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What is Ataxia?

Ataxia in birds can cause problems to the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system. Within the nervous system, damage is often done to the spinal cord, brain or inner ear. This damage will result in the brain’s inability to perceive the physical position of the bird’s body, head and limbs. It can also cause the brain to be unable to coordinate movement. When the musculoskeletal system becomes damaged, your bird will be uncoordinated since the muscles themselves are not able to properly respond to the signals that the brain is sending.

When a bird is suffering from ataxia, they have the inability to coordinate their voluntary muscles. They will appear clumsy and will stand with their legs splayed apart for balance or they may use their beak as a hook on the side of their cage to stay balanced. Birds that are severely ataxic will not be able to sit on their perch without falling off, they may also not be able to walk without stumbling or falling over.

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Symptoms of Ataxia in Birds

It can be alarming to see your bird suffering from a lack of coordination or stumbling around. This is a serious condition that needs to be immediately addressed by your veterinarian. If you notice your bird acting strangely or exhibiting any of these symptoms, call your veterinarian for an appointment.

  • Standing with legs splayed wide for balance
  • Using their beak to hang onto the cage or other objects to remain standing
  • Uncoordinated movements of their head, wings or legs
  • Lethargy or excessive sleepiness
  • Falling from their perch
  • Difficulty breathing including stretching their neck and leaning forward to breathe, open mouth breathing, puffing out their cheeks with each breath or bobbing their tail with each breath

Causes of Ataxia in Birds

There are several nervous system and musculoskeletal system disorders that can cause ataxia. Generally, ataxia is one of the first symptoms of nerve or spinal cord damage. Damage to peripheral nerves or the spinal cord will have symptoms that are localized to the affected appendages and will have a normal level of mental activity.

Musculoskeletal damage may also cause your bird to seem uncoordinated. This is because the muscles are not able to respond appropriately to the signals that are coming from your bird’s brain. Many times this happens because there are nutrient deficiencies such as vitamin E, calcium or selenium.

Birds that are chronically ill from diseases may also appear ataxic. There is always an underlying cause when ataxia is present that must be addressed by your veterinarian.

Diagnosis of Ataxia in Birds

Your veterinarian will begin the appointment by asking you questions about your bird’s medical history and their environment. You will need to let your veterinarian know when you noticed the symptoms and if they are constant or intermittent. 

A thorough physical examination will be done by your veterinarian. They will also recommend that specific diagnostic tests be completed to determine the severity of the ataxia and the underlying cause. Tests that may be recommended include:

  • Heavy metal toxicity
  • Complete blood count or CBC
  • Serum biochemistry panel
  • Choanal samples for Psittacosis

Radiographs may be ordered by your veterinarian. This will allow them to look for any metabolic diseases or any damage that may have occurred to your bird’s spinal cord. Ultrasounds can also be used, but most veterinarians will recommend x-rays before ultrasounds.

Endoscopy may be ordered to look at the middle and inner ears for infections or any abnormalities. The abdominal cavity will also be scoped to look for any evidence of a metabolic disease.

Treatment of Ataxia in Birds

Once the diagnosis has been made, your veterinarian will probably recommend hospitalization for your bird during their treatments. This is done to provide supportive care for your bird while they are ill.

While hospitalized, your bird will receive intravenous fluids and injectable medications. In some instances, depending on the severity of their illness, your bird may also need subcutaneous fluids to keep them from becoming dehydrated. Subcutaneous fluids are injected under the skin, not into a vein.

Your bird will be given antibiotics and/or antifungal medications depending on the type of underlying illness that has been identified. Medications that are chelating agents may be given if your veterinarian found heavy metal toxicity in your bird.

Nutritional support will be provided including giving extra vitamins and minerals to promote healing and a healthy immune system. Your bird will also be kept within a warming chamber to keep their body temperature regulated and keep them more comfortable.

Recovery of Ataxia in Birds

When your bird is diagnosed as ataxic, that is generally one of the first symptoms of a serious illness. Take precautions with your bird if you notice they are exhibiting signs of ataxia until you can get them in to see your veterinarian. You should keep your bird calm and in a quiet environment, remove perches and swings, put food and water close to your bird in shallow dishes.

Depending on the diagnosis of the underlying cause, your bird’s prognosis will vary. Once your veterinarian has diagnosed the illness and begun treatments, they will be able to give you a more accurate prognosis for your bird.

Ataxia Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Oliver
Canary
2 Years
Moderate condition
2 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms

Falling Over

Hi, I don't think our Oliver has Ataxia, but whatever he has, acts like it. Ever since he was a chick, he had balance issues. Fairly bad ones. He eats and drinks normally, but in the last couple of days the balance issues have become worse. What, other than ataxia, can cause balance issues from day one?

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
1604 Recommendations
Thank you for your question. If he has had those balance issues from the beginning, it may have been a congenital abnormality, or birth defect, with his vestibular system, or an underlying infection or inflammation that has never been resolved. If you think it is getting worse, it would be a good idea to have him examined by a veterinarian to assess his general health and see if there is anything that can be done about his balance issues.

A bird flew right onto my window and fell on the ground.
He cannot fly straight and no more than 10 meters before he falls and most of the times on his back. He will drink water and will try to stabilise himself with his wings when he is on the ground. This happened half hour ago. I have tried putting him on the tree branch but he cannot stay on it. He does not seem to have a feel for his legs like he cannot balance on them. I have now put him in a box to keep in put (with an opening of course). He does try to fly away he is just sitting in the box. My plan is to wait it out until he regains his strength. Any advice ?

Thank you very much. We do have an avian vet nearby. I suspect it's congenital. When I did more research on this through some Scotch Fancy breeders' blogs, there were a few lines that had this issue. I'm suspecting that I might have purchased one, from these lines. I'm a bit doubtful that there's anything that can be done - those Scotchies that suffered with this, couldn't be helped, as nothing was noted in the blogs concerning treatment. I'm suspecting they were put to sleep, eventually. I'll see what our vet says. THank you again!!!!

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bird
sparrows
2 Weeks
Serious condition
0 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

falling over a
Falling Over

we have 2 baby sparrows that are about 9 days old. One is a lot smaller than the other but he is doing fine. The bigger one was a lot latter getting out of it's nest but did really good for about 3 days. Now it can not get up on the perch or hardly walk without falling over. We have been feeding them canned cat food and any insects we can catch. Ant ideas? The parents were killed by cats.

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
1604 Recommendations
Abandoned birds have a really hard time surviving, even with the best of care. The only thing that you can really do is continue to try and nurse the birds, but they may not survive, sadly. i hope that all goes well for them.

A bird flew right onto my window and fell on the ground. He cannot fly straight and no more than 10 meters before he falls and most of the times on his back. He will drink water and will try to stabilise himself with his wings when he is on the ground. This happened half hour ago. I have tried putting him on the tree branch but he cannot stay on it. He does not seem to have a feel for his legs like he cannot balance on them. I have now put him in a box to keep him put (with an opening of course). He does not try to fly away he is just sitting in the box. My plan is to wait it out until he regains his strength. Any advice ?

I found a young fledgling goldfinch who has a tendency to wobble

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Oliver
Quaker Parrot
9 Years
Mild condition
1 found helpful
Mild condition

Has Symptoms

Loss of Balance
Loss of Balance, not active, quiet

My Quaker hasn’t been himself for about 2 weeks now, I’ve taken him to the vet a few times. We’ve done a blood test (came back a bit low in calcium) an X-ray (everything looked normal), and he’s been on antibiotics for a possible infection and I’ve given him pain meds. The infection meds were the first possibly diagnosis but when things didn’t get better after a few days we did the blood tests and X-ray but those also came back fairly normal. My Quaker has fallen off his cage a couple times because he just loses his balance and he’s almost fallen off my shoulder a few times. He doesn’t move around as much as he used to during the day and he doesn’t chirp hardly ever (which is very out of character. I just don’t know what else to do. He’s been on small doses of pain meds which do perk him up a bit but he’s still not the same bird he was a few weeks ago.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3314 Recommendations
Without examining Oliver I cannot start to determine an underlying cause, the pain medication may be addressing a variety of issues (and you didn’t which medication you’re giving). If you haven’t visited an Avian Veterinarian yet, I would recommend you do so for a thorough examination and a review of husbandry, diet etc… I cannot think of anything to recommend without examining Oliver first. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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Lemon
Budgie
3 Years
Mild condition
1 found helpful
Mild condition

Has Symptoms

behavor
Blance
Falling Over

My male budgie, Lemon, has gotten this issue. He seems to be hanging on the side of his cage holding on with his beck, and also has trouble positioning his feet. He also has been falling on the bottom of the cage a lot. He also is bitting more, which he dose do. Lemon, is also shares a cage with 3 other females, Blue, Snowball, and ice.

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
1604 Recommendations
If Lemon is falling over and laying on the bottom of the cage, it would be a good idea to have him seen by a veterinarian. Without seeing him, I can't say what might be wrong, but metabolic disease, parasites, and toxins are all a possibility.

Thank you, but I think he has ataxia. I've been looking at the symptoms and he's got most of them. I'm going to get him checkout by a vet thank you.

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Kiaser
Budgie
Six Years
Serious condition
1 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

balance
Falling Over
change of behavior

My British Budgie for six hours has lost balance and has been falling into his food dish. He has pellets that he has been nibbling on but I cannot tell if he is actually eating them or grinding them into dust. He also sips a bit of water. Yesterday he was very lethargic and I wasn't eating. I changed to a new bag of food and he now is eating again but has this new balance issue. His stools also get stuck in his vent which is not new, but the balance issue is. He doesn't have any trouble breathing but he is hanging out on the bottom of his cage, which he never does.

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
1604 Recommendations
That is odd behavior for a budgie, I agree. If Kaiser didn't have any trauma that you are aware of, he may be having a neurologic issue. Since I cannot examine him, it would be best to have him seen by a veterinarian, as they can see him and determine what might be going on. In the meantime, make sure that there aren't any toxins that he is getting into.

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