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September 22, 2015 – A raptor soaring through the sky is an iconic image of strength and beauty, but life can be dangerous for these magnificent birds. Traumatic injuries due to collisions, wounds or other trauma are common, and represent the primary reason birds of prey are taken to rehabilitation centers.

A 2007 survey conducted by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators reported that 64,000 birds were seen at licensed rehabilitation facilities that year, a number experts feel underestimates the actual total of injured birds in the wild. Treating these birds, particularly controlling their pain, is a special challenge to wildlife rehabilitators.

Recent studies suggest that raptors undergoing rehabilitation have increased stress levels because of unfamiliar surroundings and human handling during exams. Painful injuries add to that stress and can negatively impact recovery times. Since the goal of raptor rehabilitation is to care for sick birds until they can be returned to their natural habitat, anything that slows the healing process, such as chronic and acute pain, is a possible setback.  

Early pain management studies in birds focused on pet birds, especially those in the parrot family. Many rehabilitation facilities relied on this data to guide their pain management protocols for other avian species. However, new research shows that this practice may not be feasible in all bird species. What works in one species may not work in another species because of how they uniquely metabolize the drugs.

Morris Animal Foundation–funded researcher Dr. David Sanchez-Migallon Guzman, University of California, Davis, compared two pain medications commonly used to treat parrots to see if the medications were equally effective in controlling pain in American kestrels – one of the most common small raptors in North America. Dr. Guzman’s findings were unexpected: he found that one of the drugs, hydromorphone, worked well at managing pain in American kestrels but the other, butorphanol tartrate, was ineffective. These findings clearly showed that different families of birds may respond very differently to pain management drugs and that drug studies are needed to help tailor pain management protocols for different species.

The good news is that Dr. Guzman’s findings have helped change treatment recommendations for injured raptors. Thanks to Dr. Guzman’s work, we now have new data to address the specific pain management needs of American kestrels and other raptors, making the rehabilitation process easier on the journey toward returning to the wild.