CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Anuk didn’t want to sit on her perch, preferring instead to stand on the bottom of her cage. A recurring infection on Anuk’s right foot had brought the gregarious and mischievous Moluccan cockatoo and her concerned owners, the Hess family – daughter Iiae and parents Patrick and Violeta – from their home in Lincoln, Ill., to see veterinarian Ken Welle at the Small Animal Clinic at the University of Illinois in Urbana.
Welle joined the exotic animal department at the U. of I. Teaching Hospital last month after 22 years in private practice. The exotic animal service cares for a wide variety of species and comprises specialists with expertise in fish and reptiles, wildlife medicine and zoological medicine, in addition to Welle, who specializes in avian medicine and behavior.
The only veterinarian in Illinois who is board-certified in avian medicine by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Welle is among more than 40 board-certified veterinarians at the U. of I. Teaching Hospital. Board certification indicates that veterinarians have undergone three to four additional years of training in a specialty area and passed a national examination after obtaining their doctor of veterinary medicine degrees.
“There are more than 8,900 bird species overall, and the amount of data that we have is only on a small fraction of them,” Welle said, about why he chose to specialize in avian medicine.
“There’s a lot less literature about birds than other animals, such as the etiology of diseases, the validity of diagnostic tests and drug dosages.”
Each bird species also has its own particular disorders, Welle said.
Welle’s avian clientele in his private practice comprised falconers, backyard poulterers, pigeon racers, ostrich and emu farmers, and a nearby zoo, with its flamingoes, pelicans, raptors and other exotic birds. Many rescued wild birds also were referred to Welle for rehabilitation.
Welle recently consulted with wildlife veterinarian Julia Whittington about a 16-year-old blue and gold macaw that had been seen by three different veterinarians in neighboring states before it was referred to the U. of I. to determine why the bird was regurgitating his food.
“We are able to offer more diagnostic testing, including CT scans, not available in other places,” Whittington said, and added: “Our secret weapon, though, is the breadth and depth of expertise of our faculty members.”
A CT scan on the macaw revealed a granuloma, a benign tumor that could be treated with anti-fungal medication, in the bird’s lower esophagus.
“Avians are very delicate and more prone to stress than the typical veterinary patient,” Welle said about the challenges of treating birds. “Procedures that are routine with other animals, such as dogs, can be very risky with birds. They also have long memories, and if someone handles them roughly, it may permanently damage their relationship with their owner.”
Many pet birds are separated from their clutch mates and hand-raised by breeders, thus they may never have seen an adult of their own species to learn normal social behavior. Behavioral problems – self-mutilation, aggression and attention-getting behaviors such as excessive vocalization – are common among birds, Welle said.
The wound on Anuk’s foot had nearly healed several times over the past year, only to deteriorate again. Patrick voiced suspicion that Anuk, enjoying the extra attention that the wound brought her, might be malingering by plucking at it with her beak.
Although Anuk may have been feeling too punk for her perch, in between physical examinations by veterinary students and Welle, she coquettishly cuddled with family members and strangers alike and repeatedly performed a favorite trick: keeling over “dead” and dangling upside down from Iiae’s finger when “shot at” with an imaginary gun.
With Anuk wrapped in a towel and gently restrained, Welle examined her foot and discussed treatment options. Welle recommended that, with Anuk under anesthesia, the hospital take a dental X-ray, which would capture more detail than a conventional x-ray, and a tissue culture to determine if the infection had reached the bone. If it had, long-term antibiotic treatment might be warranted, and could be administered by implanting bits of antibiotic-impregnated bone cement – the substance used in joint replacement surgeries – in the wound.
However, if a behavioral problem was indeed the cause of the recurring infection, healing it would be difficult, Welle told the Hess family, who had tried various treatments, including tranquilizers and a collar, in attempts to keep the cockatoo from picking at the wound. Welle discussed a particular antidepressant that might help.
That same day Welle also conducted wellness checks on guinea pigs and a rabbit and had a follow-up visit with Squirt, a tiny iguana barely as long as one of Welle’s fingers. The reptile had a blistering rash on its tail.
The antibiotic and water soaks prescribed at the previous appointment in November had healed most of the lesions, although a tail amputation might still be necessary, and the calcium supplements prescribed had strengthened her bones, Welle told the mother and adult son who owned the lizard.
Although Squirt had grown several millimeters and gained a few grams in weight since her prior appointment, the family was concerned that she remained considerably smaller than Kujo, their other iguana of similar age, which they’d brought along to illustrate the size disparity between the two lizards. After carefully plucking Kujo from his perch on the owner’s son’s thigh, Welle examined the lizard and explained the sex characteristics of mature iguanas.
To the family’s surprise, Welle observed that Kujo might not be a male as they had assumed: Kujo’s orange color could be indicative of surging female hormones and impending ovulation.
With instructions to soak Squirt in antibiotic baths and in tap water, the mother prepared for the drive home by wrapping the tiny lizard in her wool scarf and tucking it into the front of her winter coat, the same cozy spot where Squirt had nestled during the drive up from Charleston, Ill., and while the family shopped in Champaign prior to Squirt’s checkup.
Welle, who graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine in 1988, has been a clinical assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine since 1991, and has taught avian, exotic and wildlife medicine at Purdue University and at St. George’s University in Grenada as well as at the U. of I.
His private practice, All Creatures Animal Hospital in Urbana, continues under the direction of veterinarian Mary Welle with a focus on dogs and cats.