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By Mike Treitler, V.M.D.

Psittacosis, also known as “Parrot Fever” or Ornithosis in non-parrots, can be a mild to devastating disease in pet birds. It is caused by a microorganism called Chlamydia psittaci which can be extremely contagious in the right environment. Fortunately, due to well-maintained quarantine programs on imported birds and a great increase in the number of American aviculturists breeding birds in closed settings, the frequency of this disease has diminished.

The Chlamydia organism is most commonly transmitted from infected birds via airborne feather dust particles and dried fecal material. It then incubates in the new host for two weeks to 1-1/2 years before inducing either no symptoms, organism shedding, a carrier state or illness. Sick birds become lethargic and anorexic, and go on to exhibit respiratory problems (ranging from conjunctivitis and sinusitis to pneumonia) watery diarrhea, and yellow lime-green urates suggestive of liver disease. Chlamydia causes great damage to the liver and kidneys of susceptible birds. If the bird survives this acute phase, it can develop neurologic signs like tremors and convulsions.

It is very important when purchasing a pet bird that you inquire into the bird’s possible exposure to Psittacosis. Any questions can be resolved by a fairly sensitive blood test. If you have purchased a bird, and within a few months the bird shows symptoms previously described, take it to your local veterinarian.

If it is felt that Psittacosis is a possibility, your veterinarian will run the blood test to confirm this and offer you the choice of aggressive therapy. Psittacosis is treatable with fluids, nutritional therapy, and an antibiotic called Doxycycline, but there are no guarantees. Also, it can recur even after a total recovery which is why there are no vaccines.

Most importantly, you can contrast Psittacosis from your bird by inhaling feather dust or dried stool particles. This is a great incentive to keep your bird’s environment clean on a daily basis. Humans can develop flu-like symptoms and pneumonia within five to fifteen days of exposure. Contact your physician and explain your situation so that the appropriate tests and treatments are initiated.

Dr. Mike Treitler is a veterinarian who practices in Santa Fe.

Note: This article first appeared in the Fall/Winter 1998 issue.

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