How to care for your backyard hens, parrots, and other birds

At Molesey Vets we offer advice, consultations and treatment to all types of birds. When you bring your bird to our Easy Molesey practice, you will be assigned a fully trained bird Vet who will provide helpful advice on your bird’s health, nutritional needs and any other bird related topic. Our Vet experienced in avian medicine can also talk to you about bird enrichment toys, exercise, and weight monitoring. To find out more about the services we provide at our bird clinic, keep reading below. Read about the types of consultations we can offer your bird.

Birds are classed as exotic pets. Pet birds we typically see in-practice are Cockatiels, Grey Parrots, Budgerigars, Cockatoos, Macaws, Finches, Canaries, and backyard chickens!

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We recommend a 6 monthly or annual veterinary health check to ensure that your bird remains healthy and happy. This examination is an important part of developing your bird’s potential as a companion pet. We also recommend bringing your bird to our veterinarians immediately after purchase for a new bird check-up.

The health check of your pet bird consists of the following:

History Taking

We will ask you about queries or concerns, any symptoms, their eating and drinking habits, any previous diseases, their origin and the sex of the bird, its diet, cage and environment.

To help provide the necessary information, it would be good for you to bring samples of your bird’s food to the vet and take photos of its cage and environment.

If your bird is suffering from diarrhoea or you have noticed a change in their droppings, then collect a sample and bring it to our vet. Likewise, if your bird is showing abnormal behaviour, try to video it and bring the recording to the consultation.

Physical Examination

The physical examination will begin with us observing your bird within its cage to notice problems with its posture, movement, breathing, and behaviour. Following on from this observation we check your bird’s weight with a fine gram scale. The veterinary assistant will then gently restrain the bird using a soft towel to let our veterinarian examine it thoroughly. The vet will inspect the eyes, ears, throat, legs,beak, nose, wings, feathers and skin. They will also check the tone of the muscles and feel the belly of the bird. As a final step the veterinarian will use a stethoscope to listen to your bird’s heart and lungs.

Diagnostic Tests

Microscopic examination, microbiological culture of the dropping or the crop content are the most common tests for birds. Other tests include blood tests; radiographic imaging (X-ray) and endoscopic observation of the different organs.

Blood samples are taken and tested for several different purposes:

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC): The CBC  looks at the amount of cells within the blood, and also their appearance.. This test is essential to investigate your bird’s immune system, and also helps to detect inflammations or infections.
  • Clinical Chemistry Panel: This test examines the enzymes, electrolytes and metabolites in the blood. It also helps to diagnose any potential problems your bird may have with it’s organs (e.g. liver, kidney).
  • Serological and PCR tests: These tests examine your bird’s antibodies and DNA, and can detect exposure to different infectious diseases (e.g. Psittacosis, PBFD)
  • DNA Examination: This can be used to determine the sex of your bird.
  • Radiographic Imaging (X-ray): This is an extremely useful tool that examines your bird’s bones, the location and size of the organs and the appearance of the air sacs.

Endoscopic examination: We use a special device, an endoscope, to examine the interior of a hollow organ or cavity of the body. This examination is a minimally invasive surgical procedure (also known as “keyhole surgery”). The veterinarian will anaesthetise your bird, and make a very small (3mm) hole on the side of their body. A sterile endoscope is inserted into this small hole, explores the bird’s body cavity. This examination is usually performed if  previous tests (blood analysis, X-ray) have revealed an abnormality, and our veterinarian wants to understand the exact nature of the problem. The endoscope examines the organs using magnification, and allows our vet to collect small samples for further testing.

Older birds are more likely to suffer from certain health problems. We recommend that every old pet bird should receive a complete and thorough physical examination and regular health checks. For younger birds a yearly check-up may be enough, but older birds and birds suffering from on-going health problems will benefit from more frequent veterinary visits, perhaps as often as once in every two to six months. The examination of the older bird is similar to the general health checks.

Common problems that older birds suffer form include:

  • Obesity
  • Cancers
  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease and  gout
  • Hardening of the arteries
  • Arthritis

Unfortunately, a lot of problems in birds are caused by the wrong diet. Many newer bird owners still feed their pets a seed based diet. It is a well-known fact that this a seed based diet will result in long-term health problems for birds, including vitamin A and calcium deficiency, fatty liver disease and secondary infections.

Owners may still offer their beloved pet healthier alternative (e.g. formulated pellets and fruit) the bird will usually eat the food it enjoys most of all (e.g. sunflower seeds and peanuts), and will not touch the healthy stuff.

It is not just a seed based diet that can cause birds problems. Some are offered human foods too (e.g. rice, bread, pasta, biscuits, and sweets). These human foods are no better than seeds.

The appropriate diet for pet parrots is usually a premium quality formulated diet (e.g.: Harrison’s, Zupreem, Kaytee) supplemented with wide variety of vegetables and fruits, preferably organic.

When sourcing food, owners should choose very carefully. It needs to be high quality, and should not contain salt, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate or excess spices.

If you regulate your bird’s food intake this has beneficial effects on their behaviour. When training a bird, use their favourite food as motivation and as positive reinforcement. By providing a favourite food only when training, birds will often be very attentive and motivated.

If you are still unsure about the exact quantities and types of food to give your bird, ask your veterinarians during a consultation or ‘health check’. They will be able to give you the best advice on keeping you bird as healthy as possible.

You need to change their water frequently, at least once or twice a day.

Only use natural branches as perches, preferably with varying sizes and diameters. Do not use sandpaper perches as they can irritate their feet.

Do not use sawdust, wood shavings or sand on the cage floor as you cannot see their droppings. Instead use newspaper and paper towels, these need to be changed daily.

Never use medicines bought over the counter or from pet shops. If you think your bird is showing signs of a disease, take it to your veterinarian for examination.

Birds need usually need anywhere between 10 to 12 hours of sleep a day. To give them the best rest possible, cover the cage or put the cage in a dark room and provide a quiet environment for your bird during its sleep.

If you want to mist your bird, then do it lightly with plain water daily using a clean spray bottle. You can even install a waterproof perch on the wall of your bathroom and take your bird with you when you have a shower! (no soap please!).

Spend at least one hour with your bird each day. Let it play with others by taking it out of it’s cage and introducing it to your family.

You need to keep your bird entertained, so provide multiple toys from reliable pet shops. Change the toys time to time to keep them entertained and engaged. Any toys should be made of “bird safe” materials in case the bird eats any pieces.

Never leave a bird unattended out of its cage, not even for a minute.

You should never keep your bird in the same airspace as the kitchen. The fumes and smokes from the kitchen can be toxic for your bird, and can contaminate its feathers causing feather damaging behaviour.

Never smoke, burn incense or use sprays (air freshener, cleaner, perfumes) around your bird.

If your birds start to fight with each other then separate them immediately, they could become severely injured and can even die after a fight.

Wing Trimming

Trimming the flight feathers of parrots is very controversial. On one hand, it can prevent the bird from escaping or crashing into windows. It can also help the taming and training of some birds. On the other hand, flight is a form of exercise that is critical for the physical and psychological welfare of your bird.

Excessive trimming can cause extensive injuries because the growing feathers (blood feathers) are very sensitive. Without the protection of the other feathers they can easily become damaged, which results in severe bleeding. At the same time as this, excessive trimming stops your bird from being able to properly balance or glide to the floor should they fall. Totally flightless birds can easily suffer injuries to the beak or the keel bone when they fall from their perch. Wing trimming can also increase the incidence of feather damaging behaviour.

If the owner chooses wing trimming, it should always be performed symmetrically on both wings to help the bird to keep its balance. The owners should keep in mind that even a wing trimmed bird can fly away if it is extremely scared or excited. Moreover the duration of the flightless period after wing trimming cannot be predicted as feather regrowth can be irregular.

Nail trimming

Nail trimming of pet birds is performed for two reasons. The most important is the safety of the bird. If the claws grow elongated and curl more than quarter of a circle, the toenails may get caught in the cage. The other reason for nail trimming is for the comfort of owners. The natural growth of claws, in many parrots, results in a very sharp tip and can hurt the owner’s skin. Removal of the points helps handling and interaction of the parrot with the owner. Nail reshaping can be performed with sharp nail cutters or with fine files. It is important to know that cutting too short can result in bleeding which is sometimes difficult to stop without the appropriate tools.

Beak trimming

Beak contouring or trimming can be done if necessary. It is neither appropriate nor effective to trim a beak to reduce the pain of a bite. Birds whose beak shape is very different from the natural shape and/or length may benefit from contouring of the beak back to a more natural shape.

Abnormal beak shape and length may occur from disease, poor nutrition, genetic differences, or simply lack of adequate wear. In the case of disease or poor nutrition, the beak keratin can be of poor quality and split or flake.

Many birds are sexually monomorphic; this means that the appearance of male and female birds is very similar. With these bird species the gender can only be determined by endoscopic or DNA sex testing, or seeing the bird lay eggs.

Knowing the gender of each bird is essential for breeders but it can also useful for pet owners too. Some bird diseases are sex related (e.g. egg binding, ovary or testicle problems, hormonal problems), therefore knowing the sex of the bird can help to prevent future health problems down the line.

DNA sexing

The DNA is the genetic makeup of all animals, and as with humans, male and female have different DNA. DNA sexing can be performed with blood, feather or even eggshell samples. For many years, a DNA sample taken from blood was the only way to identify the species of bird. However, collecting a sample of a bird blood is inconvenient and difficult. With recent advances in DNA technology, we can now extract enough DNA from a few feathers to be able to determine the birds sex. To collect a DNA sample from a feather it must be plucked from the bird; moulted or fallen out feathers cannot be used. Both blood and feather samples are equally reliable and provide the same level of testing accuracy.

Endoscopic sexing

The endoscopic examination uses a special small camera to examine inside a hollow organ or cavity of the body. An endoscopic examination is also called “keyhole surgery”. During the endoscopic sex determination our veterinary surgeon with anaesthetise your bird and makes a very small (3mm) hole on the left side of the body of the bird. The sterile endoscope is inserted into the body cavity of your bird through this hole. A digital camera is attached to the endoscope magnifies the image of the internal organs onto a monitor. This should allow the surgeon to see and identify the ovary or the testicle of your bird. The advantage of this is that the veterinarian not only gains information on the gender of your bird, but also it’s internal organs including the liver, kidney, spleen, intestines, lung and air sacs. It also allows for  and can identify hidden problems.

Psittacosis (or ornithosis or parrot fever) is a disease caused by a bacterial infection that is relatively common in pet birds in Hong Kong. The bacteria that causes this disease is called Chlamydophila psittaci. This disease is extremely contagious between birds, and humans can catch the virus too.


This bacteria is shed in the faeces, and in discharge from the eyes or nose of infected birds. Some infected birds can appear healthy but can still shed the organism from time to time. When a bird is under stress shedding can worsen; stressful events include egg laying, rearing of young, moving cage, moving house, crowding, and a drop in temperature. The faeces containing the bacteria can then dry out, turn into dust and spread the disease further. Pet shops and bird markets such as ‘Bird Street’ are prime locations for birds to catch the disease. Birds that have been illegally imported are also likely to be infected.

You need to remember that a bird can have the bacteria and can still spread the disease, even if it isn’t showing any symptoms.

Clinical signs

There are no specific signs that indicate that a bird has Psittacosis. However, the following signs may be suggestive:

  • Discharge from the eyes and nostrils
  • They are excessively sneezing
  • Loss of apetite
  • They have lost weight
  • Suffering from depress, sitting fluffed up at the bottom of their cage
  • Green/yellow droppings with a watery consistency


An exact diagnosis of Psittacosis is difficult because there no test is 100% reliable on a living bird. Veterinarians will often have a working diagnosis based on the bird’s symptoms, history, blood tests and radiographs.


There are several testing options to help diagnose this disease:

  • DNA testing (PCR): A PCR test is performed in a special laboratory after taking swabs of the bird’s conjunctiva (eye), choana (roof of mouth) and cloaca (anus) by our veterinarian. Unfortunately, test results can often come back negative if the infected bird isn’t shedding the virus.
  • Blood test (serology): This test is performed using a blood sample taken from the bird. The blood test looks for antibodies in the blood of the bird to check if the animal has been exposed to the bacteria or not.

Unfortunately this test can only detect exposure in the past, it can’t tell the difference between an old (and already cured) infection and an on-going infection.


The recommended treatment is a particular antibiotic for a long term (45 days). Successful treatment of the disease is based on how long the bird has been ill, the age of the bird, its species and other concurrent infection. For parrots, we recommend weekly antibiotic injections once a week for a period of  6-7 weeks. At the same time as this, the medicine can be given by mouth as well.

As soon as a bird is diagnosed with Psittacosis, it must be isolated from other birds. If the infected bird has been in recent contact, then other birds in the house may need to be tested or treated as well. There is no immunity to the disease – birds are susceptible to re-infection even after full recovery from the infection.

Psittacosis in humans

It is relatively rare that the disease is passed on to humans and cannot be passed from human to human. Infection with psittacosis usually occurs when a person breathes in organisms in the air from dried faeces or respiratory tract secretions, from sneezing of infected birds. You can also contract the disease from kissing birds, or handle feathers plucked from the infected animal. Humans that are potentially at a higher risk of infection include those whose immune systems are not working well, the very young and the elderly. This disease has an incubation period of anywhere between 5 – 14 days.

The seriousness of the disease ranges from a mild, non-specific illness to a severe illness with severe pneumonia. Human symptoms are similar to those of hypothermia: fever, chills, headache, muscle aches or respiratory signs (cough, difficulty breathing). If you do visit the doctor having experienced these symptoms for an abnormal amount of time, it would be worth mentioning you have come into contact with birds.

Preventing psittacosis in humans

  • Whilst treating your pet bird, try to keep contact with them to a minimum. However tempting it might be, do not kiss your bird or put them near your face/mouth as the bacteria can be shed from their eyes and respiratory tract. Keep them in a well lit, well ventilated room that no-one uses very often, and make sure it stays clean.
  • When cleaning the cage, make sure you wear glove and masks. This helps reduce the risk of you breathing in faecal dust.
  • Make sure the bird cage is kept clean to decrease the build-up of infected faeces. The cage can be disinfected with diluted bleach (mix 120 ml bleach in 2 L of water). Make sure the bleach in in contact with the cage for 10-15 minutes at a minimum. The cage should then be rinsed with warm water. Move the bird to another room when bleaching the cage, bleach can be very irritating to their respiratory tract.

Preventing psittacosis in your bird

An infected bird must be kept quarantined for 6 weeks. Unfortunately this means do not let your new bird or anything it uses (e.g. food bowls) have any contact with your previous birds for at least 6 weeks. To be safe, keep it in a different room!

If you do buy a new bird during the quarantine process, you must bring it to our veterinarian for examination and testing.

If a bird looks ill, do not buy it. Try to buy new animals directly from a reliable breeder and not from a pet shop or market. The stress caused by transportation to a pet shop combined with a variety of birds from different sources are very common causes of illnesses.

Do not buy anything (live animal, toys, cages, or food) from pet shops with sick birds or dirty cages.

Do not allow your new bird to come into contact with other birds. This includes other pet birds when boarding, when visiting a pet store for tail trims/wing trims and wild birds.

Birds need very different hospitalisation requirements compared to cats and dogs. Therefore only specialised staff with high quality equipment can provide the necessary care for a sick bird.

At Molesey Vets, our feathered patients are kept in a special “exotic ward” separate from the dog and cat wards. We always keep this ward around 28 °C and the air is humid enough to provide the optimal environment for recovery.

Any feathered patients that are critically ill are kept in a special “intensive care” cage. We can set up the temperature and the humidity of these cages more accurately; moreover, they can provide oxygen supplementation to the sick birds.

Our hospital has a range of cage sizes to suit all our feathered friends: from the smallest finch to the biggest macaw. Each cage is disinfected daily and appropriate size perches, food and water bowls are used. If your bird needs additional warmth, a heat light can be directed into its cage.

Each bird is thoroughly examined by a veterinary surgeon each morning during their stay in our hospital. This happens before its treatment and they are weighed using a fine gram scale. Birds staying in our hospital each receive premium quality, pellet based diets which are supplemented with fruits and vegetables. However, if your bird has not been converted to pellets yet, it is fed on its usual food, but still supplemented with the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals.

We will support feed any bird that doesn’t or can’t eat using crop tubes and liquid diet. Some birds can be extremely shy, so we cover the front of their cage and provide them with a comfortable hiding box. Other birds, especially hand raised ones are very social and prefer human interaction. Our nurses and assistants are happy to spend a couple of hours a day playing, hand feeding and socialising with these birds. We believe that having a happy bird results in a faster recovery.

Any bird with an infectious disease are kept separate from other recovering patients. These birds are kept in an isolation ward until they are no longer infectious.  Once we diagnose these birds as no longer a risk, then they are transferred to the main exotic ward.

Behavioural problems are very common in pet birds. The most common forms are the following:

  • Increased feather damaging behaviour
  • Excessive vocalisation
  • Over bonding

If your bird is showing any of these symptoms, or you suspect they are developing behavioural issues, then please bring your bird in for a consultation. When you bring your bird in also bring in photographs of your cage set-up at home and also if possible videotape of the behaviour.

Our veterinarians will need to rule out any possible medical causes of these behaviour problems before treating them as behavioural issues. If your bird is found to be clinically healthy then we will be able to schedule a ‘behavioural’ consultation. This includes you and your bird, and we will discuss the best method of correcting this behaviour.

Treating behavioural issues can be a very time consuming process.

Ideally, you should learn as much as possible about bird behaviour and help your pet bird lead as enriched a life as possible, this will help prevent problems developing.

We generally find it easier to prevent behavioural problem from occurring compared to treating them after the bad behaviour has been established.

Letting you bird exercise has exceptional health benefits, just like with people!

Physical activity is known to help prevent common physical and mental health problems that birds can suffer from.

Unfortunately, pet birds are very inactive, and this gets worse the older they get. This lack of exercise contributes to a variety of health problems later in life. There are many forms of exercise for birds. However, you may have to be creative to encourage your bird to exercise without increasing their stress levels. Flight is one of the most natural forms of exercise a bird can get, so make sure a safe area for flight is made available. Smaller and well-trained birds make it easier for you to make a flight space. Most bird owners in Hong Kong find flight cages or large aviaries very difficult to maintain due to having smaller homes. However, special bird harnesses are available that can allow controlled outdoor flight in a trained bird. Unfortunately, the use of flight harnesses usually needs appropriate training and a lot of patience on your part.

In Hong Kong, most pet parrots have trimmed wings and therefore need another form of exercise. You can easily train the bird to perform wing flapping exercises. The wing flapping works well to burn calories and the birds usually enjoy it very much. Consider training your bird to flap their wings when sitting on your wrist, on a T– perch or on a rod. Once the bird is sitting comfortably raise your arm or the perch up and down. The bird should flap! When starting out, only raise it slowly, but as soon as they get used to it increase the speed.

If you are unsure on how is best to exercise your bird, then please ask our veterinarians for more details during a consultation or ‘health check’.

Obesity is fast becoming a very common problem with pet birds. In our hospital the most common species we see with this problem are Amazon Parrots. However cockatiels, cockatoos and budgerigars could also become overweight. You can define obesity in birds as a weight that exceeds the optimum weight by 15% or more.

Birds can become overweight in very similar ways to humans: excess calorie intake (eating too much) and lack of exercise. Obesity is more common in older birds because they may become lazy, the owner may not interact as often and the bird may not be let out of it’s cage to exercise.

Unfortunately, many birds are kept in cages that are too small for them, and this doesn’t allow them to stretch their wings and exercise. On one hand, the trimming of the wing feathers could help to tame your pet bird, and could help prevent accidents (e.g. escaping or flying to windows). However, if the bird can’t fly it needs much less energy and can easily become overweight. Remember, low activity levels means an increase in weight gain.

At Molesey Vets, our hospital offers our patients nutritional and weight loss advice either in consultations or in their health check appointment.

During your bird’s first appointment, the vet will weigh your bird and set a target weight. This target weight will be based on your bird’s species, age, health and individual needs. The vet will set a target weight and a realistic time span to lose the weight over. They will then recommend any diet changes and form an exercise plan for you bird.

After the first appointment, your pet will require regular re-checks with the veterinary surgeon. This allows us to monitor their weight, and adjust the programme or food needs accordingly.

We will usually see your bird on a monthly basis, and when they reach their target weight, the vet will reassess your bird’s dietary requirements to help you maintain them at a healthy weight.

Parrots are naturally intelligent, curious and sociable creatures. If they are kept in small, lonely cages then they do not have the ability to display their natural behaviour.

Enriching their environment can help encourage your birds to display some of these normal natural behaviours, while in the process reduce abnormal behaviours (e.g. feather plucking or excessive screaming).

There are numerous forms of enrichment, and these include:


Foraging is a natural behaviour for many species. In the wild, parrots spend anywhere between 4 to 6 hours daily searching for food, while their captive counterparts only spend an hour at most. Foraging is a major portion of the daily activity of a wild bird, but this is not available to pet birds. Providing them with foraging enrichments help to encourage this primary physical and mental activity. Many pet birds have limited foraging skills, therefore programmes should always start with a simple challenge for the bird to complete.

Foraging methods should be similar to those they display in their natural environment. You could offer ground feeding birds such as cockatiels a foraging tray. This consists of a large, flat area filled with shredded paper or other inedible material with food hidden amongst the paper. These birds can then walk around and find food as they would in the wild. If you have a bird that would naturally feed in trees, then hang foraging items around their cage and play areas.


Another useful enrichment technique is training. This increases the bird’s quality as a companion as well. As well as providing your bird with mental stimulation, training can also help to make their daily care easier (e.g.: step-up training to move the bird in and out of the cage).

Enrichment Toys

You should provide a range of toys sources from reliable pet shops for your bird. If you change the toys from time to time, this provides them with a new form of entertainment. The toys should be made of “bird safe” materials in case the bird swallows any pieces.

We sell a large number of veterinarian approved parrot toys in our Retail shop. For more information, get in touch with our surgery by calling 0208 979 1384.

All our bird toys have been tested by Dr Gail’s Macaws, Amazons and Eclectus parrots.

Recommended books:

Shannon-Nunn, C. D’Arezzo – Parrot-toys and play areas: How to put some fun into your parrot’s life?
S. Athan: Guide to companion parrot behavior
S. Athan: Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot

Recommended books:

Shannon-Nunn, C. D’Arezzo – Parrot-toys and play areas: How to put some fun into your parrot’s life?
S. Athan: Guide to companion parrot behavior
S. Athan: Guide to a Well-Behaved Parrot

If you would like more advice on caring for birds, contact our friendly team who will be happy to help.

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