What is Failure to Thrive?

There are varying factors that may cause a bird not to thrive.  The most common reasons for young chicks not to thrive are inexperienced handlers and inadequate nutrition.  Deficient diets can also cause the chick to be stunted, weak and have symptoms such as regurgitation. 

If you have a bird who is underweight and showing other signs of failure to thrive, he needs to be seen by an experienced avian veterinarian as soon as possible.  This condition can be fatal.

Failure to thrive in birds can be caused by different health conditions such as bacterial infection or parasites. It is important to diagnose what the underlying reason is causing the bird not thrive, in order to avoid serious complications like ulceration of the skin or feather loss.

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Symptoms of Failure to Thrive in Birds

Symptoms may include:

  • Weakness
  • Underweight
  • Abnormal feather patterns in young birds
  • Small in size
  • Inactive
  • Regurgitation

Causes of Failure to Thrive in Birds

Failure to thrive in birds may be caused by:

  • Nutritional issues
  • Inexperienced handlers - not keeping a young chick warm, food is not the correct temperature or consistency, insufficient food intake
  • Bacterial infection 
  • Avian gastric yeast (AGY) also known as megabacteria
  • Protozoa gastrointestinal trachoma
  • Coccidiosis – motile parasites found in the small intestine
  • Parasites internal or external
  • Genetic - inbreeding, poorly developed organs

Diagnosis of Failure to Thrive in Birds

The avian veterinarian will want to go over the medical history of the bird. The veterinarian will want to discuss the symptoms you have observed, the patient’s diet, feeding routine, environment and housing. If your bird has been seen by another veterinarian, it is recommended that you bring the previous medical records and any medications or dietary supplements that were prescribed.

The veterinarian will then perform a physical exam.  He may suggest administering a gas anesthesia to the patient before starting.  An anesthetic, such as sevoflurane can help the patient not to be overly stressed. Young chicks may not need to undergo gas anesthesia. 

The physical exam may include weighing the patient, checking his eyes, beak, oral cavity, plumage, and a palpation of the limbs and abdomen. The patient’s heart, lungs and air sacs may also be checked using a stethoscope.

The veterinarian may recommend blood work, such as a complete blood count and a biochemistry serum profile.  A complete blood count will check the bird’s platelets and the red and white blood cells. The complete blood count can also detect if the patient is anemic or has a bacterial infection. The biochemistry serum profile, can determine the patient’s organ functions, glucose, proteins, electrolytes and calcium levels. Blood is usually taken from the jugular on the right side of the neck. Blood may also be drawn from the inside of the ulna or the hock joint. 

A fecal exam can help diagnose parasites and other organisms.  If the veterinarian suspects avian gastric yeast he may want the droppings to be collected over a few days. Patients with avian gastric yeast do not always shed the organism in their stool, therefore taking several samples can help identify it. Fecal exams may include direct smears on a slide examined under a microscope or flotation procedure (centrifugal or passive). Direct smears are limited, as a diagnostic test because of the small amount of feces examined. Direct smears are good at identifying motile parasites.  The flotation procedure uses a solution of water, salt or sugar to separate eggs from the fecal sample. 

The veterinarian may also recommend a culture test of the throat, vent, crop, or trachea.  A culture can determine abnormal growth of bacteria or yeast.

Treatment of Failure to Thrive in Birds

Treatment will depend on the findings of physical exam and the diagnostic test.  A young chick with nutritional issues will be given fluids, nutritional support and will be kept warm. The veterinarian may suggest, that the chick be hospitalized, so he can receive 24/7 intensive care. 

The veterinarian may recommend a balanced diet, for the patient.  It is important to feed birds a diet which has adequate levels of proteins, vitamins and minerals.  A bird should not just be fed seeds or pellets.

Avian gastric yeast is usually treated with the medication fluconazole or Ronex in the patient’s drinking water, while protozoa infections may be treated with the drug metronidazole.  Bacterial infections in birds may be treated with the antibiotic tetratex or amoxicillin. In addition, probiotics supplements can help re-establish healthy bacteria in your bird’s digestive tract. 

If your bird is dehydrated he may be given an electrolyte fluid, such as Pedialyte. The patient’s cage, bowls and toys need to be clean and disinfected. Your bird should be kept in a quiet and stress free atmosphere. It is important to follow the veterinarian’s treatment plan.

Recovery of Failure to Thrive in Birds

Patients that are diagnosed and treated in the early stages of failure to thrive have a good recovery prognosis.  The patient will need follow up visits to help monitor his progress. Diagnostic tests (bloodwork, fecal exam, culture) may need to be retaken to ensure that the bird is improving.  It is recommended that pet birds should be seen twice a year by an avian veterinarian.  Routine check-ups can help ensure your bird lives a long, happy and healthy life.