By Jennifer Graham, DVM, DABVP (Avian / Exotic Companion Mammal), DACZM
You can tell a lot about pet bird health by observing the bird and its droppings. In this article, we’ll discuss the following important topics:
• Signs, symptoms behaviors of healthy vs. sick birds
• The importance of monitoring your bird’s droppings
• Important steps to take to keep your bird staying healthy
• Ways your avian vet can determine what is wrong with your bird if it is sick
Signs Your Bird Is Healthy
The appearance of a healthy bird is likely something we are all familiar with. However, we often take the appearance of a healthy bird for granted and may not realize all the subtle clues birds give us when they are sick. Birds naturally hide their signs of illness, and most owners may not realize they are sick until their birds are near death.
Some things you notice when looking at a healthy bird include:
• Bright eyes with no discharge
• Clean nares (nostrils)
• Smooth feathers without stress bars
Stress bars are translucent or dark, depending on the feather color, lines across the vane of the feather. Stress bars are caused by segmental dysplasia that represents a dysfunction in the feather epidermal collar during growth, which is an indication of stress.
Healthy, playful birds are interactive, often vocalizing, and can naturally make quite a mess of their cage and surroundings!
Subtle Signs of a Sick Bird
If a bird is sick, subtle signs can include:
- Decreased activity
- A prolonged molt with continuous presence of pinfeathers
- Excessive flakiness of the beak or skin
- Sores on the bottom of the feet (pododermatitis)
- Chewed/missing feathers or feathers that are broken and bent
- Dull or unusual color of the feathers
- Lameness or changes in stance
- Crustiness or matted feathers around the eyes or nares
More Serious Signs Your Bird May Be Sick:
- Fluffed feathers and inability to perch
- Difficulty breathing or increased sounds when breathing
- Change or decrease in the droppings
- Change in eating and drinking patterns
- Decreased vocalization
- Weight loss
- Bleeding or inability to use the limbs
- Swelling of the coelom (belly)
- Active straining
- Vomiting and regurgitation
If your bird is showing any of these serious signs, you should seek veterinary care immediately.
The Importance Of Monitoring Your Bird’s Droppings
The droppings of a bird can be crucial in picking up early signs of problems. Normal droppings consist of 3 components, including:
• Urine (clear and watery part of dropping)
• Urates (creamy colored kidney waste)
• Feces (often brown to green food waste)
There can be quite a normal variation in your bird’s dropping depending on its recent eating or drinking habits. Eating fruit or vegetables high in water content can cause a loose stool with increased urine component.
If a bird eats seeds, the feces can be dark green in color while birds on formulated pellets can have a brownish color. Pigments from colored pellets or fruits can change the color of the droppings. The first defecation of the morning is often voluminous or loose.
Causes of changes in your bird’s droppings can include:
• Stress (more urine production)
• Egg-laying (voluminous or loose stools)
• Birds eating handfeeding formulas (brown and voluminous)
• Consumption of items such as blueberries (dark color to the excrement)
Birds that are sick can have a decrease in the quantity or volume of droppings. A dark color change to the feces can mean that digested blood is passing into the droppings. Frank blood, which is red in color, is not normal and can be life-threatening.
A color change of the urine or urates to green or yellow may indicate organ disease or decreased food consumption. Diarrhea appears as runny feces from increased water content. An increase in the urine or urate production is important to note, as it may be associated with kidney problems.
Keep in mind the normal variations in the droppings that can occur; call your veterinarian if you are concerned that the changes you are seeing are not normal.
What To Do If You Notice A Change In Your Bird’s Droppings
If you notice a change in the droppings, make sure to examine multiple droppings to rule out a change in food or water consumption. If the change goes away after a few hours, it may just have been the result of increased water consumption (i.e., after taking a bath and drinking a lot of water) or a brightly pigmented fruit.
Newspaper, paper towels, or non-colored paper are ideal to observe the appearance of the droppings. An added benefit is that these materials allow the bottom of the cage to be cleaned easily. Avoid the use of particulate cage bedding, such as corncob or walnut shell, as this can hold moisture, along with bacterial or fungal organisms, and mask the appearance of the feces.
The Benefit of Weekly Weight Checks For Your Bird
Purchasing a scale that weighs in 1-gram increments is a great investment if you have a bird. Weighing your bird on a weekly basis and keeping a record of any weight change is ideal. Weight loss may be the first sign of illness and an opportunity to intervene before a condition becomes life threatening. While the weight of your bird may fluctuate by a few grams depending on the time of day or a recent meal, a significant weight loss should be taken seriously.
If you note a 10% or greater increase or decrease in the body weight, rapid investigation is warranted.
The Importance Of Annual Veterinary Examinations For Birds
An annual examination by an experienced avian veterinarian is an important way to ensure your bird is healthy. Subtle changes in the skin, feathers, weight, oral cavity, or abnormalities such as a heart murmur or abnormal respiratory sounds may be detected.
Annual Bloodwork For Birds
Annual bloodwork is also important. A complete blood count can show changes if there is infection or inflammation; this tool is also useful when diagnosing non-infectious respiratory conditions (for example, hematocrit and some white cell changes can be seen with conditions such as hypersensitivity syndrome).
A chemistry panel will detect alterations in enzymes that may mean more serious organ problems. Because there can be a wide variation in normal blood values even among the same species of birds, annual bloodwork when your bird is healthy establishes normal values for your individual bird. Knowing ‘normal’ for your bird is helpful when trying to determine what is abnormal.
Fecal examinations, such as direct fecal cytology and fecal Gram’s stains, are utilized by avian veterinarians to detect alterations in the bacteria of the feces, which can indicate underlying illness.
More Extensive Diagnostics
More extensive diagnostic tests such as radiographs (x rays), blood heavy metal testing, cultures, viral screening, endoscopy, and others may be recommended to further determine the cause of disease if your bird is sick. While these tests may be somewhat costly, they may give the veterinarian the best chance of diagnosing the disease and determining the best treatment option for your bird. A veterinarian should be able to relay which tests will be the most valuable to avoid unnecessary tests and expense.
The Role Of Nutrition in Bird Health
Keep in mind that malnutrition is one of the most common causes of disease in most pet bird species. The good news is that providing proper nutrition can be accomplished by following a few basic but important guidelines. These include:
• Ensuring your bird is on a nutritionally complete diet is vital to prevent many disease conditions. Feeding a portion of the diet as a formulated pellet is important for most pet birds.
• Seeds and nuts may be fed in small quantities to some species.
• Healthy vegetables and occasional fruit are fun ways to provide additional nutritional value. Avoid avocado, chocolate, and caffeine as these are toxic to birds.
• You should also avoid feeding meat, dairy, and high cholesterol or fatty foods as these may increase the risk of heart disease.
Exercise is very important and foraging for food is an excellent way to encourage this. While this means a little extra work on your part to create foraging opportunities, it will go a long way to help your feathered companion live its best life.
It comes as a surprise to some people to hear birds are relatively hardy creatures. However, missing some of the more subtle signs they give us when they are sick may make the difference between intervening and helping or losing your beloved companion.
Spend time educating yourself on the normal variations of avian health and behavior so you will know when something is awry. Also, never forget the value of an experienced avian veterinarian. Talk to your veterinarian about other resources to keep your bird healthy and do not hesitate to ask questions.
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