First Aid for Finches

The role of first aid is to remove the finch from immediate danger (if possible) and to stabilize it enough to then seek professional help.

Your job in first aid:
  1. Keep supplies (first aid kit) on hand
  2. Know how to determine what constitutes an emergency
  3. Know how to stabilize your bird
  4. Know how to seek professional help in the event of a bird emergency

First Aid Kit

Create a portable 'first aid kit' (a tackle box works well) with the following supplies:
  • Magnifying glass
  • Pen light
  • Small, sharp scissors (e.g. cuticle scissors)
  • Tweezers
  • Needle-nose pliers or hemostats
  • Nail clippers
  • Wire cutters
  • Leg band cutters
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Matches
  • Gram scale
  • Eye dropper
  • 1 cc syringes without needles
  • Feeding tube for finches (tubing to a butterfly catheter with the needle removed works well)
  • Disposable (e.g. latex) gloves
  • Cotton tipped applicators (Q-tips)
  • Surgical glue, Elmer's glue, or crazy glue
  • Styptic powder or silver nitrate sticks
  • Water-based lubricant (KY jelly without spermicide)
  • Dawn dish detergent
  • Flour or cornstarch
  • Vinegar
    Wound Cleaners
  • Betadine or Nolvasan
  • Sterile saline/eye wash
  • Hydrogen peroxide
    Bandage Materials
  • Non-stick (telfa) pads and/or band-aids
  • Paper tape (masking tape)
  • Square gauze (some sterile)
  • Rolled gauze/cotton (cast padding)
  • Vetwrap
  • Wooden sticks for splints: toothpicks, popsicle sticks/tongue depressors
  • Scissors to cut bandage material
    "Medications" (Watch expiration dates and replace as needed)
  • Calcium gluconate ("liquid calcium")
  • Dextrose/sugar
  • Protozoal/coccidial treatments
  • Unflavored Pedialyte or Gatorade
    Important Contact Numbers
  • Your bird's veterinary clinic phone number and directions
  • Local emergency clinic phone numbers and directions
  • Animal poison control phone number

Remember to replace supplies as you use them.

You will also need a Hospital Cage with spray millet, shallow dishes, heat source, and possibly humidity source, as well as a portable travel cage with a portable heat source.

Recognizing an Emergency

Sometimes an injury or illness seems obvious; other times, it may be subtle. If you are at all in doubt, call a vet! The "wait and see" approach is never appropriate with birds due to the fact that they hide illness until they cannot compensate any more. If you are seeing a bird that may be showing sign(s) of illness, act immediately, as it may already be very sick!

    Potentially life threatening emergencies
  • Bites
  • Deep cuts
  • Uncontrolled/active bleeding
  • Bleeding toenail
  • Blood feather
  • Burns
  • Poisoning
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Collapse
  • Bloody droppings
  • Straining to defecate
  • Egg binding
  • Prolapse
  • Head trauma
  • Heat stroke
    Urgent emergencies
  • Eye injury
  • Inappetence/anorexia
  • Swelling(s)
  • Puffing up
  • Broken bones (wing/leg injury)
  • Diarrhea
  • Direct contact with cat/dog saliva (even if the bird's skin is not broken)
  • High urine output
  • Punctured egg
  • Foreign body constriction
  • Oil on feathers

Administering First Aid

When attempting to stabilize your bird, remember: above all, do no harm. In almost every instance, separating the bird and placing it into a Hospital Cage (with easy access to food, water, and a heat source) will benefit the bird AND allow you to treat and observe the bird more easily. Although you will need to keep handling of sick birds to a minimum in order to decrease the amount of stress they are under, some handling may become necessary in order to administer certain treatments or to better assess the bird's condition. Sometimes it's easiest to have someone else hold the bird while you administer certain treatments. If your bird has an open wound or possibly an infectious disease, wash your hands before & after handling and wear gloves while handling the bird.
  • Bites & Deep Cuts: Try to stop the bleeding by applying pressure (be careful not to constrict the bird's abdomen so the bird can still breathe) and possibly (non-stick) bandage material. See your vet immediately to determine the extent of the injury, obtain antibiotics, and any further treatment that may be indicated.
  • Bleeding: If blood is noticed on perches/dishes, you will need to catch all your birds and check their feet (especially the toes and the bottoms of the feet), beaks, and feathers. For any bird that has active bleeding, find the source of the bleeding and apply pressure. If the source of the bleeding appears to be a toenail, beak tip, or feather, see below; if it is from a cut/bite, see above.
  • Bleeding toenail/beak: If a toenail or beak tip is actively bleeding, apply styptic powder, silver nitrate, or cornstarch. These treatments are NOT meant to control bleeding from any other location on the body. Do not apply silver nitrate to mucous membranes (inside of the mouth). If the bleeding stops, place the bird in a hospital cage for observation; it may be returned to its normal enclosure if the bleeding remains controlled for at least 4-6 hours, and if the bird has a normal activity level. If the bleeding cannot be controlled, apply pressure and see a vet immediately.
  • Bleeding feather: Use your hemostats or small needle-nose pliers to grasp the bleeding feather sheath as close to the skin/base as possible (use your magnifying glass if you are having trouble seeing) and pull the sheath straight out in a single motion, then apply pressure. Clean the blood off the remaining feathers with hydrogen peroxide and watch closely to ensure that all bleeding has stopped. Again, if bleeding cannot be stopped or if you cannot adequately grasp the bleeding feather to remove it, apply pressure and see a vet immediately.
  • Breathing difficulty: Place the bird in a portable hospital cage, provide supplemental oxygen support if you happen to have a spare oxygen tank, and get to your vet immediately.
  • Broken bone(s): Usually these are not immediately life-threatening, but they are sure to be painful, and may occur concurrently with internal damage depending on what kind of trauma caused the broken bone(s). Place the bird in a hospital age and see a vet as soon as possible.
  • Burns: Treatment depends on the cause of the burn; if from boiling water, apply cool water via mist or immersion; if from hot grease: apply flour or corn starch; if ACIDIC chemical burn (e.g. drain cleaner): apply cool water followed by baking soda and water paste; if ALKALOTIC/BASIC chemical burn (e.g. ammonia): apply cool water followed by household vinegar. DO NOT apply topical cortisone to any burn. See your vet immediately for further care.
  • Egg binding: Place the hen in a heated (90-95F) hospital cage with added humidity, administer calcium gluconate (neocalglucon) orally (1 drop into her mouth), provide egg food (boiled egg crushed shell and all), lubricate vent with a small amount of KY jelly and call your vet.
  • Foreign body constriction: If nesting material or thread gets entwined around your bird's legs, use the magnifying glass, tweezers, and cuticle scissors or small, sharp scissors to carefully snip and tease away the threads. Be very careful not to pull the threads tighter around the legs/toes, and be careful not to cut the bird's skin. If in doubt about the success of removing all threads or if any pain/swelling/discoloration/discharge is noted associated with the affected foot/toes, see a vet as tissue damage or necrosis may have occurred.
  • Heat stroke: Mist cool (not cold) water onto the bird, and move it to a cooler part of the house, offer water and call your vet. Placing your bird in a small cage for observation and allowing easy access to food/water is a good idea, but do NOT provide supplemental heat!
  • Oil on feathers: Birds who cannot fly because of excess oil on their feathers should have the oil washed off before they become stressed, weak, and prone to falling ill. Carefully bathe the bird using warm water and a small amount of Dawn dish detergent. Rinse well, being careful not to get any soapy water in the bird's eyes, nares, or mouth. Gently dab away excess water with a towel and place the bird in a warm hospital cage while it dries off. To speed the drying process, you may use a hair dryer with a diffuser on medium heat (so that it is blowing WARM--not hot or cold--air) to dry the bird. If using a hair dryer, do NOT leave the dryer directed at the bird for any more than a few seconds at a time or the bird may become overheated. Try moving the dryer back and forth over the bird from a distance of about one foot away, and watch closely for shivering or signs of overheating.
  • Poisoning: If you suspect your bird may have ingested, inhaled, or come into contact with a poison, call animal poison control (there may be a fee for calling) and/or your vet; be prepared to transport your bird to a vet immediately if that is what is recommended. If your bird got into a household chemical/toxic product, you can also try calling the 800 number / information number listed on the label of the product, if available. Generally, a call to animal poison control tends to be the most helpful/informative in these situations.
  • Prolapse: Rinse the prolapsed tissue with copious amounts of sterile saline/eye wash, apply a generous amount of KY jelly to the prolapsed tissue to keep it from drying out, and transport your bird to the vet immediately.
  • Punctured egg: Some eggs with small cracks or punctures may be candidates for egg repair. Refer to the egg repair section of Eggs (Including Clear Eggs & Egg Repair) for instructions.

For the remainder of the emergencies listed above (collapse, bloody droppings, straining to defecate, seizures, head trauma, eye injury, anorexia, swellings, diarrhea, high urine output, direct contact with cat/dog saliva, and many other signs of illness), place the bird in a portable Hospital Cage and see your vet immediately or as soon as possible.

Getting Professional Help

The best thing to do is to establish a relationship with an avian vet or a veterinarian who feels comfortable working with birds BEFORE a problem ever occurs. Be sure to discuss with your vet how to get emergency care if an emergency occurs after hours.

If you have not been able to make the above arrangements, try to call an avian vet first, even if it's after hours; they may be on call. If your vet is unavailable during normal business hours, call other vets nearby to see which may be willing to see your bird; if they do not see birds, ask if they can refer you to someone who does.

If your emergency occurs after hours and your vet cannot be reached, call local emergency clinics (e-clinics)--if you have any in your area--to see which, if any, can see birds. Although many e-clinics are designed to care for dogs and cats and are not specifically equipped to handle birds (they may not have a veterinarian on staff who is comfortable working with birds, or staff trained in bird restraint, or a pharmacy stocked with bird-appropriate medications, or even the right sized supplies and equipment to weigh/treat/medicate such tiny creatures), most e-clinics will at least have the means to provide supplemental heat and oxygen, and may also be able to handle basic wound care in an attempt to keep the bird as stable as possible until it can be transferred to your regular vet. If an emergency clinic has said that they are not able to see birds, it does not hurt to ask if they would be willing to provide hospitalization for an incubator and oxygen support overnight as long as you are understanding that this most basic of supportive care usually does not involve treatment, is not a guarantee for saving the life of your bird, and may even be considered "sub-standard" or "inappropriate" since the underlying condition is not being addressed. Sometimes, you just have to do the best you can given the circumstances. Do not be surprised if the e-clinic cannot agree to this kind of arrangement. In the worst case scenario, if the bird is suffering and treatment cannot be sought, ANY veterinarian can provide the service of humane euthanasia.

If you are fortunate enough to find an emergency clinic which is willing to see your bird, call ahead to state the nature of your emergency and let them know you're coming. For transport, place your bird in a portable Hospital Cage equipped with a portable heat source (if appropriate), and be sure to bring extra bird food, your identification card(s), and forms of payment (check, credit card, etc.). It is also a good idea to bring any medications your bird may be on.

What to Expect (and not to expect) at an Emergency Clinic

  1. Expect a wait, just like in a human ER. Pets are treated on a triage basis, and not on a "first come-first-serve basis;" if your pet's condition is not as critical as someone else's, you may be asked to wait.
  2. Do not expect immediate treatment. The vet may choose to stabilize your bird in an oxygen incubator before proceeding (usually because the bird needs to settle down before becoming more stressed).
  3. Expect expense. Emergency treatment tends to cost more than well-bird care. Additionally, veterinary emergency clinics are not subsidized by the government the way some human care facilities are, so payment must be provided in order to cover the cost of administering treatment. Be aware that most emergency clinics do not offer payment plans (or only have very limited payment plans), and that payment is due at the time services are rendered. Therefore, it is important to make the proper arrangements to care for your pet even in the event of a (likely-to-be-expensive) emergency. In this vein, be aware that pet health insurance does exist; look into it before your pet gets sick to help cover the cost of unforeseen emergencies.
  4. Do not expect to spend a lot of face-time with any of the staff, including the vet. Most animals presented on an emergency basis are critical, and it is rare that yours will be the only patient in the hospital. Although the staff will do their best to keep you informed, answer questions, and relay information as it becomes available, their priority is to be with your bird if its life is in danger. So please be patient, cooperative, and understanding that the staff's priority is saving pets, and give them the time and space they need to do their jobs.
  5. Do not have unrealistic expectations. Even if treatment is sought in a timely manner, life threatening emergencies are just that: an illness or injury that puts your bird's life at risk. Despite everyone's best efforts to save your bird's life, some pets simply will not make it.
  6. Expect tough decisions. If your bird is suffering and not responding to treatment, or if treatment is not an affordable or viable option given the circumstances, you may be asked to make a decision to end your bird's suffering.
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