West Nile Virus Affects People and Animals

[American crow]Every summer in Illinois, infections with West Nile virus undoubtably make the news. Spread by mosquitoes, West Nile virus may cause flu-like symptoms in otherwise healthy adults; however, those who are immunocompromised suffer more severe symptoms or even fatality from infection.

Infections with West Nile virus are closely monitored by public health agencies during mosquito season to protect especially vulnerable populations if necessary. Did you know veterinarians can play an important role in identifying and controlling this disease?


Photo from Pixabay

One of the ways the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) monitors the prevalence of West Nile virus is by collecting data on sick animals. While most infected animals cannot pass the virus to people or other animals, their infection serves as an indicator of infection hot spots. The IDPH can then use the information garnered from infections in animals to advise surrounding communities that mosquitoes carrying the disease are in the area.

Animals that are outside much of the day, such as horses and birds, are particularly important for this monitoring program. Veterinarians know to consider this virus when sick animals are presented during the summer months.

At the Wildlife Medical Clinic, we consider this virus as a potential cause of any neurological signs in a bird during the mosquito season. We typically have a handful of West Nile virus cases each year. American Crows are particularly susceptible to the effects of this disease, though we see raptor species affected as well.

Treatment of this disease in birds, much like in people, is limited to supportive care. By managing the symptoms of the disease, we work to support the bird’s immune system and to help the animal recover over time.

If you’d like to learn more about West Nile virus and how veterinarians play a part in public health and safety, check out these links:

Photo of American crow from Pixabay.

The Lady in Red: Meet Ruby!

[Ruby the Red-tailed Hawk poses outside]By Mary Kate Feldner, University of Illinois veterinary student

We are proud to officially announce the addition of Ruby, a red-tailed hawk, to the resident ambassador team at the Wildlife Medical Clinic!

After months of training, Ruby joins Odin, our 23-year-old red-tailed hawk, to become the second red-tailed hawk in our ambassador program.

To learn more about Ruby, we sat down with the three dedicated student volunteers who have been working tirelessly with our new hawk on the temperament testing and training required of ambassador animals. Allison Wright and Jess Bertulis, both third-year veterinary students, and Sam Barratt, a second-year student, answered questions about the newest resident ambassador.

How did Ruby find her way to the Wildlife Medical Clinic?

Ruby was found in central Illinois approaching humans for food. A good Samaritan noted that her behavior was unusual for a wild hawk—and not particularly safe for Ruby or any humans that she approached. With that in mind, they brought her to Illinois Raptor Center (IRC), a wildlife rehabilitation facility located in Decatur, Ill. The IRC evaluated Ruby and determined that she was unfit for release into the wild due to her demeanor, but noted that she could serve well as an ambassador animal. We often collaborate with the IRC on cases, and they approached us about her care. While our goal at the Wildlife Medical Clinic is to return wild animals back to their original habitat, we agreed that Ruby’s behavior would not help her be successful in the wild and instead she would find her forever home with us!

What interested the resident ambassador program in taking on Ruby as a member of the team?

We’ve been looking to add another bird to our program for the past several months, but the process of finding an appropriate animal is often lengthy. Wild animals, even if previously habituated, are all still individuals, and not every animal will fit with an existing program. When our directors first met Ruby, they knew her intelligent, inquisitive nature would complement our program’s objectives well, while also making her unique from our existing birds.

What kind of training and preparation goes into adding another animal to the resident ambassador program?

All of our ambassador animals are trained to complete commands through means of positive reinforcement. This method rewards them for listening to us while still giving them space and respect on days when they are uncomfortable or disinterested. Integrating a new animal requires a step-by-step process of teaching them to understand verbal cues and hand commands.

On the office side of things, the Wildlife Medical Clinic has to file paperwork with several government agencies to gain approval for possession of a wild animal. All native bird species are protected under the Migratory Bird Act, so you need special permission to house one.

What has been the most rewarding part of working with Ruby?

Ruby amazes me every day. She’s a remarkably intelligent bird, and it’s extremely rewarding to watch her learn new things almost daily. I think all three of us are so proud of how far she’s come: from slightly nervous with her new surroundings at the beginning, all the way to performing chained commands like they’re nothing. Most animals don’t pick up things as quickly as she does.

On the other hand, what has been the most difficult part of preparing Ruby to join the resident ambassador team?

We’ve actually overcome most of our training speedbumps relatively quickly. I think the most difficult part of this journey, at least for me, has been preparing myself for knowing that I’ll be unable to work with her as consistently once I begin my fourth-year clinical rotations. However, I know she’s going to be a great ambassador for the program for many, many years to come!

What kind of future training will Ruby undergo as part of the resident ambassador program?

Now that she knows all of the basic commands, we’ll continue to shape her behaviors and build upon them. We’ve always adjusted our training over the years to accommodate changes to the program, and she’ll also need to learn how to perform her existing behaviors in our new ambassador residence once construction is completed.

Follow us on Facebook for updates on the construction of our new ambassador residence. You can also  learn more about our ambassador animal program or schedule an educational event with our ambassadors.

Summer at the WMC: Red-Tailed Hawk

Working in a wildlife clinic on a daily basis is an adventure, as you never know what you will be presented with. We take everything from a litter of baby bunnies to an emergency hit-by-car raccoon, so we always have to be prepared. The summer is a busy season. It is always bustling in the clinic and there are constant opportunities to try new things and to learn.

Interns are in the clinic almost every day, giving us the opportunity to follow cases from intake to the resolution of symptoms. It is one of the most rewarding feelings to get to release a patient you have worked with, which is exactly what I got to do for a juvenile red tailed hawk that came in this June.

The young hawk presented on June 5th with no obvious musculoskeletal abnormalities, but was very thin and dehydrated. Blood was drawn for diagnostic purposes, and showed that the patient had an active inflammatory process. He was offered food, but was not eating on his own. Due to the fact that he was so thin, we decided to tube feed him a liquid carnivore diet to make sure he could get the nutritional support that he needed. When volunteers tried to pass a feeding tube down his esophagus, they noticed that there was a mass in the back of the throat that made the tube difficult to pass and probably prevented the hawk from being able to swallow on his own.

There are a few things that can cause masses and plaques in the oral cavities of birds, and with a swab of the area, we were able to narrow it down. Our hawk had trichomoniasis, an infection caused by a small protozoan parasite. We started him on Metronidazole to help kill the parasites. The mass dislodged and was removed several days later, but our patient was still not eating on his own.

On June 21st, he was anesthetized for an endoscopy, which allowed us to get a good look at what was going on in his esophagus. There were open sores that were infected with different bacterial species, so the area was then treated like a wound. We gave him an anti-inflammatory medication, an antibiotic, a pain medication, and a medication to protect the ulcerated tissue from further damage.

Our hawk gained weight and started to become more lively. He would vocalize when bored or hungry, so volunteers had to come up with creative ways to keep him entertained. His mice were hidden in various items like kongs or hand made newspaper hides so that he would have to forage for food as a form of environmental enrichment.

Finally, on July 10th, our patient was ready to go back into the wild. He was eating on his own and gaining weight, and his throat looked great with no new evidence of infection and no return of his plaques. It was a warm, sunny evening, and with a little coaxing, our hawk flew away across a field and landed in a nearby clearing.

Katelyn Bagg, third-year veterinary student and one of the clinic’s full-time summer interns