Psittacosis in Birds
Psittacosis, also known as parrot fever, Ornithosis, and Avian Chlamydophilosis, is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Chlamydia psittaci. It is highly contagious and is zoonotic (transmissible between birds and humans). Continue reading to learn more about this important disease, including symptoms, treatment, and prevention.
How do birds become infected with Psittacosis?
Species prone to this disease include parrots, macaws, parakeets, budgies, cockatiels, poultry, and pigeons.
Birds get the disease when large numbers of the bacteria are shed in the droppings, saliva, mucus, eye and nasal discharge, or feather dust from infected birds. Birds can also ingest the bacteria by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or by grooming their feet or preening their feathers after standing on contaminated perches or clutching contaminated toys. It is generally spread to people in the air when dust from dry bird droppings carrying the bacteria, is inhaled. Pigeons can also carry it in the crop milk.
In birds, this disease can cause chronic or long-term infections, asymptomatic infections, and sudden death. Asymptomatic birds can become carriers.
Psittacosis organisms can target cells in the bird’s digestive tract, respiratory tract, or the entire body. It replicates at a rapid rate in the cells and can be found in the blood and shed as quickly as 72 hours after exposure. Once the organism enters the host or the environment it can be long-lived and difficult to eradicate. Pet bird owners should avoid exposing their birds to other birds at pet stores, bird shows, etc. unless they know that all other birds have been tested and have had a negative result.
Symptoms of Psittacosis in Pet Birds
Clinical signs can be nonspecific, but this disease should be considered as a possibility in any sick bird. Some of the clinical signs noted with this disease can include:
- Decreased appetite
- Lethargy or listlessness
- Weight loss
- Wet droppings or diarrhea
- Swollen, crusty, runny eyes and/or runny nose
- Fluffed feathers
- Increased urination
- Respiratory difficulties, including increased breathing rate
- Lime green or yellow feces and urates
It is important to remember that birds in a carrier state can be asymptomatic so any time a new bird is introduced, testing for this disease is recommended.
How Psittacosis is Diagnosed in Pet Birds
Diagnosis of this condition requires a trip to a veterinarian that is familiar with or specializes in birds. The vet will take a complete history that can include weight, diet and husbandry, the introduction of new birds into the home or flock, and they will perform a thorough physical exam.
There are a variety of tests that can be utilized to diagnose this disease. Common diagnostics include a complete blood count (CBC) that will look for an elevation in the white blood cells and x-rays to evaluate for potential visible changes caused by the disease such as pneumonia, inflammation of the air sacs, or an enlarged liver or spleen. The vet may also take a swab from the oral cavity or the cloaca or do a blood test called a PCR.
Treatment Options for Birds with Psittacosis
Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the vet will decide the best course of treatment for your bird based on the species and the severity of the disease. Almost all birds affected with this Psittacosis are treated with an antibiotic called doxycycline.
The level of supportive care needed will depend on the clinical condition of the patient and ranges from fluids and supplemental heat to force-feeding and hospitalization. Unfortunately, the death rate for this disease can be as high as 50%. Factors that can influence the response to treatment include the species of the bird, the health of the bird, and how early the disease is diagnosed and treated. Even when birds respond to treatment, they can become carriers and get sick at some point in the future.
Prevention of Psittacosis in Pet Birds
A healthy diet and a clean, uncrowded, low-stress environment can reduce the risk of contracting Psittacosis. New birds brought into the house or flock should be kept in quarantine, isolated from other birds for at least 30 to 45 days, and tested for the disease.
Infected birds should be isolated from other birds during their treatment. Bird owners that are treating an infected bird should wear protective gear including a mask and gloves while handling or spending time with their sick bird(s), and they should wash their hands after each encounter.
The most important thing to remember is to take your bird to the veterinarian if any clinical abnormalities are noted. Unlike dogs, cats, and other pets, birds will often hide clinical signs. In many cases, once noted, they have been present for some time. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the sooner treatment can be initiated, increasing the chances for a positive outcome.
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