Birds are usually a hardy flock, but they do get sick or injured. As a leader of the flock one of your biggest responsibilities is the detection of any illness or injury. Even the smartest talking bird will not be able to verbally describe its ailments. “Polly, wants an aspirin,” probably will not mean that Polly has a headache. It is up to you to detect the symptoms, try to match them to an ailment or injury, and to get treatment.
This article is an introduction to bird health issues, and will present some common ailments and possible causes. This article, in no manner, is meant to take the place of a visit to your vet. Only your vet can accurately diagnosis and treat your bird. Our only purpose is to provide you with information that may help you recognize potential problems.
As a flock leader your first job is to develop a “baseline” for your bird – that is, make yourself cognizant of your bird’s normal habits and actions; the general appearance of its eyes, beak, feathers, legs and feet; its eating routines, its stool appearance, etc. – get a general, all-around “bird sense”.
Examine your bird as gently as possible. Stress is a major cause of many disorders, and can complicate any existing problem.
Your vet should always be your only source of absolute diagnosis and treatment. There is no substitution for an actual visit to a qualified vet. There are many illnesses that affect your bird, and a quick diagnosis and treatment can protect its wellbeing. While there may be no cures for some of the more serious diseases, rapid detection and disposition can prevent the spread of these diseases.
When visiting the vet make sure you describe all of the symptoms your bird is displaying, the bird’s health and activity history, and a list of current medications. Bring the cage, if possible, WITHOUT cleaning it – this will allow the vet to visually inspect droppings and other cage contents. If you can’t bring the cage bring the floor liners containing the droppings.
Using your newly acquired “bird sense” watch for characteristics that are out of the ordinary. These include:
- Check your bird’s droppings.
- Watch for changes in their droppings (stool) – discoloration, watery, change in regularity, lack of feces. Droppings are a combination of urine and feces.
- A change in your bird’s droppings is probably the most significant indicator of illness. Examine them daily – both for changes in frequency, and their appearance.
- Changes can be caused by the simple introduction of new foods, overeating of fruits, poor water or stress. If your bird uses your home as its aviary it will be in contact with many “things” that can cause “stool modification;” i.e., human foods, household cleansers, soaps, pesticides, paint, house plants, and other “shiny” and “interesting” items. Always see your vet if the droppings don’t return to normal.
- Like us, sick birds usually won’t want to eat. And, reduction in food will result in loose, watery droppings with a lack of feces. As long as the bird’s intake of water remains the same the frequency of the droppings will remain about the same, but when water intake is also decreased the frequency of droppings will also decrease.
- Droppings that are consistently runny, including runny feces, may indicate diarrhea. Diarrhea is a symptom that something is not well in the bird’s lower digestive tract. Causes can be diet (new foods, poor foods); intestinal infections; stress; poisons (read our article on toxic substances and plants)
- An decrease in droppings, or lack of feces in the droppings, may indicate constipation. Causes can be blockage; dehydration; an overweight bird. Pasting of the vent can lead to constipation. This is where the droppings paste themselves against the vent and preventing elimination. Clean the area with soap and warm water. If you suspect a blockage because of an increased intake of grit, a couple of drops of mineral oil may help. Also, reduce the availability of the grit for a period of time. If other signs of illness appear, or the bird remains unable to void, see your vet immediately.
- Blood in the feces can indicate bleeding in the large intestine, infection, poisoning or excessive stress. See your vet!
- Excessive urine can mean disorders of the kidney, liver or pancreas, and blood in the urine may be caused by poisoning or stress. A yellowish urine may mean a liver disease, while a dull, green-colored urine could mean Psittacosis.
- Check for evidence of parasites. Roundworms – long, thin white worms; Threadworms – round and thread like; Tapeworms – flattened and segmented worms
- Be aware of changes in daily activity:
- lack of alertness and focus;
- reluctance or inability to perch;
- less vocal;
- changes in feather appearance;
- trouble breathing;
- wet eyes or nose.
- Watch for changes in the intake of food and/or water, or unusual weight loss or gain.
- An increase in water intake alone is not necessarily an indicator of a problem. Many things can cause your bird to require more water (ambient temperature, minor stress, exercise). Loss of appetite may be caused by stress due to subtle changes in your bird’s “normal” environment (new things, new food, relocation, new playmate, changes in its owners life). See your vet if it continues. An underweight bird, if there are no other signs of illness, may simply be hinting for more food or change in variety. An overweight bird should be evaluated by your vet as there may be underlying causes other than overeating.
If your bird exhibits any of the conditions described in this article, or you “sense” a “change”, error on the side of safety — get him to a vet who is well-versed in the treatment of birds.
The Deadly Three
Of all the diseases that may affect your bird the following are the most dangerous:
Psittacosis (Parrot fever)
This disease is most common in young birds that have been under severe stress (thus lowering their resistance to disease); usually because of the breeding and/or shipping processes. It is spread through fecal contamination, or close contact with infected birds. Very difficult to detect. If your bird begins to demonstrate any unusual symptoms; especially dull-green droppings, loss of appetite and weight, or poor breathing, immediately take it to your vet.
It is treatable (the antibiotic doxycycline), but prevention is probably the most effective form of treatment. Keep your aviaries clean and non-stressful, and quarantine all new birds for at least 45 days.
This is the one disease your birds may give to you, and unless correctly diagnosed and treated it can be fatal (pneumonia). Its symptoms are similar to the “flu”, (fevers, aches and pains, headaches, coughing and nausea). However, it usually does not include sore throats, runny nose, and/or congestion. Consult your doctor and tell him you have been in contact with domestic birds.
Diagnosed birds must be isolated and treated. Their cages must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Burn all droppings and contaminated items. Keep human contact to a minimum.
This is one of the most feared bird-related diseases. It is so highly contagious and deadly that an outbreak in California in the early 70’s cost close the $60 million to control while destroying over 12 million birds.
A viral disease the can be found in all domestic, and many wild, birds. Most often found in young, illegally imported birds. Symptoms include paralysis, twitching, respiratory infection, and bloody diarrhea.
Death usually occurs within a week, and all infected birds must be destroyed. There is no treatment. Because Newcastles affects all birds, and is so contagious and deadly, the government will take immediate control of any discovered incidents of the disease. Outbreaks of Newcastle disease could jeopardize major poultry populations.
Herpes virus; usually occurring in areas of multiple birds. Most parrot-type birds can be affected. Death can occur within a few hours. Diarrhea, weight loss and depression may be the only signs. Because stress lowers a bird’s resistance to infection, it is often linked to the onset of the disease. The disease is spread by contamination of food and water sources by the droppings from an infected bird, and through close contact.
There is no known treatment. It does not affect humans. New birds should be in quarantine for 6-12 weeks before exposure to other birds.
We will not attempt to prescribe treatment, and you should only use this information to help your understanding of what may be wrong with your bird. ALWAYS SEEK PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE AND TREATMENT!!!!!
- Decreased. Changes in a bird’s environment can cause a temporary loss of appetite, but because birds need to maintain a steady appetite, a continuing loss of appetite usually means a sick bird. DO NOT FORCE FEED UNLESS DIRECTED BY YOUR VET.
- Increased. Changes in a bird’s routine can increase the need for more food, just as it would in a human. But, it can also be a symptom of diabetes. When accompanied with other signs, like weight loss, it could mean parasites, or liver or intestinal problems.Balding. While it may be heredity or constant battering by a cage mate, it can also indicate serious disease. If this baldness is accompanied by other “not normal” conditions, see your vet immediately.The Beak. Because a bird’s beak is a critical part of its everyday functioning, problems with the beak need to be addressed immediately. “Beak rot” (psittacine beak and feather disease) may cause the beak to crack. An infestation of mites or poor nutrition can lead to beak problems, as can injury. The lack of normal wear can cause the beak to “over-grow”. Provide your bird with products that promote beak health, keep the cage clean, and watch for scaling (mites).
Also, watch for changes in the “cere” (located at the base of the upper beak). A disorder called “Brown Hypertrophy” affects this area. It is not critical unless it begins to block the nasal passage. It is displayed as a thickening to this area; brown in color.
Bleeding. Birds have very small volumes of blood so any bleeding should be immediately treated. If the bleeding is from a cut or other injury apply pressure directly to the bleeding area. Then clean the area of the wound, but do not probe. Bleeding in the beak or toe nails can be treated with a styptic powder, corn starch or baking power and pressure. A bleeding, broken feather is probably the most common mishap, and should be completely removed and pressure applied. Use two people, one to hold the bird and the other to pull the feather — use a pliers if necessary. Be very careful not be break any bones or a wing. If the bleeding continues, or the wound is serious, get to the vet.
Breathing. Changes in your bird’s breathing patterns, sneezing, runny nose, lack of appetite, and decreased vocalization can all be signs of respiratory infections. Lack of Vitamin A, drafts, stress, and changes in the ambient temperature are prominent causes. It could be just a common cold or sinusitis (also indicated by swelling under the eyes), pneumonia, inflammation of the air sacs; or, it could be symptoms of psittacosis or Newcastle disease.
Colds. He sounds like he’s got a “code in da node.” While your polite “God bless you” to your bird’s soft sneeze may be nice, you also need to be alert for serious complications. A runny nose usually means an infection, or irritation of the respiratory system, and when accompanied by other abnormalities it can suggest a serious infection. See your vet.
Coordination If your bird becomes confused, unstable or uncoordinated see your vet immediately. Causes can be head trauma that may clear itself in a couple of hours; or it could be suffering from lead poisoning, infections, tumors, or more serious head trauma. Take no chances – go to the vet.
Crop. Causes of an enlarged crop (swelling at the base of the neck) are usually compacted seeds or too much grit. These can usually be treated by changing to a softer diet for a short time, or a couple of drops of mineral oil. Infections, like Candida (yeast), are also common. Birds with continued problems should be taken to the vet, and surgery may be necessary in more severe cases.
Eyes. Check for changes in the normality of your bird’s eyes. Swelling and/or clouding can mean infections or mites, or a Vitamin A deficiency. When coupled with other symptoms it could mean a more severe respiratory infections, or even psittacosis. If you notice continuing (longer than 24 hours) eye discharge, or changes in the eyes normal appearance, go to your vet. If the eye is bleeding go to your vet immediately. Eye problems, gone unchecked, will lead to more serious issues, including blindness.
Feathers. If you notice changes in your bird’s feather growth or appearance visit your vet. There are many causes for these changes, some a normal part of bird life, and others indicators of illness or serious disease. You may have to work with your vet by keeping track of your bird’s behavior, environment, and diet to find the cause and determine a remedy. French Molt can cause the loss of flight feathers and, while non-fatal, there is no cure and the bird is usually “grounded.”
Lame. The most common causes of lameness in a bird are problems with its legs or feet, and should be visibly evident – torn nail, foot infection, burns, fracture. Sustained limping, even if you know the cause, should be brought to the attention of your vet. The vet will treat the suspected cause, but will also look for other reasons; i.e., kidney tumors, poor diet, arthritis, or head and spinal injuries.
Poisoning. Birds who have your home as their aviary are especially susceptible to poisoning. They will investigate just about everything, and they conduct most of this investigation with their beak. Consequently, many of their “findings” will end up in their tummies. [See Substances and Plants Toxic To Birds] for household items and plants that are poisonous to your bird. Signs of poisoning include shock, depression, convulsions, breathing difficulties, or sudden vomiting or diarrhea. If you suspect poisoning keep the bird quiet and warm and GET TO THE VET! Give or describe the suspected poison to your vet.NATIONAL ANIMAL POISON CONTROL CENTER 1-900-680-0000 $20 for the first 5 minutes, and $2.95/min thereafteror
NATIONAL ANIMAL POISON CONTROL CENTER 1-800-548-2423 ($30/case – credit cards only)
Skin Irritations. If your bird shows signs of skin irritation and restlessness at night, look for feather mites (red mites). These are small grayish-white or red moving dots that can be detected by placing a white sheet over the cage at night and then examining its underside in the morning. If detected, thoroughly clean and disinfect the cage and associated items. Continued irritations should be brought to the attention of your vet.(hmmmm, is that “Barf, I love you” or, “I love you, barf.”)
If you can’t identify the object of your bird’s affections, (e.g., bird keeps to itself, stops talking or singing, or isn’t “enamored” with another bird, human or object), it is probably that the bird is VOMITING. Vomiting can be caused by blockage (grit or foreign objects); infections of the crop (storage sack) — viral or yeast; lead poisoning; change in diet; indigestion; or enlargement of the thyroid. It can be visibly difficult to determine the difference between regurgitation/vomiting and droppings (you almost “have to be there.”
Overweight. Overweight birds are prone to suffer from the same ailments as overweight humans, and it can complicate the treatment of diseases or injuries. It can also indicate tumors, hernia, or other swellings. If you consider your bird to be overweight take him to the vet to rule out any problems, and/or to get him on a diet and weight loss program.
Underweight. Usually an indicator that your bird is not receiving sufficient calories. Its food intake should be reviewed to make sure it has the right content, and that it matches the bird’s activity levels. Upsetting the bird’s normal routine can lead to a loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss, as will beak problems. Continued loss of appetite and accompanying loss of weight can be indications of diabetes, liver or kidney diseases. If you bird is so underweight as to cause you concern; immediately take it to your vet.
(The books are available on-line through Amazon.com – just click the title to go to Amazon’s site)
The Bird Care Book : All You Need to Know to Keep Your Bird Healthy and Happy by Sheldon L. Gerstenfeld. Paperback – 229 pages Revised edition (June 1989)
The Complete Bird Owner’s Handbook by Gary A. Gallerstein, DVM. This title is out of print. Although it is no longer available from the publisher, Amazon will query their network of used bookstores for you and send you an update within one to two weeks. This is another valuable book for all bird owners. A wealth of bird care information as well as an excellent diagnostic tool for illness, diseases, parasites and injuries. Strongly recommended. Please see their updated version
Birds ‘N Ways is an excellent resource site for bird owners. It has an outstanding searchable database.
Avian Medicine On-line. Click on the “Avian Caregiver” icon.
Bird First Aid (www.upatsix.com/faq/aid.htm)