Psittacosis Can Be Spread By Birds
May 17, 2004
By Kim Marie Labak

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If your new pet bird has pink eye or is sneezing, you may have a bird with psittacosis, a disease that can be spread to other birds and to humans.

Many strains of bacteria can cause illness in pet birds. According to Dr. Julia Whittington of the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Clamydophila psittici, or psittacosis, is not uncommon in the pet trade. Since it is communicable to other birds, cats, and humans, veterinarians must report every confirmed diagnosis of psittacosis to state authorities.

Psittacosis can be spread by fecal matter and respiratory secretions. Birds are susceptible to catching psittacosis when in contact with other birds, especially in aviaries or pet stores. Psittacosis is not commonly spread to people, especially if good hygiene is practiced, but avian breeders and pet store employees are more likely to be exposed. As with many communicable diseases, immunocompromised people have a higher risk of getting ill once exposed.

Symptoms usually appear shortly after exposure to the bacteria and include respiratory distress, pink eye, and bright green droppings resulting from hepatitis. Some species, including budgies and cockatiels, can carry the bacteria for a week or two before showing mild symptoms, while other species, such as Amazon parrots and macaws, can get seriously ill once exposed.

Definitive diagnosis of psittacosis infection is difficult, but with clinical examination and a series of tests, a veterinarian can establish a diagnosis.

A key factor in diagnosing psittacosis is whether the bird has been exposed to other birds within the previous several weeks. Dr. Whittington says, “Psittacosis is suspected when a bird becomes ill after having been newly acquired, has had exposure to birds with unknown histories as in a show situation, or lives with a new bird recently introduced to the household.” If a bird has not been exposed to other birds recently, the cause of illness is probably something other than psittacosis.

Early detection and treatment of psittacosis can minimize illness. Treatment stipulated by government authorities mandates a 45-day course of the antibiotic Doxycycline.

Pet owners can do several things to help detect psittacosis early and prevent its spread. Dr. Whittington says, “Knowing where you get your bird is important, testing your bird is important, and maintaining good hygiene is important.” Before getting a new bird, researching breeders and pet stores can help give an idea of what places may be more reputable and hygienic.

A veterinarian, who can look for subtle signs of illness and diagnose diseases such as psittacosis, should examine any new bird. Dr. Whittington also suggests that newly acquired birds be kept away from other birds in the household for 2 months. This will allow time for signs of illness to show if the new bird is an asymptomatic carrier, and also keeps stress at a minimum while the bird adapts to it new surroundings.

To prevent spread of germs, always practice good hygiene by keeping birdcages, water bowls, and furniture clean. Wash hands after handling a bird, and no matter how sweet or cute a bird may be, do not share beak-to-mouth “kisses.” A bird should be monitored for any signs of illness after contact with other birds, and after attending bird shows.

Since 1992, importation of tropical birds has been tightly regulated. Since then, prevalence of psittacosis has decreased, according to Dr. Whittington. However, the disease is still found in aviaries where large numbers of birds are bred and raised.

For more information on psittacosis, please contact your local avian veterinarian.

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