SAVE Saves a Bird

August 13, 2014
Scarlett's x-ray

Scarlett’s x-ray shows her stuck egg

As her name suggests, Scarlett is a pet that is red, but not a red setter, a redbone coonhound or a red Abyssinian, she’s an African grey parrot with a red tail. This 25-year-old parrot is also an artist, creating colorful abstract works of art in the bathtub. She was referred to The Animal Medical Center to see Avian and Exotic specialist Dr. Kathy Quesenberry for an egg that wasn’t being laid, an avian condition known as egg binding, putting a damper on her artistic endeavors.

Like many medical problems, egg binding occurs in overweight birds with a sedentary lifestyle or a diet lacking adequate calcium. Medical treatments can be effective in resolving a stuck egg – calcium, fluids, lubrication and keeping the bird warm may cause the egg to pass, if not, then manual or surgical removal of the egg may be necessary. These treatments had been tried in Scarlett, but they were unsuccessful.

IDing an Egg
One of the first steps in treating an egg-bound bird is to pinpoint the egg’s location within the reproductive tract. Because eggshells contain calcium, they can easily be seen using a standard x-ray. In the x-ray image on the right, you can see a thin, egg-shaped structure in Scarlett’s abdomen between her pelvic bones representing Scarlett’s stuck egg.

Avian Endoscopy
The inside of a bird’s vent, called the cloaca, contains multiple openings – one for the intestinal tract, one for the reproductive tract, and two small openings for the urinary tract. Dr. Quesenberry used endoscopy to view inside the vent and was planning to remove the egg at the same time. Endoscopy identified a tear at the end of the oviduct where it entered the cloaca, making surgery urgently necessary.

Scarlett in the tub

Scarlett as a component of her artwork

Bird Spay
During the two and a half hour endoscopy and surgery, Scarlett’s torn oviduct at the cloaca was repaired, and the remainder of her oviduct was removed to prevent another egg binding episode. Unlike mammals, most birds have only a single left oviduct and ovary. Because a bird’s ovary is close to large blood vessels, it cannot be removed safely. A “bird spay,” or salpingectomy, is the procedure of removing most of the oviduct so that an actual shelled egg cannot be formed, even though the ovary still functions normally. Scarlett recovered uneventfully. Two weeks after surgery her sutures were removed and she was given a clean bill of health and she has returned to emulating Jackson Pollack-esque abstract impressionism in her bathtub. The photo seen here shows Scarlett as a component of her own artwork.

Help From an AMC Community Fund
The happy ending to Scarlett’s story would not have been possible without the generosity of those who support The AMC’s Community Funds. Scarlett’s care was covered by the Seniors’ Animal Veterinary Effort (SAVE), which provides free or subsidized general and emergency veterinary services for the pets of the indigent elderly.

To learn about other pets treated through The AMC’s Community Funds, read the heartwarming stories about TikoFrankie, and Baller.

Become a supporter of The AMC’s Community Funds today.

Watch Scarlett at work in her bathtub studio on The AMC’s YouTube channel.

View Scarlett’s virtual art gallery.

Click to play this Smilebox slideshow

Rat-Bite Fever and Pet Rats: How Concerned Should We Be?

April 16, 2014


The recent report of a 10-year-old boy that died from rat-bite fever in San Diego has raised concerns about the risk of contracting this disease from pet rats. The family of the child is suing Petco, where they bought a pet rat two weeks before the boy died after a 48-hour illness characterized by flu-like symptoms. This incident has brought into discussion the rare but real risk of this zoonotic disease, which is caused by two different bacteria that are carried by rats. The type of rat-bite fever that is most common in North America is caused by Streptobacillus moniliformis. Another form of rat-bite fever is caused by Spirillum minus and occurs primarily in Asia. Rats can carry both bacteria as part of the normal flora of their respiratory tract. Because of this, rats do not usually exhibit any outward signs of illness from these bacteria. People are infected with the bacteria through rat bites or exposure to urine, feces or saliva of rats that carry the organism.

Illness after the bite of a rat has been described for thousands of years in Asia in poor populations that are exposed to wild rats. With the increased use of large numbers of laboratory rats in the last century, this disease has been seen most often in laboratory animal workers in the US, as well as in poor populations. However, the growth of the pet industry and the increased popularity of fancy pet rats in the last 30 years have shifted the disease incidence so that now more than 50% of the cases in the United States are seen in children. Rat-bite fever is not a reportable disease in the US, so the actual number of cases that occur annually is unknown. However, the incidence of the disease in the US is very low, and death from rat-bite fever is also rare. The cases that are known are those that are documented in the medical literature. To complicate matters, the clinical signs of rat-bite fever in people are nonspecific, and the tests to isolate or identify the organisms involved are not routine. Often, a history of exposure to a rat, in combination with the clinical signs, is the clue that doctors use to suspect rat-bite fever in patients, and then diagnosis is based on specific testing methods. If the disease is suspected or diagnosed, treatment with antibiotics is curative in most cases. A good review of this disease is available – see Rat Bite Fever and Streptobacillus moniliformis.

So what is the risk of this disease if you or your children have a pet rat? Fancy rats are very popular as easy to maintain, social and gentle pets. They are common children’s pets but also have an avid following among adults who can’t afford or don’t have the lifestyle suitable for a dog or cat. Fancy rats are widely available from both pet stores and private breeders in different colors, sizes and conformations. However, few, if any of the pet rats sold are tested for the bacteria that cause rat-bite fever. The prevalence of the bacteria in rats can vary, from as few as 10% to as many as 100% of rats in a breeding colony or laboratory that are infected. Any pet rat can carry these organisms, but the risk of actually contracting the disease from the rat is very low.

What should you do? As with any animal that carries a risk of zoonotic disease, hand-washing after handling is of utmost importance. Using either soap-and-water or an alcohol-based hand cleanser after handling the pet rat and cleaning the cage is mandatory. Children should be instructed to always wash their hands after playing with the pet and to always tell parents about any bites that occur when handling the pet. Owners of pet rats should immediately report unexplained fevers, illness or rashes to their healthcare provider. Specialized screening tests to see if your pet rat is a carrier of S. moniliformis are available from veterinarians, but make sure you call ahead to see which veterinarians provide this test, as it is not routinely offered.

This blog was written by:
Katherine Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, DABVP (Avian)
Head, Avian and Exotic Pet Service

The Animal Medical Center

Ruptured Air Sac: A Unique Bird Disease

March 28, 2012

Raquel the macaw

In 1984, The Animal Medical Center established one of the first Avian and Exotic Pet Services in a veterinary specialty hospital. At that time, the patients seen by the Avian and Exotic animal veterinarians reflected the most popular exotic pets such as ferrets, iguanas, and exotic cats. Over the years the popularity of various pets has waxed and waned, including the rise and fall of the hedgehog, sugar glider, prairie dog, and an occasional frog.

But the presence of birds in our waiting room has been a constant.

Raquel is a talkative blue and gold macaw that is at least 27 years old. She came to see Dr. Katherine Quesenberry for a dime-sized swelling in her axillary area (equivalent to our armpit) between the base of her wing and flank. Dr. Quesenberry suspected a ruptured air sac and scheduled a CT scan to investigate further.

Evolution made birds lightweight for flying. To lighten their bones, some bones contain air (pneumatic bones) as part of their respiratory system. Like reptiles and mammals, birds also have lungs, but bird lungs function differently than ours. With each breath, our lungs fill and empty with air due to movement of the diaphragm. Birds lack a diaphragm, and air moves through the lungs and into and out of the air sacs in two cycles as their sternum expands and contracts with each breath. While air is in the lungs, exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs. The air sacs help keep birds “light as a feather” and buoyant for flight.

Even though The AMC’s 64-slice CT scan is lightning fast, general anesthesia is required for the procedure. The bird’s unusual respiratory system makes anesthesia a greater challenge than in dog and cat patients. While birds are under anesthesia, we assist their breathing to prevent a build up of anesthetic gases in their air sacs. The advantage that birds have over mammals is that because their respiratory cycle is so fast, they wake up from anesthesia rapidly once the anesthetic gas is discontinued.

On the right you see a reconstructed image of Raquel from her CT scan. Although you can’t see it, her head is at the top, legs at the bottom. The image clearly shows the abnormal air sac exactly as the examination described it, under the right wing. The image is reversed and the right side is shown on the left.

The cause of ruptured air sacs is unknown; even so, they can be successfully treated. A small stent was sutured into Raquel’s ruptured air sac to remove the accumulated air. A follow-up visit showed resolution of the swelling. Raquel is now doing well and hopefully will stay in good health for at least another 27 years!

Photo: Photo of Raquel courtesy of Lynne Freeman-Gassem


This may also be found in the Tales from the Pet Clinic blog on

For over a century, The Animal Medical Center has been a national leader in animal health care, known for its expertise, innovation and success in providing routine, specialty and emergency medical care for companion animals. Thanks in part to the enduring generosity of donors, The AMC is also known for its outstanding teaching, research and compassionate community funds. Please help us to continue these efforts. Send your contribution to: The Animal Medical Center, 510 East 62nd Street, New York, NY 10065. For more information, visit To make an appointment, please call 212.838.7053.

Keeping Rabbits as Pets

April 7, 2009

Rabbits have become one of the more common pets in the U.S. today. As recently as 25 years ago, rabbits were most popular around Easter (see and then relegated to the hutch in the backyard. No longer. Rabbits are now moving into the niche once occupied solely by cats – pets that are self-sufficient, can be litter trained, are relatively small and have a distinct personality. Of course, unlike cats, rabbits are not animals that are naturally aggressive and they rarely bite; their natural instinct is for flight when faced with potential danger.

Where Did Rabbits Originate?
jackrabbit200Rabbits that we keep as pets are descended from the European wild rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculi. Wild rabbits native to the U.S. are in a totally different genus, Sylvilagus, whereas the wild jackrabbit (see picture, right) is in the hare genus, Lepus. Because pet rabbits in the U.S. are never in contact with their wild counterparts of the same species, they are not exposed to many of the diseases endemic to rabbits in Europe, such as myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic disease.

How Many Breeds of Rabbits are There?
There are over 44 distinct rabbit breeds recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association, and other breeds are common in Europe. Rabbit lionhead-rabbitbreeds can be divided into 3 categories: small, medium and large. Small breeds include the Netherland Dwarf, Polish, Dutch, Mini Lop, Mini Rex and a newer breed, the Lion Head (see picture, left). In general, rabbits of these breeds weigh less than 5.5 lbs and tend to be quicker and sometimes a little more skittish than larger breeds. Medium breeds are the Dwarf Lop, Angora, Rex, Californian, Cinnamon, and New Zealand. These breeds generally weigh between 5.5 to 9 lbs. The very large breeds, such as the Flemish Giant and the British Giant, weigh over 9 lbs and are not as common in the U.S. as they are in Europe. Many of these breeds come in a variety of colors. In general, the lifespan of most pet rabbits ranges from 6-12 years, with the smaller breeds tending to live longer.

What Should I Feed My Rabbit?
Rabbits are easy to keep, but it is critical that they are fed a proper diet. There are 3 components to a healthy diet in pet rabbits: hay, vegetables and pellets. Hay is a necessary source of fiber, which is essential to normal rabbit rabbit-haydigestion and gastrointestinal health. The grass hays, such as timothy, brome and orchard grass, are now widely available for pet rabbits and are preferred to legume hays such as alfalfa because of the lower calcium content in the grass hays. Leafy greens and other vegetables provide fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. Pellets should be fed as a balanced source of protein, fat and fiber and to provide essential minerals and vitamins that may be lacking in hay and vegetables. Timothy-based, high fiber pellets are now readily available in pet stores and online and are much healthier for adult pet rabbits than the alfalfa-based pellets formulated for commercial and laboratory rabbits. Avoid sugary treats such as yogurt drops; simple sugars are not good for rabbits and will upset the normal intestinal bacteria.

Do Rabbits Need  Checkups?
rabbit-vetAll rabbits should have a routine annual health examination in which their teeth, ears, heart, lungs and abdomen are checked. Spaying female rabbits will prevent the development of uterine cancer, which is common in intact females older than 3 years of age. Similar to cats, male rabbits are often neutered for behavioral reasons to prevent marking and aggressive or sexual behavior. As rabbits age, many tend to develop problems with overgrown cheek teeth, and twice yearly examinations may be recommended.

Signs of illness in pet rabbits are a decreased appetite, loose stool, discharge from the eyes or nose, flaky skin, constant shaking of the ears, labored breathing, reluctance to move, weight loss and blood in the urine. If any of these signs are present, you should call your veterinarian. If your rabbit has not produced stool for 24 hours or more, this could be a true emergency and a veterinarian should see your rabbit as soon as possible.

About Katherine Quesenberry, DVM, MPH, ABVP

dr-q2Since 1984, Dr. Quesenberry has been the Service Head of the Avian and Exotic Pet Service at the The Animal Medical Center. Dr. Quesenberry has co-edited several books, including Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery, which is a best selling veterinary textbook, Avian Medicine and Surgery, and Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Pet Medicine I and II.

Dr. Quesenberry is the Scientific Editor for the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery, an international journal published by the Association of Avian Veterinarians. She has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe about the medicine of birds and exotic pets.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Quesenberry, please call 212.838.7053.

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