Medical Emergencies

Accidents will happen.

Many, however, occur at the worst possible time. Your best defense is to remain calm and then to follow through with a basic treatment plan. In some cases, a veterinarian needs to evaluate and care for your bird. If you portray a calm demeanor then your bird will too.

Here are some of the more common emergencies and how you can handle some of them at home.


The sight of blood often strikes fear in all bird owners. Don’t panic! Instead, try to determine where the blood is coming from by wiping the general area with hydrogen peroxide or a clean moist washcloth. The most likely places will be flight feathers of the wings or tail or a broken toenail.

Developing flight feathers have a vessel within the shaft and are known as “blood feathers”. When cracked or broken, they will bleed. Using styptic powder to stop bleeding is not a complete solution because the feather will bleed when it brushes against the perch or is groomed by the bird. The damaged feather must be pulled. The best way to do this is to have the bird restrained in a towel by another person while you gently hold the wing (or tail) and use a pliers to pull the feather out, holding the feather as close to the skin as possible. If the feather has broken too close to the skin to grasp, then you will need to have a veterinarian remove it. After removing the feather, apply gentle pressure on the follicle with gauze to stop the bleeding. The follicle should stop bleeding within 1-2 minutes. If not, then keep the pressure on it and get to a veterinarian. Loss of too much blood is a serious matter.

If a toenail is broken or the beak tip is injured, bleeding can be stopped by blotting and applying styptic powder with gentle pressure for 30 seconds to a minute. If styptic powder is not available, flour or corn starch can be used. Keep an eye on your bird for a couple of hours to be sure bleeding does not resume. Do not use styptic powder on skin wounds, as this will be very painful for the bird. Instead, use corn starch or simple direct pressure.

Beak Trauma

Beak trauma may occur if a larger bird bites a smaller bird or if two birds fight. Birds have been known to fly into mirrors, doors and windows, injuring themselves. Beaks have also gotten caught on and been punctured by toys, chains or protrusions in the cage. Tongues have been cut on sharp edged or broken toys. Medium and larger size birds especially, have the beak power to bite into toys and chains. Choose toys carefully and avoid chains with open links.

The beak is essential for the bird to eat. It may be necessary to wire the beak or use acrylics to repair the beak. If the germinal layer has not been damaged, the new beak will grow in normally. Debriding or removing damaged tissue and antibiotics are frequently necessary. If the tongue is bleeding, it may stop. Even so, call your veterinarian, as treatment for infection and/or repair may be required.

Toe Nails

A nail can be clipped too severely or be broken or a larger bird may chew on the toenails of a smaller bird, causing the nail to bleed. The first thing one should do is to try and stop the bleeding with gentle, but firm, pressure. Do NOT keep blotting the foot – as this may keep a clot from forming. If you are unable to stop the bleeding, apply pressure and seek medical help. Bitten toes or legs become very swollen. Antibiotics, analgesics and bandages are often necessary to prevent infection and to keep the bird from picking at its foot because it is painful.

Bite Wounds

Bite wounds from dogs and cats may appear to be minor, but must be treated very aggressively. The wound should be gently cleaned with betadine and the bird taken immediately to a veterinarian. Bacteria from the dog or cat can get into the bird, causing a generalized bacterial infection known as septicemia. This can be fatal if not treated. The veterinarian will start the bird on aggressive antibiotic therapy.


Seizures are a medical emergency. A seizure is a spontaneous, uncontrolled, neurological activity. A bird might be twitching, paddling or convulsing. Seizures may be mild, generalized or partial. Mild seizures last a short period of time. The bird may appear disoriented and unable to perch. Generalized seizures are more severe. The bird loses consciousness, vocalizes and flaps its wings uncontrollably. Partial seizures are characterized by a continuous twitching of a wing or leg.

It is extremely important to stop the seizure with medication and to discover the cause of the seizure, if possible. A variety of causes may trigger seizures such as, disease in the brain, head trauma, low blood sugar, low blood calcium, metabolic problems, toxins and an inherited predisposition. The bird should be placed in a quiet dark box and taken to a veterinarian immediately. Injectable medicine – such as valium – will be given to stop the seizures. Blood tests will be taken to try to determine the cause of the seizure. Antibiotics, fluids and glucose may be administered to stabilize the bird. If the bird is found to have a seizure disorder, it may be put on an anti-convulsent such as phenobarbitol. If a bird repeated seizure activity, do not wait to get the bird to a veterinarian. Time is of the essence. The longer this continues, the more likely that brain damage can occur.

Crop Burns

Crop burns occur when a bird is fed food that is too hot. This often occurs in hand fed babies that are fed microwaved formula that has “hot spots” due to improper mixing. Several hours after feeding, the skin over the crop appears red. Owners may miss the early signs and only realize there is a problem when food or fluid leaks out of the crop onto the bird’s feathers. The veterinarian will place the bird on anti-fungals and antibiotics while waiting for the extent of the burn to become apparent. Surgical repair will be necessary to remove damaged tissue and close the crop and the overlying skin.

Regurgitation and Vomiting

It is very difficult at times to differentiate these and so I will discuss them together. Both involve bringing up food and expelling it from the mouth. Regurgitation to a mate, person or toy is a normal part of breeding behavior. A bird that is regurgitating or vomiting will make a head-bobbing and neck-stretching type of movement. Food will be brought up and deposited on the bird’s toys or mate. Food may become caked on the bird’s head giving it a spiky, matted appearance.

Bacterial, viral and fungal gastrointestinal causes, obstructions, toxins and liver or kidney problems may also cause regurgitation or vomiting. If you suspect that this behavior is the result of illness, a veterinarian should examine your bird. If there are toys or mirrors the bird is “feeding” these should be removed as some birds can become obsessed.

Acute Dyspnea (shortness of breath)

Acute dyspnea is the sudden onset of open mouthed abdominal breathing and tail bobbing in a previously healthy bird. It may be caused by inhalation of a piece of food, the dislocation and subsequent inhalation of a bacterial or fungal plaque (a bacterial or fungal colony which has attached to the bird’s tissues), or the inhalation of a toxin.

The bird should be seen immediately, as this is a life threatening emergency. The veterinarian may give the bird oxygen and then place a small tube – known as an airsac tube – in the side of the bird, enabling it to breathe. The trachea may then be examined and if a foreign body or plaque is seen, it may be removed. Other causes of labored breathing are possible. Your veterinarian needs to assess your bird.

Egg Binding

Although egg binding can occur in any female bird, it is most common in smaller birds such as lovebirds, cockatiels, budgies and finches. Clinical signs of egg binding are loss of appetite, depression, abdominal straining, and sitting fluffed on the bottom of the cage. Some hens may pass large wet droppings while others may not pass any droppings due to the egg’s interfering with normal defecation. If you suspect your bird is eggbound, she should be seen immediately. The veterinarian may be able to feel the egg in the bird’s abdomen. An x-ray may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Sometimes medical treatment will enable the hen to pass her egg. Occasionally surgery is necessary. Since a solitary bird may also lay an egg, although it won’t be fertile, pet birds can also have this problem.

Leg Bands

Leg bands can sometimes lead to emergencies. If your bird has a leg band – and it is a closed band – be sure to inspect it frequently, making certain that it isn’t too tight. Birds are banded when they are very young to identify the breeder and to designate that they are domestically raised. At a very young age, the breeder is able to slip the band over the foot. I have seen numerous cockatiels, canaries and parakeets present with leg bands that are too tight, cutting off the blood supply to the foot. These bands must be removed – and they can be very difficult to cut off. Birds can lose their foot if the blood supply is severely damaged as a result of a constricting leg band.

Open bands are even more dangerous. The bird can chew on the band tightening it. Conversely, the band can open and catch on items in the cage. These bands should be removed. For legal purposes, carefully save the band and information about it’s removal.

If a bird is caged, be certain that the bars don’t narrow near the top. Bands can be caught in these narrowed spaces causing the bird to hang, trapped in the cage. Severe damage can occur to the leg if the bird is not freed quickly. Strings on toys, chains or cage decorations can also catch on a band. Be sure to check these as a preventative measure.

Threads, Strings and Rope

Threads and string may also wind around a leg, cutting off circulation. Nesting hair and certain rope toys may be especially dangerous because of this. If your bird has string wrapped tightly around its toes or leg, try to remove it or seek medical help immediately. Anti-inflammatory medicine, antibiotics and warm soaks may restore circulation, so that amputation is not necessary.

Take preventative measures to ensure your bird’s safety. Put together a first aid kit and your veterinarian’s phone number readily available. And in the event of an emergency, remain calm, know what can be done and follow the suggestions presented here. Be prepared, the life you save may be your birds.

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