bottom of your bird's feet carefully should you see any sign of lameness, call your veterinarian immediately. Most avian veterinarians will carefully evaluate the weight, activity, nutrition and environment of the bird in addition to making treatment suggestions that involve the foot directly. Surgery is sometimes recommended in severe cases. Bandaging and antibiotic therapy is needed for most affected birds. Prevention is certainly a lot easier.
Clean perches with an irregular surface can go a long way toward reducing bumblefoot. Hard, smooth perches can cause pressure to block or damage the blood supply to the skin of the bottom of the foot. This becomes even more of a problem when the pet is less active than a wild counterpart. Bacteria that tend to build up on a perch over time eventually find a small break in the skin and happily set up shop.
A perch with a clean but bumpy, ridged, rough or uneven surface can help prevent such disorders by promoting better blood circulation. Perches should also be available in varying diameters. Ironically, we are now finding that the sand-covered perch sleeves that were once thought to cause problems such as bumblefoot may not necessarily be bad for foot health. As long as beach sand and not crushed quartz - as in sandpaper - is used, no sharp surfaces are present. Their clean, disposable nature and irregular surface may be preferable to a smooth, hard, wooden dowel with months or years worth of bacterial accumulation.
Disposable perches - natural branches - and ridged PVC perches are probably the most economical way of providing a clean and irregular surface for perching. Wooden dowel perches are difficult to clean and disinfect. Plastic or PVC perches can be cleaned, but may be too smooth for comfort unless ridged or grooved. Most large breeders find using fresh tree branches a practical way of providing healthy perching material. Branches should be carefully placed to avoid fecal contamination, and should be replaced with fresh branches every four weeks. In most areas of North America, there is no need to bake or disinfect such branches - checking to make sure that they are clean and have not been treated with pesticides is all that is normally necessary. Talk to an avian veterinarian about the branches available in your region that are popular for use. Apple, willow, birch, poplar, citrus, alder and maple are varieties we have used. Pine is not normally selected because of the sticky sap. Fortunately, toxicity has never been reported in association with the use of natural perch material, although we recommend that leaves be removed. Pet birds may decide to ingest the leaf material, which could upset an unaccustomed system.
Parasites such as mites or lice found in or on branches from outdoors are not likely to be a problem because most of these parasites are very species specific. Lice that live on a blackbird will not live on a parakeet. Lice and mite parasites are normally transmitted in the nest of the wild bird, or by direct contact, but not by lurking on branches waiting for a bird to land.
In captive conditions, mites such as the red mite can live in cracks in and around the perch. These mites originate from other pet birds, and are easily eradicated by washing or changing perches, feeder cups and toys frequently, and keeping the cage clean and washed.
Foot mites occur in pet birds. These pests are quite different in that they do not live or reside off the bird. They are so specific in their targets that they only affect a certain part of a few pet birds. The canary and the parakeet are by far the most common victims.
The appearance of the inflammation caused by the mites in the canary is so distinctive that the name of this disorder, tasselfoot, sums up the clinical appearance. Long tassel-like projections are found growing from the foot of infected canaries. In the budgie, rough pale-colored crusts are seen on the feet, as well as on the face. Luckily, this mange mite infection is easy to treat. Ivermectin is the usual drug of choice, and quickly and safely clears up the problem.
Birds have one unusual medical disorder in common with humans. Gout is a condition of humans and birds that is caused by deposits of uric acid in and around the smaller joints. In the case of the bird, the most frequent site for problems are the joints of the toes. Older birds may show pale or cream-colored hard swellings associated with the ankle or toes. Some foot infections can mimic the signs of gout so your veterinarian will suggest some tests to help confirm the diagnosis. The cause of gout in birds is not well understood. Some authorities believe it is associated with altered kidney function. Human drugs used for treating gout have shown promise in treating affected pet birds, although toxicity can be encountered.
Birds have a foot disorder that seems closely related to a medical problem that only the rat has. Under conditions of low humidity, rat pups may develop ring-tail, which is marked by a ring-like constriction of portions of the tail. The young rats often lose a portion of the tail and end up looking like a giant hamster. In the young parrot, it is thought that low humidity conditions can be linked to a similar syndrome resulting in ring-like constrictions of the toes. As in the rat, the young birds - primarily macaws - may lose portions of their toes. Early treatment of the chicks by a veterinarian can often prevent the actual loss of a toe, although a scar or deformity sometimes remains for life.
All owners should become comfortable handling and inspecting the feet of their pet. This can be essential in the case of emergency or abnormality, and can be useful and practical for simple grooming procedures such as nail trimming. Most pet birds spend almost as much time on their feet as we do, and we are both unusual in the animal world by having only one pair.
Louise Bauck, B.Sc., DVM, M.V.Sc., is director of veterinarian services for Hagen Avicultural Research Institute. She coordinates preventative medicine programs and pathology at Hagen's parrot breeding farm and research institute