Dot Schwarz explains everything you need to know about psittacosis.
Zoonosis is a lovely sounding word with a horrid meaning – an illness transmitted from animals to humans. Parrot fever known as psittacosis is a zoonotic disease that can pass from birds to us. So what is it? Is it serious? How can we prevent it?
Do you want the bad news first? Untreated in birds it can be fatal: untreated in humans it can be fatal. The good news is that it is not a common disease. Not more than 50 human cases have been reported in UK annually for the last few years.
Precautions against the spread of infection are generally valid, and since the precautions involve good hygiene they benefit other aspects of Parrot care. In fact the best hygiene possible is what we should aim for.
An indoor bird is unlikely to contact the bacteria. But in the rare eventuality that it might – here are some facts and guidelines.
The bacteria that causes Parrot fever has different strains; it is known as Chlamydia psittaci. But it isn’t only Parrots (psittacenes) who can pass on the bacteria, other birds, pigeons, ducks, turkeys can do so as well.
And psittacosis is a disease that affects wild birds and causes fatalities. Possibly 1% of wild bird mortality is due to this. Psittacosis can be carried by birds and not cause illness until they are stressed. That is why you can get outbreaks in quarantine stations where wild birds are taken or in badly run pet shops.
So how worried should Parrot owners be of this disease? The answer is with sensible precautions you are unlikely to suffer from it yourself. Parrots are more likely to suffer from it. You cannot safeguard against bad luck but certain precautions will lessen the risks until they are negligible.
One is to know where your birds are coming from. An anecdote from bird-owning friends: they bought a pair of Blue- fronted Amazons 20 years ago from a breeder in Wales. Living in Essex, they bought sight unseen. When arriving at their aviary, both birds were poorly.
One died the other recovered. The necropsy showed psittacosis. The breeder denied responsibility. Nether of my friends caught anything nor did their other birds. The surviving male lived for 20 more years.
Never buy a wild caught bird. Since the 2007 ban on importing wild caught Parrots into the EU, you are less likely to come across a wild caught. Sadly smuggling still continues. And of course in Asia, India and Africa, wild caught birds are still sold.
A bird that has lived indoors for over one year will not have been exposed to chlamydia bacteria.
If your bird has psittacosis might you catch it? It is unlikely. Around 50 cases are reported in UK and Wales each year.
I was interested to find out similar number of reported cases in USA with its bigger population. Cases anywhere may be under reported since the symptoms of a mild infection are flu-like. (I could find no mortality figures for humans in recent years)
Psittacosis in humans
People working in certain occupations are more likely to come into contact with psittacosis.
These occupations are more at risk than we will be with our pet birds in the bird room:
Risk factors include:
Working in, or buying from, a pet shop. Psittacosis is the most common zoonosis acquired through a pet shop
Pet bird ownership
Contact with ill birds
Zoo and bird park keepers
Demolition/building renovation/building conservation workers – where birds have been nesting
Poultry processing plant workers – particularly during gutting carcases
How can you catch it?
Several ways. Simply handling the bird or breathing in fine particles of its urine, faeces, or other bodily excretions may lead to an infection. You may also become infected if the bird bites you or if you kiss the bird (touch its beak with your mouth).
Catching the disease from an infected person is theoretically possible, but extremely rare. This could happen from inhaling the fine droplets that are sprayed into the air when the sick person coughs.
The incubation period is 1–4 weeks. Symptoms are flu-like, with fever, headache, muscle ache and breathing problems, although the disease can progress to severe pneumonia and other non-respiratory health problems.
Anyone with these symptoms and who may have been in contact with infected birds should consult their GP. Since Parrot fever is such a rare condition, at first, your doctor may not suspect this disease. So tell your doctor if you have recently been exposed to any potentially sick birds.
Psittacosis caught early is not a serious disease and is treated with antibiotics.
Tetracycline and doxycycline are two antibiotics that are effective. With proper and prompt treatment, you’ll make a full recovery.
Parrot fever in birds
These are the symptoms:
Infected birds may shiver or have difficulty breathing
Discharge from the eyes or nose
Discoloured droppings in various shades of green
Lethargy and sleepiness
The sick bird may eat less or even completely stop eating.
Not all birds that are infected will show these signs. Birds can also have an infection where they appear healthy and do not show any initial symptoms but they can show symptoms later.
This is my only experience with the disease. I sometimes accept rescue birds. A pair of untamed Orange-winged Amazons needed a home.
As my grandchildren visit, I asked for a psittacosis test before they came. The test was positive for Cybil the hen. The conscientious owners went through weeks of treatment at high cost. Cybil survived and came here with a negative test. I kept her and her mate isolated.
Unfortunately, a couple of months later she suffered a relapse. She became ill as you see in the photographs. Basil, her mate, appeared to be a devoted nurse. I treated her for three weeks with two 2 syringes daily filled with antibiotics, critical care, manduka honey and yoghurt. She recovered.
From my notes in 2007
Sunday August 24th
Cybil has been out of the nest box twice. She is very thin and seems thinner each day. I see her eat one banana chip and sometimes a peanut.
When I towel her in the box she struggles out of the hole and flies and falls to the ground.
Once I have given her syringe with Baytril and then 500 ml of honey diluted water and Critical Care. She seems to stay 5 to 10 minutes out and then retreats to the nest box.
Basil will step up for a peanut readily when Cybil is back in the box.
She survived for 18 months with a good quality of aviary life (she even became tame and would fly to my hand) but then died from bowel cancer. Had she been weakened by 2 bouts of psittacosis?
It is lucky that this illness is rare because birds can be carriers and show no symptoms. Alan Jones in the article cited below points out that psittacosis although treatable is not yet fully understood.
You hope to start with healthy birds. If adding a new bird to your flock, isolate her for 30 days. This is not 100% effective (the bacteria can survive longer) but is a useful precaution for other illnesses also.
The following control measures reduce the risk of infection: ensure enough space in bird room or aviary; don’t have cages crowded together. Crowding and stuffiness increases risk of infections. Good ventilation is essential.
Bird cages should be cleaned regularly, to prevent faeces drying out. A suitable disinfectant should be used. Careful occupational hygiene practices should be followed, particularly washing hands with soap and warm water. F10 can help disinfect your bird’s cage.
Several authorities I consulted warned against using pressure washers as they create an aerosol which can spread bacteria.
If your birds are well fed with glossy plumage and bright eyes, they are unlikely to succumb to infection even if they are exposed to the bacteria.
Although Parrot fever is more serious for birds than people, fortunately it is rare. With good hygiene and heathy birds, you are unlikely to come across it.
If you want a more detailed analysis of psittacosis and its effects on humans and Parrots, the well-known vet, Alan Jones has the following article available on the Parrot Society website.
Find the nearest avian vet to you here.