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"Lockjaw" in Handfeeding Cockatiels - A Follow-up
By Judy McElveen

Several times I have had people comment that they liked several of the articles I've produced for the ACS magazine, but I've never before had a response like that to the "Lockjaw" article that ran in the last edition. (I don't mean hundreds of people contacted me, but I thought it significant that about half a dozen did.)


The first response seemed to be "Gosh, I thought I was the only one having this problem. My vet said she/he'd never seen this before". Unfortunately, I did not take particular note of the first few calls, as I had not, at that time, thought of doing a follow up article. For better or worse, the ACS magazine seems to be on the "cutting edge" in reporting on these phenomena with which many people, including veterinarians, are unfamiliar.


I'd like to differentiate here between "scientific" and "anecdotal" evidence. The evidence I've gathered and conclusions others and I have drawn is anecdotal evidence, which means that we've observed and noted various phenomena that seem to occur in connection with this disease/syndrome. Before we will know anything for sure, though, this problem will have to be studied scientifically under very controlled conditions. I am saying this to caution our readers that, although we see certain things happening and draw various conclusions, these conclusions are only ouropinions, and should not be taken as proven fact. (This includes my own conclusions and opinions, of course.)


All the people who contacted me were people who had experienced this problem in their handfeeding cockatiels and reported feeling very relieved to learn that they were not alone. As conscientious birdkeepers, our first reaction seems to be "what did I do wrong". When baby birds die, of course, this is followed by "what did I do wrong that killed my babies?"


Feelings of guilt are understandable, but must be resisted. To all our readers I'll repeat this truism told to me by my avian veterinarian years ago when I was crying about having to have a "poor doer" put down: "Anyone who keeps livestock (and this includes exotic birds) has livestock mortality." This sounded harsh to me then, when I was under the mistaken impression that I would, somehow, learn how to do it perfectly. We can't do it perfectly but we almost always do better with raising the chicks than the parent birds do in the wild.


Now to the "nitty-gritty" of what I learned from the callers. Almost universally, the attending vets had not seen this problem before when the first incident occurred. Various types of treatment were initiated, including various antibiotics, Nystatin (treatment for yeast infections), and anti-inflammatory drugs. None of these treatments seemed to be very effective and, in almost every instance, the affected chicks died.


There was one treatment, though, that showed greater success. One woman who called me reported that her veterinarian, also, had never seen this problem. However, this vet prescribed a sulfa drug, along with the Nystatin, and this woman has experienced at least a 50% recovery rate when the treatment was initiated immediately after the first sign of the illness. Most of the treated chicks that recovered became able to open their beaks after five days to a week of treatment. When this woman experienced the first outbreak, she took her chicks to the vet and had various tests done, which were inconclusive. The above treatment regimen was started, but apparently not quickly enough, as all the affected chicks died. When the second outbreak occurred, she started treatment immediately and saved about half the affected chicks – a phenomenal recovery rate for this problem.


I want to stress here again, that this is not scientific evidence; however, I will ask my vet to prescribe a sulfa drug and Nystatin if I run into this problem again. The anecdotal evidence we have is better than no information at all and, as I've never experienced more than a 10% recovery rate, I'm more than willing to try something different. As I said in my first article, I've had tests performed on living birds, tests performed on birds with the disease that were killed for the purpose of doing the tests, and complete necropsies, none of which provided an answer about the cause of this problem. I've worked with three different avian vets on the problem, all of whom, after going through the various steps, reached the conclusion that the chances of recovery were so small (almost nonexistent) that any chick contracting the problem should be immediately put down rather than allowed to suffer. In those circumstances, the slightest glimmer of hope is almost like a spotlight aimed at the problem.


Following this article is a very informative article on the subject written by our Pet Consultant, Pam Thompson, relating her experiences with this disease/syndrome/condition (whichever/whatever it is). ACS is very lucky to have people willing to share their experiences in order to add to our body of knowledge on this and other subjects. As I've said about my own observations and conclusions, Pam's, like mine, are hers personally and should not be construed as "The Answer". As always, you should consult your veterinarian when you experience health problems with your birds. Your veterinarian can be a valuable part of your flock's health maintenance effort if you give him/her the opportunity.

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