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How to Tell if Your Bird is Sick

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It can be hard to tell if your bird is sick. The symptoms of illness in cats and dogs are not usually difficult to spot. While there are exceptions – especially in the early stages of certain diseases – cats and dogs tend to let us know that they’re not well. Lethargy, changes in eating habits or bowel function, and behavioral changes will usually be immediately apparent to their owners. Birds, however, present more of a challenge, but symptoms do exist that indicate an avian compantion is sick.

Unfortunately, by the time a bird is obviously ill, it may be too late for effective veterinary intervention. Early recognition of the signs of illness is key.

Know the signs

Avian veterinary specialist Dr. Greg Harrison, DVM, emphasizes the importance of spotting the telltale signs of illness in a bird well before a serious or life-threatening condition exists.

The good news is that those signs are quite specific. You just need to be alert to them:

  • Changes in eating habits: Bird metabolism is much faster than that of humans, so birds must consume adequate nutrition every day in order to maintain their weight. Loss of appetite may signal a number of serious medical conditions. So, monitor how much your bird normally eats and report any significant changes to your veterinarian.
  • Weight loss: Because of a bird’s rapid metabolism, any weight loss is a cause for concern. It is advisable to weigh your bird regularly so that you know right away if it’s losing weight. Be sure to use a highly accurate grams scale so that you get a correct reading. Specialized bird scales are widely available; ask your veterinarian. Feel the breast bone area to familiarize yourself with the amount of muscle. Birds usually loose muscle before fat when ill. Also feel and observe the area between the breast bone and the pubic bone and the area around the insertion of the wings. These areas should be free of accumulating fat. Fat birds usually develop fatty liver over several years.
  • Changes in the appearance or frequency of droppings: Though looking at bird poop may sound a bit unappetizing, it’s important to be aware of the normal appearance and frequency of your bird’s droppings. While there is variation in the appearance of droppings depending on your bird’s diet and species, droppings that are black in color may indicate a blood coagulation disorder. Unusually wet droppings may be a sign of polyurea, which is an indication of kidney disease or sugar metabolism imbalance. A reduction in the volume or frequency of droppings may also be a sign of illness. The presence of green or yellow in the urine is associated with liver disease.
  • Lack of activity; changes in vocalizations: If your normally active, playful, vocal bird becomes noticeably quieter and less active, it may indicate a problem. When you’re sick, you may not feel like talking. Birds are much the same way. Get to know your bird’s normal vocalizations. If there’s a change in its vocalizations that lasts for more than a few days, let your vet know.
  • Overgrowth of beak and nails: This is the most obvious of the early signs of illness in birds and may reflect the early stages of liver disease.
  • Ruffled feathers: While it’s normal for a bird to ruffle its feathers from time to time, when a bird keeps its feathers ruffled for a prolonged period, this is an indication the bird is cold, which can often result in illness. Ruffled feathers may also be nature’s way of concealing weight loss, which can make a bird more vulnerable to predation in the wild. A change in feather color can also indicate illness or disease. White feathers that turn yellow, blue that turn white, or green that turn black are signs of liver disease.
  • Molting: Feathers are lost (molted) in a healthy bird once a year. Sick birds molt frequently or constantly. Sick birds have a lot of baby (pin) feathers that fail to open. Pin feathers are wrapped in a skin called keratin; this should easily shed as the bird baths and preens. If the keratin layer is retained, that is not normal. Such feathers easily bend and break, and many also bleed when then brake. None of this is normal, either – bent feathers should return to their former shape and never break. Improper diet makes this a common – but not normal – problem.
  • Tail bobbing: Occasional tail bobbing is quite normal. However, prolonged and repetitive tail bobbing may be a sign of a respiratory illness. Tail bobbing often does not occur until the late stages of an infection, so it requires immediate veterinary attention.
  • Open-mouthed breathing: Birds do not normally breathe through their mouths. If your bird is breathing through his mouth while at rest, he is likely to have a respiratory illness requiring immediate veterinary attention. Harrison recommends this simple way of testing your bird’s respiratory function: with your bird standing on your finger or arm, drop your arm fast enough to make the bird flap its wings. Do this 3-4 times. It’s normal for a bird to breathe heavily for a short period after you do this. But if he doesn’t recover his normal breathing within 2-3 minutes, respiratory illness may be the problem. Call your veterinarian immediately. Discharges from the nares (nostril holes), eyes or ears are also signs needing immediate attention.

Also, check your bird for the development of swellings, lumps and bumps. An enlarging abdomen is often seen in egg-bound females. If the egg is not delivered in a few days, or the swelling is like a balloon filled with water, consult your veterinarian immediately.

Harrison emphasizes that while some of these signs are more alarming than others, it is more serious if they occur in combination, e.g. decreased appetite and ruffled feathers, or tail bobbing and open-mouthed breathing.

Better safe than sorry

Because birds are so good at concealing their illnesses, the appearance of any of the above signs may indicate a problem requiring veterinary attention. While you may be tempted to dismiss a small change in behavior, if you have any doubt at all, it’s best to err on the side of safety and call for expert advice.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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