Dr. Greg Burkett
Board Certified Avian Veterinarian
We all have some anxiety of growing old. We all have some idea of what aging is about and what changes occur as we age. Why? We experience it in our daily lives. We see our friends, relatives, parents and grandparents maturing. What about our pet birds? They too are aging and at roughly the rate that we are. We like to hope that they are around for at least as long as we are for a lifetime of enjoyment.
The question of age always comes up when discussing parrots. Almost everyone is aware that parrots live a "long time". But what does that mean- a "long time"? Aviculturists, veterinarians, pet owners and novices speculate parrot life spans and usually express them in safe ranges.
Parrots have been kept as pets for hundreds of years, so why are we not sure of their life spans? We do have a good idea of what we expect that time period to be. We even have a few documented cases of exceptional life spans of individual birds. Dr. Susan Clubb has published the most recent data on aging in macaws from studies at Parrot Jungle in Miami Florida. Some of the macaws were documented to be at least 57 years old. Anecdotal reports from other sources have claimed birds living in excess of 90-100 years. In actuality, little documented evidence of the life span or aging process exists in the literature.
Aviculture is a relative new study. Prior to organized efforts of bird keeping, we had only imported birds to age. No one knew how old a bird was when it was captured and therefore it was impossible to calculate an accurate age. With the advent of captive production, we are able to document exact ages and follow the aging process. Even with this new information we can still only speculate true average life spans. However, we do have a better understanding.
Gerontology is the study of aging. Geriatrics is the branch of medicine that treats problems peculiar to old age. Aging is not a disease but there are many problems that exist due to the aging process. You will need to rely on your avian veterinarian to prevent, diagnose and treat these problems associated with the aging of your pet birds.
How do I know if my bird is geriatric? Aging changes are gradual processes that begin at conception. According to Dr. Clubb, in the macaws that she observed at Parrot Jungle, degenerative changes were variable in onset. Most notable changes began to occur after the age of 35 years. Changes included cataracts, iris color changes, muscle wasting, dermatological changes, joint stiffness and reproductive changes.
I have a number of birds that visit my practice who are elderly. The changes that I have seen as these birds are aging are consistent with those described by Clubb. Degenerative eye disorders are common in older birds. Other ophthalmological changes include changes in iris color, loss of tone in the lids and uveitis. Muscle wasting is also a common change associated with aging. Weight loss and muscle wasting may be related to a decreased level of exercise. Changes in the skin are most apparent on the feet and bare facial patches (on the birds with bare facial patches). Wrinkling, pigment spots and blemishes, and thinning of the skin are evident on the face and feet. Splotchy depigmentation on the feet is also common. Clubb reports thinning of the facial feather lines on Blue and Gold Macaws. She also reports that feather pigmentation was unaffected although feather condition and luster often declined after age 40. Joint stiffness and limitations in the range of motion of the joints are evident after the age of 40 in macaws. It is not known if this stiffness is associated with arthritic changes.
Reproductive life span varies with individual species. Clubb reported the oldest producing macaw in this study to be 35 years. There are anecdotal reports from other sources of Congo African greys producing at 40 years and laying infertile eggs at 60 years of age. We have a Senegal in our collection that is over 25 years of age and produces babies regularly.
I have a pet Timneh African Grey that visits my practice named Papagena. For 20+ years the owner thought was a male - "she" laid an egg just a few months ago. Papagena was as surprised as the owner and I. We have a number of other geriatric birds in our practice. We are proud that we are able to offer the quality care needed to insure longevity to our clients' pets. We service a few cockatiels that are over 20 years old, some greys that are over 25, a macaw that is over 30 and an Amazon that is undocumented to be over 50.
Avian medicine is still in its infancy stages. We are doubling our knowledge in as little as five years. The advances that we have made in the past five years are helping to ensure that our beloved pet birds live longer lives than ever before. It is important that pet bird owners and aviculturists support the efforts of the avian veterinarians and researchers in advancing our knowledge. A sound preventative medicine program needs to be established early in your birds' life to guarantee that it lives a full healthy life.
We offer a preventative health program in our practice. Annual well-bird exams are an important part of this program. This annual includes a thorough physical exam, a complete blood count (CBC), a cloacal culture, fecal gram stain and vaccinations. These tests are performed on all birds that come into our practice regularly. These annual work ups provide important normal values for future comparison and offer a screening process that may reveal hidden signs of illness. We also recommend that we have on file a complete chemistry panel including bile acids and whole body survey radiographs before the bird reaches five years of age. The latter two tests are kept on file for normal reference values for that bird. In the event it should develop problems later in life, we will have some normal values for comparison. In some species of birds, particularly amazons, macaws, conures and Pionus, we recommend a complete physical exam every six months to check for papilloma lesions.
Thorough physical exams are vital to detect changes related to aging. We always weigh our patients and compare current weights to previous visits. This gives us an idea of general body condition. In conjunction we examine the pectoral muscles for fullness and texture. It is common for older birds to have a decrease in the amount of food they eat. Their activity and metabolism slow and therefore caloric needs decrease. This will cause some weight loss.
During our physical exam we investigate all body parts. We perform a complete eye exam. We check for corneal disease, presence of uveitis, cataracts, vision and tear production. We have special instruments that allow us to thoroughly examine the eyes and the ears. The eardrum is examined for intactness, infection or other problems. The oral cavity is inspected very closely for lesions associated with nutritional deficiencies, masses or other changes. We check the skin and feather quality over the entire body concentrating on problem areas such as under the wings and around the vent. The feet are checked for bumblefoot lesions. We always listen to the heart and lungs. Changes in rhythm and strength of the heart can occur with age. Lungs can also lose some functionality with age. Radiographs are also helpful in revealing pulmonary and cardiac disease. The blood work is a good representation of the physiological status of a bird. A CBC can expose anemia, infection and other important and treatable disorders. Organ failure is a common age related problem. Liver and kidneys are usually the expected organs to fail. Chemistry panels can help with early detection of these problems and possible treatment options if detected in time. Cultures and gram stains are used to detect the presence of disease causing bacteria.
As birds age the immune system weakens and is less able to fight off environmental pathogens such as Gram-negative bacteria. Early detection of these bacteria will make treatment easier and more successful in the older patient. Yearly cultures on healthy birds are important to establish a database of the normal flora for that bird. Finally, vaccinations are a good part of any preventative medicine program for young and old birds alike. Vaccinations are given to prevent contraction of usually a viral disease and hence remove that bird from the population as a potential carrier of that infectious organism.
Environmental issues are also a concern for geriatric patients. Musculoskeletal changes need to be considered when setting up a cage. If a bird has stiff, arthritic or deformed joints, these need to be considered when choosing the cage, perches, toys, playpens, food and water containers, and cage substrate. Environmental temperature may also play a role in a geriatric bird's comfort. Feather loss will greatly affect thermoregulation and should be considered when placing the cage in your home or making rapid changes in the house temperature. Nutrition is also a consideration when keeping geriatric patients healthy. Currently there is no information in the literature concerning the dietary needs of older birds. Follow the recommendations of your avian veterinarian for individual cases. Special diets are available for birds with organ failure such as liver and kidneys and for digestive problems associated with age and / or disease. Talk to your veterinarian before feeding these special diets.
With the advances in avian medicine today and the formulated diets available on the market, pet birds should live full rich lives in captivity. It is our responsibility and should be our goal to do better for our birds in captivity than they could do for themselves in the wild.