An unusual surgery has netted positive results for a local red-tailed hawk poisoned by anticoagulant rodenticide, or rat poison. California Wildlife Center’s Dr. Stephany Lewis recently performed her first and the center’s first ever blood transfusion on a bird. The extraordinary measure was taken due to the severity of the patient’s prognosis that in early December was deemed “poor.” Now, the nonprofit says the hawk is doing so well it could be released into the wild in just a few short weeks.
“This is definitely not something I invented,” Lewis said, while still caring for the animal. The procedure on avians has been used for the past decade, but this was a first for Lewis, who thought it would be an excellent choice to save the bird’s life.
Although anything but routine, blood transfusions have sometimes been performed on larger animals, primarily at teaching hospitals and larger rehab centers.
“One of the reasons it’s not commonly done is there’s not a good way to store avian red blood cells for a period of time,” Lewis said. “People have been working on it, but it doesn’t appear the cells live for a long time if you store it. When you do a blood transfusion on a bird, it has to be done as soon as possible. You have to have the donor right there.” The procedure is routine at cat and dog hospitals that often have blood banks. Lewis also explained that other smaller rehab centers may not have healthy donors on hand.
“An interesting thing about blood transfusions in birds is that you can actually safely take blood from any other bird species and give it to another bird,” Lewis continued. “Ideally, you use the same species, but I could have taken blood from a goose and given it to a red-tailed hawk. They don’t have any naturally occurring antibodies to blood type.”
As the only veterinarian on staff at the center, Lewis had the idea for the unusual treatment.
“I’ve transfused dogs and cats—a ferret—but I hadn’t been a part of an avian blood transfusion before,” the doctor said. “This was my first.”
With roughly 40 sick hawks and owls coming in yearly to the center, Lewis said she’d been thinking about performing the procedure for a while. “We get a lot of these patients—raptors that have been affected by anticoagulant rodenticide and are clinically affected—meaning they’re bleeding through a small wound. The vast majority of the time, we’re not getting these birds in until they’re pretty far along into the disease. Traditionally, our treatment was IV fluids, but it doesn’t have red blood cells, protein or clotting factors.”
The hawk recipient is female. She is currently under observation and receiving vitamin K, an antidote to rat poison. Lewis says she’s doing “excellent—I fully expect her to make a full recovery.” The bird will soon move to a larger aviary for reconditioning before her release.
When asked about the apparent success of her first avian blood transfusion, Lewis commented, “It’s really rewarding. It’s exciting to be one of the few people that are performing this type of treatment especially for this problem.”
Although Malibu City Council just passed a rodenticide/pesticide ban, Lewis mentioned the CWC receives animals from all over the Santa Monica Mountains area, including Ventura and other areas where the poisons are not restricted.
“We see so many rodenticide patients,” she said. “Usually, the outcome is not as good. To have a new treatment under our belts to use feels good.”
Lewis concluded by encouraging residents to “not use rodenticides. That’s really what’s most important is that we stop using those poisons. Make sure if you hire a pest control company, that they’re also not using those poisons because I suspect there are a lot more of these patients out there than what we’re seeing in our clinic. A lot of them are hiding like sick cats do. Birds do the same thing—especially wildlife. A lot of wildlife suffering from rodenticides are not being found.”
And no, the hawk does not have a name.
“We don’t name our patients at wildlife rehab centers for a couple of reasons,” Lewis said. “We get about 4,000 animals a year and because they’re not owned by anyone we don’t assume ownership of these animals. They belong to the wild so we don’t treat them as domestic animals.”