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Cornell University

Zoological Medicine Resident Melissa Hanson, DVM ’19, Receives Research Award to Study Refeeding Syndrome in Red-Tailed Hawks

Dr. Melissa Hanson, first-year resident in Zoological Medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), received a research award from the College to study refeeding syndrome in wild red-tailed hawks at Cornell’s Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital.

Raptors that are ill or injured can go without food for days in the wild. By the time these patients reach the wildlife hospital, these birds are often weak and emaciated.

Dr. Melissa Hanson drawing blood on a red-tailed hawk at the Cornell Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital
Dr. Melissa Hanson drawing blood on a red-tailed hawk at the Cornell Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital.

In humans and some domestic animals, starvation results in changes in metabolism. If food is subsequently reintroduced too quickly, electrolyte derangements can occur and the patient may suffer seizures, heart failure, or death. This metabolic disease is called refeeding syndrome. Consensus statements provide clinical recommendations for the reintroduction of nutrition in malnourished people and some domestic animals. However, the metabolic changes associated with starvation have not been well-characterized in avian medicine, and the ideal approach to nutritional recovery in emaciated birds is unknown.

Dr. Hanson will collaborate with Braddock Bay Raptor Research in Honeoye, NY to evaluate biomarkers of starvation in emaciated red-tailed hawk patients at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital and compare these to values from wild, healthy, migrating red-tailed hawks.

This work will also compare two nutritional recovery plans for hospitalized red-tailed hawks in order to evaluate the true risk of refeeding syndrome in these patients, and develop evidence-based treatment guidelines for reintroduction of nutrition in emaciated raptors.

The Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital cared for over 1,100 avian wildlife patients in 2019. Red-tailed hawks are exceedingly common in the upstate New York area and comprise a large percentage of the raptor patients treated at the wildlife hospital. The results of this research will serve to better inform the veterinary and wildlife rehabilitation communities about the process of starvation in raptors, and make treatment recommendations that maximize chances of survival and recovery.

Dr. Hanson earned her DVM from Cornell University in 2019 and completed a general internship at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan before returning to CVM for her residency. Zoological Medicine residents spend three years in an intense clinical and research program. This internal research grant provides funding for CVM residents to complete short-term projects up to one year in length. A publication resulting from this project will help qualify Hanson to take the board examination for the American College of Zoological Medicine.

Written by Isabel Jimenez, DVM ‘19