Few in number, avian veterinarians are a dedicated lot
Story and photos by R. Scott Nolen
This article is more than 3 years old
Stuart Blackman can’t imagine life without Rufus, his pet scarlet macaw. “I grew up with Rufus. I don’t know what life would be like without him, God forbid,” said Blackman of the spectacular red bird he’s owned for nearly 31 years.
Rufus was Blackman’s first pet bird and is just one of his four exotic avian companions, housed in separate expansive cages lining the windows of Blackman’s Chicago loft. There’s Zoey, 24, a rose-breasted cockatoo; Gainsborough, 8, a hyacinth macaw; and Quebe, 4, a Queen of Bavaria conure.
Over the years, Blackman has spent tens of thousands of dollars on specially made cages, imported vitamins, feed, and veterinary care for his birds, which he sees as his children. And like any good father, Blackman is highly protective of his brood. “Birds are not for everyone,” he stressed. “They require a lot of training on the owner’s part. They are very smart and have sensitive feelings.”
The pet-owning public seems to share Blackman’s sentiment about bird ownership. The AVMA’s 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook estimated the size of the nation’s pet bird population to be 8.3 million animals at year end 2011—a 20.5 percent decline since 2006 when the previous study was published. Approximately 3.7 million U.S. households owned a bird in 2011, down from 4.5 million in 2006. Bird ownership has dropped nearly 46 percent over the past two decades, the survey found.
By comparison, the AVMA survey estimated the number of pet cats and dogs at year end 2011 to be 74 million and 69.9 million, respectively. Additionally, 36.5 percent of U.S households owned dogs and 30.4 percent owned cats.
Not surprisingly, the number of U.S. veterinary practices catering to bird owners is dwarfed by the abundance of small animal clinics. Of the more than 14,000 practices listed in MyVeterinarian.com, 3,527 offer avian medical services, AVMA records show.
The Association of Avian Veterinarians, established in 1980 for the purpose of educating small animal practitioners in avian medicine, today has approximately 1,714 members, according to AAV Executive Director Robert Groskin. Around 1,400 of them are practitioners, and of these, only about 10 percent are in an exclusively or almost exclusively avian practice, while the remainder have an avian caseload of 30 percent or less.
“The majority of our members do not see birds exclusively. They have a mix of birds, exotic small mammals and reptiles, and dogs and cats,” Dr. Groskin said.
The field of avian medicine has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. Safer anesthetics, a better understanding of avian pharmacology, increasing availability of sophisticated diagnostic tests, and greater insights into bird physiology have yielded important health care advances.
“The AAV just had its annual conference, where one of the sessions was surgery on the avian skull. That was unthinkable two decades ago,” Dr. Groskin said.
“Everything we’ve learned on pet birds has benefited the avian population overall,” he added. “We have a greater capacity to protect the health of the remaining birds of an endangered species.”
Small in number, veterinarians who practice avian medicine are a different breed, motivated by a love of the species and a passion for the bird’s unique medical needs.
Dr. Peter Sakas has practiced at Niles Animal Hospital and Bird Medical Center in suburban Chicago for more than three decades. In 1985, two years after receiving his DVM degree from the University of Illinois, Dr. Sakas bought the hospital from his mentor, Dr. T.J. Lafeber, a leading authority on pet bird care and medicine at the time.
Having previously earned a master’s degree in parasitology, Dr. Sakas enrolled in veterinary college with plans for a career in research and academia. He spent his summer breaks working for Dr. Lafeber, who ultimately steered him into avian medicine. Now, Dr. Sakas is himself an authority on avian medicine. A frequent lecturer for veterinary colleges and associations, he is author of “Essentials of avian medicine: A guide for practitioners,” published by the American Animal Hospital Association.
Dr. Sakas estimates pet birds account for more than 30 percent of his hospital’s caseload, noting that many clients also own dogs, cats, and varieties of exotic pets. He sees birds ranging from finches to macaws as well as wild birds, including raptors. Cockatiels and parakeets are the most frequently seen patients, however.
He says a person chooses a bird as a pet for personal reasons ranging from the aesthetic (the colorful plumage) to the practical (cats and dogs make them sneeze) to the desire for a loving pet. People sometimes inherit birds that have outlived their owners. Dr. Sakas believes many pet owners are alike in their willingness to do anything to care for an animal companion.
“We do some pretty involved surgeries,” Dr. Sakas said. “We remove the reproductive tract of birds that have tumors or an egg that will not pass. Some people balk at the expense of such a surgery, but most people say, ‘Do whatever you can to save my bird.’”
Dr. Anthony Pilny is one of two veterinarians board certified in avian medicine on staff at The Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine in New York City. Birds make up more than half the practice’s caseload, Dr. Pilny said, and range from finches and macaws to pigeons and other wild birds.
The most common avian health problems Dr. Pilny sees are related to reproduction. Obesity can also be an issue, particularly for Amazon parrots, which are predisposed to weight gain, he said. Pet birds typically live sedentary lives; they may be unable to fly as a result of trimmed wings—a procedure The Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine offers but doesn’t recommend—and owners don’t always understand their pet’s dietary needs. As a result, they become overweight.
“Obese birds can develop similar diseases to humans such as atherosclerosis, elevated triglyceride levels, and heart disease,” he said.
The most valuable service the avian practice offers, in addition to health care, is client education. “It’s vitally important. It’s what we spend so much time doing,” Dr. Pilny explained. “We always educate clients as to our recommendations on feeding, exercise, lighting, behavior, training, travel, boarding, and so on.”
No welfare issue currently facing the pet bird community is more serious than pet relinquishment. “It’s a huge problem. Birds have become one of the most surrendered pets,” Dr. Pilny acknowledged. “Because most shelters don’t take them, they wind up in sanctuaries, of which more and more are popping up all over. It’s very sad.”
Dr. Sakas agrees. “People buy these birds, and they don’t know their needs, and they don’t know how to handle them,” he explained. “Maybe the bird’s a screamer, a feather picker, or aggressive. Owners get frustrated, the relationship is not what they expected, and they just want to get rid of the bird. We see a lot of unwanted birds, because people make poor choices. They don’t do the research beforehand to learn what’s involved in caring for a particular variety of bird.
“Birds are highly intelligent animals, and they get bored quickly. People who want them as an ornament keep them in a cage because they’re beautiful. However, when they don’t interact with them, not meeting the bird’s emotional needs, the bird will become frustrated and engage in unwanted behavior. Birds are flock animals, and they need activity outside the cage.”
The endangered patient?
The avian patient is indeed a rare bird. According to the AVMA pet ownership and demographics survey, 12.4 percent of bird-owning households had at least one visit to the veterinarian in 2011, a decrease of 10.8 percent since 2006. Further, 6 percent of them had one visit, 2.4 percent had two visits, 1.2 percent had three visits, 2.8 percent had four or more visits, and 87.6 percent had no visits to the veterinarian in 2011.
“Do birds see veterinarians enough?” Dr. Groskin of the AAV asked. “They don’t. Birds will benefit most by routine annual health exams. As avian veterinarians, we are constantly improving our abilities to provide better care for our patients. Having a regular conversation with our clients about their birds benefits both the health of their pet as well as the relationship they have with their bird.” The AAV is exploring options for raising awareness among bird owners about the importance of regular veterinary visits similar to what the Partnership for Healthy Pets initiative is doing for cats and dogs.
Both Drs. Pilny and Sakas say their practices were largely unaffected by the recent recession. “We were fine,” Dr. Pilny said, “mostly because we see sick or injured patients regardless of the economic climate. Bird owners don’t tend to do a lot of wellness visits, and owners choosing to skip elective visits or optional diagnostic testing doesn’t affect us, because our avian patients don’t need vaccines, heartworm tests, or flea products.”
“We did see people tighten their belts,” Dr. Sakas said, “but our practice is diverse enough it didn’t hurt us.”
Learn more about pet bird medicine by visiting the Association of Avian Veterinarians website.