Before I can answer that question we have to go back to basics – do birds feel pain?
I want to shout “OF COURSE!” but you would be surprised how many people, including trained veterinary professionals, fail to think about this.
First of all, think about what happens when your dog or cat is in pain. They limp, they cringe, they howl, they wine, they have little sad faces, they cry or scream when you try to do anything to their “sore bits”. It is very obvious that they are in pain and we immediately start to consider pain relief.
When birds are in pain they will sometimes limp, hold their wing at a strange angle or something more obvious. But often they may just look at you blankly and do nothing! This is especially true for wild birds and I have seen wild birds with horrific injuries that have not shown any outward signs of pain. This leads to the next question…
Why don’t birds show signs of pain? Some people call this the “preservation reflex” and it is not just birds but other prey species too. For these species, to show signs of sickness or pain is to show weakness, and to show weakness can mean a target painted on your back. We don’t know the full detail of how or why this occurs but can only presume is an evolutionary feature that helps some species to survive or hide from predators.
When trying to decide if a bird is in pain look at the kind of injury or illness the bird has and imagine if it were you. If you had been hit by a car, mauled by a dog, flown into a window or broken your leg, would it hurt? Would you want something to relieve the pain – definitely!
There is good news when deciding what drugs to use, as drugs commonly used in vet practices can be used for birds. The drugs most commonly used for birds are:
Meloxicam – this is a Nonsteroidal drug and great for chronic pain and for anything of an inflammatory nature. The bird must be well hydrated before use and it shouldn’t be used for birds with kidney disease.
Butorphanol – this is a short-acting opioid that is really good for acute trauma such as fractures. It shouldn’t be used for long-term/chronic pain
Tramadol – also an opioid so good for acute or severe pain and can be given orally, also longer lasting than Butorphanol.
For recommended doses and administration for birds I highly recommend James Carpenter’s Exotic Animal Formulary.
What drugs should you NOT use for pain relief in birds? Make sure to avoid corticosteroids. There are many research papers that state some severe negative consequences of using steroids in birds – this can include immunosuppression and secondary infections such as Aspergillosis, liver disease and delayed wound healing.(1)
It is also currently not recommended to give standard opioids like morphine as birds do not have the same physiological response to these as mammals, although there is more research happening in that space and we will update you if this recommendation changes.
Note that if you don’t have access to drugs for a bird in immediate need, there are other things to do to help. This includes wound care and stabilising fractures with a bandage. For these basic skills in first aid, please consider taking our Bird Rescue 101 course so we can help you to help the birds!
1. Carpenter, J. (2006). Pharmacotherapeutics in Companion Birds: An Update and Review. World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, accessed Jan 2020 at: https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=11223&id=3859004
Dr Janelle Ward
(Photos are copyright of Dr Janelle Ward)
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