Birdsafe California Bird Nerds

When your bird can't leave stitches alone,
he might need a collar

By James Harris
Photos by Andrea Harris

BUSTER BIRD plastic collars come in a variety of diameters. A 20-centimeter collar like this will fit large parrots such as cockatoos and macaws.

BUZZ, A ROSE-BREASTED cockatoo, wasn't feeling well. The problem was a large tumor on her abdomen. Buzz's owner and I agreed it should come out, so we set a date and time for the operation. Buzz's surgery went well and, happily, the tumor was benign.

Left in the tumor's place was a neat set of sutures. Buzz would have to leave them alone if she was to heal properly. So before she woke up from the anesthesia, my head nurse, Cheryl, and I gave Buzz a small parting gift: a round piece of plastic fitted around her neck. With the collar in place, we knew Buzz couldn't reach her wound and undo all our hard work.

Why your bird can't leave well enough alone
Birds, like many animals, are by nature fastidious groomers. In the wild, birds are thought to spend at least a quarter of their waking hours grooming their skin and feathers.

Why the obsessive preening? Instinct tells birds that any type of foreign substance on their feathers can affect insulation, water proofing or the appearance they need to maintain to attract a mate and survive. Imperfections or abnormalities are not tolerated; birds will make every attempt to remove them. They groom their mates, too, which is why our pet birds are always helping themselves to our hair pins and earrings. We've got something "wrong" with us and they just want to help!

Captive birds have even more time to preen than their wild counterparts, so when stitches or bandages enter the picture, they can't keep their beaks away. At the least, picking at scabs or sutures can interrupt healing. At worst, birds can physically tear out tissue in the effort to "clean themselves up." I've known many parrots who preferred biting off injured toes to living with the imperfection, even if it was in the process of healing just fine.

fitting the collar
BUZZ THE cockatoo gets fitted with her plastic Elizabethan collar while she's still sleepy.

Tube, Elizabethan, or both?
Dogs and cats aren't the only pets that can benefit from a collar when it's needed. Collars may look big and uncomfortable, but with certain types of surgeries, like Buzz's, they can be crucial. Without them, your bird can undo expensive veterinary work and set back his recovery.

There are two basic types of collars: tube and Elizabethan. Tube collars are sometimes referred to as ubange collars, after the neck-elongating rings used by the African tribe of Ubange. Elizabethan collars are named after the ruffled collar favored by Queen Elizabeth I. Which type of collar is best depends on the site of the wound that needs protecting.

If the sutures are on the breast or back, a tube collar may be enough. Veterinary Specialty Products Inc., based in Boca Raton, Fla., makes the Avian Restraint Collar, a ridged plastic tube. However, I've found it to be too heavy and uncomfortable for birds. I prefer the lightweight foam pipe insulation tubing found down at the plumbing supply company or hardware store. I just cut it according to the length of the bird's neck and how much I want to restrict movement.

Wounds farther away, such as on the foot, usually require the more restrictive Elizabethan, or e-collar. Some people make e-collars out of plastic sheeting, x-ray film or paper cups, but I've never found these flimsy home-made collars to be of any use. Collars need to be sturdy enough to work and stay in place for extended periods of time.

Personally, I like the Buster Bird Collar, manufactured in Denmark. This clear plastic disc comes with a center hole and a split so you can place it around the bird's neck. Once the collar is on, you can staple, glue or Velcro the split together. Buster Bird Collars come in diameters for every size of parrot: 8 centimeters for budgies; 10 to 14 centimeters for cockatiels and small conures; 20 centimeters for cockatoos, Amazons, macaws and other large birds.

stapling the collar
SNUG BUT NOT TOO TIGHT. We staple together the e-collar's split.

If the bird is very smart and good at ridding itself of e-collars, I might use both types of collars. First I place the e-collar, then the tubing behind it to hold the collar in place so the bird can't push it down and chew the edges.

Don't try this at home
Whether a bird needs a foam collar, an e-collar or both, I don't recommend that owners attempt placing their own collars. It takes experience to get it right, and even experts have to make adjustments sometimes. Make the collar too tight and it could hamper swallowing or rub the skin raw. Make the collar too small and it won't serve its purpose; too big and your bird can't reach his water or food bowls; too loose and the bird can chew the edges. A collar prevents using a foot to eat; some not-too-bright birds have a hard time getting the hang of eating straight from a bowl and can starve themselves.

For some birds, a collar is extremely traumatic. They become frantic and thrash, breaking feathers and even bones if not calmed down. On rare occasions, I've had to remove collars. Usually, lightly wrapping a bird in newspaper will calm it down.

adding the foam
PIPE INSULATION. To make sure the e-collar stays in place, we back it with a piece of foam tubing.

I observe newly collared birds until I am satisfied they can climb and eat. Some birds adjust immediately and go home right away. (In fact, some feather-picking mutilators serenely wear collars for years with no problem.) Others need 24 hours or more to adjust.

Easing the transition
Collars placed after surgery or an injury usually can be removed after about three weeks. By then wounds should be healed. Here are a few things you can do to make life during this time easier for your bird:

  • Imagine being forced to wear something so large and unwieldly that you can't walk through your house without bumping into things. You can help your bird negotiate his cage more easily by clearing the way for him. Remove or rearrange perches if necessary or take out toys.
  • Keep food and water bowls filled to the brim.
  • Collared birds can't preen any part of their bodies. If the collar is on for a long time, you can mist your bird's feathers to keep them in good condition. If he likes the attention, you can return the preening favor by gently breaking the sheaths off new feathers.
  • If you'd like to give your bird a break from the collar to preen or bathe, ask your veterinarian about the possibility of a Velcroed collar. If you do remove the collar, don't take your eyes off your bird. It only takes a few minutes to undo stitches or worse.

    taping the collar
    THE FINISHING TOUCHES. Buzz will awaken the proud owner of a combination Elizabethan-tube collar.

    Collars can be a bit traumatic for both bird and owner. And they are not panaceas for birds who feather pick or mutilate because of psychological problems. These birds usually return to their bad habits when you take the collar off.

    But for birds tempted by an alluring bandage or set of stitches, collars are a great solution well worth the time and trouble. They're cheap, too. Expect to pay the cost of a consultation plus about $20 for the collar itself.

    So long, collar
    Buzz was one of the easier birds I've collared (and I've worked with a few over the last 40 years). When she woke up and found herself wearing her bizarre new necklace, she brushed herself off and climbed up to the perch in the dimly lit recovery cage without a fuss.

    We had to make just a couple of adjustments. We tightened her foam tube a bit so she couldn't wiggle out of it. We also shortened it so she could eat more easily. After watching her for a few hours, we let her go home.

    Her wound is healing nicely, thanks to her dual collars, and when she returns in a couple of weeks, we should be able to take them both off. As good a patient as Buzz has been, I think she'll be relieved.

    James Harris is owner and medical director of the Mayfair Veterinary Clinic in Sandy Bay, Tasmania, Australia. He lectures frequently on the human-animal bond and avian breeding, medical and behavioral problems. Copyright 2004. All rights reserved


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