Instructions for Physical Therapy in Birds

Kenneth Welle, DVM, AVBP (avian)

The goals of physical therapy are to minimize the loss of range of motion (ROM), prevent changes in soft tissue flexibility, improve muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance.   In addition physical therapy can serve to promote neuromuscular re-education, allowing the patient to regain coordination for normal active daily living.  Additionally, physical therapy can give psychological benefits to you and your bird.

Passive, range-of-motion exercises are performed by manipulating the limb through its entire range of motion.  The limb is controlled by the hands and first brought to maximum flexion and held for 15-20 seconds, then brought to maximum extension and held for 15-20 seconds.  This process is repeated for several repetitions, which are gradually increased to about 20.  The sessions should be carried out once or twice daily.  Sessions should be increased in intensity, in number of repetitions, or in frequency as each level is readily tolerated

Active assisted, range-of-motion exercises are natural movements of the limb aided by the therapist.  Forced wing flapping by holding the feet and dropping the hand rapidly is a common form of active assisted exercise used in birds.  In pet birds, the bird perches on the hand and the handler gently but firmly holds the toes.  The hand is then dropped gently to force the bird to flap the wings.  Physical therapy can be painful to the patient and appropriate analgesia is indicated.

It is more difficult to do physical therapy with the legs of birds.  Unfortunately, a functional recovery from leg injuries is even more important in most birds. Birds with only one functional leg often develop pododermatitis or other problems associated with abnormal weight bearing.  While passive range-of-motion exercises are the same as in the second paragraph, it is difficult to get a bird with an injured leg to hop or walk. The legs can be exercised by using either a perch that moves or your hand.   A gently rocking perch or hand will force a bird to move, flex, and grip in order to maintain balance.   Swimming is an excellent leg exercise but is only applicable for waterfowl.

Massage is used to reduce pain, to reduce fibrosis, and improve blood flow.  This method may be to stressful to birds unaccustomed to close handling.  Tarsitis and pododermatitis are two conditions in which massage seems to help.  Gently roll the toes and “ankle” of the bird between your thumb and forefinger.  A small amount of vitamin A and D ointment can be gentle massaged into the foot at this time.  Canaries seem to benefit the most from this treatment.

​Resumption of normal leg and wing function is most important for birds that will be released into the wild, for those used in falconry and those for racing.  These birds must regain almost perfect athletic function.  Even in pet birds, however, every attempt should be made to return the patient to its pre-injury state.  The use of sound medical and surgical principles is only the first step.  Physical therapy can greatly enhance functional recovery.

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