Disease is an issue we all hope to avoid as pet owners. Parrots are susceptible to a number of illnesses that may also affect other members of the household, both humans and other pets. Additionally, the signs of illness in parrots and other birds may not be immediately obvious because they differ from what we're used to seeing in mammals. It's extremely important for parrot owners to familiarize themselves with these signs and how to determine whether quarantine or immediate veterinary care is necessary.
DISEASES AND PREVENTION
There are a number of infectious diseases that can affect pet parrots. It is important to be aware of the most common ailments and the signs that tell you a bird is ill. Please note that these signs can be very subtle! Parrots are prey animals. In the wild, their lives may depend on maintaining the appearance of good health in order to avoid becoming a target for predators. Unfortunately, this behavior can make it difficult to determine when a bird is actually ill. Changes in behavior, appetite, and droppings are key signs that something is wrong. The chart below includes some of the issues a parrot's feces might alert you to:
You may wonder how diseases become a problem for housebound pets. While it's true that parrots restricted to indoor environments are less likely to contract infectious diseases, there are two factors that may increase that risk:
1) Spending time outside: The chance of contact with wild birds and other animals is increased if your parrot spends time outside. Outdoor time should always be supervised even if your parrot is securely caged, so you can keep wild birds and animals away.
2) Wild-caught parrots in the pet trade: Not only does this cause severe trauma to these wild birds by removing them from their natural environment, often by brutal means, but this practice also risks introducing many diseases to people's homes and aviaries.
Always acquire pet parrots from reputable sources, whether it be a pet store, breeder, or rescue organization. If you suspect a recently purchased bird may have been captured in the wild, keep the bird separate from any others in the household and schedule an appointment with an avian veterinarian as soon as possible.
Please note that it is vital to contact a veterinarian who focuses on the treatment of birds, which is why we specify an 'avian veterinarian' rather than the more generic 'exotic veterinarian'. One resource for finding a reputable avian veterinarian is the Association of Avian Veterinarians. You might also ask local owners, breeders, or pet stores for veterinarian recommendations. If you are considering a veterinarian who isn't a member of AAV, make sure to ask about their training and past experience treating birds.
If you are unable to locate an avian veterinarian, Animal Genetics can perform disease testing to help mitigate the risk of introducing the new bird to your flock.
AVIAN INFLUENZA (BIRD FLU)
Avian influenza refers to disease in birds caused by infection with avian influenza Type A viruses. These are common to aquatic birds, who are often carriers (meaning they show no signs of illness but may spread the virus). Certain highly infectious variants like H5N1 also spread not only to other types of birds, but to unrelated species such as dogs, horses, and humans. In addition to being highly infectious, H5N1 is one of the more serious avian influenza variants and can be fatal to both birds and humans alike. The Center for Disease Control provides regular updates on active bird flu outbreaks in the United States.
The symptoms of avian influenza in birds include:
Lack of appetite
Swelling of the head
Discharge from the eyes
Any parrot showing symptoms of avian influenza should be immediately quarantined from other birds and humans. Contact your avian veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment, which depends on the exact strain of viral infection. Left untreated, the mortality rate for avian influenza is very high.
Symptoms of avian influenza in Humans include:
• Sore throat
• Muscle aches
• Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
• Eye infections
• Difficulty breathing
Similar to many other strains of influenza, prompt diagnosis and treatment is key for humans as well. If you have any of these symptoms and suspect avian influenza may be the cause, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Treatment with antiviral medications can lessen the impact of influenza but is most effective when taken early in the infection.
AVIAN CHLAMYDIOSIS (PSITTACOSIS)
Avian chlamydiosis is an infectious disease of birds that is caused by the bacteria Chlamydophila psittaci. This disease was originally called psittacosis because humans most often contracted it from various psittacine (parrot) species. However, with further study it was found that these bacteria affect many species of birds, and the name was updated to a more general form. This bacterial infection affects the lungs and can cause pneumonia.
Symptoms of avian chlamydiosis in birds include:
• Lack of appetite
• Ruffled appearance
• Eye or nose discharge
• Green or yellow-green droppings
Left untreated, approximately half the cases of avian chlamydiosis will lead to death. Prompt treatment with a parrot-safe antibiotic like doxycycline will clear up the infection, though it does routinely take 45 days to completely eliminate the bacteria. In most cases, your avian veterinarian will recommend a follow-up visit after the run of antibiotics to confirm that the infection is cleared.
Symptoms of avian chlamydiosis in humans include:
• Muscle pains
• Difficulty breathing or pneumonia
Doctors are unlikely to specifically test for psittacosis when a patient presents these common respiratory symptoms. If you suspect that you have come into contact with a sick parrot, or have recently brought home a new pet bird, it's important to let your doctor know so they can test for bacterial infections. When promptly treated with antibiotics, most people make a full recovery with few complications.
AVIAN POLYOMAVIRUS (AVP)
Avian polyomavirus belongs to the family Papovavirus, the same group of viruses that causes benign skin tumors (papillomas or warts) in birds. Budgerigars (budgies or parakeets) are particularly susceptible to APV, which can cause a range of symptoms from benign feather lesions (the so-called French molt or Budgerigar Fledgling disease) to sudden death. Larger parrot species may still contract a serious form APV, but often have more time before it becomes fatal. There is no cure for avian polyomavirus.
APV is usually contracted through direct contact with other infected parrots, but can also be contracted from infected feces, dander, air, nest boxes, incubators, feather dust or from an infected parent passing it to chick. Feather dust is particularly problematic, as it can become airborne and contaminate an entire building. The polyomavirus is resistant to most disinfectants, so potentially infected nest boxes, cages, perches, or other items regularly in contact with multiple birds should be cleaned with chlorine bleach to eliminate the virus. Just remember to rinse and air out these items thoroughly before returning them to use, as fumes from chlorine bleach can be toxic to parrots!
With a mild case of avian polyomavirus, parrots may recover from the infection but be left with deformed feathers. Unfortunately, in most cases birds who develop a severe case of APV die quickly with no obvious symptoms. Different strains of the polyomavirus can cause different clinical signs, which may include:
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Difficulty breathing
• Abdominal enlargement
• Hemorrhaging under the skin
• Tremors (12-48 hours before death)
PSITTACINE BEAK AND FEATHER DISEASE (PBFD)
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease is caused by a strain of circovirus usually referred to as beak and feather disease virus, a member of the family Circoviridae. The virus attacks feather follicles and the growth cells of the claws and beak, causing progressive malformation of the affected areas. Abnormal feathers, loss of feathers, and deformations of the beak and claws are the obvious signs of PBFD, but some birds may carry and spread the virus with no obvious symptoms. PBFD occurs in both an acute and a chronic form, meaning that an infected parrot may live with these symptoms for years.
PBFD is also transmitted by direct contact with infected birds or through contamination of water or feeding areas. The virus can be found in feces, feather dust, or crop contents regurgitated for babies. As with APV, feather dust is particularly problematic because it can so easily be spread throughout an entire building via the ventilation system. Since the virus can survive outside a parrot's body for years and cannot be killed by disinfectants, PBFD spreads easily and is difficult to control. Immediate quarantine of affected birds is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, euthanasia is often recommended both to stop the virus from spreading and to spare the infected bird from suffering, as there is currently no cure for Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease.
Early symptoms of PBFD can include:
• Sharp feathers
• Clubbed feathers
• Abnormally short feathers (pin feathers)
• Loss of pigment in colored feathers
• Loss of powder down
• Bloody shafts in the feathers
As the infection progresses, the infected parrot will become depressed, possibly for several days, before dying suddenly. This disease can wipe out an entire household of parrots. Early detection, quarantine, and removal of any items that may carry the infection is crucial to stop the spread of PBFD.