I adopted Santina, a Green-Winged Macaw, back in December. Yet, I've had her in solitude quarantine for nearly 3 months now without introducing her to my other birds. Why? Because she has not been proven to be healthy and ok to introduce to my flock.
After nearly $2,500 into vet testing her across multiple visits, the situation is only starting to come to light. Since the very first vet visit, something did not seem quite right. She was observed to be excessively skinny and her poop never appeared healthy. High CBC (white blood cell count) and CPK (muscle degradation) plagued her otherwise normal blood test. All of these symptoms seemed indicative of PDD.
Worse yet, I received a positive result on a test for Avian Borna Virus done on her (Borna Virus has been linked to causing Proventricular Dilatation Disease which is contagious and deadly). The test was repeated to 3 different labs and the first remained positive while two others reported negative across a spectrum of different test methods. Continuing the search for PDD, Santina received a crop biopsy which also came back negative.
Despite mostly promising results, something still did not seem right. The smelly droppings certainly were not normal and her weight would not rise much above a certain point no matter the effort. Before giving up, I had one last series of blood and fecal tests done. While her CBC and CPK returned to normal, a gram stain performed on her stool came back positive for Clostridium. Clostridium is an anaerobic bacteria that infects the GI tract with symptoms similar to PDD. It is not yet certain that clostridium is solely responsible for her condition, but at this point is the only health issue medical testing has been able to identify. The only way to know for sure is to treat the disease with antibiotics and see if all remaining symptoms clear up. This is where this lesson on how to teach a parrot to take medication comes in.
There is this myth that says that towels are somehow a necessary part of giving medication to a parrot. I do not understand the need for this and will instead present a much nicer approach for teaching the parrot to be a cooperative part of its own healing process. The cool thing about my approach to training a parrot to take medication does not require much advance preparation. You don't have to teach a healthy parrot to drink from a syringe in advance for a situation that may or may not happen who knows how long from now.
What my medication approach does presume though, is that you have a trained parrot. It is essential that your parrot be able to step up, allow touch, allow grab, know how to target, and know how to learn to take treats for doing something. These things are all necessary elements for having a well-behaved companion parrot so I encourage you to be working on these now and maintain them perpetually. Although my book, The Parrot Wizard's Guide to Well-Behaved Parrots, does not teach you how to teach a parrot to take medication, it does give you all the steps to be prepared for the steps to come to work for you if/when you may some day need to administer oral medication.
My strategy for teaching a parrot to take medication is a combination of my target training approach combined with my Tom Sawyer approach to offering new foods. I don't force my parrot to take medication. In fact I don't even let her have it at all. I create a scenario where the parrot gets so jealous that she is begging for the opportunity to receive the syringe. When the parrot thinks it is its own idea, it is a completely different scenario than when the parrot feels it imposed.
The only time cost I had to pay for Santina to take medication herself was one morning. I think delaying giving the medication by half a day in order to ensure cooperation to take it for the next ten days was certainly a worthwhile delay. Considering that Santina has been sick with this disease for a long term, the delay is meaningless. Even if the medication were more urgent, I would still strongly consider taking one extra session to build trust first or at least to take some time training as I will demonstrate. I know, if your bird is sick, you are freaking out and want to help as quickly as possible. But unless it is medically mandatory, calming down and using a thoughtful methodology will make success more likely. If the bird is panicked and spits the medication out, the rush will be unjustified and giving medication again will be even more difficult.
Once I received the medication, the first step was to go to a store and find the tastiest fruit juice for a parrot. I know that mango and peaches tend to be some high ranked favorites among my other parrots, so although Santina has never had those with me, I figured she would like that flavor. I found a 100% juice of orange, peach, and mango. The perfect parrot juice.
The next step was to make Santina want to drink the juice. I could have just shot it in her beak from a syringe and hoped that she would like it. But I did not take that chance. If she wasn't thrilled with the flavor, my chances of getting medication in her would diminish. I needed to make her love getting syringe fed. I would do this by using social reinforcement, jealousy, and positive reinforcement to my advantage. This was just like trick training but the stakes were higher. Failure could have health consequences. It was safer to try exceedingly hard than to find out I didn't try hard enough.
So I poured the juice in a cup and proceeded to pull it into one of the medicine syringes provided with the medication. But instead of giving the sweet contents to Santina, I poured the juice into my own mouth instead. And I repeated this again, and again, and again. I continued to reward myself with squirts of juice while beginning to arouse Santina's attention. At first she stared with curiosity but soon she started exhibiting a direct interest. I even tested her by bringing the syringe closer and watched her approach to take, all while swiping it away and giving it to myself. It wasn't enough just to make her give it a shot. I was set to make her love the experience.
You know how parrots wanna eat what we eat and play with what we play with. Well it's pretty much the same for getting them to eat what we need them to eat. By putting the same effort into consuming or playing with parrot intended stuff, we can achieve the same effect with these social creatures. When Santina was burning with jealousy and begging to try the syringe, I finally gave her the chance. I shot some juice in her beak and I could tell she enjoyed it. But I did not stop there. I immediately rewarded her with a piece of dried banana chip.
I specifically chose banana chips as the treat for this medication procedure because it would not only be a coveted food but also because it would be easy to consume. The treat was not only meant to serve as a reward for complying with taking the syringe but also to help wash down any medication remaining in the beak. I trained Santina to drink from the syringe to get the treat, but in effect I also set her up to swallow the medication by being accustomed to eating right after. By doing this during normal training time, Santina was already food motivated to be getting treats and was paying attention to the learning at hand.
I continued the juice-medication exercise several more times in the morning but did not give the medication. I did not want Santina's first encounter with syringe drinking to have any negative outcome. It is easier to reconcile a bad experience that isn't the primal experience later. In the evening I repeated the exercise by offering her juice from the syringe. I already prepared the medication in a separate syringe beforehand. At one point I unexpectedly switched up the syringe and squirted medication in her beak rather than juice. I could immediately see her cringe at the taste but it was too late as I followed up with a banana chip. To ensure that the medication goes down, I feed a few more banana chips right after or pellets. The crumbs will pick up remaining medication and ensure she is swallowing.
The success in using this approach has been apparent not only in getting the parrot to accept medication that initial time but daily since. The problem with a more forceful approach to medicating is that it makes the parrot resist better with subsequent times, not to mention ruins your relationship. By taking a little extra time to teach the bird to take juice from a syringe and by mixing a ratio of at least five pleasant drinks for every one nasty medication drink, I have ensured that I will be able to repeat the medication ten times and not harm my relationship in the process. This is a win/win for bird and human alike.
The moral of the story is to work on your relationship with your parrot now. Make sure you train your parrot and follow the Well-Behaved Parrot approach. Develop the skills and tools to be able to teach your parrot anything important in short order (whether it is taking medication or something else not yet thought of). You have now learned about my approach to training a parrot to take medication. You can begin to apply this now if you need to administer medication or you can keep this process in the back of your mind should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to give medication.
Here is the complete video of how I taught Santina to take medication in one day.