James Harris, DVM
Tumor or calcification might cause lameless
Occasionally, my 27-year-old severe macaw's foot will completely ball into a "fist" in what looks like a cramp. It usually causes her to fall from her perch and then she'll sit on the bottom of the cage. After a few minutes the symptom disappears and she goes back to normal. Her feet appear to be healthy and she has natural wood perches to exercise. She's able to grasp with both feet when the problem is not affecting her foot. Her cage is clean and she's had no radical change in diet.
-- Greg Donewar, Holbrook, Ariz.
On two occasions about a month apart, my blue-and-gold macaw's right leg seemed to be in pain. He came out of his cage on my hand and leaned against me stretching out the leg but he would not put his weight on it. For the next 15 minutes or so he just lay quietly in my hands and rested his head on my chest. I would try to gently encourage him to stand on the good leg, which he did while holding out the hurting leg in a stretching manner with the claw limp. He is 4 years old, very healthy, never a problem, never that mushy. I petted him and spoke softly to him and miraculously he picked himself up, stood on my arm with his weight on both legs and everything was fine. Was this for attention or do birds' legs "cramp" occassionally?
-- Paulette Lukowitz, firstname.lastname@example.org
Two years ago I received an African grey as a gift. Turns out he had a broken leg that did not heal properly, leaving him with one foot that does not grip the perch; his toes don't bend on that foot. The other foot is fine but he does tend to fall off his perch because he gets cramps in it every once in awhile and he seems to be in a lot of pain. He even lets me massage it for him and pet him during this time (usually he doesn't let me near him). I would appreciate any information on what I can do to ease his pain and if birds do get cramps or it's something else. His doctor said his foot did not heal properly because of calcifications around his bone; however, veterinary medicine is not that advanced here.
-- Ruby Ibrahim, Amman, Jordan
I SUPPOSE BIRDS could get some version of a "charley horse" - that out-of-the-blue leg or foot cramp that causes us humans such intense pain. Pretending lameless as a way to get attention also is possible. I recall one personal experience with a client's bird. As a youngster it hurt its leg and had a limp. It received much petting during this time. The bird healed normally and recovered, but the owner reported that from then on, whenever it wanted attention the bird favored the leg in front of the owner until it was petted.
However, these scenarios are rare. It's far more likely that one of many possible underlying conditions is causing the foot or toes to contract. Arthritis, a degenerative joint disease, is one possibility (see separate question and answer below). Or, it could be a tumor pressing on a nerve, or a nutritional deficiency.
Greg and Paulette, if you haven't done so already, you need to get your bird a complete medical workup to confirm or rule out possible causes. A blood panel and x-rays are a good starting point. Ruby, your African grey's veterinarian could be right. Because birds have a much higher metabolic rate than mammals, bone fractures heal faster. Birds also tend to deposit large amounts of bony callus at fracture sites. Tendons, nerves and other structures sometimes become entrapped in these calluses, which can inhibit movement and cause pain. If this is what has happened to your bird, it's unlikely function will return. However, again, x-rays or another imaging technique such as an MRI or cat scan is the only way to determine this for sure. An experienced veterinary radiologist should be able to identify any bone abnormalities. In the meantime, an anti-inflammatory prescribed by your veterinarian might help ease the pain (see next question).
James Harris, DVM is owner and medical director of the Mayfair Veterinary Clinic in Sandy Bay, Tasmania, Australia. He founded Montclair Veterinary Hospital in Oakland, Calif., and has served as medical director and chairman of the board for the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Berkeley. Dr. Harris' numerous professional honors include California and National Bustad Companion Animal DVM Awards.
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