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Avian Health & Wellness
Hand-feeding and Crop Burns – Where Is That Crystal Ball When You Need It?
by Elizabeth Svercl, MAARS Volunteer
Hand-feeding is a very important topic that needs to be addressed by organizations like MAARS. Not only can it jeopardize a bird's physical health, but many of the birds that MAARS sees have suffered psychologically and developmentally due to forced-weaning and improper hand-feeding techniques. Many people now believe that one of the most likely causes of feather-picking and other psychological and physical problems in Cockatoos and other parrots is improper weaning and fledging. The following article written by MAARS Volunteer, Elizabeth Svercl, describes a risky accident she and her husband encountered when hand-feeding their Moluccan Cockatoo, Lily.
Where is that crystal ball when you need it? It is sure not at our house! I have an African Grey and was really happy when my husband bought a Moluccan Cockatoo, Lily. The one drawback was that Lily would have to be hand-fed (with a syringe) for a few months. I did see it as a bonding time for them and I had experience with hand-feeding, so this seemed possible to me. Another issue was that my small hands could not hold the large syringe she needed, so my husband would have to do it all himself, but I could watch and give advice. It is a case of "if I knew then what I know now." I should not have felt so good about it. Of course, this all took place before I started volunteering at MAARS.
Actually, things went quite well for a few months and Lily was hubby's baby, for sure. Knowing what I had read about Cockatoos being prone to plucking, we went out of our way to give her things to do and spent hundreds of dollars on parrot toys. One day, I noticed that Lily had started to pluck her right upper chest. She did this all week until she had a clear spot on her chest. Lily was focused on this one spot and it became her bald spot! I joined an online group devoted to the topic of feather-picking to try to gain some insight into why this was happening.
Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary; she snuggled, screamed, played, and climbed just as she had always done. Thinking that Lily's feather-picking might be a behavioral issue, I sought more information and help. At the end of November 2004, I e-mailed Eileen McCarthy at MAARS for advice and we arranged to talk early the next week. Over that same weekend, my husband went out of town. Lily was less than a year old and was still happily taking one hand-feeding a day. Since I still could not use the syringe, I thought I would just try to give Lily warm food on a spoon while my husband was away. My Grey loves that kind of treat and I had no reason to think it would be a problem for Lily.
I fed her warm vegetables in the mornings and then some fruit in the afternoon and she really was liking those grapes! There were also pellets and water in her cage at all times. Friday went well, Saturday morning went well. But Saturday night, I tried to feed her some warm applesauce with a spoon and the problems started. She ate, but I thought she was being sloppy, because she seemed to get it all over her chest. It matted down her feathers and looked terrible, especially the "bald spot." On Sunday morning, the same thing happened and I was concerned — but more because Lily looked a mess than for any other reason.
By Sunday night I was afraid. When my husband got home the first thing he did was hold Lily, cuddle and stroke her, and then hand-fed her with the syringe. Then fear turned to panic! With the first squirt of the syringe, it was obvious that formula was spurting out through a hole in her chest as fast as it was going into her beak. While my husband got Lily cleaned up, I called the emergency vet clinic. The on-call vet told me that he was not comfortable working with birds and said he would have our vet call me. Within ten minutes our vet called and I described what was happening with Lily. He told me that it sounded like a crop burn and said he would need to see Lily in the morning, but that she would be fine overnight at home. All I could do was say OK, and that I would call in the morning for an appointment.
In the mean time, I went to another online group for parrots and sent a panicky e-mail. I also e-mailed Eileen again. Within ten minutes, I was getting responses to my e-mail that made me feel sick inside. Every answer was the same: "This sounds like a crop burn and it is an emergency situation, you need to get Lily to a vet right away." That was at about 1:00 in the morning. We were very upset, but also feeling very helpless. We got Lily settled down and asleep and we tried to sleep also.
By 6:00 a.m. on Monday, we were up, and I had three more e-mails that repeated the same urgency to get Lily to vet. I also got an early call from Eileen, who told me to get Lily in to see an avian vet ASAP and gave me the names and phone numbers of two vets who work with MAARS. At this point, I was terrified, trying not to let my husband see my fear, and wanting help for this big pink baby of ours. I was able to get an appointment at one of the veterinary clinics Eileen recommended, South Hyland Pet Hospital, but not until about 4:30 that afternoon.
I live in Anoka and the vet was in Bloomington, so I left home at 2:10 to try to miss rush-hour traffic. Even though I arrived early for my appointment, we were able to see Dr. Vicki Schulz after only a ten-minute wait. She weighed Lily and said she was a big girl, then went on to explain what was going to happen: They would give Lily an injection of antibiotics and then let her rest overnight at the clinic. Then they would perform surgery to remove the necrotic tissue and repair the hole in her crop and skin. Lily would then be on antibiotic and anti-fungal medications at home for two weeks. Dr. Schulz said she was "cautiously optimistic" about Lily's prognosis, but that there was substantial risk and we could lose her. She was also up-front about the cost — $400–500 was her estimate. I went home and we waited again. As I went over what had happened in my head, I noted that Lily had not seemed sick. Knowing that birds hide their illness, I hoped that this was not a bad sign.
At 9:00 a.m. the next morning, I called to check on Lily. I was told the surgery was done at 7:30 that morning and Lily was doing well so far. At noon, Dr. Schulz called and gave me the results: she had repaired the crop and the chest wound, examined the crop, and closed her back up. The crop ulceration had been attached to the chest wall, which was good because no food had gotten into her chest cavity, where it could have caused a deadly infection. The crop itself had appeared thick and white, rather than pink. Now we had to wait. I was to pick Lily up about 3:30 that afternoon and would get instructions for after-care at that time.
I got to the clinic about 3:00 p.m. and the staff let me see Lily. She looked good and wanted me to pick her up — she was ready to get out of there! Dr. Schulz went over everything that she had told me before and gave me specific instructions on giving medication to Lily. The stitches were the type that would dissolve and would not need to be removed. She also got a final weight on Lily before we left.
We got a call from the clinic the next day to check on Lily and another follow-up phone call a week after I first took Lily to the clinic. In the meantime, Lily did well and got even sassier, in a Cockatoo sort of way! On Thanksgiving we took Lily to my in-laws home in Duluth. She spent the day snuggled in our arms — she was happy and we were just grateful that she was OK. We had so much for which we were thankful!
Lily finished her meds after a few weeks. Her skin looks good around the stitches, she has no interest in plucking anymore, and her toys have become the big part of her day again. She still snuggles and screams, and things look like they are on the right track. I cannot express how relieved I am that the surgery and treatment went well and how very happy I am that Lily is still with us. I realize now, how lucky we all were and how easily an accident like this can happen. I am so fortunate to have an incredible resource within MAARS. I hate to think of this happening to another bird without the guidance and care Lily and I received from MAARS and Dr. Schulz!