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Why a Good Bird Vet is Hard to Find by Terry Beaudoin

Why are there so few really qualified avian veterinarians? While Sally Blanchard was here for her second Parrot Island sponsored seminar she once again mentioned how lucky we are in the Twin Cities area to have several decent avian veterinarians. In fact, and I will not mention names as this article is not designed to promote one veterinarian over another, she said we had one of the best in the country. She further stated that she wished that this veterinarian saw her birds. This is truly high praise from Sally as she travels the country and has been a featured speaker at several avian veterinary related symposiums. She once stated that in her opinion, there were only fifteen or twenty veterinarians in the country who were knowledgeable enough to be seeing companion birds. This article is an attempt to shed some light on why "A Good Bird Vet Is Hard To Find".

One of the primary reasons why it is so difficult to find a qualified avicultural veterinarian is that there are very few veterinary colleges in the country that have anything beyond a cursory study program for companion bird medicine. The concentration has always been primarily on dog, cat, and large animal medicine. I have heard that in just the last few years a number of veterinary colleges are making companion bird medicine a larger part of their curriculum. This hopefully means that there will be more veterinarians graduating that have an interest in companion bird medicine. How then have the veterinarians who are seeing birds come to learn about them? Unfortunately it has been my experience that far too many veterinarians 'wing it' (sorry for the bad pun) when it comes to their client's birds. What I mean by this is that I have seen and heard of a number of veterinarians who will extend themselves beyond their actual knowledge of medicine in order to gain a new client. Some of these veterinarians actually know something about avian medicine, but unfortunately even they tend to get to a point were they are beyond their knowledge and then start guessing.

This is not an attack on any particular veterinarian but when I continue to have customers come to me relating how their bird was handled and treated and even I know that the method used was very outdated, or completely wrong - I think it is worth informing bird owners about it. Many of these birds eventually are seen by a true avian veterinarian who is typically shocked at what the other clinic had recommended and done. Most will not go as far as to inform the client of this, as they would perceive that as a breech of ethics. One of these excellent avian veterinarians has called this the equivalent of practicing 'voodoo bird medicine'. I have found that even the best bird veterinarians can sometimes be stumped by some of the things they see. The difference with these doctors is that they are willing to contact other avian practitioners; many times they are out state, to get their suggestions and opinions on the case.

So, how does a veterinarian become knowledgeable about companion bird medicine? From what I have witnessed there seems to be two ways:

  1. They educate themselves by reading any available literature on avian medicine and surgery. They continue to keep updated in a field that is growing very rapidly by attending as many of the ongoing Avicultural Veterinarian Association Symposiums as they can. There are few doctors that spend the time and money necessary to do this. Without this continuing educational process I think it is impossible for a doctor to be current in this field. It is too often true that veterinarians are practicing medicine that was considered current 10 plus years ago.
  2. They are willing to seek out the advise of other veterinarians that have put in the effort necessary to gain an understanding of our companion birds. This may seem simple to some but it has been my experience that few doctors (this is even more pronounced in M.D.s then in veterinarians) will ask another doctor for advice. In the years that I worked in veterinary practices as a technician (about ten years) I knew few doctors who would do this. There seems to be a real hesitancy to appear less knowledgeable then their colleagues. Many people have called this tendency to want to appear all- knowing as the 'God Complex'. Unfortunately I have known far too many doctors who have a definite case of this. Id these doctors would put aside some of their pride I believe avian medicine would greatly benefit from it.

Another of the primary reasons for limited quality avian veterinarians is economic. Because of the general lack of information that the average new bird owner receives before purchasing their bird the veterinarian who has a real concern for the well being of their client's animals is forced to spend much more time with each client. Many times this is done at no extra charge. These doctors spend time explaining too these poorly informed bird owners that most of the information they have been given is incorrect. They have to spend time explaining the basic information of safe housing, healthy diet, and some even spend time on socialization and behavioral issues. Most of these doctors state that they could be seeing as many as five dogs or cats per bird client and that they would make more money on any one of those dogs or cats then on the bird client. The average dog or cat owner has a pretty good understanding of the basic care of their pet and the veterinarian is therefore able to spend their time on the medical aspects of it's care instead of that and everything else involved in caring for it. The simple, quick and easy things like vaccinations, heartworm and Feline Leukemia tests that most people have come to realize as a yearly necessity for the health oft their dog or cat is the real profit maker for the veterinarian. Unfortunately, many times it is a battle for the avian practitioner to get their clients to realize that routine yearly check-ups and simple testing (crop swabs, fecal smears, etc.) are a necessary part of preventative medicine for their bird. Many people do not realize that vaccinating their bird is a possibility.

These economic factors are responsible for many clinics limiting their bird clients or in the worst cast, not spending the necessary time with them. As a result of having come to be known as excellent bird veterinarians, two of our clinics have had to greatly limit the new companion bird clients they see. We are very proud that one of these veterinarians has enough confidence in the educational work we do at Parrot Island to limit their new clients to only those referred by us. They feel if people read our information and attend our educational seminars that they as a doctor can spend their time on the medical needs of the new client without worrying about everything else.

Lastly, examining and working with many birds and learning from the experience that can only be gained that way is the most important factor in the development of a quality avian veterinarian. This experience also produces veterinarians and technicians who know how to handle your bird in a way that minimizes the stress it undergoes. Birds that are overly stressed can show lab results that are skewed in a way that may even lead to an incorrect diagnosis. Because of the abovementioned reasons I am sure you can realize that it is very hard to find such an experienced veterinarian. One of our local doctors spends a considerable amount of their money and free time examining, unfortunately often through necropsy, many birds that the owners did not want to spend the money on.

This doctor related to my wife Shari, who wanted to observe some of these necropsies to gain a better understanding of bird anatomy, that the bird they were examining was the 4400+ bird that had been brought to them for this procedure. This doctor has also taken in numerous birds and performed procedures that were needed with no expected payment for these services - all for the sake of learning from these birds.

My experience has shown me that there are few veterinarians with the devotion necessary to become excellent avian veterinarians. When you find one of these doctors my suggestion is to support them wholeheartedly. If it takes a little extra wait to get an appointment I hope this article helps explain why. If you have to wait in the examination room for an extra fifteen minutes for the doctor - realize that they probably had to spend extra time with their last appointment to feel they had done their best for the bird that they were seeing. This is something that cannot be planned for. We need to show our support for these people who are working in a field where they seldom even receive a 'Thank You' for their efforts. Let them know how much you appreciate them whenever possible. Many times the only thanks they get for going well beyond the norm to serve their clients is this 'Thank You' and the knowledge that they did the best they could for the bird.

This article was published on Tuesday 22 June, 2004.
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