First Aid and Your Pet Bird

(Information by Lori A. Drew, CVT, CAS – Founder and President, C.A.R.E., Inc.)

If you keep enough birds long enough, eventually an emergency will arise.

No matter how careful you are, sometimes situations arise that will require you to take immediate, sometimes lifesaving action.

The number one safety precaution in a bird home is to have an avian veterinarian who has seen your bird(s) for a normal wellness exam. You don’t want to be calling fellow bird club members or friends at the time of an emergency to find a qualified avian veterinarian. You will waste valuable time that may potentially save your pet from permanent damage or even death.

This list is by no means complete, but this document discusses the most common accidents/chronic disease and information you can refer to in the case of an accident.


Signs of labored breathing (huffing and puffing) may include any or all of the following: open-mouthed breathing, frequent sneezing, wheezing, clicking sounds, tail bobbing (especially budgies and cockatiels) or a constantly outstretched neck. There may also be discharge from the nares and the area around the eyes (the sinuses) may be swollen. The bird may vomit, shiver, be anorexic, have diarrhea, lethargy, weakness, ruffled feathers or swollen abdomen.


Any respiratory problem should be considered an emergency and the bird should be taken to the vet immediately. Until you get the bird to the vet, keep it warm and use a vaporizer near the cage so the bird can ingest ward, moist air. Do not wait overnight. An avian veterinarian will know this is an emergency and would never ask you to come the next day. If you notice acute respiratory problems at night or on the weekend and your vet isn’t open, you need to get to an emergency vet service immediately.


Birds have a series of air sacs located internally. These are in the neck area (cervical air sacs), the chest (thoracic air sacs) and in the belly (abdominal air sacs). These areas are part of a bird’s breathing system and help the bird receive oxygen from the air in a highly efficient manner. They also help provide the lightness and buoyancy needed for flight. Occasionally, one of these air sacs may rupture (usually due to injury) and air will leak from the sac and accumulate under the bird’s skin. This condition is known as subcutaneous emphysema. This accumulation must be removed, or the air sac may tear even further.


Clean the skin over the swelling with a disinfectant on a cotton ball. Take small scissors or a needle and make a tiny hole in the skin. This allows the air to escape. This may need to be done several times before the air is released. It has been shown that air sacs normally repair themselves within two weeks. However, if you see no improvement within a day or two, your avian veterinarian should see the bird. It is probably a good idea to have the bird seen anyway.

ANOREXIA (Loss of Appetite)

A bird’s metabolic rate is very high, requiring almost constant intake. If you notice your bird is not eating as much as it normally does, or refuses food altogether, the situation is serious. Your avian veterinarian should exam your small bird if it hasn’t eaten for 12 hours. A large bird that has not eaten for 24 hours also should be seen immediately. A longer time frame than that may prove to be fatal.


Try feeding the bird anything – peanut butter, yogurt, baby food, whatever its favorite food is – even if it’s sunflower seeds – just get it to eat. If you have hand feeding formula available, mix some up, keeping it slightly liquid, and try to hand feed. If that doesn’t work keep the bird warm and get to the vet as soon as possible.


Blood anywhere on the bird or its cage is cause for immediate investigation. Birds do not have a large volume of blood and any blood loss can be detrimental or even fatal to a bird.


The first thing to do is find the source of the bleeding. Pour hydrogen peroxide on the area you think is bleeding. It will remove the old blood and you will be able to readily see where the bleeding is coming from. Handle your bird gently and calmly. Birds feel your stress, so the more stressed you become; the more stressed the bird will also become. Have styptic powder, cornstarch or flour available at all times. Secure the bleeding area with styptic powder, cover and use gentle pressure to hold the area for at least three minutes (no peeking). After the bleeding has stopped, observe the bird for at least an hour to make sure the bleeding does not restart. If bleeding has not stopped after one hour of treatment, a trip to the vet is mandatory. If any signs of listlessness, weakness, paralysis or respiratory distress are noted, a vet trip is mandatory. If the bleeding continues on the way to the vet, have someone else drive so the passenger can apply pressure to the bleeding area.


A blood feather is a feather in the process of growing in. It has a nerve and blood supply. Occasionally, a blood feather will break and bleed profusely. These feathers must be pulled out completely or they will continue to bleed and the bird will die from loss of blood and stress.


Use sturdy tweezers, a hemostat or a pair of needle-nosed pliers. Grasp the feather firmly and pull it out, always applying pressure in the direction in which the feather is growing. Take care not to pull out the feather follicle. If you see blood oozing from the feather follicle after pulling out the feather, apply styptic powder or use direct pressure on the site (three minutes, no peeking). Keep the bird quiet and warm. Watch for continued bleeding, as outlined above.


Bite wounds, cuts, and abrasions are usually a result of trauma, but can also be caused by self-mutilation.


Stop the bleeding as referenced above. Dirt and/or feather debris can be removed with small tweezers. Clean the area with a disinfectant (hydrogen peroxide, nolvasan, betadine, etc.). Keep the bird warm and quiet. Watch for signs of shock or infection. If there is even the smallest doubt as to the seriousness of the injury, see your avian vet. If it is a case of self-mutilation, seeing your vet is mandatory. A biopsy may be needed and most certainly antibiotics in case of infection. There may also be a need to use anti-anxiety drugs once the reason for the mutilation is found. Note: One wound, which should always be seen immediately by your avian vet, is a cat bite. Cats transmit a bacterium called Pasteurella. Birds are very susceptible to it and can die within 24 hours of Pasteurella septicemia. Birds will need to be put on antibiotic therapy immediately after the cat bite to ensure the infection does not spread throughout the body.


Whether it is bright red or tar-like (black) in color and consistency, blood in the stool always indicates a serious condition. An avian vet should see the bird as soon as possible. Keep the bird warm and quiet until you can get it to your vet.


Burns may be caused by flame, electricity, hot grease or hot water, by a base such as muriatic acid, or by a chemical, such as household chlorine bleach. There are three categories of burns:

  1. Superficial – damage to the skin, swelling, redness, and blisters. Feathers may be singed, but still attached.
  2. Partial thickness – much more loss of skin than in Group 1. Severe redness and swelling, dry, tan crust will follow. Feather may remain intact, the skin will slough off before healing can occur.
  3. Full-thickness – entire skin destroyed. Feathers fall out. Lesions may be black or pearly white. Healing will not occur without grafting.


Spray or flush the area with cool water. If an acid had caused the burn, apply a thin coat of baking soda paste to the area. If a base has caused the burn, the area can be treated with vinegar. Never use ointment or butter on a burned area. If the burn has been caused by hot grease, sprinkle the area liberally with flour or cornstarch before rinsing with cool water (make sure to keep away from eyes and nose). This helps to “soak up” the grease so it is easier to remove.


This is a potentially life-threatening situation. If the egg is lodged against the bones of the hen’s pelvis, her kidneys could be crushed, causing her to go into shock and die. Another consequence can be that the compression of the outlets of the ureters can lead to the hen not being able to pass urine or feces, also causing the bird’s death. Signs of egg binding include weakness, abdominal swelling, squatting and straining, paralysis or weakness in the legs, breathing difficulty, fluffed feathers, visualizing the egg at the outlet of cloaca, red mass of tissue protruding from cloaca (prolapse).


Move the bird into a warm, steamy environment such as a bathroom with the shower turned on or place the bird in a hospital cage with the temperature set at 85 – 90 degrees and 60 percent humidity. Or use a vaporizer and heating pad to get the same results as above, making sure you do not cook the bird with the vaporizer and heating pad. Dried milk or ground cuttlebone dissolved in water, to which a few drops of Karo syrup have been added (or granulated sugar). These treatments should be continued for no longer than 12 hours for a large bird and no more than 3 to 4 hours for a small bird. If the egg has not been passed in that time, a trip to the vet is necessary. Do not try to remove the egg yourself. If the egg cracks while you are trying to remove it, the bird will probably die from septicemia. Removing the egg is a job for the vet.


Often a small piece of seed hull or feather chaff may get lodged in a bird’s eye.


Place a very small amount of sterile ophthalmic ointment or sterile KY Jelly on the eye. It will do an excellent job of soothing irritated tissues and “float” out the object. If the bird has not experienced relief in 2 to 3 hours, a trip to the vet is necessary.


Wrap the bird loosely with soft toweling to prevent movement of wings and legs. Keep the bird warm and quiet. A trip to the vet is necessary.


The ultimate concern in the first aid of heatstroke is to get the bird’s body temperature lowered immediately.


  1. Spray the feathers with alcohol (keeping away from bird’s face) or cold water. Alcohol will last longer on the feathers. Be sure the feathers are wet right down to the skin.
  2. Place the bird in an air-conditioned room or in front of a fan.
  3. Immerse the bird’s feed in cold water or place cold water, a few drops at a time, in the bird’s vent with a syringe or dropper to help lower internal temperature rapidly.
  4. If the bird is conscious, allow it to drink – or give it manually – a few drops of water at a time.

There is always the danger of shock following heatstroke. Water the bird carefully – when its panting has lessened and it appears more alert and comfortable to prevent chills. Keep it quiet and get it to the vet immediately.


If the bird has caught its leg on the cage wire, do not attempt to disentangle it by yourself. Have someone else support the bird while you take a pair of wire cutters, cut off the wire holding the leg band, and immediately transport the bird to the vet to remove the leg band and wire. It is very easy to cut off the bird’s leg or foot with the wire cutters. If that happens, the bird will most likely die of shock and pain.


Take the bird immediately to the vet. If you know what the bird got into, take the whole bottle, jar, etc., with you.


Signs of shock in birds are: Feathers fluffed, listlessness, rapid breathing, weakness, the skin of legs and feet are cool to the touch, unconsciousness.


Shock requires immediately attention. Keep the bird warm and quiet. Handle the bird as little as possible. If you can, attempt to get it to take a high-calorie electrolyte solution (Pedialyte or Gatorade are two good ones). Avoid sudden movements while handling the bird. Notify the vet that you are on your way and go immediately

First Aid and Your Pet Bird

It is a good idea to have a first aid kit put together in case of an emergency These are some of the things we have in our bird first aid kit at C.A.R.E., Inc.

  • Eye Irrigation Solution
  • Tweezers
  • Hemostat
  • Needle Nose Pliers
  • Human Toenail Clipper
  • Dog Toenail Clipper
  • Cotton Balls
  • Q-Tips
  • Styptic Powder
  • Gauze Squares
  • Vet Wrap (self-adhesive wrap you can get from your vet)
  • Triple Antibiotic Ointment
  • Towel
  • Alcohol
  • Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Bottle of Pedialyte or Gatorade

It is also a good idea to have a heating pad available and a small aquarium or something similar in case you need to keep the bird warm in a confined area, for instance, if they go into shock or contract a respiratory infection.

*Download a Copy