Avian Expert Articles

Why Is Avian Medicine So Expensive?

Green check Conure
Birds hide any illness. By the time they look sick, they’re actually very sick.

It was many years ago in early afternoon, during that wonderful little lull that sometimes happens in a normal day of a busy veterinary practice. I had just finished my lunch, and was sitting at the front desk. When the phone rang, I answered.

“My daughter’s parakeet has been acting funny for a few weeks, and she thinks it’s sick. I got some of that bird medicine from the feed store and I’ve been putting it in his water, but now he’s on the bottom of the cage. I asked my husband’s sister-in-law’s neighbor what I should do — she has a bird — and she suggested I call the new store in town, that maybe since they sell only birds, they would have better medicine. So I called them and they said I should call your hospital right away, ’cause you people treat birds and would be able to tell me what I should do. My daughter’s only 8, and she’s going to be very upset if it dies…” As an aside, she added, “I didn’t know that vets treated birds.” (Like, why would they do such a thing?)

Unfortunately, this sad tale was a familiar one. I wondered briefly just what the odds were that this poor little bird would even live long enough to make it to the hospital. So I explained how dangerously sick the budgie sounded, and told her she should bring the little guy in NOW. Because I’d learned from long experience, I also explained how expensive an office visit was for birds.

“WHAT!?!?! That’s ridiculous! This is only a $10  parakeet!” she cried.

What A Horrible Thing To Say…

In the years that I worked as an avian technician, I cannot count how many times I have heard that line, and I cannot express how depressed it has always made me feel. With those words, the person on the phone has told me volumes — that she doesn’t value this tiny life at all, that it is a disposable pet, as it were. She also told me that little bird wasn’t tame (at least to her), and wasn’t an important member of her family (at least to her). I thought about the fabulous budgies I have known over the years, and I felt very, very bad for that little bird. I also ached for that 8 year old, and wondered what she would have said if she’d been asked how much her budgie was worth. And I pondered the fact that I’d never heard a dog owner say their dog was only a mutt from the pound.

I tried to be patient as I explained that the exam fee isn’t based on the value of the animal — it is based on the value of the veterinarian’s time. After all, veterinarians don’t charge more to see a show dog than they do to examine a mutt. And it takes just as much time and expertise to treat a budgie than it does to treat a hyacinth macaw. The explanation was lost on her. Muttering something about how she could buy several ‘keets for that price, she hung up the phone. Angry and disheartened, I went back to my nursing duties, caring for animals that obviously did have value to their owners.

Time = $$$

Yes, avian medicine is much more expensive than dog and cat medicine. Why is that? There are several reasons, which I will explain, but the main one is TIME.

Simple arithmetic explains a great deal. For example, small animal vets generally see four appointments in an hour, and I’ve even seen some that would see as many as six. At 2006 prices here in the greater Philadelphia area, good small animal hospitals charge about $45 per visit for a dog or cat. At that rate, a small animal vet can bring in about $180-270 per hour in office fees alone — and this doesn’t include the additional income from flea spray and heartworm preventatives.

On the other hand, if a vet sees birds instead of dogs and cats, the timing changes dramatically. Good avian veterinary hospitals schedule bird appointments every 30 minutes. So if the bird vets want to bring in the same income as a dog and cat vet generates, they have to charge 2 to 3 times as much. However, the best bird vets around here only charge $65-95 for an avian exam. Consequently, they are only bringing in $130-190 per hour, or as much as $140 less than a dog and cat vet — so they are actually losing money when they chose to work with birds. (And they don’t get to sell flea spray and heartworm prevention.)

It’s A Dog Eat Dog World

This situation was exemplified by the experience of a local bird vet who was between hospitals. To service her clients, she rented exam room space in a dog and cat hospital, paying a percentage of her daily income. However, that business relationship ended abruptly when the hospital owner got the same offer from a dog and cat vet, and the avian vet found herself without a place to work. When asked why he chose to replace a well-known avian veterinarian with a regular small animal vet, the hospital owner stated bluntly, “A dog and cat vet makes more money.” (One would think this strange, considering that an avian veterinarian has specialized training. Specialists are supposed to make more money than people that are NOT specialists, right?)

Teaching & Time

So why does an avian exam take so long? If all the avian vets had to do was a physical exam on the patient and a test or two, then the length of their office visits would be much more reasonable. However, when it comes to knowledge, many new bird-owning clients have little or no information about their recent acquisition. So a New Bird Check-up takes a long time because the process of education cannot be rushed.

Diet & Nutrition

The first thing new bird owners usually need to learn about is diet. This is because malnutrition is still the underlying cause of approximately 85 to 90% of the medical problems that avian vets see in companion birds. STILL. Amazing, isn’t? After all this time, most people still feed seed and grapes and an occasional piece of apple. (But actually, that isn’t surprising when you consider recent statistics about obesity and diabetes in the United States. Many Americans feed a primarily junk diet to themselves and their kids, too.) Then, after the avian vets have explained the importance of a good diet, they have to teach the new bird owner how to get their little seed junkie to eat better foods like vegetables, or better yet, how to convert them to a formulated or so-called pelleted diet.

On To The Next Subject

Once through discussing all that, they can start on the subjects of proper management, safe caging and bar width, proper cage size, good cage locations, full spectrum lighting, varied perches for foot health, the necessity of toys and how to choose safe ones, and the importance of environmental enrichment. And while they’re at it, they need to warn them about non-stick cookware, toxic houseplants, ceiling fans, aerosol sprays, other pets, small children, uncovered fish tanks, open toilets, etc., etc. One of the avian vets in my area has asked me to work with him on the development of a behavioral pamphlet to give new parrot owners. He’s a great believer in setting proper controls with psittacines, but found when he also tried to explain teaching and training, his new bird office visits lengthened to over an hour!

And the Vet Hasn’t Even Touched the Bird, Yet…

Everything I’ve explained so far completely ignores the unfortunate fact that the average bird owner only seeks veterinary assistance when (s)he recognizes there is a problem. And by the time uneducated bird owners finally understand there is a problem, that means the bird is really in trouble — like that poor budgie I mentioned at the beginning of this article. So avian veterinarians also have to explain about birds masking the signs of disease, that “looking fine” doesn’t mean a bird IS fine, etc. etc. After all, a proper physical exam doesn’t provide sufficient information regarding the health of a bird, no matter how good it looks. Diagnostic testing has to be done to rule out the possibility of latent or asymptomatic disease, which is something regular small animal vets rarely have to worry about. After all, when a dog is sick, it LOOKS sick.

“Sick Bird Syndrome” or SBS

Not only does a sick dog look sick, but its symptoms generally give the vet a clue as to what’s making it sick. Birds are different on this count, too. Birds that are ill with totally different diseases can display the exact same generic set of symptoms. Avian vets fondly call that group of symptoms, Sick Bird Syndrome or SBS. A bird with SBS is fluffed when the room isn’t cold, sleeps more than normal, eats less than normal, quieter than normal, etc. So what might be the symptoms of a terminal renal tumor in a bird? SBS. How about Parrot Fever? SBS. What about liver disease? SBS. Get the point? This lovely birdie trick has many times led to the following phone conversation:

Bird Owner to avian veterinarian: “My parrot is fluffed up and quiet. What is wrong with him?
Avian Vet: “He’s sick.”
Owner: “I know that, but what is wrong with him?”
Avian vet: “I don’t know, other than he is sick. To find out what is making him sick, I would have to see him, maybe run some tests.”
Owner: “That’s crazy, you’re a vet, and you should be able to tell me more than that. You’re just trying to rip me off.”

STILL More $$$…

So bird vets have to do more testing than dog and cat vets do, and these tests done on birds are often more expensive than the equivalent tests for dogs or cats. Why? Again, because birds are different from mammals. Not only is the handling of the patient different, the collection, handling, processing, and running of the samples themselves is often different, too.

Because they are not like dog and cat samples, avian samples are usually sent to special labs. For example, being experienced doing lab work with mammalian blood does NOT mean one is also competent to deal with avian blood. As a consequence, many avian veterinarians use labs that specialize in exotic animals — and special labs are more expensive than regular labs. The avian vets here in the Philadelphia area send many bird samples to labs as far away as Florida, Texas, or California.

This means the transportation of the samples is different, too. Instead of a messenger stopping by daily to pick up samples to be transported a few miles to a local lab — which is the situation for the dog and cat hospitals in this area — the avian veterinary staff has to package samples to be sent as far as across the country. And since disease can move much faster in a sick bird than a sick mammal, those samples usually need to go FAST. Blood samples, for example, are usually sent Overnight Air. Therefore, shipping the samples to these labs costs even MORE money.

Lastly, one avian vet commented to me that even calling the client with lab results takes longer when the patient is a bird. He said he can deliver 10 dog or cat test results in a few minutes, but the same number of calls to bird owners can take several hours. You know how we birdie-types can be, right? We always have “one more quick question…” but it isn’t the question that takes time, it’s the answer!

And If The Bird IS Sick…

If the bird is sick enough to need medicating while the vet awaits lab results, but not sick enough to hospitalize, then the avian vet or staff has to teach the owner how to safely medicate their pet. And needless to say, it takes longer to properly teach owners how to restrain and medicate a bird, than it takes to teach them to pop a pill into a dog. Suffice it to say, this process tacks another 20+ minutes to an already long office visit. Most bird owners report that a visit with a sick bird lasted well over an hour.

So the next time you take your feathered friend to your avian vet — and that should be once a year, and more often if you think it might be sick — try not to shriek at the receptionist about the size of the bill. (That’s a cheap shot, anyway — the bill isn’t the receptionist’s fault!) From my experience, vets will spend as much of your money as you say they can spend. If you tell them your finances are limited, then they will do what they can to keep expenses down. If you say nothing about money but agree to all the tests the vet recommends, (s)he will assume money is not a problem. After all, you didn’t bring it up, right?

According to the numbers, veterinarians are the lowest paid professionals in this country — if you don’t believe me, look it up. I have worked with a lot of vets over the years, and they are NOT rich people. On the contrary! And statistically speaking, the avian vets would be making more money if they canned the bird stuff, and stuck to dogs and cats.

But we don’t want them to do that, do we?

This article was published first in THE PET BIRD REPORT.

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