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Born Free USA Blog

Born Free USA Blog

The Vet doesn't always know best

Published 08/05/09
By Monica Engebretson, Senior Program Associate

A recent podcast by the Association of Avian Veterinarians was recently brought to my attention by a colleague and parrot behavior expert in the UK who was appalled by the information presented about keeping parrots as pets.

In the podcast the veterinarian perpetuated the myth that birds are easy-to-care-for pets and even suggested that larger birds like cockatoos and macaws were good pet choices (but only for those not living in apartments where noise could be a problem). Further troubling, the vet recommended that birds be obtained from breeders or pet stores and never mentioned rescues or the pit falls of pet shops and bird mills. The only warning given was that purchasers should be provided with a “warranty” this would tell them that the store or breeder “stood behind their product.”

Their “product” ... Really?

Unfortunately it is all too common for veterinarians to treat and view animals much in the same way as commercial breeders and pet shops — as “products” or “production units.” The physical health being the primary concern with the psychological health often falling off the radar.

I’'ve had some personal experience with this exact issue.

Several years ago I took my peach-faced lovebird “Kenya” to see a veterinarian who specialized in birds. I had noticed that Kenya” breathing had become a bit labored and was concerned that she kept laying eggs and that this might compromise her long-term health.

The vet examined Kenya and asked me a series of questions about Kenya’s care. The conversation went something like this:

Dr: “Does she get exercise?”

Me: “Yes, I don’t clip her wings, so she is full flighted and is out of her cage most of the day with an entire room to herself.”

Dr: “Hmmm ... Does she have any toys that she plays with a lot?”

Me: “Yes, she has lots of toys and is especially fond of her ‘jingle balls’ plastic toy balls with bells inside.”

Dr: “Hmmm ... Does she have any nesting material or cloth that she cuddles with?”

Me: “Yes, she has a blanket that she likes to crawl underneath and is fond of rummaging around in my dresser and she shreds paper and puts it in there.”

Dr: “Hmmm ... I see ...”

The Doctor then proceeded to effectively tell me that Kenya’s life was too stimulating, and that I should leave her in the cage most of the time to reduce her activity, and clip her wings. He also said I should take away her “jingle bells” and any paper of cloth that she uses for making nests. All this, he theorized, should derail her urge to lay eggs.

I was stunned.

He basically advised me to take away everything the Kenya enjoyed in pursuit of prolonging her physical body. I thought to myself, “Sure, and I bet if I put her in a jar of formaldehyde, she’ll last forever.” This Dr. was so focused on solving the “physical issue” he had ignored her emotional well-being.

He also gave me a anti-fungal medication for her respiratory issue that he suspected she might have.

Needless to say, I did not take away Kenya's flight, freedom, toys, or cuddle blanket. I did give her the anti-fungal medication.

When the anti-fungal medication failed to improve Kenya’s breathing. I took her to a different avian veterianarian.

This veterinarian asked all the same questions as the previous vet, but instead of advising against the care regimen, she commended it.

She agreed that I should not take away items and activities that bring her joy. Instead, for her egg laying, I should increase calcium in her diet to guard against a deficiency and let her keep her eggs as long as possible (since they were not fertile and would not hatch) and she would eventually lose interest in them. If I removed them before she was ready, she would lay more eggs.

The breathing was another issue. As it turned out Kenya did not have a fungal infection. An X-ray revealed an inoperable tumor had grown on her trachea.

Rather than allow Kenya to die of suffocation when the tumor inevitably cut off her airway, I opted to have her euthanized when her breathing worsened.

What’s my point?

My point is that while veterinarians may have expertise in keeping animals alive, this does not necessarily make them experts on keeping them happy.

Animal advocacy organization and public opinion are often the leaders of animal welfare reform with veterinarian associations following — often slowly and often fighting, kicking, and screaming the whole way.

I’m not alone in this observation. Traditionally veterinarian associations have failed to be leaders in the area of animal welfare, they tend to follow (and even fight) public opinion and animal advocacy groups, rather than lead. The issues affecting captive birds will be no different.

There is an interesting editorial written by the Executive Vice president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Ron DeHaven, that admits that the AVMA has lost credibility on animal welfare issues by failing to take positions on key animal welfare issues and practices.

He uses veal crates as an example. He says, “Our positions need not only be practical, they must pass the ‘smell test’ with the public. We should have realized that veal crates have to go; the practice is simply not defensible in the court of public opinion. During the years it took us to finally accept this inevitable conclusion, we lost an opportunity to provide leadership and were perceived as part of the problem, even within segments of the profession.” (Interestingly, the AVMA website’s position statements still condone individual housing but state that the animals must be able to turn around — which still falls short of opposing veal crates.)

In August I’ll be attending the Association of Avian Veterinarians conference in Milwaukee, WI, and presenting a poster presentation based on my scientific review paper on the welfare of captive birds.

I hope that my presentation will encourage more avian veterinarians to be more like the second veterinarian I took my Kenya to, and to consider the welfare of birds in addition to their physical health.

Blogging off,


P.S. Here is a little picture of Kenya in all her former full-flighted, free glory:


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