Diagnosing an injury in a swan is a far from easy undertaking. Not only are swans large, frequently weighing over 10 kg, but they are generally not happy at being handled and thus many of them can only be examined after sedation, which naturally represents a risk. The hip joints of many species of bird are known to be vulnerable to injury but swans are believed to suffer broken hips only rarely. The traditional way of examining the birds' hips relies on radiography but Gumpenberger and Scope now show that computerized tomography (CT) gives more reliable findings.
The researchers examined the hip joints of five swans that had been brought to the Clinic for Avian, Reptile and Fish Medicine of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna because they were unable to stand. Radiographs were taken of three of the birds, while all of them were subjected to CT scans. The results were highly illuminating. Radiography gave indications that one of the swans might have problems with its hip joint but the diagnosis was not conclusive and the other two swans examined seemed to have intact joints. In contrast, CT showed correctly that all five swans had lesions of the hip.
Computerized tomography is thus much better able to identify problems with the hip joint than classical radiographic methods. In addition, it is often less stressful for the animals: imaging can be performed without the need for narcosis by simply placing the bird in a darkened cardboard box and allowing it to sit comfortably, whereas radiography of many species requires their sedation.
It seems, then, that hip problems in swans are more common than previously believed. It is likely that the majority of injuries of this kind arise when the birds attempt to land on hard surfaces, when the landing forces are transmitted through their legs to their hips. Of course, such emergency landings may simply be the result of air turbulence but Gumpenberger notes that "many injured swans are found near roads or railway lines, so it is possible that they misinterpret shiny rails or even concrete road surfaces as being water and thus try to land."
The paper "Computed tomography of coxofemoral injury in five mute swans (Cygnus olor)" by Michaela Gumpenberger and Alexandra Scope is published in the journal "Avian Pathology" (Vol. 41(5), 465-468).
Abstract of the scientific article online (full text for a fee or with a subscription): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abstract/10.1080/03079457.2012.712205
About the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna
The University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna is the only academic and research institution in Austria that focuses on the veterinary sciences. About 1000 employees and 2300 students work on the campus in the north of Vienna, which also houses the animal hospital and various spin-off-companies.
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