The Parrot Who Ate Caramel Corn / Heart Failure

Unbelievable. If I dared roll my eyes during an interaction with a client, my eyes should have been doing cartwheels during the intake history I was noting on the chart.

My patient, an African Grey Parrot named Joe, was lying face down in his carrier, his beautiful red tail inelegantly dragging in the muck and mire. I was afraid to handle him, for fear it would push him over the brink. As I stalled for time I observed him from a safe distance, thoughts milling through my head. It creates a poor first impression when you touch your patient and he falls over dead.


The question I’d just asked was about his preferred foods. I was secretly hoping to hear that he ate a sunflower seed only diet, because this is the pinnacle of poor nutrition for the average parrot and was quite popular 30 years ago when most birds were imported and went through the rigors of quarantine stations before finding their way into homes. Thousands of parrots seemed to subsist on sunflower seed alone, whose nutritional value, though high in protein and fats, was loathsomely deficient in calcium and other life-sustaining vitamins and nutrients. 

The secret card up my sleeve? African Grey parrots, both the Congo species and their smaller cousins the Tymneh, were unusually susceptible to severe sickness from hypocalcemia. In addition to building strong bones, calcium is needed for all muscle contractions, including the heart muscle, and low calcium led to seizures or tetany and cardiac arrest. The treatment was simply supplying calcium and a little vitamin D to the afflicted parrot and most would turn around. The stuff of miracles and who doesn’t want to see a miracle?

But this woman! What was she saying? Forget seeds. Her bird subsisted on caramel corn? Peanut M&M’s? Pizza? Impossible that this bird could survive the high salts and fats and sugars of this diet! Let alone live to 42 years of age. But here he was. Although, as I knelt to get a closer view, one could not say that he was “living.” Not yet dead was more accurate. Gingerly I opened the cage door and slowly pulled him out. Joe didn’t move. I finally placed my stethoscope to his chest without disturbing his position on the towel. Oh dear. He had a heart murmur and his heart was beating very erratically. Cardiac arrhythmia. His abdomen bulged ominously. A tumor? The case was hopeless. The bird had never been to a veterinarian before and this was clearly too little, too late.

Which I tried to explain to his owner. We could do diagnostic tests, but he might die while we were trying to help him. The tests would be expensive and some would take a day or more to get results. I didn’t think he’d live long enough to find out what was killing him, let alone help him. I hate cases like this.

Joe’s owner requested that we proceed.

We placed him in an oxygen cage. Then, using gas anesthesia, we let him breathe himself into a state of non-painful peace and took x-rays, drew blood, obtained culture samples and tapped his abdomen (abdomenocentesis). No tumor. Joe appeared to be in congestive heart failure. What’s more, he woke up. I had given him several medications while he was still out and he remained on supplemental oxygen. Fast forward 24 hours. Joe is standing, a little wobbly, and has lost 50 grams of retained fluid overnight (10 percent of his entry weight). His blood calcium test is normal. Too weak to eat well on his own, we gavage fed him, using a tube to place baby mush directly into his crop. Fast forward 72 hours. Joe is talking, grooming himself and cracking seed. We take him off oxygen. On Day Five I sit down with his owner and explain that against all odds, her bird is adjusting well to oral medication and can go home. He will need medication the rest of his life. Given the seriousness of his condition, I tell her each day is a blessing. This is good enough for Joe and his owner.

We stayed in touch. Joe continued to improve. On Day 10 his owner happily reported that Joe was eating caramel corn again. Tongue-tied, I pulled back and stared at the phone. Not the goal I had in mind. I kept quiet. It’s been more than one month since I first met Joe. He is doing very well on his heart medications. I may start eating caramel corn myself.

Christine McFadden, DVM

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