Illness in Parrots


Each week I receive distress messages from individuals whose bird has fallen ill. Many of these persons live in countries where avian veterinarians do not exist. They are desperate for help and ask what they can do. This article addresses the immediate response that the owner should take to improve the life of a sick pet bird.

The metabolic rate in birds is extremely rapid. If they do not feed, it is common for weight loss and dehydration to take place almost instantly. The latter is evident as the feet darken and appear to shrink; if the area above the toes is gently pinched, the skin will remain in a pyramid, retracting slowly. The period of retraction is very quick in a healthy bird. The facial skin in macaws, naked orbital ring in Amazon parrots and bare nares in some lories will appear redder, wrinkled or emaciated. Insuring that the bird remains hydrated is key. Providing one of the drinks sold for athletes, which contains salts, sugar and electrolytes, often induces the bird to drink. If unavailable, a mixture of sugar with a pinch of salt can help. Veterinarians hydrate the bird by injecting fluids into various parts of the body.

The rapid metabolic rate in a bird causes rapid weight loss. A bird can go from overweight to rail thin in a few days. The keel bone will project and become razor sharp with weight loss.

Ill birds fluff their feathers and tend to perch with the head tucked into the body; almost all sick birds sit with both feet on the perch. The perception that only healthy birds perch on one foot when resting is incorrect. Some birds will try and maintain their balance on one foot by grasping the cage side. They tuck the foot to help conserve even more energy.

An ill bird needs warmth. Placing the bird in a brooder type unit (either a commercial brooder for birds or a human baby incubator) is the best means of keeping it warm. Light bulbs can be used but they can burn the bird, prevent it from resting or can contribute to the dehydration. When used, select a red bulb that emits less light and situate it so that the bird can mode away from it should be overheat.  In brooders a source of humidity can help. A brooder can also be used to supply oxygen, which improves breathing.

The droppings in an ill bird will display dramatic changes. In a healthy bird the droppings will contain a fecal part that can be green, brown or even reddish. Diet is the factor that contributes to the color. Bird fed beets or colored pellets tend to produce a different colored fecal matter than a bird fed seeds. Droppings that appear to look like pea soup, contain undigested food, are florescent yellow or are very wet suggest there is something wrong.

Sick birds typically need supportive care. This includes the aforementioned fluids and heat, food and medication. Using tonics, probiotics, herbal medications, suspending a garlic bulb or onion by it and much more will NOT save a sick bird. In fact, these remedies often cause more harm than good. As an example, I know of cases where arsenic was used—only to kill the bird. The same can be written for a long array of other things.

Antibiotics are usually given with antifungals, as yeast is an opportunistic invader when antibiotics are supplied. These drugs are not normally selected by guessing but rather as a result of culturing swabs taken from the birds and sensitivity testing (where antibiotic disks are placed on a culture to see which drugs would be most effective in treating the pathogen causing the illness). A veterinarian does not need to be an expert in avian care to be able to perform this type of work. By providing the drug identified, the probability of recovery is increased significantly.

Some veterinarians will begin administering a drug long before the testing results return. They make their decision based on experience.

In most cases the bird owner lacks this experience and would be guessing by selecting something off the shelf. The probability of being right is low. Because of this, culturing and sensitivity work is highly recommended.

Antibiotics can be administered via the drinking water, orally or by injection. Birds can go days without drinking and thus a water-based antibiotic is the least effective. It can also discourage drinking, exacerbating dehydration in a sick bird. The most effective antibiotic is injected into the breast muscle.

Keeping a sick bird in a quiet area, preferably covered, is highly recommended. The bird needs peace to get well.

When drugs are administered, do not expect instant results. In most cases it is on the third day that the bird will display signs of getting better.

Working with a local veterinarian is key to success. They have been trained and have the proper equipment. For those without access to a veterinarian, identifying one that treats dogs and cats and has a laboratory can be the next best option. A veterinarian can always consult with a colleague that is a specialist in avian care.

Consider a sick bird an emergency. The longer you wait, the greater the risk that when treatment is finally administered that it will not work. The late bird shop owner Erling Kjelland told me as a teenager: a living bird is a dead bird if you do no run to give it medical attention. He was right. I repeat to you these same words of wisdom.