Healing Approaches for Chronic Conditions

by gloria scholbe
October 2001

One of the critical keys to maintaining a bird’s good health is the owner’s ability to observe, evaluate, judge, and act.

For example, the owner observes that the bird’s tail is bobbing; evaluates the bobbing as an indication of breathing difficulty; observes further that the bird’s eyes have become more oval than their normal round shape and its feathers are slightly raised instead of their normally flat position; judges that these could be symptoms of a serious respiratory ailment; and acts by making an appointment with a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment. 

In another scenario, the owner observes that the bird’s droppings have changed in appearance and have a slight odor; evaluates that the bird is otherwise normal in appearance, activity level, and food consumption; judges that the bird might or might not have a slight digestive ailment that requires closer observation; decides on a precautionary treatment with herbal or nutritional support for a day or two as long as the condition does not get worse. 

Each example above requires that the bird owner possess reasoning and decision making skills. The second example suggests that the bird owner also has experience with minor bird ailments and is capable of judging at what point a veterinarian’s intervention is required. Inexperienced bird owners should always seek the help of those more experienced until they have gained knowledge of their own.

Basic bird keeping knowledge includes awareness of signs and symptoms of acute/emergency situations. Although this article mainly deals with chronic health problems, it begins with an overview of acute conditions to help the reader understand the differences and respond accordingly. 

Differences between Acute, Chronic, and Recurring

Diseases or health conditions characterized as Acute have a rapid onset and are of relatively short duration. The symptoms can be severe and fatal without appropriate treatment. Some acute diseases do not respond to any currently available treatments. Other acute diseases may spontaneously improve with or without aid. This depends on the disease and on the immune system of the individual. Most acute diseases and conditions require immediate veterinary care.

Acute diseases of birds can include:

Virus - Polyoma, Pacheco's, Newcastle's (VVND), Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD), and more.

Bacteria - E. coli, Pseudomonas, Klebsiella, Clostridium, Chlamydia (Psittacosis), and more.

Fungus - Candida, Aspergillus

Parasites - protozoa (sarcocystis and giardia), and a variety of worms and flukes.

Toxins – found in Food - mold, bacteria, metal, pesticides, herbicides

Contaminated water supply

Air - Teflon, gases, fumes, pesticides, fresheners, sprays, smoke,

Inappropriately used medications including antibiotics, antifungals, and herbs.

Conventional treatments, including antibiotics, antifungals, and other drugs are imperative for most acute conditions. Synthetic drugs do have side effects and can compromise some body organs. However, they are powerful and fast. If correctly prescribed, they can save the life of a bird who is being overwhelmed by a disease.

When a condition is acute, speed is of the essence. You can repair any damage done by the drugs later, but right now you need to save your bird’s life. 

When you see any of the following symptoms, take your bird to your vet today. Do not accept any lame excuses from an ignorant receptionist. Do not accept an appointment for tomorrow. Note: some bird breeders or rescuers have had years of experience dealing with both chronic and acute avian health problems. They already know what to do for their birds and they have a repertoire of methods and treatments available to them. They are experienced healers without an official degree.

Serious Symptoms

Losing body heat: bird sits fluffed for long periods of time, not just during nap time

Growing weak: bird rests on two legs, not on one. It might also lean against a dish, a toy, or the sides of the cage to help keep itself upright. Instead of perching high and strong on its legs, it lets its lower body rest against the perch. A bird that can no longer perch and is instead resting on the bottom of the cage is very ill.

Loss of appetite: bird has reduced its normal consumption of food and shows little interest in eating. Even worse, bird has stopped eating altogether. Birds can fool you by picking up food when you are watching. However, it might drop the food again when you look away.

Weight loss: it is best to have a scale so you can monitor your bird’s weight on a weekly basis. Weight loss is one of the classic early signs of illness. If you do not have a scale, then run your finger down the bird’s breastbone. It should not protrude sharply from the flesh on either side of it. A sharply protruding breastbone might be serious. Small birds can die of starvation within a few days.

Decreased food in droppings. A healthy dropping is well formed, it consists of three parts

1. Solid waste often in a coiled tube shape. The color is affected by what the bird is eating. Dark forest green indicates seeds and grains, brownish is from some pellets, red is from beets, bright green from broccoli, etc. Black scant solids indicate that the bird is starving. 
2. Urates, which are always white in healthy birds; yellow can indicate liver problems; green can indicate psittacosis.
3. Urine, which should be clear. Birds that are stressed often display droppings that are watery with no solids, but when allowed to rest, the droppings will return to normal.

Increased water consumption: Often when birds are ill, they drink more water.

Increased water in droppings (Polyuria.) This might not be a sign of disease. You need to use judgment based on additional signs. If the bird is eating fruits and vegetables, it is normal to have increased water in the droppings. This can also be the result of increased water consumption. Polyuria can be a sign of kidney or renal disease, diabetes, or a number of other things. When making an evaluation, do not base it on one symptom alone. Add all the symptoms together. Polyuria, by itself, may not indicate disease.

Respiratory distress: The respiratory system involves sinuses and lungs. Upper respiratory symptoms might include sneezing and discharge or bubbles from the nostrils if the mucus is watery. If the mucus is thick, the nares may not be moist or appear to be blocked. However, the bird might rub its face against the cage bars or scratch at its eyes, or face or shake its head because the sinuses are causing it pain. The voice might change. Breathing could be labored if the airway is partially blocked. 

If the lungs are compromised, the observer will see rapid breathing. Sometimes the tail will bob up and down, but other times the chest or abdomen will expand or contract with more than normal effort as the bird tries to pull air into its lungs. If you have good hearing, you might be able to hear raspy sounds when you place the bird’s chest or side up against your ear. Rapid breathing also occurs when the bird is simply out of breath after abnormal activity or stress. It will take longer for the bird to return to normal if it has a respiratory infection.

Birds with either upper or lower respiratory infection can die quickly. If the bird’s mouth and nares are filled with mucus, it can choke to death. If the lungs are filled, the pneumonia will prevent it from obtaining enough oxygen. A few futile gasps and the bird can die. Care should be taken not to place the bird on its back when its throat and mouth are filled with fluid. To do so will cause the bird to pull fluid into its lungs.

Emergencies Bleeding from mouth, nose, or vent area can indicate internal injury. Droppings that are black indicate bleeding from high in the GI tract. Droppings that are red indicate bleeding closer to the vent. Profuse bleeding is serious. Birds do not have a large blood supply. Applying pressure at the point of injury can stop external bleeding. Damage from bacteria, fungus, and parasites can also cause bleeding.

Cat scratch or bite. Even though the injury itself may not look serious, many cats carry pasturella bacteria on their mouths and on their claws. A bird has less than 24 hours after receiving a minor cat scratch to receive appropriate antibiotics.

Exposure to fumes, overheated pots and pans, smoke from cooking, fires, or scented candles can kill birds. Immediately remove your bird to fresh air. Even a few moments of exposure can be serious.

Emergency Treatments

Although alternative therapies are mainly ideal for chronic and low-grade recurring conditions, some of them can be used for specific acute/emergency conditions. Their purpose is to stabilize the patient for transport to the veterinarian.

Homeopathics - If carefully selected by a skilled homeopathic practitioner, homeopathics can be used for some acute diseases. Most people do NOT have the expert knowledge required to select the correct remedy based on symptoms. Those with this knowledge have studied the subject in-depth and they base their expertise on numerous case studies. In addition, expert practitioners have volumes of references, including Repertories to help them establish the exact symptoms and Materia Medicas from which they match the exact remedy to the symptoms. This search occurs only after taking a lengthy and detailed case profile of the patient. The remedy required for acute diseases is usually of a potency either not available to or should not be used by the layperson. Improperly used high potency homeopathics can create dangerous disease symptoms.

Some lower potency (6X-30X) homeopathics are useful to keep on hand for emergency situations. They are usually administered every fifteen minutes until the symptoms diminish and then every hour until the symptoms disappear. Potencies in the C and M range should be used only by professionals.

Here are a few suggestions for an emergency homeopathic kit:

Shock if still – Arnica;

Shock and collapse near death - Carbo vegetabilis;

Shock if restless and disturbed – Aconite;

To ease mental or emotional trauma of an injury – Rescue Remedy (this is a flower essence, not a homeopathic, but the principle of action is similar.)

Vomiting from poisoning – Arsenicum; or Nux vomica;

Bruised and bleeding – Arnica;

Puncture wounds – Ledum;

Difficult breathing from swelling – Apis mellifica;

Difficult breathing from fluid – Antimonium tartaricum;

Prolapse - Pulsatilla

Whole Health Now provides a list of homeopathic suppliers who offer homeopathic remedies, kits, and information. Two useful books that recommend homeopathic remedies for birds are: Dr. David McCluggage’s Holistic Care for Birds and Bernard Dorenkamp’s Natural Health Care For Your Bird.

Herbs – Most herbs are best used for chronic conditions, but some can be used for emergencies: Bleeding – internally or externally, the Chinese patent medicine Yunnan Paiyao (also spelled Yunnan Baiyao.) Get it and keep it on hand. Sources: http://www.chinesemedic.com/product.asp?code=10038 http://www.wle.com/store/healing.html

Bleeding in digestive tract especially after swallowing something sharp use Slippery Elm powder. This cannot be overdosed. It coats the digestive tract with a mucus-type coating and is also nourishing.

Shock from heart attack or to stop external bleeding use Cayenne powder. Read Gudrun Maybaum’s article about Cayenne.

Poisoning – activated charcoal comes as pharmaceutical grade in capsules, which can be opened and mixed with water for administration to birds.

Burns both internal and external can be treated with Aloe Vera gel. Use only the inner leaf gel. Do not use the leaf itself or purchase whole leaf aloe vera. The leaf contains latex that acts as a violent laxative. Serious burns will require veterinary treatment involving fluid replacement and antibiotics.

Heat – Sick birds need all of their body energies to fight disease. You can best help them by providing heat so they do not waste their own energy staying warm. Temperatures for sick birds should be 85 – 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat should be provided in a manner allowing the bird to move closer or farther away from the heat source in order to adjust the amount of heat it obtains. If the bird is too cold, it will continue to fluff its feathers. If the bird is too warm, it will begin to pant. Temperatures too warm can kill. Temperatures too cool drain energy from the bird.

Heating panels or bulbs designed for birdcages can be obtained from several sources. Keep one on hand for emergency use. Do not use a hair dryer, any other hot air blower, or any method that will not allow your bird to move away from the heat.

If the weather is cold, be sure to provide a heat source to keep your bird warm while transporting the bird to and from the veterinarian. A hot water bottle or plastic bottle filled with hot water and covered with a cloth can work as long as it doesn’t leak and as long as it is secured so it will not bounce into the bird. Wrap the carrier in a blanket to retain heat but leave an opening for air so the bird will not suffocate. Also provide something for the bird to hold onto so it won’t slide around in the carrier. I usually cut a piece of 1” x 2” pine the width of the carrier and drive screws into it from the outside of the carrier for a perch. Keep the perch ¼” off of the bottom of the carrier. Use two screws on one side to prevent the perch from turning. Drywall screws work well for this purpose.

Chronic diseases are those that build up over a period of time. By definition, they are of long duration and resist all efforts to cure them. Acute disease can transform into chronic disease if the immune system is strong enough to resist the disease but not strong enough to overcome and eliminate it from the body.

The reverse is also true. Chronic infectious diseases can become acute when the immune system becomes overworked from too many challenges and is no longer able to resist the invading organism. This can be true for degenerative diseases that involve the organs. A bird with kidney disease may be able to function at a less than optimum state for years until a final challenge shuts the kidney down

From a conventional perspective, most chronic diseases involve degeneration of the body organs and systems. These include: skeleton & joints (arthritis), pancreas (diabetes), liver (fatty liver), kidney (gout), eyes (cataracts), etc. Other chronic diseases and their symptoms include: fears, phobias, and stereotypical behaviors (mental), under or overweight (digestive or metabolic system), respiratory or skin infections (immune system), and so on. etc. Conventional treatment involves alleviation of symptoms to improve quality of life until the symptoms become too severe for any further aid.

Holistic practitioners attempt to find the underlying cause rather than focus on symptoms. For example, Naturopaths believe that some degenerative diseases are the result of improper diet and lifestyle. Correcting the cause can improve or reverse the condition.

Recurring diseases are those in which the cause has not been entirely eliminated. The disease may seem to temporarily disappear or the symptoms improve, but later they will re-appear or the condition will worsen again. Another profile of this type of disease is that other birds will demonstrate similar symptoms after a period of time has passed. This indicates a number of possibilities:

Recurring diseases can affect facilities, too. They would be considered chronic as long as they demonstrate low-grade persistence. Psittacosis is an example of a chronic recurring disease. Acute recurring diseases are immediately life threatening. Polyoma is an example of an acute recurring disease in a facility.

Alternative Modalities

Most alternative healing methods are slow to heal, gentle to the body and have few side effects. Symptoms are considered an indication that the body is trying to rid itself of disease. For example, runny nares or some skin conditions are both efforts of the body to rid itself of toxins, invading organisms, or substances. Therefore, the holistic practitioner would not suppress this symptom. Instead, the practitioner would treat the underlying cause. Treatment depends on the modality (method) used.

Healing methods can be used individually or combined with other modalities for an integrated healing approach, which can also include conventional drugs. Often integrated treatments act synergistically. This makes the overall protocol more effective than if one

Chronic Disease Treatments

The real focus of holistic health is prevention. Three major causes of disease are: malnutrition, stress, and challenges. Nutrition appropriate for the individual gives the body the tools it needs to fight degeneration and disease. Stress weakens the immune system so it cannot respond adequately when challenged. Challenges involve exposure to disease organisms and inadequate diet. The best way to minimize challenges is to use good management practices, which include clean water, fresh food, and clean environment. Challenges like a filthy cage, dirty water, or sour food will overburden the bird’s immune system allowing it to become overwhelmed by disease. The best support for a bird’s health is appropriate nutrition, reduced stress, and good hygiene. 

Nutrition and Birds

Each bird species evolved with its own optimum nutrient requirements. Some species need more of certain nutrients and less of others. The suggestions offered in this article are general ones. Each bird owner needs to adjust these guidelines to meet the requirements of the species being kept. In addition to species requirements are those of individuals. Birds from the same clutch have different personalities and metabolic types, which also can impact nutritional requirements.

Herbs and Birds

o Dosages for birds will have to be calculated by the owner. They are based on the bird’s weight. A ballpark dosage is to read the recommendation on the label for humans and extrapolate down from there. For most (but not all) herbs, I use powdered herbs from capsules, which can be opened. The amount I use is one capsule for 50cc of consumed food. If a bird consumes 25cc of food (jardine’s, pionus, caique) it will get half a capsule. If it consumes 12cc of food (cockatiel, senegal), it gets one fourth of a capsule.

Purchase combination herbs from reliable sources like Nature’s Way. Some herb companies do not know how to combine herbs. If an enthused bird owner were to mix Grapefruit Seed Extract, Apple Cider Vinegar, Garlic Powder, Ginger, and Cinnamon together to dose a bird, for example, the combined pungencies and acids could damage the bird’s gastrointestinal tract.

Toxic Herbs

Just because an herb is safe for a human does not mean it is safe for birds. Chocolate and avocado are two plants safe for humans but toxic to birds. Natural does not mean safe. Many plants are poisonous including some used for healing. Learn the properties of the herb you are using or use a master herbalist who has spent years studying them.

Treatments for Chronic or Recurring Ailments

The herbs and nutrients listed below will help support the ailing body system but may not necessarily ‘cure’ the ailment. Chronic diseases are usually multifaceted and require a healing approach that involves diet, management, and lifestyle changes in addition to any help that herbs can offer. 

Arthritis – Inflammation of the joints. There are several causes including infection, gout, trauma, and degeneration. Treatment depends on the cause, so a veterinarian should be consulted for diagnosis. Degeneration of the joints can be supported with herbs and nutrition.

Bromelain – an enzyme from pineapple is an anti-inflammatory.

Glucosamine sulfate – to repair joint structure.

Vitamin C – for collagen repair.

Evening Primrose oil and Vitamin E – to lubricate the joints.

Green food supplements (kelp or alfalfa) – mineral source for joint and bone repair. Sprinkle on moist food.

Hot peppers – Reed raw chilies or jalapenos to release endorphins that relieve pain.

Bacteria – Bacteria that are chronic or stubbornly resistant to drugs sometimes respond to herbal support. Different herbs target different parts of the body.

Respiratory system: Lower - garlic, marshmallow, and/or mullein. Upper (sinus) - Garlic, cayenne, Oregon grape, burdock root. Vicks Vapo-Rub with eucalyptus placed on a cloth and a slight distance from the cage so the bird can get a mild exposure to the odor can help loosen sinus congestion.

Digestive tract: gentian plus garlic, cinnamon, or ginger. Do not use all three together. Probiotics and digestive enzymes should also be used.

Bladder and Kidney: garlic and probiotics plus cranberries, dandelion, parsley, oat straw, and watermelon seeds.

General: Grapefruit seed extract is a general antibiotic and will wipe out all intestinal flora. Probiotics should be used to restore natural flora when using GSE. Astragalus and Echinacea stimulate the production of white blood cells. Garlic is the best general antibiotic, anti-fugal, and is also used for some parasites.

Wounds: plantain internally and externally, comfrey, calendula, and yarrow externally, echinacea internally. Homeopathic ledum for puncture wounds.

Candida – Fungal disease caused by Candida albicans. It is common in birds who have been treated with antibiotics. It is also frequently seen in baby birds and in birds on a diet high in carbohydrates or refined sugar. Yeast thrives on sugar. Although Candida and yeast used to raise bread are two different species, some baby birds whose parents are fed bread have been already infected with yeast growth throughout the oral cavity when pulled from nestbox for handfeeding. This formula has successfully dealt with minor yeast problems in baby birds: Mix together in large jar:

1 cup spirulina or alfalfa powder 
1 cup wheatgrass
1 Tablespoon kelp powder
2 Tablespoons garlic powder with strong odor (not garlic salt)
1 Tablespoon or 12 capsules probiotic powder

Shake this well until mixed. The amount you add to formula is enough to make the formula turn slightly lighter green than pea soup when water is added. Expect the babies to have garlic breath. If the babies are having problems with slow crop (not crop stasis), then also add 1 Tablespoon of an enzyme combination powder to the above formula. The enzymes should contain protease, cellulase, lipase, and amylase. If the carrier used is lactose, then the powder should also contain lactase. Instead of enzyme powder, you could fresh papaya, but papaya only contains protease so will not break down fats or starches. Babies are usually cleared of yeast within two days as long as the brooder is warm enough. If the problem has advanced to crop stasis, then veterinary services are required. 

Cataracts: Eucalyptus honey can be placed in lower eyelid twice daily. Orally (not in the eye) give grape seed extract, red palm oil, Vitamin C, and green leafy vegetables. 

Detoxification – Use after drugs or as a general tonic: Aloe Detox formula by Natureade. Other detoxifying formulas are Essiac Tea or Flora Force. These contain some of the following herbs for cleansing toxins from the following body systems: Blood: burdock, turkey rhubarb; Liver: milk thistle, sheep sorrel, and dandelion; Kidneys: dandelion, sheep sorrel; Immune system: Red clover. 

Diabetes: Nopal (prickly pear fruit) plus increased fiber in the diet from: beans, psyllium, fresh fruits, vegetables, and sprouts. Eliminate pasta, potatoes, white flour, and all refined sugars (glucose, dextrose, sucrose, maltose, fructose). Supplement with essential fatty acid blend from refrigerated section of health food store. Exercise. 

Fatty Liver: Milk Thistle or Andrographis (first choice), plus garlic, lecithin, B vitamins, alfalfa, organic raw fruits and vegetables including an abundance of dark leafy greens. Avoid processed foods, especially those with chemical preservatives and additives. 

Fatty Tumors: chickweed, spirulina, high fiber, reduced fat diet. 

Feather picking: See the Feather Picking issue. 

Giardia: GSE and garlic 

Gout: celery, alfalfa, and cherries 

Grief: homeopathic- Ignatia, or flower essence - Star of Bethlehem. 

Heart and circulation: Hawthorne berries, bilberry, and capsicum (cayenne). 

Hyperthyroid: Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, peachs, soybeans, spinach) help to suppress thyroid hormone production. 

Hypothyroid: Kelp, L-tyrosine, dates, apricots, bayberry, black cohosh, avoid or eat in moderation the foods listed under hyperthyroid. 

Inflammation and pain: Bromelain, Boswellia, Tumeric, White willow. 

Kidney: Celery, parsley, dandelion, marshmallow root, and cranberry. 

Malabsorption (poor absorption of nutrients during digestion): probiotics, digestive enzymes, green food supplements, aloe vera gel (not whole leaf aloe vera), brewer’s yeast. 

Metal Toxicity: Metal detox recipe is useful for metal toxicity from pesticides, herbicides, and environmental exposure to metals. Chelation therapy from your veterinarian may be necessary if metal particles were ingested.

Obesity: 80% of the diet should be raw fruits and vegetables. Feed green food supplements such as wheat grass, barley grass, alfalfa, and spirulina. Supplement with essential fatty acid blend from the health food store. Minimize refined carbohydrates such as pasta, potoatos, crackers, and other junk food. Create exercise. 

Papillomatosis: L-lysine, probiotics, capsicum (internally and externally), echinacea, St. John’s wort, and red clover. 

PDD: Saint John’s Wort, Digestive Enzymes, Essential Fatty Acid blend, Aloe detoxifying formula by Natureade, Echinacea, Slippery elm, and Green Food supplements. Serve as a nutrient cocktail. 

Stress: Provide a diet high in a variety of antioxidants: especially a variety of berries, raw fruits and vegetables, dark leafy greens, squash, sweet potato, red palm oil, herbs: bilberry, green food supplements. Calming herbs: chamomile, catnip, dong quoi, passion flower. Read Pamela Clark’s article: Managing Avian Stress in this issue. 

Tumors: cancerous: Garlic, IP6, Essiac Formula, maitake and shiitake mushrooms, Pau d’arco, Cats claw (Una de Gato). 

Viruses: Echinacea, Elderberry, Bee propolis, St. John’s Wort. 

Yeast: Pau d’arco plus capryllic acid, apple cider vinegar, or grapefruit seed extract (GSE). Refrain from sugar and high carbohydrates. Yeast thrives in alkaline environments and feeds on sugar. 

The above list is not intended to be a healing program for any bird. It merely suggests herbs and foods that could be included as part of a healing program. Each program should be tailored to the individual bird and that would be decided after a detailed case study is taken. Healing programs usually need adjustment as the condition of the bird changes. 

Balch, James F and Phyllis A Prescription for Nutritional Healing
Doane, Bonnie Munro The Parrot in Health and Illness
McCluggage, David and Higdon, Pamela Holistic Care for Birds
Murray, Michael ND and Pizzorno, Joseph ND Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine
Ritchason, Jack Little Herb Encyclopedia
Schoen, Allen M. and Wynn, Susan G Complementary adn Alternative Veterinary Medicine