During my recent visit to Phoenix Arizona, I took Kili & Truman in to see Dr. Driggers. His is the first exclusively Avian and Exotic veterinary clinic in the country to have a CT scanner. He took some time to tell me about the machine and how it works.
It's really fascinating. The scanner takes 720 images in the span of about 30 seconds. The computer reconstructs these images into a full 3 dimensional display of the animal. The doctor is able to look through the organs and bones without ever hurting or cutting the animal open in the process.
I decided to get Truman scanned to check on how his prior injury has healed and also to check just in case for new ones because he is very accident prone. So they gassed him for a few minutes to anesthetize him. They need the animal to lay perfectly still during the capture so that all of the images line up for the final 3D image. Then they laid Truman out on the bed of the scanner. A team of several vet techs works together to make the process go as quickly and smoothly as possible. They hyperventilate the bird prior to the scan and then stop the breathing during the scan. It's like holding your breath to go underwater. Everyone gets out of the room while the scanner is going. The moment it stops, they were already getting a stethoscope on Truman and checking his condition. Once the scan was complete, they used a hand pump to get him breathing room air again.
The analysis of Truman's bloodwork and CAT scan showed him to be healthy and organs in good shape. A 3D look at his skeleton showed that his original injury has healed well and is barely visible any more. On the other hand it also revealed that he has a slightly crooked keel and that he has busted his tail at some point. Nonetheless, these do not currently affect him but it's good to know what's going on. It is also reassuring to know that the previous injury has not worsened and that his organs look healthy.
I am glad to see the new CT scan technology moving along so well. I bet in a case where there is organ issues, something lodged inside the bird's gut, or a hard to locate injury, being able to use this CT scan technology will drastically improve avian medicine.
Since the Avian and Exotic Clinic is the first in the country to have a CT scanner and since Truman is their first ever Cape Parrot to be scanned, most likely this is the first and currently only 3D CT scan of the internals of a Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus fuscicollis). Check out this video of Dr Driggers explaining the technology and Truman, the first Cape Parrot to get CT scanned, showing us how it's done:
This article is about giving medication to multiple parrots in a multi-parrot home. For instructions on giving medication to a single (particularly untrained) parrot, I previously wrote about giving medication to my Green-Winged Macaw.
My flock was diagnosed with Clostridium so now they all have to take medication for 21 days. Santina previously had it and received treatment but it did not stop the other birds from catching it as well. It is not clear if it is the food, environment, or other bird that is the cause. But regardless the entire flock needs to be medicated. The medication is administered orally once a day. The trouble is the duration for which it has to be given. This is a long enough of a period that the parrots must be trained to accept medication. Clever trickery may get you by a few days or a week. But anything longer and the parrot must be on board.
In most cases where a parrot requires medication in a multi-parrot home, the rest of the flock should receive the medication even if they don't show symptoms. My birds all seem to have it because they have been having smelly poop.
So on to the process of medicating a bunch of birds together. This may seem like a lot of work but actually if done right makes things a heck of a lot easier! Using modeling and a healthy dose of competition can get the birds to be more excited about doing something undesirable (like taking medication)!
I medicate the entire flock together and have turned it into a fun game for them. I have been taking advantage of each of my bird's strong points while avoiding their weaknesses in this medication process. This makes it appear to each of the other birds that the one they are watching really loves getting medication.
Kili is a super trained parrot so for her I set taking medication to be like a trick. I taught her to target the syringe, then to sip water, and finally to sip and swallow. Thus when I make the unexpected switch to real medication she just takes it. Santina is a great follower. She likes to do what the others are doing. So between the original medication sessions that I had with her modeling off of me and the recent ones of modeling from the other birds, she is doing very well. Truman is a bit of a runt and doesn't want to take medication but I've been working past that with him as well. He drinks water like a camel so I've been letting him get thirsty and then enjoy drinking a lot of water from the syringe. Because each bird appears eager to participate in the medication process (although each for different reasons) it encourages the remaining birds to cooperate and try harder. Nobody wants the competition to get more!
Here are some more elements that have made the process so successful. I practice the "medication process" with just water in the syringe twice a day although medication only comes once. For every 1 sip of medication, the birds are probably getting 40 sips of water. This makes the undesirable medication not only unpredictable but also fairly negligible in the greater scheme of getting water from the syringe. The birds get pellets as treats so this makes them more thirsty for water sips from the syringe. The pellets also soak up medication in their beaks and ensure that it is swallowed. Also I stopped providing water in the cage and have been giving it by hand only to ensure that the birds desire fluids at the necessary time. Spitting out and not receiving the medicine is far worse. So instead I let them sip some of their drinking water from the syringe and the rest they get from a bowl in my hands. This is similar to when we travel so they are perfectly used to it.
The thirstier/hungrier birds are far less picky. They used to spit out pellets that got medication on them from inside their beaks. Truman in particular would shake his head and spit out the medication. But now with this training system in place, the birds are far more cooperative. With practice, they now know the routine very well and are even more cooperative. In their competition with each other to get water and treats, they seem to forget their resistance to the medication and it is a win/win for everyone.
It is important to understand that the objective is not to simply get the medicine into the bird but to succeed in completing the entire medication process. Tricking or forcing the bird to take medication will only work a few times. In an emergency, you do what you gotta do. But if the bird is in condition to be trained, it is far far better to have a bird that wants to take medication than a bird that flies away or bites you because it knows what is coming. This is why even after the birds get the real medication, I keep practicing with them with the water. In fact, I would say they get the real medication about a quarter of the way into the session. This is when motivation is highest and it makes it least predictable as to when it will happen. Since they all come over to me when they see a syringe, I know I have succeeded in applying positive reinforcement to taking medication!
I adopted Santina, a Green-Winged Macaw, back in December. Yet, I've had her in solitude quarantine for nearly 3 months now without introducing her to my other birds. Why? Because she has not been proven to be healthy and ok to introduce to my flock.
After nearly $2,500 into vet testing her across multiple visits, the situation is only starting to come to light. Since the very first vet visit, something did not seem quite right. She was observed to be excessively skinny and her poop never appeared healthy. High CBC (white blood cell count) and CPK (muscle degradation) plagued her otherwise normal blood test. All of these symptoms seemed indicative of PDD.
Worse yet, I received a positive result on a test for Avian Borna Virus done on her (Borna Virus has been linked to causing Proventricular Dilatation Disease which is contagious and deadly). The test was repeated to 3 different labs and the first remained positive while two others reported negative across a spectrum of different test methods. Continuing the search for PDD, Santina received a crop biopsy which also came back negative.
Despite mostly promising results, something still did not seem right. The smelly droppings certainly were not normal and her weight would not rise much above a certain point no matter the effort. Before giving up, I had one last series of blood and fecal tests done. While her CBC and CPK returned to normal, a gram stain performed on her stool came back positive for Clostridium. Clostridium is an anaerobic bacteria that infects the GI tract with symptoms similar to PDD. It is not yet certain that clostridium is solely responsible for her condition, but at this point is the only health issue medical testing has been able to identify. The only way to know for sure is to treat the disease with antibiotics and see if all remaining symptoms clear up. This is where this lesson on how to teach a parrot to take medication comes in.
There is this myth that says that towels are somehow a necessary part of giving medication to a parrot. I do not understand the need for this and will instead present a much nicer approach for teaching the parrot to be a cooperative part of its own healing process. The cool thing about my approach to training a parrot to take medication does not require much advance preparation. You don't have to teach a healthy parrot to drink from a syringe in advance for a situation that may or may not happen who knows how long from now.
What my medication approach does presume though, is that you have a trained parrot. It is essential that your parrot be able to step up, allow touch, allow grab, know how to target, and know how to learn to take treats for doing something. These things are all necessary elements for having a well-behaved companion parrot so I encourage you to be working on these now and maintain them perpetually. Although my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots, does not teach you how to teach a parrot to take medication, it does give you all the steps to be prepared for the steps to come to work for you if/when you may some day need to administer oral medication.
My strategy for teaching a parrot to take medication is a combination of my target training approach combined with my Tom Sawyer approach to offering new foods. I don't force my parrot to take medication. In fact I don't even let her have it at all. I create a scenario where the parrot gets so jealous that she is begging for the opportunity to receive the syringe. When the parrot thinks it is its own idea, it is a completely different scenario than when the parrot feels it imposed.
The only time cost I had to pay for Santina to take medication herself was one morning. I think delaying giving the medication by half a day in order to ensure cooperation to take it for the next ten days was certainly a worthwhile delay. Considering that Santina has been sick with this disease for a long term, the delay is meaningless. Even if the medication were more urgent, I would still strongly consider taking one extra session to build trust first or at least to take some time training as I will demonstrate. I know, if your bird is sick, you are freaking out and want to help as quickly as possible. But unless it is medically mandatory, calming down and using a thoughtful methodology will make success more likely. If the bird is panicked and spits the medication out, the rush will be unjustified and giving medication again will be even more difficult.
Once I received the medication, the first step was to go to a store and find the tastiest fruit juice for a parrot. I know that mango and peaches tend to be some high ranked favorites among my other parrots, so although Santina has never had those with me, I figured she would like that flavor. I found a 100% juice of orange, peach, and mango. The perfect parrot juice.
The next step was to make Santina want to drink the juice. I could have just shot it in her beak from a syringe and hoped that she would like it. But I did not take that chance. If she wasn't thrilled with the flavor, my chances of getting medication in her would diminish. I needed to make her love getting syringe fed. I would do this by using social reinforcement, jealousy, and positive reinforcement to my advantage. This was just like trick training but the stakes were higher. Failure could have health consequences. It was safer to try exceedingly hard than to find out I didn't try hard enough.
So I poured the juice in a cup and proceeded to pull it into one of the medicine syringes provided with the medication. But instead of giving the sweet contents to Santina, I poured the juice into my own mouth instead. And I repeated this again, and again, and again. I continued to reward myself with squirts of juice while beginning to arouse Santina's attention. At first she stared with curiosity but soon she started exhibiting a direct interest. I even tested her by bringing the syringe closer and watched her approach to take, all while swiping it away and giving it to myself. It wasn't enough just to make her give it a shot. I was set to make her love the experience.
You know how parrots wanna eat what we eat and play with what we play with. Well it's pretty much the same for getting them to eat what we need them to eat. By putting the same effort into consuming or playing with parrot intended stuff, we can achieve the same effect with these social creatures. When Santina was burning with jealousy and begging to try the syringe, I finally gave her the chance. I shot some juice in her beak and I could tell she enjoyed it. But I did not stop there. I immediately rewarded her with a piece of dried banana chip.
I specifically chose banana chips as the treat for this medication procedure because it would not only be a coveted food but also because it would be easy to consume. The treat was not only meant to serve as a reward for complying with taking the syringe but also to help wash down any medication remaining in the beak. I trained Santina to drink from the syringe to get the treat, but in effect I also set her up to swallow the medication by being accustomed to eating right after. By doing this during normal training time, Santina was already food motivated to be getting treats and was paying attention to the learning at hand.
I continued the juice-medication exercise several more times in the morning but did not give the medication. I did not want Santina's first encounter with syringe drinking to have any negative outcome. It is easier to reconcile a bad experience that isn't the primal experience later. In the evening I repeated the exercise by offering her juice from the syringe. I already prepared the medication in a separate syringe beforehand. At one point I unexpectedly switched up the syringe and squirted medication in her beak rather than juice. I could immediately see her cringe at the taste but it was too late as I followed up with a banana chip. To ensure that the medication goes down, I feed a few more banana chips right after or pellets. The crumbs will pick up remaining medication and ensure she is swallowing.
The success in using this approach has been apparent not only in getting the parrot to accept medication that initial time but daily since. The problem with a more forceful approach to medicating is that it makes the parrot resist better with subsequent times, not to mention ruins your relationship. By taking a little extra time to teach the bird to take juice from a syringe and by mixing a ratio of at least five pleasant drinks for every one nasty medication drink, I have ensured that I will be able to repeat the medication ten times and not harm my relationship in the process. This is a win/win for bird and human alike.
The moral of the story is to work on your relationship with your parrot now. Make sure you train your parrot and follow the Well-Behaved Parrot approach. Develop the skills and tools to be able to teach your parrot anything important in short order (whether it is taking medication or something else not yet thought of). You have now learned about my approach to training a parrot to take medication. You can begin to apply this now if you need to administer medication or you can keep this process in the back of your mind should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to give medication.
Here is the complete video of how I taught Santina to take medication in one day.