What a relief: raptor pain management
The Raptor Center
For some raptor patients in rehabilitation, we need to provide food or medications directly to the stomach. We do this through a process called gavaging, as seen with this red-tailed hawk
For some raptor patients in rehabilitation, we need to provide food or medications directly to the stomach. We do this through a process called gavaging, as seen with this red-tailed hawk

A large proportion of wild raptors admitted to The Raptor Center (TRC) have suffered a traumatic injury. They may have been hit by a car, have a broken bone, or have a traumatic brain injury after hitting a window. How do staff control the pain patients are experiencing after these types of injuries?

You may be surprised to learn that TRC uses many of the same medications that humans and domestic animals receive for pain control.These include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications similar to the ibuprofen that is in your medicine cabinet at home, along with other classes of pain meds, such as gabapentin, a medication that is used routinely in dogs and cats.

A red-tailed hawk
Lower right and above: This bald eagle underwent surgery at The Raptor Center to fix a broken bone in its wing.
| Photos by The Raptor Center

While there are well-established treatment regimens for pain control in humans, there is limited information about which pain medications work best in raptors. TRC staff and veterinarians across the country are actively studying pain medications in raptors to gather the scientific information needed to make the best choices for patients. From these studies, scientists have found variations in how different raptor species process these pain medications. This research has shown that medical staff aren't able to treat pain in a bald eagle the same way they can in an eastern screech owl.

The medical staff at TRC uses all available research and consults with colleagues to ensure that their raptor patients are receiving the best pain control possible. They also pay attention to each animal’s behavior to gather information about the bird's level of pain. Signs of pain in a raptor patient include fluffed feathers, partially closed eyes, a wing drooped low towards the ground, or a decreased appetite. If signs of pain are noted, their medications are adjusted and they are watched closely for improvement.

 

Pain control is not only important for the individual animal’s welfare and comfort; long-term pain also has many negative effects on the body. Pain can inhibit healing and suppress the immune system, making the bird more prone to infections. As the bird’s injuries heal, TRC staff gradually decreases the pain medications until the raptor is feeling like new once again.

Close observations of individual patients combined with scientific studies allow TRC to gather more information about which pain medications work best in North American raptor species. Staff then share this information with other wildlife veterinarians and rehabilitators to improve pain control and welfare of raptors throughout the country.

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a raptor in a crate