Birds are surprisingly fragile creatures, especially when it comes to illness. Anyone who has worked with them medically knows how quickly they can seem to be come sick and how serious that is. That was reinforced today.
A cockatiel came in for breathing problems and bubbles from the nose. The owners had just noticed it last night, so they didn't wait to see if it would improve. The bird was alert when it came in, but I could hear some "clicks" when it beathed. I started doing my exam and heard a lot of fluid in the lungs and air sacs. It seemed to be getting stressed, so I started to put it back in its cage to prevent further handling. As I did so it started to act strange, and in less than a minute had died in my hands. All of this was right in front of the owner, so they know that I didn't handle him roughly, but they were also surprised.
Why did that happen so quickly?
Birds hide their symptoms better than just about any animal. Once a bird acts sick it actually means that the illness has progressed to the point where they can no longer hide it. "Sudden" onset of symptoms is actually the last part of a bird that has been sick for at least a few days, rather than a true actue illness. So when a bird acts sick, they should be brought in right away rather than waiting.
When a bird is this sick even gentle and appropriate handling can push them over the edge. In this case there was so much fluid in the lungs that even mild handling caused a rapid breathing and difficulty getting enough oxygen. The bird would probably have died in 24 hours anyway due to the fluid in the respiratory tract; the stress from handling just hastened the disorder and happened so quickly that there was no way to intervene. This is only the second time I've had that happen to me, but I was trained that this was a possibility and am careful to always try and warn the owners about this possibility.
It's sad, but it's part of doing medicine on birds. They are fragile little creatures and don't give us much warning before they become seriously or critically ill. Again, the lesson here is to bring a bird to a qualified vet at the first sign of illness; but even then some patients can't be saved.