Avian Expert Articles

How Lafeber’s Helping Hands Changed Avian Medicine

As part of the 25th anniversary and celebration of Nutri-Berries, it is also a great time to reflect on where we have come in avian medicine. I have been part of that exciting transformation of avian medicine, and I owe that to the inspiration of one man who stood in front of a jam-packed room of veterinarians and veterinarian students at Ohio State about 32 years ago. That tall, slender, elegant gentleman with a suit and bow tie stood there describing a variety of cases and successful treatment of his pet-bird patients. This enthusiastic veterinarian was encouraging us that we, too, could do this by applying the information we were learning on the other species of animals to birds. That was quite novel at the time, as birds were really not part of the curriculum and were touched on only briefly, if at all, with some basic information on chickens. But there he stood, with a twinkle in his eye, with warmth as his style, and an encouraging way. He politely introduced himself as Dr. Lafeber from Nile, Illinois — from the Chicago suburbs. He will forever be described only as “Doc” to those who listened and were inspired in those early years of avian medicine.

Spreading The Word About Pet Bird Care

Dr. T. J. Lafeber
Dr. T.J. Lafeber was recognized as a pioneer in companion bird medicine and the human-companion bird bond. His concern for the health and welfare of his avian patients led him to develop medical treatments, diagnostic techniques, and nutritionally balanced foods.

“Doc” was the vet who provided the “budgies in a bag,” as my colleague Dr. Kevin Flammer described him. Yes, he often arrived at the lecture room to talk to students, veterinarians, and even deans of vet schools with his paper bags that contained a wide-eyed young budgie that we took out and handled as he deftly described how to hold, play, and care for these little birds. He wanted to elevate the status of budgies — if you fell in love with them, then you would want to care for them properly he reasoned. And he was very good at bonding you to your budgie while he lectured on. I had the privilege of watching him do his magic a number of times at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. This was because I was the avian veterinarian and faculty member in charge of the Avian and Exotic Animal Medicine Service for over 10 years. Doc would come yearly to do his “budgie in a bag” day, teaching basic care and principles of avian medicine to vet students from the southeast veterinarian schools. At the end of the day, you could keep your newly made feathered friend — and many did! The outcome was a bonded commitment by these budgie students that was reflected in heightened interest in learning during the course in avian medicine that I noticed over the years of teaching.

As Doc walked and talked in front of the classroom, he would unfold with pictures and cases a number of diseases that he was observing in pet birds and how he used the principles of medicine to solve these problems. These pet-bird patients were succumbing to diseases he surmised due to the poor-quality diets of only seeds. Under the microscope, he observed that the epithelial lining of the major immune organs- the GI and respiratory tracts were changed from normal. These changes altered the immune system, and that was the underlying cause of the devastating diseases affecting his feathered patients. Doc reasoned that if the diets were balanced like those of dogs and cats, then they could fend off many of these diseases and live more healthful lives.

He seemed to be leading a one-man band. He continued on and so enlisted the aid of poultry nutritionist Dr. Milton Sundae to help him design balanced diets for pet birds. They experimented with a number of options along with Doc’s veterinarian son, Ted, and developed the first balanced foods for our companion birds. These first products — Nutri-BerriesAviCakes, and pellets — were non-GMO, have stood the test of time and were designed because of this frustration to make the lives of birds better. While Nutri-Berries and Avi-Cakes were first thought to be a way to transfer seed-eating companion birds to pellets, we now know that they really represent a great innovation to whole-grain foods for our birds. And they have improved their lives.

Bringing Innovation To Pet Bird Care

And that was what Doc was about — innovation to make the lives of our pet birds better. While we celebrate Nutri-Berries, we celebrate Doc and his inspiration to avian medicine. He transformed the lives of birds but also students who would move avian medicine forward. When he passed, it was decided that as a fitting tribute we would honor those avian clinicians who were like Doc — innovative avian veterinarians who were working to make the lives of companion birds better. To that end, the Dr. TJ Lafeber Avian Practitioner Award is given annually at the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV) annual conference to an avian veterinarian whose career exemplifies those principles of Doc — from innovation to inspiration.

A bird in the palm of someone's hand
The T.J. Lafeber Avian Practitioner Award is presented to an outstanding practitioner dedicated to advancing the quality of health care for companion birds.

There are a number of great veterinarians who have received the Award, many of whom were inspired by Doc with his talk with a “budgie in a bag” when they were vet students. And as part of the Award, each recipient receives a bronze sculpture that is a replica of his hands gently holding a wide-eyed budgie! A fitting tribute for all of us in avian medicine — that humble budgie that we are beginning to realize is so complex, so unique. It represents the beginning of avian medicine but inspires us to look and understand more closely these wonderful little psittacines. The unfolding of Doc’s hands tor the budgie to emerge in the bronze sculpture and yet be part of the human experience … well it just is amazing — and a very personal and touching side to the celebration of Nutri-berries and Avian Medicine!

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