Physical restraint of ratites is different for each. The ostrich's head can be caught by hand or hook, and a hood can be placed over the head. Once hooded, the ostrich can be moved with pressure and guidance. It is generally easier to push the ostrich backward than forward. Emus must be handled from behind, grasping the wings and lifting the bird slightly upward and back. The front of the bird should be avoided to prevent being injured by the claws on the feet. Rheas are handled much like the emus. Some handlers use hoods to facilitate handling.
Juvenile birds from 4 mo to yearlings are best handled by slowly and calmly herding them into an enclosed barn. If they cannot see out and are crowded into a corner, they will sit. They can easily be sexed, banded, and dewormed, and blood can be drawn. If there is no enclosed area, portable panels with plywood or plastic applied can be used to crowd the birds into a small area.
Physical and Laboratory Examination
Before the bird is restrained, it should be examined moving in its enclosure for conformation, gait, body condition, respiration rate and character, and behavior-related problems.
The enclosure should be examined for fresh droppings and urine. Green urate may indicate muscle or liver disease. The droppings should be examined for tapeworm segments and collected for fecal flotation.
The eyes and sinuses are examined for any discharge or swelling, and the beak and oral cavity for any lesions. The neck is palpated, especially in the area of the thoracic inlet, for any swellings. Overall body condition should be noted, and a body score assigned based on fat percentage. The feathers and skin should be examined for lesions or parasites. The thorax should be auscultated. The abdomen is palpated from the ventriculus, which lies immediately caudal to the breastplate, to the proventriculus, which can be palpated between the legs. The caudal abdomen is palpated and balloted for any evidence of fluid buildup or retained eggs. Finally, a cloacal examination is performed to verify normal anatomy. When indicated, samples for culture can be taken from the trachea and vagina, and blood drawn for a CBC and serum chemistry. (For hematologic and serum biochemical reference ranges for ostriches, see Hematologic Reference Ranges and see Serum Biochemical Reference Ranges). Sodium heparin is the preferred anticoagulant. A slide should be prepared immediately for cytologic evaluation.
Good sites for venipuncture and catheterization are the cutaneous ulnar veins on the ventral side of the wings and the medial metatarsal veins. The jugular vein of the emu or rhea also may be used. Venipuncture and catherization of the jugular vein in ostriches should be avoided if possible because hematomas form easily, and sudden movement by the bird can result in lacerations and exsanguination. The right jugular vein is more developed than the left.
Chemical restraint for handling and surgical procedures in ratites employ the same drugs used in all veterinary practices. Anesthesia may be induced in younger birds with isoflurane or sevoflurane using the same procedures as with small animals. Intubation for maintenance is recommended, but the cuff should not be inflated. Xylazine and ketamine combinations are commonly used for short procedures on induction, followed by intubation and gas anesthesia. Xylazine administered at 2.5 mg/kg IV followed, after sedative effect is noticed, with 1 mg/kg of ketamine is an effective protocol. Recovery may be smoother if diazepam is given at 0.2 mg/kg IV or IM.
Surgical procedures in ratites generally involve GI procedures, orthopedics, and trauma repair. Proventriculotomy for foreign body removal and impactions in the ostrich is the most common surgery. In young birds, incisions should be made carefully because the abdominal wall is very thin. Yolk sac removal due to nonabsorption and/or infection is common. Egg retention in hens is addressed surgically and often multiple numbers eggs will be removed. Orthopedic surgeries are addressed as in other species with pins, plates, and transfixation casting as needed to address fixation of fractures. Laceration repairs are done as in traditional species. Upper esophageal tears from attempted hooking (capture) will often heal by second intention and, unless really severe, do not require suture repair.
As in all production animals, the cost of surgical correction of many conditions might be greater than the commercial value of the individual animal presented. Producers must be made aware of cost considerations.
To date, there has been little reliable research on ratite nutrition. The formulations of commercial diets available are based on studies in Africa and Australia, as well as extrapolations from the available poultry information. Current trends are to feed 14 –20% protein from the time chicks hatch to 3 mo of age, reducing the protein level after 3 mo of age. Ostriches and rheas are hindgut fermenters and have the ability to digest fiber from a young age. Therefore, sheep and goat pellets, as well as deer and wildlife pellets, are an economical alternative to commercial ostrich diets for chicks. Chicks allowed to hatch in the nest are coprophagous, eating feces from the parents for the first few weeks of life.
When indicated in a specific flock, autogenous bacterins for Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and clostridial diseases have been used.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Karen Hicks-Alldredge, DVM