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February 21, 2011

Water Therapy Puts Great Blue Herons Back on Their Feet

South Florida Wildlife Center staff find a way to heal long-legged wading birds suffering from a crippling condition

  • A Great Blue Heron with the devestating "capture myopathy." Stephan Harsch/The HSUS

  • A heron gets treatment in the wildlife ward at the South Florida Wildlife Center. Stephan Harsch/The HSUS

  • Staff at the center have found a way to help long-legged wading birds to walk again. Stefan Harsch/The HSUS

  • The water-based technique has been key to the birds walking again. Stefan Harsch/The HSUS

  • A healthy bird's release back into the wild is always the animal care center's goal. Heather Fone/The HSUS

by Julie Hauserman

Wildlife veterinarians are always working to find creative ways to solve an individual animal’s unique medical problem. It might mean fashioning a prosthetic leg or solving the jigsaw puzzle of a broken shell. At The Humane Society of the United States’ South Florida Wildlife Center, veterinarian Dr. Stefan Harsch’s challenge was to get long-legged wading birds to walk again.

A devastating condition for birds

“We regularly get Great Blue Herons in that are unable to walk,” said Harsch, who treats wildlife at the busy clinic outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “They have no fractures or external injuries that would explain such a predicament.”

The condition—called “capture myopathy”—is devastating: The birds muscles break down due to overexertion and the birds can’t even stand.

'“We don’t know what happened to these birds, what might have been chasing them,” Harsch said.

In the wild, the birds face certain death. When the muscles break down, the birds’ kidneys fail. Without movement, the blood flow to their slender, three-foot-long legs is decreased, and these majestic creatures eventually perish.

A successful treatment—water therapy

But now, through trial-and-error, the staff at the South Florida Care Center have found a successful treatment that gets the birds back in shape and back to the wild. 

“It used to be so frustrating—we’d try and try and they would just go downhill,” Harsch said. “Now that we have better success rates, it’s very gratifying that we can actually do something.”

The birds are first put on heavy rounds of intravenous fluids to flush the kidneys to prevent their clogging, and given medication to reduce pain and relax their muscles.

The trick has always been finding ways to keep the birds calm and stretch their legs so that blood keeps flowing to the extremities. In the past, veterinarians would put the birds in slings and people would perform physical therapy on the legs, but the success rate wasn’t very good.  Harsch and his team are now using a water-based technique, setting the birds in deep tubs and letting the birds move their legs underwater to restore blood flow.

“In the water, the birds don’t have to carry their body weight, and they walk and move their legs. All herons are very stressed when handled, so we minimize contact as much as we can. They often don’t eat and need to be fed with a feeding tube. They sure enjoy being in the water though.”

“Gradually, they learn to use their long legs again,” Harsch said. “It takes about three to four days. Once the birds are able to stand, we move them into a small enclosure where they can walk, then into a larger enclosure, and then we can release them. If they can stand in a week, the prognosis is very good.

“We’re very excited to be using this water technique,” Harsch said. “It is great to know that these birds do have a chance now.”

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