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Medicating Pet Birds Orally

Written by Duddles

WHY YOU SHOULD ADMINISTER MEDICATIONS ORALLY RATHER THAN IN THE WATER

When your bird is ill and needs medication, it may be administered in several ways. The vet may inject your bird with medication. Alternatively, you may be sent home with medication that you will have to administer to the bird yourself. These medications are generally administered either in the water or orally. For medications that need to be given at home, oral administration is usually the best way to go. While your vet may offer you the opportunity to administer the medication in the water, you will give your bird a much better chance of recovery and survival if you can manage to administer the medication orally. When you put medications in the water, you lose all control over dosage, since you don't know how much your bird drinks. Sick birds drink less water than healthy birds. In addition, many medications change the taste of the water, which may result in your bird avoiding the water and therefore the medication. Combine all of these factors and you have a bird that is sick, dehydrated and -- on top of all that -- not getting its meds. This can be a recipe for disaster. The thought of orally medicating your bird may seem intimidating, especially if he/she is not tame. However, learning this valuable skill can save your bird's life. It's worth a try, and you may find that it is not as challenging as you expected.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU BEGIN MEDICATING

Before you begin medicating your bird, make sure that the medication instructions are 100% clear to you. Make sure that you know the following information before you leave the veterinary clinic. If you're not sure about the answers to any of these questions, call them and ask.

How much medication is to be given?

  • Make sure that you know exactly what mark on the syringe represents how much you are to give. Remember: 0.04 cc is very different from 0.40 cc! A chemical that is beneficial at one dosage could be toxic or even lethal at another.

At what time is the medication to be administered?

  • If it's once a day, is it best to do it in the morning, or in the evening?
  • If it's more than once a day, do you need to medicate at specific times? Do you have to make sure that you wait a certain minimum number of hours between treatments?
  • If there are several different medications to be given, can they all be given at once, or do they have to be given at different times?

What is the duration of the treatment? (example - 10 days, 14 days, 28 days, etc)

  • Make sure that you complete the full course of treatment, even if your bird seems well after a few days. If you stop the treatment early, your bird will most likely get sick again, and then you will have to start all over again. The renewed infection may be even worse than the original one.
  • If you have any leftover medication at the end of treatment, discard it. You will have no use for it, as it will probably expire very quickly. If you need to medicate your bird again in the future, you should never do so without a new diagnosis and prescription from your vet.

How long should it take before the bird appears better, and if the bird does not appear better by that time, should a different medication be prescribed?

  • Sometimes, the vet will tell you that the treatment should last 14 days, but that the bird should appear better within 5 days. The vet may tell you that if the bird does not appear well after a certain period of time (before the full course of treatment is complete), that could indicate that the medicine is not working, and that a new, different treatment may need to be started. Again - do not be tempted to cut the treatment short unless instructed to do so by your bird's vet.

What are the potential side effects of this medication?

  • Make sure that you know what side effects to expect. Ask your vet whether treatment should be stopped immediately if you observe these side effects, or if it is OK to continue the treatment.
  • If your bird has a reaction to a particular medication, make sure that the vet notes this in his/her medical chart, and make note of it yourself in your own chart, which you keep at home.

How should the medication be stored?

  • Some medication needs to be refrigerated to prevent spoiling, especially if it's in a sugary solution that, while improving palatability, is an excellent bacterial growth medium. But some meds are not supposed to be refrigerated.

Was the medication prepared from a soluble chemical or an insoluble one?

  • This may not seem so important to you, but it will determine if it is necessary to shake the bottle prior to drawing the medication into the syringe. If the medication and all parts of the solution are soluble, then shaking may not be necessary. However, if the medication was made with an insoluble powder, then you will need to shake quite a bit to get it into solution. You may not be able to see that the medicine has settled to the bottom if it is in an opaque or dark-coloured bottle. If all of the medication is at the bottom of the bottle, then your bird is not going to get the correct dosage. In fact, your bird might not be getting any medication at all.

How do you restrain and medicate the bird?

  • This is discussed below in detail, but I mention it here because you should know how you are going to handle your bird before you begin. Ask your vet to show you how to medicate your bird, in the vet's office, before you go home and have your first go at it. If the vet doesn't want you to start medicating while in the office (they may want you to wait until evening, for example), have him/her show you how to do this with water only. If it is OK to start medicating right away, ask the vet to show you how to medicate the bird at the clinic, and then have him/her watch and instruct you as you repeat what you just saw with water, if your bird can tolerate the stress. If your bird can't tolerate the stress of your vet handling him/her, ask the vet to model hand position by using a wadded up piece of paper towel, and pretending it's your bird.

HOW TO ADMINISTER THE MEDICATION

Here's the part that most of you are probably reading this article for. This is the challenge. Every bird is different, so you will have to figure out the little intricacies of holding and medicating your own bird, but there are a few methods. The first time you try to medicate, you will likely have a difficult time. After a few days, you will get better at restraining your bird and getting more of the medication in rather than on it. But wouldn't you guess it - as you improve your medicating skills, your feathered fiend will be improving its escape skills. Mudge learned to wiggle out of my hand, jump into my shirt cuff and run up the inside of my sleeve to avoid the dreaded syringe. During the entire procedure, remain calm, and keep your bird at ease. Don't let frustration get to you. Just do your best. Speak to your bird in a gentle voice. It may also help ease his/her nerves to have a radio on in the background.

Preparing the medication

  • - If necessary, shake the medication before drawing it into the syringe. You may need to shake for a while. If the medication needs to be shaken, shake until you can't see any sedimented material at the bottom of the container before you begin to draw up the medication. Draw the medication into the syringe immediately after shaking.
  • - Place the syringe into the medication and draw up the necessary amount.
    If there are particles of medicine in the solution, make sure that some of them have been drawn up. If not, squeeze it out, cap and shake the bottle again, and immediately take some more medication from the middle of the bottle.

Please note: THERE SHOULD BE NO NEEDLE ON THE SYRINGE

Tips:

If there are any air bubbles in the liquid...

  • Draw the plunger up a bit and draw up some air to pull the medication farther into the syringe.
  • Hold the syringe firmly with one hand, tip side up, and use your other hand to flick the syringe until the bubbles are pushed to the top and there are no more bubbles.
  • Push the plunger a tiny bit, so that the medicine is back at the tip of the syringe.

The smaller the syringe, the easier it is to control how fast it is administered, and also, the more accurate the dosage will be. I used a 0.30 cc syringe, and it worked very well. Even a 1.0 ml syringe was a bit difficult for me to use.

Ask your vet for a few extra syringes, especially if you are going to be medicating for a while. After 10-20 uses, the plunger doesn't go through as easily, and it becomes harder to control the rate of release of liquid from the syringe.

Sometimes, birds will not be as offended by medication administered at room temperature, rather than straight from the fridge. If the medication requires refrigeration, you can draw the required amount into the syringe and leave it at room temperature for 10-20 minutes to warm up before giving it to your bird. I personally found that this made a huge difference in my bird's reaction to the medication.

If you have more than one type of medication to give, ask the vet if it is OK to give it all at once (make sure you ask - it isn't always OK). If so, then you can draw up liquid from one medication, squeeze out the bubbles and wipe off the outside of the syringe, then put the syringe in the second medication bottle and draw up some from there. That way, you don't have to re-restrain your bird for each medication to be given. Or you can just have a separate syringe for each medication ready to go before you sit down and restrain your bird.

Before you restrain your bird...

Choose a place to sit and medicate your bird. This should be a place where your bird will be at ease, and where you are not likely to be distracted by movement or loud noises.

Get yourself into a comfortable position. It may take a few minutes to complete your task, and you will not be able to move once you have started.

Have a post-med treat ready to offer to your good bird right after the dirty deed is done.

Restraining your bird

These instructions are for smaller birds, because that's what I have experience with. For larger birds, you will probably have to towel, unless your bird accepts the syringe. In general, before you try restraining your bird, it's worth seeing if he/she will accept the medication from the syringe through the cage bars. You could be one of the lucky few whose bird actually likes meds. If so, go and buy a lottery ticket, cause you're one in a million. And don't forget to share your winnings with your friends at Tailfeathers. ;)

Method 1 : Duddles' method

Place down a towel or blanket on which to medicate the bird

  • Make sure it's something that the nails will not get stuck in.
  • Don't medicate your bird on a hard, smooth surface. It will make it easier for the legs to flail and slip. A fabric surface with more friction makes it easier for you to maintain your hold as you restrain the bird.

Place your hand and fingers in the following positions:

  • Palm of your hand on the side of the bird that is closest to you
  • Thumb on the side of the bird's face that is closest to you (at the side of the beak or on the cheek) or above the bird's chest
  • Fingers wrapped around the bird's back and side that is farther from you
  • Tip of index finger under the bird's jaw or above the bird's chest on the side that is farthest from you.

Method 2: LeeAnne's method (photos below)

"When I medicate Jo, I hold her in my left hand. As I am right handed, I find it easier to control the syringe with my right hand. I usually have her head in between my index and middle finger - I find it less painful to have her bite my knuckles than the fleshy part of my thumb! Also, if she fidgets her head a lot, I find it easier to keep her head firmly still but angling it up slightly using the knuckles of the middle & index fingers either side of her face, where her little cheek spots are. That position also helps me manipulate her beak for opening - sometimes she is SO stubborn and will not open that beak of hers!"

Method 3 : the towel method

- You can restrain your bird in a towel. I personally do not like using a towel, since I find that I cannot tell if a bird is overheating unless my skin is in contact with the bird. In a towel, you cannot always tell if the bird is overheating. However, if toweling the bird makes the medicating session faster, then this can prevent stress and overheating. To towel a bird, use as small and light a towel as is necessary (a facecloth will probably do for a budgie or cockatiel). Place the towel over your bird and gently wrap the ends around your bird's wings, and also around the feet if this helps. Make absolutely certain that the bird is not tightly wrapped, and that the body is not confined in a way that makes it difficult for your bird to breathe. The chest needs to be able to rise and fall in order for your bird to breathe. It may be safer to just wrap the towel around the tops of the wings rather than around the whole body, if you are not sure if the bird has enough space to breathe. Do not rest your hand on top of the towel, as this can squeeze your bird. You will probably still need to use your hands to manipulate the bird's beak/head, so you may need to have another person present to hold the toweled bird.

Method 4 : in the cage

- Here's a method that may work for your bird, and may be less stressful for him/her if it does. I used this method a few times with Mudge. While your bird is inside the cage, hanging on the bars, facing you, put one hand in the cage and cover its back (you can use a small towel, if you wish, but you may not need to). Use the fingers of this hand to gently manipulate the bird's head and open its beak, if necessary, and if possible. Use your other hand to administer the medication right through the cage bars. - Be very careful not to squeeze the bird against the side of the cage.

Tips for all methods:

  • If your bird struggles, adjust your hand/finger position to prevent movement, being extremely careful not to squeeze your bird. While medicating Mudge, I found that touching the tips of my thumb and one of my fingers together to make a ring created a circle that was just the right size to prevent Mudge's shoulders from going through the circle, so that he could not squirm out of my hand. I did not have to squeeze him at all.
  • Remember - birds do not have a diaphragm to help them breathe. Breathing relies on the ability of the bird's chest to rise and fall. Be very careful not to push against the chest.
Administering the medication
  • Place the syringe at the left side of the bird's beak (the bird's left, not your left) and point the syringe towards the right side of the bird's throat.
  • Place just the tip of the syringe inside the bird's mouth or at the side of the beak (do not put the entire syringe inside the bird's mouth, or down its throat).
  • Apply a gentle, even pressure to the syringe plunger to slowly squeeze the liquid into your bird's mouth.
    -If your bird is actively drinking the medication and it is not leaking out of the mouth, continue with an even pressure
    - If your bird is not drinking the medication, stop squeezing it out of the syringe and wait until the medicine is swallowed before giving more.

Tips:

  • Move your thumb and fingers as necessary to keep your bird's head in place as you administer the medication.
  • If your bird clamps its mouth shut, you can use the tip of the syringe to gently pry open the beak, or you can use your finger, fingernail, or your knuckles if you use Lee-Anne's method. All you need is to get the beak to open a tiny bit.
  • You don't even need to put the syringe tip inside the bird's mouth. If you are having trouble doing so, just try slowly squeezing the liquid into the bird's slightly open mouth. As you squeeze, the liquid may wick onto the tongue, or your bird may suddenly start drinking the liquid.
  • Go slowly. If you squeeze the medication out of the syringe faster than the bird swallows it, the liquid will end up on your bird's feathers or, worse yet, in its lungs. As mentioned above, it is much easier to control the flow of liquid from a smaller syringe.
  • You can use the tip of your finger to lift the tip of the bird's upper mandible to get the mouth to open a bit. I find that if, right after squeezing some meds into the bird's mouth, the bird's head is lifted slightly so that the neck is up and out, the bird is less likely to spit out the medication.

After medicating your bird

  • If your bird's face is covered in medicine, you can use a cloth dipped in warm water to gently wipe the feathers, if this is not too upsetting to the bird. Try not to get the bird too wet, and make sure that the room is nice and warm if you do, so that your bird does not catch a chill from being wet. If your bird's feathers are really sticky and bothersome to him/her (as they can become after a few days or weeks of meds), you can use an extra syringe to gently and quickly squirt warm water into the sticky feathers. This may help to clean them up.
  • Offer your good bird a treat, if he/she is interested.
  • Spend time with your bird. Don't leave things on a bad note. Not only will this comfort your pet in his/her current miserable mood, but it may make it easier to medicate your bird the next time if the medication session ended on a good note. Pat or talk to your pet. If being held does not your bird, place the bird in the cage with a favourite treat if that is what will make him/her most comfortable. Try to spend some time talking to your bird or hanging out with him/her, to let your pet know that you care. Remember - it may be stressful for you to have to do this to your pet, but your pet is much more stressed than you are, and was not feeling well to begin with.
  • Rinse out the syringe several times in hot water. Push the plunger in and out of the syringe to get out any water that is inside. Remove the plunger and let the two pieces dry separately. Keep them in a clean place until the next time you need them.

PREVENTING EXCESSIVE STRESS TO YOUR BIRD DURING RESTRAINT AND ADMINISTRATION OF MEDS

Giving your bird oral medication can really help to ensure proper dosage and good recovery from illness. But if your bird is so stressed by this procedure that it has a heart attack, then that obviously defeats the purpose of medicating your bird orally. Only you can determine whether or not your bird can handle the procedure. Throughout the restraint and administration of the medication, remain calm, and try not to let the bird see if you are stressed, as this will only stress your bird further. Watch for the following signs of stress, and stop if you think that your bird cannot handle what is going on.

  • Excessive struggling
  • Panting
  • Overheating
  • Loss of feathers
  • Weakness of Limpness (stop immediately if your bird goes limp or stops moving altogether)

Most birds will struggle when being medicated, but some will have high levels of stress, and some will have relatively low levels. If you are concerned that your bird's stress level is too high, you may want to ease your hold, give the bird a moment to rest, stop panting and cool down a bit, and then try again. Or you may want to put the bird back in its cage for a few minutes or even an hour, and then try again. This may give your bird the break it needs, or it may make the bird even more stressed due to repeatedly being restrained and dragging the whole thing out. You need to determine how much force to use. This is where you need to use your own best judgment, and trust your instinct. If you're reading this (and especially if you've read this far!), it's because you care about your bird, and if you care about your bird, then you are the best judge of what he/she can handle.

I really believe that the majority of birds can successfully be medicated orally, but if you've given it your best shot and it really isn't working out for you and your little feathered friend, then you should look at other ways of getting the medication into your bird. If you are lucky, then maybe you can soak the correct dosage into a little piece of cracker that your bird might eat in its entirety (not so likely, but it's worth a try). Ask your vet for advice. If you really have to go to water meds, ask the veterinary clinic to prepare a new batch of meds to be administered in the water, and make sure you know the correct dosage for your water dish (they will usually tell you to put in a certain number of drops per ounce of water, so know the capacity of the water dish you use). You may not even have to bring the bird in again, since the illness has already been diagnosed, and you just need a new way to get the medication into your bird. If you do go to water meds, watch your bird's water consumption. If the water tastes strange and your bird avoids it, he/she may end up in worse shape - dehydrated and sick, as mentioned above.

Many Tailfeathers members (myself included) have succeeded in medicating birds orally when we thought we couldn't. In fact, in the photos of Bruce and Pez below, this was a first for both birds. Neither had ever been medicated before. I gave them water from a syringe for the sole purpose of getting photos for this article. The entire process took only about 5 minutes, with minimal stress. I am a veteran medicater of budgies, but I did not expect it to be this easy with Bruce and Pez. Every bird will eventually get sick in its lifetime, and when this happens, medicating it is inevitable. Face it - you're going to have to learn how to do this sometime!

Below: Photos of Jo being medicated by LeeAnne. Special thanks to Lee-Anne, Jo, Bruce and Pez for their contributions to this article. The birdies were excellent models! :)

Captions:

  1. Duddles' restraint method - Bruce receiving liquid from a syringe - front view
  2. Duddles' restraint method - Bruce receiving liquid from a syringe - view from above
  3. Duddles' restraint method - Pez receiving liquid from a syringe - front view
  4. Duddles' restraint method - Pez receiving liquid from a syringe - front view
  5. Duddles' restraint method - Pez receiving liquid from a syringe - view from above
  6. LeeAnne's restraint method - Jo being prepared for meds
  7. LeeAnne's restraint method - Jo receiving meds
  8. LeeAnne's restraint method - receiving meds

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