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Caring For Arthritic Birds

Written by Duddles

My 14-year-old budgie, Mudge, doesn't get around as well as he used to. Two years ago, he had a serious case of bumblefoot. His leg swelled up severely, and he had a terrible sore on his leg that took months to close up completely. He made frequent visits to the vet, and was on many medications. In hindsight, I guess that this was the beginning of his problems with severe arthritis. Since then, he has aged a great deal. It has been really hard to watch him slow down so much. Also, because he has changed so much, he now has new behaviours, which I don't always know how to interpret. It's been especially frustrating because I have not been able to find much information on caring for arthritic birds. Over the last two years, I have often found myself wondering: Is he still happy? Is he in pain? Is there anything I can do for him? Should I have him euthanized? It has taken a great deal of work, but now I have come to the conclusion that Mudge is happy, that his pain is under control, and that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for me to consider euthanasia at this time. Mudge may not be as active as he used to be, but he loves and enjoys the company of his budgie friend, Pez. He still gets excited when he sees food he likes. Overall, he's in reasonable health. It has been two years since Mudge's terrible bumblefoot experience, and now that I have figured out how to accommodate his special needs, I believe that he is really enjoying his golden years. Every bird is different, but I think it is worth trying all of the suggestions below to make life easier for your pet.

My main purpose for writing this article is to provide suggestions that were not available to me when Mudge's ordeal began. Had I known then what I know now, he would have experienced much less pain, and his life would have improved earlier. I think that the suggestions below can help anyone with an aging, arthritic, or crippled bird. Please understand, though, that all of this information is based on my experiences with Mudge, and his abilities and disabilities. I watched Mudge carefully to determine how to make his cage and surroundings more accessible, and his life better. I had to be creative and resourceful, as will you!

Mudge's main arthritis-related problem is his legs. His arthritis keeps him from being able to point his toes properly. Normal budgies point two toes forward in front of the perch, and two toes back behind the perch. Because of Mudge's arthritis, most of his toes all point forward, so he cannot grip the perch, and he walks on his tarsometatarsus (click the following link for an image of bird leg bone anatomy).

Below are pictures of my birds' legs (wolf whistle!). On the right are Pez's normal legs. Pez rests his weight on his toe bones. When he perches (he's not perched in this picture), he wraps his toes around the perch. Mudge's toes, on the other hand, curl up in a ball so that he cannot wrap his toes around a perch. He rests his weight on the bone that the red arrow points to - the tarsometatarsus. I have pointed this bone out on Pez's picture, too, but you can see that because Pez's toes wrap normally, he does not walk on the tarsometatarsus. This is a straight bone with no joints in the middle- it cannot wrap around a perch the way that toes can. This is the source of Mudge's woes!

It is hard to balance a straight bone on a circular perch. It would be sort of like us walking on our shins on a highwire - all day, every day, forever. This has three main negative results:

  1. It is hard for Mudge to balance. He falls a lot, making it likely that he will injure himself.
  2. He gets pressure sores and bumblefoot on his legs, because he is walking on a body part that is not designed to carry all of his weight. These sores can get infected, potentially making him very sick.
  3. It hurts him, and it hurts me to watch him hurting. It decreases his quality of life.

I have many suggestions for helping an arthritic bird lead a happier life. They fall into four categories - modifications to the cage and surroundings, medications and treatments, protecting your bird from cagemates, and handling your bird.

Modifications to the Cage and Surroundings

Mudge's cage is a work in progress! I am always finding new modifications to make his life easier. The more I watch him, the more I am able to help him.

  1. Re-arrange toys and other items in the cage to make the cage more accessible for your bird. Watch your bird carefully as he/she moves around the cage. A young, active budgie will have no trouble getting around its cage, hopping from perch to perch, flying a bit, etc. However, an older bird with arthritis often gets around by climbing on the bars, on all sides of the cage, even the ceiling. This bird may not be able to squeeze through a small area or climb over things. Mudge cannot hop or fly to another perch or across the cage the way he used to. He used to have a toy right in the middle of his easiest path to the food dish. He stumbled around it, sometimes falling as he tried to climb over to his food dish. I moved it a few inches over, and now he gets to his food dish just fine. Spend time observing your bird, and fine-tune the placement of all items in the cage as necessary. Also, horizontal bars are much easier to climb than vertical ones. If your bird's cage has only vertical bars, this will be a major impediment to its climbing, so it would be best to get a cage with horizontal bars.
  2. Use Dr. Scholl's moleskin in your bird's cage, to make hard walking surfaces softer. Don't worry - it's not really moleskin. Because Mudge gets sores on his legs, I use this product to make walking surfaces in his cage softer. My avian vet recommended it. It's a product made to provide relief for calluses and bunions in humans. You can buy it at most drugstores. It comes in a sheet. It's about 2 mm thick. One side has adhesive, and the other side is soft and fuzzy. My birds don't chew at it. If they did, I probably would not use it. I use it to cover his perches, because it's softer than just the wood. It also provides a little bit more friction than just the smooth wood, so he does not slip off the perch as easily. I also use it to cover any surface he stands on that is hard or possibly sharp. There is one food dish that he eats from that has very thin plastic edges, which he sometimes rests his legs on. I covered all edges of this dish with the moleskin (see the picture below).
    *** Actually, in the time since I first wrote this article, I have discovered that an old pair of jeans can be used in the same way. I cut pieces of denim from old jeans and use them to cover hard or smooth (and therefore slippery) surfaces in Mudge's cage, but I only use denim to cover large items. I wrap the denim around the top and sides of whatever I am covering, and then attach the fabric with masking tape on the bottom of the item, out of reach of my birds' prying beaks. I can only do this because my birds don't find the tape, and therefore don't chew on it. If they did chew on the tape, I would not be able to use it. I don't use denim to cover perches or parts of food dishes, because they are so thin that there would be no way to tape the denim material onto the perch without exposing the tape for my birds to chew on. If you use denim in the cage, wash it with soap, then put it through a washing machine cycle at least once or twice without soap, to remove traces of the soap so that they cannot harm your bird. You can cut many pieces of fabric from a single pair of jeans, so you can replace the fabric as it gets dirty.
  3. Place a hamster wheel in the cage, and secure it so that it cannot turn. Mudge likes to sit or sleep in his wheel occasionally, so he doesn't have to work so hard holding himself up. There are two types of plastic hamster wheels that I have seen - one is a solid plastic sheet made into a circle. The other type - the one I have - is made up of bars, like the metal hamster wheels. The solid one may make your bird feel more enclosed and safe, but the barred one may be easier to modify in the following way: if your bird cannot turn around inside the wheel comfortably without getting his/her tail all messed up, you may have to cut away a few of the plastic bars in order to make space for the tail. If you do so, make sure you don't cut out any bars near the bottom of the wheel, so that your bird can't accidentally step out and fall out the bottom or get stuck. Before you cut away any bars, watch your bird to see how it moves inside the wheel. Then decide if any of the bars are in his/her way. I didn't bother modifying the wheel for Mudge. He just sits with his tail sticking out. (By the way, that red spot on Mudge's neck is skin - he has had some feather loss.)
  4. Provide wider surfaces for your bird to stand on, if he/she has trouble balancing on perches. A few ideas are:
    • Place a ladder horizontally in the cage. You can make it into a solid platform if you want (see point c, below)
    • Buy a wide, flat perch if you can find one. If you can't, then place two perches side by side (this is what I have done in the picture below). Use a very narrow strip of thin cardboard to cover the little hollow between the two perches. Then cover the whole thing with Dr. Scholl's moleskin (actually, in the picture below, I used molefoam, which is similar to moleskin but with an additional, foamy layer underneath the soft and fuzzy layer. Mudge didn't like walking on the molefoam, so I have since switched the top layer to moleskin).
    • You can easily make little platforms of any size as follows: buy two plastic perches - the kinds that have a clip on one side to hold them onto the cage, but don't actually fasten to both sides of the cage. I buy the ones made by Hagen (click here to see). If you buy them, make sure you get the ones appropriate for your cage type - the cockatiel ones will not fit the bars of a budgie cage, and vise versa. Cut both perches to the same length. Cover the sharp, cut ends with a small amount of moleskin, to prevent your bird from cutting itself (see 1, below). Place the two perches in the cage as far apart as you want them, according to the width of the platform you plan to build (see 2, below). Cut a piece of thin cardboard to make the platform, and tape it onto the perches. Cover the whole thing with moleskin (see 3, below). These platforms are great. You can customize them to any size or shape. However, they get pooped on a lot. A healthy poop can easily be removed when dry, but I still change the moleskin regularly. As you can see in picture 3, I chose to place the platform to cover an area around Mudge's wheel and the perch beside it. Before I added this platform, he had a hard time balancing himself while entering or exiting the wheel. The simple act of hopping an inch or two to a perch is no longer possible for him. However, this simple modification made the wheel accessible to him. He uses this platform constantly. I also occasionally place seeds on his platforms. It's easier for him to eat off a solid platform than to lean into a food dish.
  5. If your bird falls a lot, make his/her landings softer. Mudge leaps from wherever he is standing when he gets nervous or excited. Then he falls...HARD! He also sometimes loses his footing in the middle of the night, and falls. It is very common for an arthritic bird to lose its footing and fall. I cut a thin foam sheet to the size of his cage bottom (it was a cutoff from my dad's upholstery supplies), then wrapped it in two sheets of newspaper, and placed it at the bottom of his cage. I covered that with 1" strips of newspapers, fluffed up a bit. Now when he falls in his cage, he lands on something softer than hard plastic. I also placed a newspaper-covered foam sheet on the floor below his cage in case he falls out, and in his temporary carrying pen, which he goes into at cage-cleaning time. A small piece of soft carpeting might help for below the cage, if you don't want foam. Just make sure it's not material that the bird's nails will get stuck in. If you don't want to use foam, maybe a large fleece sheet, folded to make it thicker (whatever material, you get the point) - just to give your bird a softer landing in case he/she should fall.
  6. Remove metal grates from the bottom of the cage. If your bird falls on these, his/her legs can be broken.
  7. Watch your bird's toenails to make sure that they are not growing into his/her skin. Because Mudge's toes all point forward, the toenails on his shorter back toe tend to grow into the skin of his leg, producing a permanent small hole in his leg. There isn't much I can do to prevent this, although the vet said that in a younger bird, they can sometimes splint the toe to correct the orientation. However, this is not possible for Mudge. I trim that toenail regularly. Also, ever day or two, I gently pull the nail out of the little hole it has made.
  8. Provide a variety of perch widths and shapes throughout your bird's lifetime. This helps to exercise all the muscles in your bird's feet, encourages good circulation, and may help to prevent arthritis from developing in the first place.

Medications and Treatments

I don't know that much about meds, as I have focused most of my attention on cage modifications. Please speak to your vet before starting any treatments. Ask about the long-term safety of any treatment. I include this information to give you ideas about what to ask your vet about, and what worked for Mudge. This section is not a substitute for a visit to a competent avian vet.

  1. Always be on the lookout for pressure sores on the legs. If the sores get really bad, they can open up and become severely infected. If you think the sore is open, or if you see blood, you should take your bird to the vet and inquire about antibiotics. They may also prescribe an anti-inflammatory to bring down the swelling.
  2. Anti-inflammatories are helpful for bringing down swelling when your bird has in infection, but also for regular use, to help relieve the arthritis. There are many types available, but my vet was concerned about the safety of long-term use. Mudge was on dexamethasone for a while, and it helped, but that is a steroid, and long-term use is probably unsafe. Mudge now has some health problems that could be linked to his having been on dexamethasone for some time, but we have no way of knowing now what really caused these problems. For permanent treatment, we opted for Aspirin (acetylsalisylic acid). Mudge has been on aspirin for several months now, and I am absolutely thrilled with the results. His mobility has improved dramatically, and he seems to be in no pain. The main disadvantage is that I have to give it to him orally. He hates it, but I make it quick. I get flavoured syrup from my vet, to which I add aspirin that I buy and crush myself, and I give it to him with a plastic syringe (no needle!). Mudge's vet told me that another patient has been using aspirin in the water. I can't do that, because Pez also drinks that water, but for a single bird, it might be possible. The only problem is that you don't know how much of the med the bird is getting, and if the aspirin changes the water's flavour, the bird could avoid drinking and then become dehydrated. If you want to use aspirin, please speak to your vet to determine the proper dosage. DO NOT do this without a vet's assistance to determine correct dosage - a single aspirin can last your budgie a year, so the dosage is very small. In my case, I made a single visit to the vet to get the initial assistance I needed. I buy the flavoured syrup from them as I need more, and it doesn't even require a visit, because it is not a medication - just a syrup. Only your avian vet can help you determine the correct dosage. Also, your avian vet will be able to provide you with very tiny plastic syringes for oral medication. Because you are administering very small amounts of medications (Mudge gets 0.04CC of solution per day), you need a tiny plastic syringe. You can't really buy such tiny syringes anywhere else.
  3. Use Hibitane ointment on sores on the legs. When Mudge gets small (not open) sores on his leg, I apply Hibitane cream to the wound. Hibitane is an antibacterial and antifungal. The active ingredient is 1% Chlorhexidine acetate B.P. You can probably get it from any vet, because it's used for cats and dogs too. Do not use regular lotions for humans. Anything you use needs to be water-based, because oils ruin birds' feathers. Also, human medicated ointments will be way too concentrated for a bird, and many of them thin the skin, which would be disastrous to a bird that has very few layers of skin around the legs to begin with.
  4. I have heard of magnetic perches used to improve blood circulation in arthritic birds. Personally, I doubt they do anything. In humans, I think that magnet therapy for arthritis pain has more or less been proven to be psychosomatic, but who knows. Maybe it can help.
  5. Offer your bird a variety of fresh foods. Mudge loves his celery leaves, carrots and carrot leaves, parsley, lettuce leaves, corn, spray millet, etc. The excitement of receiving these treats makes him happy and gets him moving around a lot. And of course, he needs his vitamins.

Protecting Your Bird From Cage Mates

Because your bird is older, slower and more fragile, he/she may need special care and protection from other birds. In the wild, if there is a vulnerable bird in a flock, it will attract predators, putting the rest of the flock at risk. It is to the advantage of each member of the flock to eliminate the vulnerable individual. They usually do this not by beating it up, but by depriving it of food, water or other necessities. If your bird has cagemates, they may instinctively do this by bullying the elderly bird or chasing it away from food or water. You need to watch them, and see what you can do if this is the case.

  1. Place extra food dishes in the cage. Mudge used to share a large food dish with his previous cagemate, Dudley, until Dudley started chasing him away and hogging the food. I added a second large dish, at the same level as the first one. Dudley went to dish A, and Mudge to dish B. Then Dudley chased Mudge from dish B, and started eating from it. Mudge hobbled over to dish A, and was chased form there as well. This would go on for a while, but usually Mudge ended up being able to eat, however harassed he was. Now that I think of it, I should have put the dishes at different levels. Maybe if one were higher than the other, Dudley would have been distracted by how happy he was to have the higher dish (height = dominance), and would have left Mudge alone at the lowly lower dish. But then again, maybe not. You can experiment to see what works for your birds.
  2. Separate your birds temporarily or permanently, if necessary. They can always play together in a supervised area when you are home. Occasionally, I had to remove Dudley from the cage to allow Mudge to eat. For a while, I did this every morning and evening for about 10 minutes. I kept my birds together despite these problems, because overall they got along well, preened each other, and both seemed very upset when they were separated. Also, even though Mudge was often chased away from the food, he did not get skinny. I often felt his keel bone to make sure of this, and he was weighed at vet visits.
  3. Always watch for signs of abuse, such as blood in the cage, sore feet (I think that birds attack other birds' feet, if they attack physically at all). Check your bird frequently to make sure it is getting enough to eat, and is not getting thin or weak. On weekends, or whenever you have some time, watch your birds from a distance. Check to make sure that your older one is not being bullied or prevented from accessing food, water, and a stable place to sit.

Handling Your Bird

Even the most well-meaning people can accidentally cause harm to a bird if they do not understand his/her special needs. Here are a few suggestions that I have, based on my experiences with Mudge.

  1. Move slowly around your bird, and if he/she tries to move away to avoid your hands, stay back until the bird has moved. For example, when you are changing food and water, and you put your hands in the cage, wait until the bird moves out of the way, no matter how long it takes. If I move my hands near Mudge without letting him get out of the way, he gets nervous and runs or leaps, which causes him to fall. If I wait for him to get to his "safe spot" (the wheel), and then do whatever I have to do in the cage, he just watches and waits in his safe spot until I am done.
  2. Hold your bird with cupped hands. She/he may not be able to balance on your finger anymore. Always support your bird properly, especially when you walk around with him/her. I hold Mudge to my chest with one hand under him, and cup one hand over him whenever I walk anywhere with him.
  3. Choose an appropriate avian veterinarian. In my case, I am most concerned with having a gentle vet. Mudge has been under the care of two vets over the last few years. Both of them are very experienced, and know what they are doing, but they are very different people. His previous vet wanted to do every single test possible, so that nothing was missed, even if the tests were not very likely to tell us anything, and were stressful to Mudge. My heart still aches when I recall how Mudge's previous vet used to squeeze and prod his sore, bumblefooted leg as he squirmed in pain. I am angry with myself for not stopping this, but I can't change the past. The other vet - the one we go to now -watches Mudge a lot, and handles him as little as possible. He is hesitant to order any tests that would be stressful to my bird, and decrease his quality of life. If he is fairly confident in his diagnosis, he will not order unnecessary tests. For example, Mudge has experienced feather loss in a symmetrical pattern around his chest and back. There are many diseases and parasites that can cause feather loss, but these are associated with feather picking and patches of feather loss, rather than baldness in a symmetrical pattern. We also know that Mudge is not plucking, because I don't see him picking, and his skin looks fine - no scabs or sores. With this information, my vet was fairly confident that Mudge is having a prolonged molt -his feathers are growing back in very slowly, possibly due to a vitamin deficiency or hormonal imbalance. He gave me a vitamin supplement and told me to keep him extra warm now that he has fewer feathers. We put Mudge on antibiotics for a stint just in case. Mudge's previous vet would have done a skin scraping and a blood test - both painful, obtrusive and stressful. Because there is such a small chance that Mudge's feather loss is caused by a parasite, I would rather take a chance and not put him through the stress of all those tests. My vet gave me the information to make an educated choice. That was my choice. Yours might be different. You need to find a vet who will let you make these choices for your bird.

That's all I have so far. I hope it has helped you. If you have any more suggestions on how to make life easier for an arthritic bird, or if you have any feedback at all, feel free to contact me at Tailfeathers.

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