Signs of Illness in your Pet Bird

Posted by Susan Lenz on


Please Note: this information highlights some of the common problems that pet bird owners may experience. A vigilant and observant owner can often pick up on the early signs that their pet is not well. With a pet bird, you need to get them to the vet as soon as you notice they are not well.

Birds are prey species and their instinct is to hide signs of being unwell, because sick birds attract predators. Often by the time owners notice their bird is sick, they are too sick to hide signs any longer. When in doubt about the health of your pet, make an appointment with your avian veterinarian.

Recognizing illness in avian species can be next to impossible with some birds. Most birds are flock species and will mask signs of illness so as to not attract predators to the flock and to avoid hostility from flock members.

Birds will even go so far as to crack seed but not ingest it in an effort to appear healthy. The result with cage birds is that many will be debilitated long before their caretakers will realize the bird is sick. 

Initial Signs of Disease

· Fluffed plumage demonstrates that the bird is trying to maintain warmth

· Lack of preening may indicate the bird is conserving energy

· This may manifest as unopened pinfeathers, prolonged molt, dull or dirty plumage, dusty and flaky plumage or skin (not cockatoos)

· Watery droppings occur as illness progresses

· Quiet or docile nature suggests a change in behavior for many birds

· Eating less is often consistent with illness

Advanced Signs of Disease (requiring immediate vet attention)

· Lesions on the bottom of the feet may be associated with chronic obesity, vitamin and mineral deficiency, poor perching substrate, etc.

· A change in fecal consistency or color is consistent with gastrointestinal illness, infection, liver or kidney disease and many other illnesses

· In activity, sleeping head-tucked and resting on the cage floor may all be signs of serious or advanced illness

· Prolonged, audible or labored respiratory efforts are indicators of respiratory, heart; and in some cases, liver and reproductive diseases

· Masses, abdominal distention or other changes in body appearance; even weight loss, may correspond to many serious problems

· Any discharge from the nostrils, eyes, wounds or mouth; including regurgitation, suggests infections or damage to those organ systems

First Aid

First aid for birds requires two main actions:

1. Keep the bird warm (around 32.2c) and quiet

2. Don't mess with it. Constant handling to encourage water consumption, eating, over-the-counter medicating, petting and comfort do little to benefit an ill bird. Keeping it warm with indirect heat sources, increased humidity, calm lighting, quiet location and availability of favorite food items are the best approaches.

Some birds will benefit from a small degree of handling to administer water but many are best left alone until an avian veterinarian can see them. An ideal setup is to place the bird with its favorite foods and a bowl of water in a pet carrier. The carrier is placed on a heating pad (set on low) in a bathroom, with a nightlight on, and the humidity is increased by periodically steaming the bathroom with the shower.

Pet birds often become ill. While most diseases of birds can affect every species, there are some species which are more prone to develop certain conditions. By being familiar with the various conditions which commonly affect a certain species, your veterinarian is able to formulate a diagnostic and treatment protocol which is most likely to result in a correct diagnosis and cure for your bird illness. While not listing every possible disease that may afflict your bird, the following discussion will make you more familiar with the specific problems your pet is most likely to encounter.

Budgerigars Budgerigars or budgies are known for developing various solid external tumours as well as internal cancer. A common cancer affecting the kidneys or reproductive organs causes a unilateral (one-sided) lameness that owners often mistake for an injured leg. Cnemidokoptic mite infestation (scaly face mite) is a frequent cause of crusty dermatitis of the cere (area around the nostrils over the beak), face and feet. Trichomoniasis (a protozoal infection of the crop and oesophagus) is also commonly found in budgies. This causes serious illness and death if not diagnosed and treated. Megabacteria, an organism that causes bleeding stomach ulcers is regularly diagnosed in budgies by routine faecal tests. It is also a very contagious disease that can be transferred by birds eating contaminated droppings. Since many budgies are fed a high fat diet which includes a lot of canary seed, hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), is another common problem that is often fatal in budgies. Fat budgerigars often have problems laying eggs and egg binding is seen with some frequency in pet budgerigars.

Cockatiels Cockatiels, like budgies, are commonly adversely affected by being fed a high fat diet. Cockatiels should never be fed a sunflower seed mix. Fatty liver disease and associated vitamin deficiency are some of the most common health problems presented in cockatiels. Coagulopathy (blood not clotting) as a result of Vitamin K deficiency often causes fatal haemorrhages in cockatiels. Cockatiels also suffer from a range of reproductive disorders including chronic egg laying, egg binding, uterine infections and egg related peritonitis.

Canaries Canaries have several genetic maladies. Feather cysts, which require surgical removal, frequently occur in canaries. Cataracts are not uncommon. An unusual form of Cnemidokoptic mite (scaly face mite) infestation called Tassle-foot occurs frequently in these popular birds. Air sac mites that infect the trachea and air sacs, commonly contribute to respiratory disease in canaries. Pox virus often causes skin disease or death in canaries.

Love Birds Love birds are often affected by Megabacteria, which left undetected will cause chronic wasting or acute haemorrhage and death in single pet birds or aviary collections. Behavioural feather picking and self-mutilation is often apparent in single pet love birds. They do better in pairs or in a flock situation.

Galahs Galahs are another species of parrots that suffer adversely from a high fat diet (specifically a sunflower seed mix). Many galahs on high fat diets develop fatty liver disease. Lipomas (benign fatty tumours) are commonly seen in galahs. Bumble foot (infected callouses) is another health problem in galahs associated with obesity and fatty liver disease. Galahs also suffer from many psychological problems that result in obsessive compulsive and stereotypic behaviours.

Sulphur Crested Cockatoos Cockatoos, like other large birds, often develop psychological feather picking that is difficult to treat. This type of obsessive compulsive behaviour requires a lot of extensive behavioural modification therapy. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease Syndrome is another common problem affecting Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. These birds are also adversely affected by high fat, sunflower seed mixes which cause fatty liver and obesity health problems. Overweight, female cockatoos also develop many reproductive problems.

Some other common problems affecting pet birds. Fibre impaction is an increasingly common problem amongst pet birds. Birds that chew on carpet, upholstery, cage covers, happy huts, tasselly toys, woven rope perches etc., develop indigestible fibre balls that cause blockages in the digestive system. Some of these impactions can be surgically removed. However, many go undetected and cause chronic wasting and death.

Metal toxicity can also affect household pets as well as aviary birds. There are many sources of metal within a home and aviary. Birds are very visual and are attracted to shiny things. Gold and silver jewellery dont harm your pet but other types of metal can poison and cause death.


It is important for all bird owners to be aware of the disease chlamydiosis or psittacosis and its potential for infecting humans. Chlamydiosis, sometimes referred to as Parrot Fever, is caused by an intracellular parasite called Chlamydophila psittaci.

Transmission – This organism is found in feather dust and dried up faeces and is dispersed by air circulation. Transmission of Chlamydophila is primarily through inhalation of contaminated dust from droppings of feathers. Infection risk is increased by close contact with infected birds that are shedding the organism. A large number of birds carry the organism in their system but will only show signs of the disease when stressed. For this reason, the disease is more common in birds stressed through transport, overcrowding or malnutrition. Some birds are carriers of the disease and will shed the organism to infect other birds but not show signs themselves.

Clinical Signs – Birds suffering from Chlamydiosis exhibit many of the usual sick bird signs e.g. Lack of appetite, weight loss, depression, greenish diarrhoea. However, as Chlamydiosis affects the respiratory system as well as the gastrointestinal system, other signs such as discharge from the nose or eyes, sneezing and respiratory problems also occur in birds infected with the disease. Breeding birds can pass the organism to their young. Young birds are more susceptible to severe infection than adult birds and may die in the nest or soon after weaning. 

Diagnosis –Because the symptoms of Chlamydiosis are not specific and can mimic a large range of diseases, examination and tests by an experienced avian veterinarian are essential to diagnose the infection. Once Chlamydiosis has been positively diagnosed, appropriate treatment can be administered.

Treatment – Doxycycline is the preferred treatment for Chlamydiosis. The treatment is for six weeks. The medication can be administered orally, in the drinking water or by weekly injections. It is recommended that all exposed birds in the household or aviary should be treated at the same time to reduce the spread or recurrence of the disease. Cages should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Birds that are severely affected will need intensive care and supportive therapy such as crop feeding with high energy, liquid food supplements, a heat source and sometimes intravenous or sub-cutaneous fluids. A severely affected bird may die despite treatment.

Transmission to Humans – Humans can also contract Chlamydiosis from infected birds. Elderly, pregnant, sick or very young people, immunosuppressed people or those on chemotherapy are in greater danger or becoming infected with the disease. Symptoms in humans include persistent flu-like signs, chest pains, fever, chills, headaches, weakness and fatigue. Any family members who exhibit these signs should seek medical advice. A simple blood test will diagnose the disease in humans and an appropriate course of antibiotics can be administered. Neglect of the symptoms or a delayed diagnosis may result in serious illness.

Preventive Measures – All new birds should be quarantined for a period of 6 weeks. During the quarantine period, they should be examined and screened for Chlamydiosis by your avian veterinarian. At a bird’s yearly health check, it should also be examined for any signs of the disease and tested and treated if appropriate. Chlamydiosis is a serious killer of pet birds. However, if diagnosed early and appropriately treated, it can be overcome.

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