What is Psittacosis (Parrot Fever)?

Psittacosis is a zoonotic disease capable of affecting a wide range of bird species all over the world.  Psittacosis is caused by the organism Chlamydophila psittaci, a bacterial species described as a matrix of a virus and a bacterium. Zoonotic diseases such as parrot fever are complicated infectious diseases capable of being transmitted from animal to human; they may be caused by a virus, bacterium (like in the case of parrot fever), a parasite, or a fungus.

In the case of parrot fever, the bacterium chlamydia is typically contracted from infected psittacines, a species of birds including parrots, macaws, cockatiels and budgerigars (commonly known as “budgies”), and passed to humans through contaminated respiratory droplets, bacterial shedding, nasal discharge, fecal matter, among other infectious vehicles. For those who work closely with birds, or interact closely with their avian pets, any case of parrot fever is often tied to the inhalation of dust from droppings or feathers. Though the disease is named “in their honor,” parrot fever is not limited to parrots and psittacines. Other infected birds such as turkeys, pigeons, hens, gulls and wild birds have been traced to the transmission of avian chlamydiosis.

Strains of the chlamydial organism lie dormant or “quiescent” in many birds, and most owners will not see signs or symptoms of the bacterium throughout the bird’s lifetime. Some birds, however, will become diseased with parrot fever when the bacterium becomes activated by lifestyle stressors. Though this theory cannot be proven, instances of parrot fever have been disproportionately observed in birds that have been recently transported to or from boarding facilities, competitions and shows, or brought to a new home.

Birds interacting with new birds may lead to the spread of bacteria. Dietary changes and overbreeding have also been linked to the sudden development of clinical signs of parrot fever.  The bird may suddenly stop eating, and may appear confused. Signs of depression may include a cessation in socialization and more time spent with its head tucked beneath a wing. Symptoms may include diarrhea and eye and nasal discharge. Unfortunately, though this is very uncommon, some birds experience sudden death.

Psittacosis (also known as parrot fever, ornithosis, or avian chlamydiosis) is an infectious zoonotic disease capable of being passed from birds to humans.

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Symptoms of Psittacosis (Parrot Fever) in Birds

Birds with parrot fever often display flu-like, generalized symptoms.  The bird must be evaluated by a veterinarian as another illness may be at play.

  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Depression
  • Head-tucking
  • Watery green droppings/diarrhea 
  • Discharge from eyes and nose
  • Sudden death

Causes of Psittacosis (Parrot Fever) in Birds

Psittacosis develops due to the presence of the organism C. psittaci. The bacterium may be latent in the bird, and only emerges during a stressful event. Parent birds may pass the organism to their young, and birds may pass the bacterial organism to each other.

Diagnosis of Psittacosis (Parrot Fever) in Birds

Some birds present with severe symptoms, while others will show with mild flu-like symptoms. It is difficult to diagnose parrot fever due to the non-specificity of the illness. An examination, x-ray and blood testing are all important. The most telling signs include a copious amount of discharge from the eyes and nose, and a refusal to eat and drink. In this case, the bird becomes anorexic and dehydrated, and is at risk of sudden death. 

Larger parrots will display adverse respiratory symptoms. If a bird dies, it is important to have the bird tested in case of a positive case of parrot fever. Members of the household should seek medical care.

Treatment of Psittacosis (Parrot Fever) in Birds

Birds with suspected cases are typically treated with an antibiotic for 30-45 days. During this time, the bird must not be put under any stress, and should continue a veterinary-approved diet. Ask your avian veterinarian how long the bird should be kept apart from other birds and humans. Although psittacosis is capable of being transmitted from birds to humans, it is a rare occurrence. Those who are immunocompromised or elderly are at greater risk of infection, which typically manifests in flu-type symptoms. Accordingly, careful handling of a sick bird is essential to avoid the spread of infection. If you see any of these signs in your bird, seek medical treatment immediately.

Recovery of Psittacosis (Parrot Fever) in Birds

If your bird has been diagnosed, the household should be evaluated by a doctor. Infection by C. psittaci comes from inhaling respiratory secretions or excrement. Avoid mouth to bird contact. Some people have died from this disease, so follow-up care is as important for the human as is the bird.