Commonly referred to as “Velcro-birds,” cockatoos are some of the most sought-after parrots as pets because of their extremely affectionate nature. However, their natural tendency to cling to the object of their affection is precisely why they are also one of the most frequently rehomed parrots.
The comparison to Velcro isn’t quite adequate because Velcro doesn’t make much noise when separation occurs. At least, not when you compare it to the sound a cockatoo is capable of making.
Parrots are not known for being quiet pets, but the larger cockatoos are incredibly loud. According to the cockatoo website mytoos.com, “A 747 Jumbo Jet produces as much as 140 decibels of noise…Moluccans [a type of cockatoo] hold the record as the loudest bird on earth at 135db (average = 120db.)”
Despite their fondness for making loud noises, (and it is important to note that making noises throughout the day for various reasons is a normal part of parrot behavior), when their needs are met, cockatoos are wonderfully charming, adoring little friends. They are wholly dedicated to loving and being loved in return, which is the perfect way to describe the Exotic Bird Hospital’s Umbrella cockatoo patient named Buddy.
When we met Buddy, she was twenty-years-old, and like many Umbrella cockatoos, she was exhibiting typical hormonal behavior. It is important to mention that while hormonal behavior may initially seem minor, it can lead to enormous problems that could be costly to fix. What begins as a panting, excited cockatoo or a delicate egg on the cage bottom can eventually become a cockatoo with egg-laying issues or even a prolapse. It almost seems cruel that the very desirable traits of being cuddly and affectionate have the potential to lead to medical problems down the road, but owners of cockatoos need to be aware of this in order to avoid unintentionally encouraging dangerous hormonal behaviors. Although a cockatoo might relish being petted and cuddled, indulging in that behavior is not good for the bird. Petting should be limited to the head because petting or stroking a bird the way one might pet or stroke a dog or cat will give the bird the wrong impression as that is mating behavior in the bird world.
Another interesting fact regarding hormonal behavior with cockatoos and cockatiels is that these birds originate from Australia. Dr. Stevenson once remarked that the hormonal behavior, including excessive egg-laying, made sense in the perspective of where they originate. Australia can be an inhospitable, perilous place for our feathered friends, so for a bird, you reproduce whenever circumstances seem favorable. When these same birds are in our homes, they are always comfortable and no longer subjected to the dangers of being in the wild, but the impulse to reproduce during favorable circumstances remains.
When faced with a hormonal parrot, the first line of defense is increasing the amount of uninterrupted sleep, cutting certain warm, wet foods from the diet, possibly changing certain aspects of the diet (only after consulting your bird’s veterinarian) and/or changing things in your bird’s environment. When the aforementioned measures prove unsuccessful, it is sometimes necessary to look at other options including Lupron, which can come in a series of injections or as an implant.
Aside from exhibiting hormonal behavior when we met her, Buddy also had a 2.5 cm mass at her pelvic area. According to Buddy’s owner, the mass originally appeared approximately eight years prior to this first visit with us, when her flock sister, a Caique named Sophie, startled Buddy and caused her to fall off her perch.
The nature of the mass was uncertain. A cytology revealed cells that were consistent with a lipoma, which is a lump of fat growing in the soft tissue. Lipomas are often harmless, and Dr. Stevenson advised that weight loss might help to shrink the mass. We continued to monitor the mass and measured it each time Buddy visited the clinic. Buddy’s hormonal behavior was intense enough to require treatment with a suprelorin implant, and we also kept in close contact with Buddy’s mommy regarding her weight and hormonal behavior.
Over the next few years, the mass fluctuated in size. However, the mass came to be 3cm by 3cm without shrinking, so Dr. Stevenson and Buddy’s family discussed the mass and decided to get a better understanding of it before determining how to proceed. When Dr. Stevenson initially mentioned the possibility of surgery, Buddy’s mommy was afraid. She had been advised against surgery in the past, possibly due to the length of time the surgery might take.
The first step in trying to distinguish the nature of the mass was radiographs to get a picture of what was going on with Buddy internally. Buddy was briefly placed under anesthesia. The x-rays revealed that Buddy had an enlarged coelom, compressed air sacs, mild hyperostosis (excess growth of bony tissue) and an enlarged cardiohepatic silhoutette. According to a paper entitled ‘Radiology of Exotic Pets’ by James K Morrisey, DVM, ABVP (Avian) of Cornell University, “the liver is closely associated with the heart and forms the caudal portion of the hourglass shape called the “cardiac-hepatic waist.”
Despite the information revealed in the radiographs, which included narrowing of air sac space due to the increased soft tissue density in the coelomic cavity and a view of the soft tissue mass in the right ventral caudal area, Dr. Stevenson was unable to determine if the mass was a hernia or a lipoma. The reason this distinction is important lies in the fundamental difference of the two. A lipoma is a generally harmless lump of fat growing in tissue. However, a hernia refers to a protrusion of a tissue through the wall of the cavity in which it is supposed to be contained. In essence, a hernia is significant and can be quite problematic.
Since the radiographs were unable to completely reveal the nature of the mysterious mass, Dr. Stevenson recommended an upper GI which is when a patient is given barium, (an x-ray absorber that appears white on an x-ray) which shows differences that may not be visible on standard x-rays and is often used to detect abnormalities including tumors, ulcers, hernias, diverticula (pouches), strictures (narrowing), inflammation, etc. An UGI produces a series of images over several hours, and after reviewing the results of Buddy’s UGI, Dr. Stevenson was pleased to find that there were no intestines in the mass. The next step was scheduling surgery to remove the mass.
Jennifer Graham, head of Tufts’ Zoological Companion Animal Medicine Service talks about pets and anesthesia on the university’s website. When she spoke about exotics including birds, she said, “Because these pets weigh less than dogs and cats, “things can go bad for exotics much faster.”
The same article mentioned that anesthesia specifically with birds has what is referred to as a “golden hour,” which means that after being under anesthesia for more than one hour, risks of complications with birds are exponentially greater.
“A dog might be under anesthesia for four or five hours for an orthopedic procedure,” said Graham. “You just can’t do that with a bird and have a good outcome.”
Prior to surgery, Buddy was placed on medications to help prevent excessive bleeding. Buddy’s mommy was nervous the day she brought Buddy in for surgery, so Dr. Stevenson spoke to her at length to make sure that she understood the procedure and to try to minimize her worry.
Buddy was fasted prior to surgery, and since she had previously been anesthetized for her suprelorin implants on other visits to our clinic, Dr. Stevenson and her anesthesiologist already had an idea of how to manage Buddy’s anesthesia.
Buddy was restless on the table at first, but she soon succumbed to the anesthesia. Once Dr. Stevenson was certain that Buddy was numb, she began examining the mass. The room was nearly silent, and the anesthesiologist made small adjustments as she vigilantly watched Buddy, alert to even the smallest changes in breathing or heartrate, her own body tense as she leaned over the table and stared down at the patient.
Dr. Stevenson’s face was fixed in concentration as she began. She used an electrocautery tool, a handheld device that utilizes an electrical current to simultaneously cut and cauterize the skin. The device sounded like a mechanical, buzzing mosquito, and Dr. Stevenson moved it slowly, in a very precise manner. While she worked, her anesthesiologist occasionally stretched, her body obviously sore from holding the angled position over the table. Neither the doctor nor her anesthesiologist ever took their eyes off of the patient. Every now and then, Buddy trembled slightly, a small tremor, the movement a spark of energy from a creature whose instinct prompted her to attempt to regain control, and the anesthesia then had to be adjusted in the tiniest increments.
Dr. Stevenson worked quietly. The only sound in the room was the instrument doing its job. She stared down at her patient and lightly moved the instrument along until she was finally able to remove the tumor and separate the stubborn fibrous tissue and fat. Fortunately, intestines and the cloaca were not involved in the mass removal, so once the mass was placed in a jar, Dr. Stevenson was able to close the hernia and begin suturing the skin closed.
Once the surgery was coming to an end, an hour and 20 minutes had passed, which was 20 minutes beyond what is referred to as the “golden hour.” Buddy was soon waking up, and once she was up, she was happily chattering. Despite having incredible success with these surgeries, Dr. Stevenson credits her years of experience and the fact that together with her anesthesiologist, they keep the anesthesia on the lighter side and constantly monitor the patient, which reduces a lot of the risk with lengthier procedures.
After surgery, Buddy stayed with us for a few days so we could observe her and make sure she did not pick at her sutures. Buddy was a happy-go-lucky girl and much more energetic without her mass. Also, aside from her cute chattering, Buddy was generally pretty quiet for a cockatoo. Her mommy said this was because she socialized Buddy but did not spoil her, which prevented her from becoming too clingy.
When she saw her bird, Buddy’s mom was ecstatic. As she gathered Buddy’s belongings to go home, she said, “Dr. Stevenson saved Buddy’s life. I was so nervous, but they got it all. This has changed my life.”
Petting Buddy’s head and kissing her, her mommy said, “I no longer look at my beautiful bird and think oh no, will she die during surgery? Will there be complications? She is fine! I look at her so differently now. She’s my baby. Everyone in the house loves her; she’s the queen.”
We are always overjoyed to have such a happy ending, and we still see Buddy and the rest of her flock quite frequently. The flock is fortunate to have such a loving family, and we are so glad that we get the opportunity to have them as our patients. Having an open dialogue with your pet’s veterinarian is essential, so don’t ever hesitate to ask questions. Make sure you understand the information you are given, and we are always happy to go into detail, especially in cases where anesthesia or surgery may be involved. We hope everyone is feeling as lighthearted, happy and healthy as Miss Buddy is.