Blindness occurs in many species including birds. Some birds are born blind while others develop blindness. But regardless of how an animal may become blind, blind animals require special care that is different than that of a sighted animal. Knowing how to care for a blind or visually impaired animal can help to prevent many frustrations, misunderstandings and injuries.
Euthanasia is, in some sad instances, the only way to alleviate animal suffering and act in the patient’s best interest. There are situations in which rescuers and guardians may believe that euthanasia is justified. However, impaired vision or blindness is not necessarily one of these conditions, although one has to acknowledge, that this has to be assessed on a case by case basis. Wild blind or severely visually impaired birds are not releasable. However, given the right care, these birds can thrive in captivity and can have a very good quality of life. One should also bear in mind that most “blind” animals actually have some visual function. Older birds may have a significant vision loss, but often have sufficient residual visual capacity to function normally, although they may have difficulties in particular in low light conditions. Even fully blind animals can lead high-quality lives. And why wouldn’t they? Humans with no vision are able to lead rich and fulfilling existences, and vision is our number one sense. Given the right support, birds can adapt in the same way humans can. If a bird goes blind, do not despair. A good quality of life is not only possible, but is almost certain, when the right measures are being taken.
Blindness in birds can have a multitude of aetiologies. Firstly it can be inherited or genetically caused. More commonly it is caused by acquired conditions such as vitamin deficiencies. Both Vitamin E and A assist with vision and are required in adequate doses for the healthy development of the eye. Bacterial infections such as salmonella can lead to serious problems including partial or total blindness. Cataracts are usually age related and can often affect both eyes and can cause blindness if not treated. Fungal infections can also lead to vision impairment, often caused through mouldy food. Scratches or physical injuries are another common cause of vision loss, often leading to a conjunctivitis and subsequently to cataracts.
Initial symptoms are commonly non-specific and include depression, lack of appetite, ruffled feathers, blinking more than usual in an attempt to focus on distant objects, red weeping eyes, gritty flaking skin around the eye, feathers growing into the eyes, swelling around the eye as well as discharge from the eyes.
Overall, blind or visually impaired animals can lead very normal lives but require a special environment and aviary setup. It will be easier for a bird that is born blind to learn things and adjust, but for a bird who is used to being sighted it may take more time. Just because the bird can not see his or her environment, it does not mean the bird cannot find his or her food, water or roosting place. The loss of vision is often compensated with the heightening of other senses such as hearing or touch. Beak and feet are being successfully used to safely find the way round in the aviary.
Bright colours of food trays and perches as well as optimised lighting conditions may help partially sighted animals to get around their home more safely, and to give them the confidence they require to remain independent. One should take special care to remove sharp edges and obvious dangers within the aviary or bird room. Padding of perches and other obstacles will minimise the risk of injury in particular in the first days and weeks, when the bird is getting to know his or her new environment. One can also help an animal by tapping a nearby obstacle to acoustically alert the bird to a water bowl or perch.
The aviary setup should remain static and should not be changed once established. Moving items around makes it harder for a blind animal to learn its surroundings. A blind bird memorises the lay out of an aviary and can avoid bumping into perches or food bowls if it does not change. This also means that food and water dishes should always remain in precisely the same spot, so that a blind bird knows exactly where to go if he or she is hungry or thirsty. Putting these dishes in the same place every day will make it less stressful for a blind animal to navigate to them.
Different surface textures may make it easier for a blind bird to know where it is in his or her aviary. Towels, carpeting or padding in one part of the aviary may feel different than in another part of it, and this may help a blind bird to learn and remember its environment more easily. Tactile and auditory cues will help the animal to navigate. After a few weeks, a visually impaired bird will move through his or her aviary just as a normally sighted bird would do, and a person, who does not know the bird, will barely notice that the bird is actually visually impaired or even blind.
As with any disabled or unreleasable bird, who has to live in captivity, a trustful relationship with the carer will allow the animal to thrive. A normally sighted companion bird of the same or of a similarly species may also be very helpful, in particular when the human carer cannot spend enough quality time with the disabled animal. In any case it is very important to provide sufficient mental stimulation and enrichment, which can be achieved with toys or specifically designed play areas. Toys with different textures and different edible or destructible materials work very well to keep the animal entertained for those periods, when the carer is not available.
A gradual introduction of the bird into the new environment is essential, and will allow the animal to have enough time to get used to all the alien noises and features of the new home and its extended host family. It goes without saying that the bird has to be carefully monitored at all times, and much consideration has to be given to the degree of interaction the bird is comfortable with. One has to also bear in mind that this is not a static but a rather dynamic situation, which is likely to improve, but which could also deteriorate. Likes, dislikes and general requirements may change over time. Both, the carer and the bird, will have to learn to understand each other’s cues, and the degree of success will determine the quality of life the companion bird and its carer will enjoy.