The Dog Days of Summer

For Bird Talk Magazine and Bird Breeder On-Line

During the heat of the summer, it is important to be able to recognize signs of heat-related problems in pet and aviary birds. Although most parrots are from tropical areas of the world, many of our avian friends have gotten used to the cushy life of living with air conditioning in the summer. Problems with the heat may arise if a bird that has been living indoors in a climate-controlled environment suddenly must deal with the summer heat. Heat prostration has occurred in birds that lived in a home with a/c that suddenly went on the fritz. It also may occur in birds that have been moved from indoors to outdoors, as well. Problems may also occur in birds that have had their cages unknowingly moved to a sunny location, and the birds do not have any shade from the searing summer sun. Birds acclimated to living outdoors usually won't have a problem, unless they are already subclinically ill. The stress of the heat may precipitate a crisis, especially if the bird has a respiratory problem, such as an aspergillus granuloma, or a candida plaque in the trachea.

Signs of a bird with heat-related problems are usually easy to recognize. Panting is commonly observed. This is an effective method of heat loss. Some birds also rapidly vibrate the muscles and bones of the throat, which also helps to cool the bird. Panting in parrots accompanied by a goose-honking type sound usually indicates severe problems, and these birds should be immediately cooled off with a shower of cool water and taken immediately to an avian veterinarian. Birds with simple panting can be gently sprayed with cool or tepid water. Offering a large pan of water may be helpful. The feet may be cooled off with wet towels or by standing the bird in a shallow dish of cool water. The beak may also be moistened. Of course, move a cage out of direct sun, as well.

A bird that is suffering from heat prostration will also have very hot feet. The nares may be very red, and the beak will also be very hot. The breath will feel hot against your skin. If you have an ear thermometer, you can take the temperature of larger birds. It is not a bad idea to take the resting temperature of your pet bird to have a baseline temperature for comparison. Most birds average 40-41 degrees C.

Another sign of hyperthermia is when the bird holds its wings away from the body in addition to panting. It may appear to be weak, and wobbling on the perch. The body (contour) feathers may be puffed out away from the body, and may be gently rippling. Feathers over the back (scapular) are elevated extremely. These two postures help the bird to cool the skin. Feathers are a great insulator against both heat and cold, and by holding the feathers away from the body, heat is better able to be dissipated. The fuzzy, fluffy down feathers hold in body heat very well.

Birds try to reduce their activity during the heat of the day, and may seek shade or try to bathe. Birds do not have sweat glands, but evaporate water directly through the skin. In some species, the blood vessels of the skin of the neck may dilate. Problems may arise if a bird is not allowed to rest quietly during the hottest part of the day. If a cagemate or another type of animal is bothering the bird, it may become stressed and overheated. Removing a stressed bird to a shady, quiet and cool location, and spraying it with water may help.

If a bird is discovered overheated and unconscious, it is most likely suffering from heat stroke. This is a life-threatening situation. It is vitally important to immediately place the bird in a bath of tepid water, to lower the body temperature, making sure to not let the bird inhale any water. The water should not be too cold, or it will shock the system. Because feathers have oils that make feathers somewhat waterproof, make sure that the water is able to penetrate down to the skin. Then, take the bird immediately to an avian vet, making sure someone calls ahead to alert the staff (so that they can prepare).

Pay close attention to breeder pairs with babies in the nestboxes outdoors in summer. Some birds, most notably the African parrots that are usually winter breeders, may have problems with babies overheating in their box. With a serious heat-wave, even summer breeders, such as Amazons, may have problems with their babies overheating in the nestbox. Make sure nestboxes are well-shaded and covered.

Baby birds can usually handle higher temperatures than adults or fully feathered birds. Some baby birds have very little natal down feathering, and other species have fairly thick down. Baby parrots, being altricial, require higher temperatures to thrive, and in the nest, parent birds do an excellent job of regulating the temperature correctly. Babies removed from the nest for hand-feeding must be kept in a controlled temperature and humidity environment in order for them to metabolize their food and properly grow.

When shipping birds, it has been my experience that if baby birds of different ages are mishandled by mistake, and left on the hot tarmac in the sun, the unfeathered neonates are more likely to survive for a longer time than their feathered compatriots.

Problems may occur when traveling with a pet bird. Never leave a bird alone in an automobile during the summer, even if the windows are down. The sun can turn a vehicle into an oven in no time at all! Even with the windows down, the heat may be too much for a pet. Also, you are risking that your pet may be stolen. When traveling with a bird, try to keep it in similar conditions to those it is used to. If you must travel with no air conditioning in the automobile, pay close attention to your bird for signs of overheating. If your bird is panting, offer it cool, bottled water, and move it to a cool location. You can mist the bird and also place cool, wet towels on the feet. If you are vacationing in a place without a/c, place the bird cage in a shady location, with cross-ventilation. Don't worry about a "draft" causing a "cold." It doesn't happen.

Birds are very adaptable and can handle a wide range of temperatures. Just remember that they require time to slowly adapt to great environmental changes. Knowing what to look for with a heat-related problem is the first step. Enjoy those dog days (who named them that, anyway?) and keep cool.

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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