A bird’s broken leg won’t heal on its own, but there are many things you and your vet can do to help your pet bird recover.
Understanding Broken Legs in Birds
Broken legs are a common injury in birds.
That is because bones in birds are brittle, due to their high calcium content.
Add to that the fact that a bird’s legs are only covered by tendons and skin, so they shatter easily.
Pieces of bone can easily break off and cause compound fractures, sometimes as a complication of trying to splint a bird’s leg with too much force.
The major bones in a bird’s leg correspond to the major bones in human legs.
A bird’s leg is divided into three sections.
There is the upper leg, also known as the femur, the shin, also known as the tibiotarsus, and the sides of the lower legs, also known as the fibula.
It’s the shinbone that is most often broken.
Why is a broken leg such a major concern in taking care of birds?
We pay more attention to wings in birds because they give them the power to fly, but legs are just as important to a bird’s ability to get around.
The leg bones in a bird are the heaviest bones in its body, lowering its center of gravity to enable it to perch upright.
Lowering the bird’s center of gravity also helps it stay stable in flight.
Birds use their legs in many of the same ways that humans use their arms.
Skinny, sticklike bird legs grasp, move, and assemble materials for building nesting. They help birds grasp their food. They help birds care for their hatchlings.
Birds are stronger than most of us suppose, but their legs are vulnerable to falls, trauma, and animal attacks.
Birds sometimes break their legs when they get caught in the sides of their cages or cage doors.
Female birds are at greater risk of fractures just after they have laid eggs, because the calcium in their bodies may be depleted.
How would you know that your bird has broken a leg?
Signs that a bird has broken a leg include an obvious bend in a leg, the bird’s standing on one leg, and general distress.
The most common cause of broken legs in pet birds is falling off a perch.
Wild birds are most likely to break legs when they fall out of trees or their nests.
If you can get a pet bird with a broken leg to a vet for treatment right away, it is usually enough for the vet to put the bird’s leg in a cast.
Your vet may keep the bird overnight to make sure it doesn’t go into shock or need further treatment.
When a broken leg is stabilized by a cast, the bird will get better in as little as one or two days.
Owners will have to deal with changing bandages for a couple of weeks, but vets will send them home with all the materials they need.
A bird will usually be able to put weight on its splinted leg in five to seven days.
But what do you do while you are waiting to see the vet?
What Should You Do If You Think Your Bird Has Broken Its Leg?
The timing makes a difference in treating a broken leg in birds. The sooner it can be set, the sooner it can begin to heal.
Fractures can require surgical repair if they are neglected for more than a day or two.
The best thing to do when you see your bird standing on one foot, trying to shift its weight to its healthy leg, is to request an immediate appointment with the vet.
The vet can relieve your bird’s pain, and immediate treatment gives it the best chance to return to normal function.
If you can’t see your veterinarian right away, there are some protective steps you can take in the meantime.
Ideally, recruit a family member or a concerned friend to help you take care of your bird.
First, move the injured bird to another cage or a tank where there are no other animals.
Make sure it is kept warm. A heating lamp (not too close) is best.
If there is bleeding, stop it with corn starch, baking soda, or styptic powder used to treat cuts while shaving.
Then place a gauze pad over any open wound and apply gentle pressure to slow bleeding.
The pad can extend slightly above or below the break. It’s OK to wrap two or three layers of gauze around the wound, but you don’t want the gauze to be so tight that it cuts off circulation to the foot.
Place antibiotic ointment on the wound, as well as a loose bandage.
Wrap your bird in a warm, clean towel to keep it from moving and aggravating the break.
If you think a splint will be helpful, you can make one out of a cotton swab, a ribbon of cardboard, or a Popsicle stick.
Any splint should cover the entire length of the leg, but should not extend above or below it to prevent further injury.
You can use “hurt-free” veterinary wrap to hold the splint in place while you are waiting to get to the vet.
It is always a good idea to have a first aid kit for your pets.
To be ready to treat a broken leg, you need some gauze, some Q-tips or Popsicle sticks you can cut to the right size for your bird’s leg, and some no-hurt tape for wrapping a splint.
But it’s even more important to have an ongoing relationship with a vet who treats birds.
How to Help a Wild Bird with a Broken Leg
Giving care to wild birds that have injuries requires sensitivity to a number of factors that are not issues in treating pets.
The first concern is that the bird must be able to resume its life in the wild when it is released.
It is illegal to keep a wild bird as a pet, and there are very few long-term placements in animal shelters even for beloved birds, like eagles.
A wildlife rehabilitation center may be required by law to euthanize birds it does not believe can be rehabilitated to return to the wild.
Wild birds are under tremendous stress when they are put in rehab. They may perceive the people trying to care for them as predators.
They may injure themselves as they try to escape their cages.
If a bird injures its wing feathers while it is trying to escape, it may spend an additional three weeks to a year in the wildlife center before it can return to the wild.
Adult birds don’t deal well with being immobile. Trying to keep the bird calm by dimming the lights may interfere with its normal feeding schedule.
They may lose interest in feeding, and wildlife rehabbers may force-feed them to keep them from starving to death.
This creates even more stress for the bird, which makes their situation go downhill even faster.
The best thing you can do for a wild bird with a broken leg is to give it help with minimal restraint.
You should give it such a fabulous splint that it can go about its business as soon as possible.
This means that you splint the sides of the break, but not below and above it. This keeps the joints in the leg from becoming stiff.
You should make the splint so the bird can use its leg even while the fracture is healing.
Putting weight on the leg helps it heal faster. And the faster the leg heals, the sooner the bird can be returned to the wild.
Here is the procedure for helping a wild bird with a broken leg.
Treat other life-threatening conditions first
Any bird that is dehydrated, bleeding, or suffering shock needs first aid for those conditions before examining it for a broken leg.
Handle the bird as little as possible
Make a “nest” out of a towel to keep small birds comfortable.
Gently wrap large birds in a towel so fractures don’t become worse while they are waiting to be treated.
Pay attention to the way the bird is holding its legs
If you don’t have access to X-rays, you can tell where a leg is broken by the way the bird is holding it.
You can also identify bones that are not broken and do not need treatment.
When you handle a bird, be quick and confident
When you must handle a bird, use overwhelming force.
You do not want it to fight you or try to flee from you, further injuring itself in the process. Don’t allow the bird to flap and kick.
Apply the Rule of Three
Many wildlife shelters are required to euthanize a bird that has a combination of conditions that makes recovery unlikely, like a broken leg plus emaciation, dehydration, and other disease.
The general rule is that if a bird has three serious problems, it probably cannot be helped, and should not be allowed to suffer.
Locate the fracture by working from the top of the leg down
It’s important that the bird is calm and warm before you start examining its leg.
The examination must be very gentle because rough handling can make existing fractures worse or even cause new fractures.
It is important to stop the examination if the bird becomes stressed or reacts to pain.
Place your left thumb at the top of the femur at the hip joint. Pull the knee out slightly and hold it between the thumb and forefinger of your right hand.
Apply gentle tension at both ends of the femur. Parts of the femur that move are broken.
Next, look for fractures in the bird’s shinbone. Hold the knee between the thumb and index finger of your left hand.
Hold the ankle between the thumb and index finger of your right hand. Apply gentle tension at both ends of the bone. If there is movement, that indicates a break.
You can use a similar procedure to locate fractures of the tibia.
If you just suspect a fracture, treat the leg like it is broken anyway. Sometimes birds suffer greenstick fractures, in which the bone bends but doesn’t break.
If you were to x-ray a greenstick fracture, it would look something like a bend in a young, green twig on a tree.
Birds can also suffer capillary (also known as hairline) fractures, which don’t displace the bone.
Once you have identified a fracture, don’t handle it any more than necessary.
Some things you need to know before applying a splint
Here are some important rules to keep you from doing more harm than good by applying a splint to a bird’s broken leg:
- Kleenex boxes, wooden coffee stirrers, and strips of Styrofoam from takeout boxes make good splinting materials, provided they are cut to an appropriate (short) length.
- Don’t use woven gauze to cover a wound on a bird. Birds will pull at threads in woven gauze and pull it apart.
- Micropore paper tape is best for taping a splint in place. The glue on duct tape and masking tape can melt when it is exposed to a bird’s body heat, gluing its feathers together.
- There must always be padding between a bird’s skin and any splinting material. Even a Kleenex box is too abrasive to be allowed directly against the skin on a bird’s leg. A hydrogel dressing is ideal.
- When there is a compound fracture (a bone breaking through the skin), cleanse the wound with diluted Betadine or Nolvasan, and remove all debris and foreign material.
How to apply the splint
Grasp the broken leg above the break. Wrap two or three layers or gauze around the break, using the thinnest section possible.
You don’t want to restrain too much of the leg.
Place the splint (Q-tip, cardboard, Popsicle stick, coffee stirrer) along the side of the leg.
The splint has to be a little shorter than the leg. It must not be placed where it blocks the vent, getting droppings beneath bandages.
Wrap the splint in place with tape. Pain-free tape from a veterinary supply store is best, but any tape that doesn’t have sticky glue can work.
What to expect after you have splinted the leg
A bird with a splint on its leg will be dependent on you for food, water, and shelter until the splint can be removed.
This will be about seven days for songbirds, 10 days for medium-sized birds like pigeons, and three weeks for larger birds like ducks.
When you remove the splint, be careful not to cut the bird’s skin.
Most pet birds and many songbirds survive broken legs.
It’s always best to take the bird to a veterinarian, but your best efforts will help birds when taking them to a vet isn’t possible.
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