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Signs of Illness

Written by Karine, TaffyWduck

As most of you know, birds are pros when it comes to camouflage sicknesses. They hide their symptoms until the last possible moment because in the wild a sick bird has almost no chances of survival. Their flock mates usually pick on them to get them to leave the group because they might attract predators and endanger the group. Pet birds are no exceptions, you need to be aware of your bird's particularity and normal behavior in order to identify when something is wrong.

Poop

One of the easiest sign to notice is a change in consistency/color of the poop. It's easy to keep track of your bird's dropping by changing the paper at the bottom of the cage every day. Use paper towels or newspaper, this will allow you to take a quick look at the droppings as you clean the cage.

Things you should be concerned about:

  • Runny/watery droppings can be normal after the bird has had a bath or a veggie meal. Any other time, this should be your cue to take an appointment with your avian certified vet. Occasional runny poops should be closely watched as to make sure it isn't recurring.
  • Change of color can be normal after a meal containing brightly colored foods (strawberries, blueberries, carrots, red peppers etc). You may also notice a change of color if you change your base diet (change pellets brands, seeds brands etc.). If you have certain toys in the cage that are dyed (the dyes should always be food coloring and usually come off if you rub it with water) it's possible that the bird is ingesting part of the toys so you should check for any damaged toys the color of the dropping and remove it. Any other time you notice a change in droppings, it is imperative that you contact you certified avian vet and make an appointment ASAP.
  • Rare droppings are a good indication that something is wrong with your bird. In female birds it can indicate egg related problems such as egg binding (hen is unable to expel the egg). It is also a good indication to be able to tell if a bird is eating or not … if the bird is pooping, it's eating… if not then it's probably not eating because he/she doesn't feel right. It is possible that after during a stressful period that your bird eats a little less (think after moving or after the loss of a companion) and it is primordial that you monitor the droppings closely because birds have very fast metabolism and will starve quickly. I've also heard about birds who will fake eating to make it seem like they are alright, in which cases monitoring the quantity of droppings remain your only indicator that something is wrong and that the bird isn't getting enough food. A bird that is not eating requires a trip to the vet to eliminate any underlying medical causes (infections, diseases etc.). The vet might tell you that the bird will have to be force fed, which is not easy to do so don't hesitate to ask the vet to teach you how to properly do it or even ask if the bird can stay in the hospital for the length of the treatments if you feel uneasy about doing this.
  • Diarrhea or dropping that have absolutely no form can be caused by infection and should be addressed ASAP by a trip to the vet.
  • Particles in the droppings won't be found in the normal droppings. Most likely your bird has made his business and then some seed/pellet/whatnot has fallen into the mix afterward. However, if you are positive that there are partially digested foods in the droppings and that it came directly from the bird you should be concerned and at the very least call your vet.

Physical Signs

Checking your bird over everyday (when you take them out of the cage is the perfect moment to do a quick check up!) can help you to keep a good track of your friend's physical condition.

Things you should be looking for:

  • Cuts and scratches can happen at any given time if we are not careful about our birds' environment. If the cut/scratch doesn't appear deep (i.e.: isn't bleeding anymore and you can't find traces of blood anywhere where the bird has been) and it doesn't look infected (see Infected wounds further down) keep a close eye on it, but it should clear up on its own. Bleeding wounds require immediate attention because birds have very little blood in their systems. First thing to do is to stop the bleeding (quick stop is great for it, but so I flour or corn starch) and then ring your vet for further assistance. If the bird has lost a great amount of blood it might need some I.V fluids and this is not something you can administer from home without seeing a vet.
  • Blood feathers are growing in feathers that still have a blood supply. Mostly present during molts, these can be a nightmare for bird owners. When a blood feather break there is a lot of bleeding and generally the feather will have to be plucked out to prevent further bleeding (even if the feather clot with flour or starch, chances are it'll break again so why take the chance?). Using needle nose pliers, owners can remove the guilty feather by holding it at the base, close to the skin (careful about not grabbing the skin too) and pulling strongly in one motion in the direction the feather is growing in! (Girls, think about the way you pluck your eyebrows for it to hurt less -- look at that -- needle nose pliers at your disposal! Just make sure to disinfect them before and after use or buy an extra pair. Men... well start to pluck your eyebrows!)
  • Infected wounds often look painful, red, swollen, and puffy; sometimes they are runny (pus). In the best world we would all notice before it gets infected, but sometimes circumstances make it so you don't. No need to beat yourself over about it, take care of the bird first and then you can feel guilty about it if you want! First thing is to, of course, call your vet and take your bird in for a checkup (also to make sure that the infection is not spreading). DO NOT TRY TO DRAIN AN INFECTED WOUND YOURSELF! Unless you are a certified avian vet, a certified avian technician and just happen to have the necessary equipment laying about your home you can only make things worst.
  • Fractures and dislocations can be discovered by carefully looking at your bird's stance. If a wing is dislocated or broken it will be hard for the bird to hold it straight or to open it. Obviously, if your bird is unable to spread his wings he won't be able to fly either so if your normally great flier just falls to the ground like a brick, take it as a serious hint that something might b broken. It can be hard to tell a fracture, dislocation or sprain from each other, but all require a trip to the vet and x-rays. Legs and feet (toes) can also be broken, sprained and whatnot. If you notice that your bird has trouble with his grip, a bent out of shape left or toe, can't walk, won't use one of its legs, chances are that something is very wrong. Call you avian vet.
  • Plucked areas and bald spots aside from the under the crest bald spot often found in lutinos (and other mutations too) can mean one of two things:
    • If your bird is caged with others it's possible that its being picked on by the others. This mean that the other bird(s) is(are) plucking out the feathers of your bird, which is very stressful for the victim. To rule out peer aggression as the reason of your bird's bald spot, separate your birds and keep a close eye to see if more bald spots appear and if the feathers grow back in.
    • If your bird is caged alone it means he is plucking out his feathers. Even though bigger parrots are prone to feather plucking as a behavioral problem, smaller species rarely pluck for such reasons. Both bigger and smaller species should be seen by a vet to rule out any underlying medical reason for plucking.

      Some infections can cause the bird to be itchy (Birds infected with giardia sp. will often pluck the feathers under their wings for example.). Parasites such as mites can also cause itch, encouraging the bird to pluck out their feathers. Take note that over-the-counter medication (available at pet stores) IS 99.999999% of the time completely ineffective, if not dangerous and should not be used as an alternative for a vet. Your plucking bird will require blood tests and fecal smear to eliminate underlying medical causes, only an avian certified vet can offer you those.
       
  • Swollen/red nares (nostrils) sometimes with discharges are a dead giveaway for respiratory infections. Keep in mind that it is possible for birds to be irritated by their own dandruff and their might get reddish nostrils/sneeze after an intense preening session. Strong perfumes/scents/smoke can also irritate the sensitive respiratory system of birds and should be avoided at all times around them. If your bird is having a hard time breathing (panting heavily and not only after exercising), has a discharge from its nose or swollen nares, it should be seen by a vet. Birds, as I mentioned before, have very sensitive respiratory systems and are prone to infections so you can never be too careful.
  • Unusual sneezing and wet sneezes are also good indicators of respiratory problems. Keep in mind that after a bath, a bird might have gotten some water in their nostrils and sneeze it out (wet sneezes) even though it is common knowledge that you have to try not to get any in there… birds have a way of getting lots of stuff in their noses lol! Occasional sneezing (couple times a day) should not worry you, but constant (several times a minute) should warrant a call and potential trip to the vet. Constant wet sneezes should be addressed immediately.
  • Deformed, overgrown beak is a good indication of internal problems, often kidney related. Of course you need to have your bird checked up to determine the underlying cause of the growth. It is possible that the beak has to be trimmed; this should never be done at home without prior training WITH YOUR VET and the right equipment. Take note that it is possible for the beak to overgrow if your bird is not provided with diversified, good quality toys, but it should never be to the point were you actually notice it.
  • Swollen, red/puffy or half-eyes can be cause by a lot of different things, but all are serious and warrant immediate medical attention. First thing to do is look around the cage/area the bird has hung out in for any pointy things the bird would have gotten hit on and remove it. There can be discharge from the eye (often, pus) if it's infected. If you notice that your bird keeps its eyes partially closed all the time (or most of the time) or keep one of its eyes closed permanently, it's not normal. Keep in mind, however, that sleepy birds might keep one eye close before they fall asleep. Do not try to put anything in the bird's eye, take it ASAP to the vet to get it proper treatment.
  • Growth and tumors can sometimes appear on your bird and cannot be treated without professional medical assistances. It's possible that during molting time a feather starts growing under the skin (incarnated feather) which can cause a growth, tumor looking bump that is uncomfortable (painful) for the bird. As I mentioned before in infected wounds, do NOT attempt to drain a tumor or a growth yourself, it can only result in much pain and trauma for your bird. I would also advise against removing incarnated feathers yourself if you never had proper training from your avian vet.
  • Swollen vent area (cloaca) in hens if a good sign of egg binding. This is a VERY serious condition that requires immediate vet assistance. While you prepare to take your bird to the vet, place it in a humid (but not too hot) room and hurry, time is of the essence.

Behavior

This is where being close to your bird comes into play. As an owner, you have to know your bird's behavior, habits and quirks, this is important because a sick bird might have changed behaviors which are great tips as to the health of your bird. Keep in mind that birds tend to hide their illnesses until the last possible moment (i.e. when it demands too much energy for them to be able to keep the charade up) so it's important to act quickly. Molting, stress and hormones can also have an impact on behavior, with time you will learn the nuances of your bird's behavior, at first just be aware that molting is usually a very hormonal period for birds, as well at mating season and behavior might be affected.

  • Changes in vocalizations such as a very vocal bird suddenly becoming quiet can indicate that something is wrong and you should start looking for others signs of illnesses. The change has to be persistent though because it's normal for a bird to experience changes in vocalization after a stress and even during molting time.
  • A tame bird suddenly turns untamed (and vice versa) is also a clear indication that something isn't right with your bird. If your normally loving bird turns into a biting terror (or the opposite) it can be caused by hormonal changes (beware of molting time and sexual maturity) but it can also be caused by illnesses (a.k.a the bird doesn't feel right and is rightfully grumpy or the bird is ill and doesn't have strength left to fight being handled). If the behavior change persists a vet should be consulted.
  • Lethargy is pretty much inactivity on the part of the bird. Always sleepy, off looking birds should be seen by a vet ASAP if the problem persists more than a few hours.
  • Not eating / not drinking is sometimes hard to observe, however, by monitoring the droppings it will become easy for you to tell if your bird has lowered his intake of food, in which case you have to ask yourself the following questions:
    • Did you suddenly change the bird's diet (change from seed to pellet, change brand etc.)?
    • Is the bird under a lot of stress (move, death of companion, new home)?

      In either case you should monitor your bird closely and call your vet for further assistance. Birds can't go without food for long periods of time so you have to be very careful about it. Also, make sure your bird has access to CLEAN water at all times, birds are very picky and will not drink stale water (change of taste) and if they do, it can be dangerous (bacteria and lots of nasties develop in stale or soiled water).
       
  • Fluffed/puffed up feathers indicate that the bird is having problems controlling his body heat. This should be a worry if it lasts a couple of hours as some birds tend to fluff up a bit before sleeping or if the room gets cooler. Avoid temperature variation and drafts at all costs, this is important to keep your birds healthy and warm. Sick birds will have difficulty maintaining their body heat so a fluffed up bird should be seen by a vet.
  • Staying on the bottom of the cage/ on corners are both behaviors meant to help retain body heat. It can also mean that your bird is having trouble perching, is having egg related problems etc. Either way, the bird needs to be seen by a vet ASAP.

Remember that knowing your bird is key in becoming an expert at telling if something is wrong with him/her. Being observant of all the little signs can also be life saving since birds are really good at hiding their illnesses and health problem until the last possible minutes and reacting quickly can make the difference between life and death. NEVER hesitate to call your avian certified vet for assistance and it's better to take the bird in and learn that there's nothing wrong with it than waiting and ending up with a critically ill or even dead bird. Annual checkups are also great for keeping track of your bird's health.

In this article, I often mention the need to take your bird to the vet if some signs are there, remember that you should always see a CERTIFIED AVIAN VETERINARIAN, never a regular cat and dog vet who sees birds. Even though the later often mean well they are not trained to handle and care for birds and can often do more bad than good. Here is a good link to help you find an avian vet in your region: http://www.aav.org/vet-lookup/

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