Feeding the Hospitalized Bird of Prey

Key Points

  • Raptors ingest whole prey items. Indigestible material or “casting” like fur, feathers, and bones, are retained within the raptor ventriculus, compacted into a pellet, and regurgitated or egested.
  • Egestion can occur as soon as 12–18 hours after a meal. The bird should not be fed again until it has produced a pellet.
  • Emaciation is a common presentation in young raptors that have been unsuccessful hunters during their first year. Birds can also present in poor condition due to a variety of other causes, including inclement weather or chronic injury.
  • Anemia and hypoproteinemia are common findings in the chronically malnourished bird of prey.
  • While critical illness and stress often leads to a hypermetabolic state, metabolism slows in the malnourished or starving patient.
  • When compared to parrots or songbirds, birds of prey can survive food shortages for longer periods of time. Smaller raptors are less tolerant of starvation than larger birds.
  • Supportive care for the chronically malnourished raptor includes fluid therapy and supplemental heat. Minimizing stress is also critical for weak, emaciated patients.
  • As long as the patient possesses a functional gastrointestinal tract, enteral nutrition can generally be started once the patient is warm and adequately hydrated.
  • Withhold indigestible material or casting if the bird is thin, if medication is given multiple times daily, or if the bird is very young (less than 3 weeks of age).
  • Most raptors will eat any appropriate meat source when their preferred food is unavailable, as long as the food item is skinned, however ospreys often require hand feeding in captivity.
  • Although relatively expensive, mice and rats are commonly fed to birds of prey. Captive-raised mice and rats tend to be relatively high in fat.
  • When fed with the yolk sac intact, day-old chicks are an adequate source of protein and calcium and a good source of fat-soluble vitamins.
  • Pigeons and doves should not be fed to raptors, as several infectious agents can be transmitted.
  • The safest and preferred method for thawing potentially hazardous foods, such as frozen mice, is use of a clean refrigerator designated for thawing items over 24-48 hours.
  • Monitor the patient receiving nutritional support carefully, evaluating body weight, body condition score, droppings, and pellet production.
  • Free-ranging raptors acquire most of their daily water needs through their diet, however captive raptors should always have access to fresh drinking water.

All raptors consume a meat-based diet ranging from the specialist diet of the fish-eating osprey (Pandion haliaetus) to a generalist diet that can include insects, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and even carrion. Other than poultry, the exact nutritional requirements of birds are unknown, however the natural raptor diet is always relatively high in protein and fat and low in carbohydrates. Whole prey diets have a calcium/phosphorus ratio of 1.5:1 as the bird actually consumes the bones as well as the meat . . .

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