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.