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Friday, May 29, 2009

Sometimes You Lose

Remember recently my entry titled "Sometimes You Win"? Well, that isn't always the case. As a vet, sometimes unexpected and unpleasant things happen.

This afternoon I saw a small parrot who had been acting sick for a few days. His symptoms were vague, just acting "fluffed" and breathing a little heavy. Unfortunately, birds hide their illnesses very well, not acting sick at all in the earliest stages. This is an instinctual behavior, as in the wild the weak or sick are usually the first preyed upon. What this means for pet owners is that when birds start acting sick, they actually have been for a while and have now become so ill that they can no longer hide it. For Duke, that was not a good thing.

I began my exam as usual, carefully holding him while I looked him over. Birds have very different anatomies than dogs and cats, so restraint is also quite different. I've worked with exotic pets all of my career, so I'm used to those differences, and am comfortable handling birds of all sizes. So I thought things were okay at first. But as I was going over his body I noticed that he was breathing very rapidly. When I put my stethoscope to his chest, I heard a raspiness in his breathing that wasn't obvious on the initial exam. That's when things went bad.

As I was listening to his lungs, I noticed that he wasn't moving as much. Then I couldn't hear his heart. I quickly started to look at the rest of him and he wasn't moving at all. It didn't take me long to discover that he had passed away. I took a deep breath and had to tell his owner what had just happened. She was obviously surprised and shocked, but took it better than I had expected.

Birds are pretty fragile creatures. Sudden death under stress when they are sick is not rare, and is something that avian vets dread. We are taught that we need to examine a bird as quickly as possible, and do as much as possible in a single handling because the entire process is very stressful. Even board-certified avian specialists have this happen. But it doesn't make it any easier. When you have a pet suddenly and unexpectedly die in your hands before you have done much to it, it's very jarring and your stomach just drops.

The owner allowed me to do a necropsy (terminology lesson...."auto" means self, "necro" refers to death, and "opsy" means to study or examine. "autopsy" means to do an exam on "self", or the same species. "necropsy" means to study death, and is the term used for post-mortem exams on animals). I found that the air sacs (part of the avian respiratory system) had some foam in them, and the right lung had some yellowish fluid. My conclusion was that he had developed an infection of the air sacs that spread to his lungs. Duke's body was already extremely stressed, and the exam was simply too much for his system.

I can't say that situations like this ever get easier, but most of us learn how to deal with it. And this is just one more of the things that vets experience and have to deal with.