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Years ago most parrots, macaws, cockatoos, etc. were imported as juveniles or adults. With these birds came problems associated with the stress and crowding experienced by the birds during quarantine. Now that importation no longer exists, most pet bird are bred within the U.S. and sold as babies. A large proportion of individuals acquiring these babies are grossly under-educated and inexperienced in caring for them. To add to the complexity, little information has been disseminated to owners or to veterinarians on proper hand-feeding and weaning practices.
The vast majority of avian pediatric cases are the result of incorrect feeding practices. Many novice owners are told, “the crop should be filled each time it empties until the baby becomes self-sufficient.” Problems arise from the lack of a definition for “full crop” and a failure to recognize what constitutes reasonably “empty.” Sometimes owners are simply directed to feed a certain volume a certain number of times each day. Novice owners will force babies to eat specified volumes at regular intervals regardless of the signals displayed. The weaning process exacerbates this scenario because weaning age babies have completed their log phase of growth and require substantially less nutrition than a younger bird. If babies are overfed at this age they may not become hungry enough to desire other food. In some cases a baby will attempt to resist a feeding only to have the formula forced upon him. A struggle such as this often ends in tracheal aspiration of the formula with resultant aspiration pneumonia or asphyxiation.
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Recent experience suggests that in some species it may be better to maintain frequency and decrease volume as babies grow. The problem with this approach is that few people, breeders or owners, can maintain a high-frequency feeding schedule. Most importantly, never should the volume per feeding exceed 10% of the baby’s weight. As the baby matures a time will come where a feeding will be resisted. The baby may initially be responsive, but it will then retreat and resist. At that point that feeding is either permanently reduced in volume or it is eliminated entirely. When feeding has reached only two or three a day, solid food in the form of softened pellets or table food is introduced. If only two feedings remain and the evening feeding is resisted, the morning feeding is eliminated. Solid food will usually be consumed over the next 2-3 weeks allowing cessation of the evening formula feeding.
Failure of a baby to thrive with the stated protocol often suggests illness. Crop stasis is often accompanies illness in babies and may be the first indicator of a real problem. A depressed baby bird demonstrating crop stasis is a medical emergency.
Crop stasis is one of the most common legitimate reasons for the presentation of a juvenile psittacines to a veterinary practice. While “sour crop” is the term most often used to describe the condition, rarely is the crop the problematic organ. The vast majority of babies presented for “sour crop” are actually experiencing illness unrelated to the crop. Lower gastrointestinal disturbances, Chlamydophila spp., bacterial septicemia, PDD, avian gastric yeast, or metabolic diseases such as hepatic lipidosis are all examples of conditions that may present with crop slowing or stasis as a part of the clinical picture.
The lack of fluid intake from the static crop combined with the continued high fluid losses that accompany much pediatric illness results in fluid deficits that can be life threatening. Once the crop contents have been removed it is necessary to tend to the fluids needs of the patient. Handling a baby with a full crop to administer I.V. or I.O. fluids can easily precipitate regurgitation with subsequent tracheal aspiration. Subcutaneous fluids may be beneficial prior to crop washing, but once the crop is empty I.V. or I.O. fluids are preferred.
Pharmaceuticals other than broad-spectrum antibiotics are not usually indicated in the initial care of pediatrics illnesses. Regardless of the primary etiology, the bacterial overgrowth in the crop and the remainder of the gastrointestinal system must be addressed. While antifungals may ultimately be useful, antibacterials are far more urgently needed in acute pediatric illness. Occasionally antifungals may prove to be more appropriate, but rarely is fungal pediatric disease acutely fatal, whereas bacterial illnesses are often rapidly fatal if not quickly addresses.
Once the patient has been assessed and therapy has been determined it is important to proceed cautiously and with patience. Critically ill patients are kept on I.V. or I.O. fluids with dextrose and parenteral antibiotics. When oral alimentation first resumes electrolytes with dextrose should be fed in place of formula. Hand-feeding formula can be mixed in slowly until normal volume and percent solids are reached. Should the crop fail to return to normal function within a reasonable period of time, (24 – 48 hrs), additional steps should be taken to promote oral consumption. A crop bra can be utilized to enlist the aid of gravity in propelling food towards the proventriculus. Food may be deposited directly into the proventriculus through a percutaneous esophageal feeding tube. Regardless of the method used, the baby should be returned to formula feeding as soon as allowable to minimize developmental failure.
Not all avian pediatric cases are so straightforward. Failure of the patient to show immediate improvement warrants more intensive diagnostic and medical care.
Orlando Diaz-Figueroa, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP (Avian Specialty)