What is Sarcocystosis ?

The opossum spreads the disease via its feces, and it can be transmitted from bugs such as cockroaches or flies eating the feces then, in turn, being eaten by your bird. Once inside the bird the parasite begins to multiply within the intestinal walls and then throughout your bird’s body infecting internal organs and muscles. After further replication, the parasite forms into one or many cysts within the muscle tissue. The disease is not infectious to the other birds in the aviary, but because they eat the same food and water, others can become infected.

This disease is caused by a protozoan parasite that has been found to come from the opossum, which when ingested by a bird spreads prolifically.

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Symptoms of Sarcocystosis in Birds

  • This disease develops rapidly and your bird may succumb quickly to this parasite appearing healthy just hours before being found dead
  • Loss of balance due to neurological damage to the nervous system 
  • If your bird is affected, it may show signs of difficulties in breathing 
  • Your bird may demonstrate excessive water consumption 
  • Lungs can be affected and bleed causing severe anemia 
  • Weakness and lack of energy 
  • Seizures can occur 

Types  

  • Sarcocystosis can affect your bird in several different ways which is why diagnosis is difficult
  • It creates neurological disease – which means it creates the biochemical or electrical abnormalities in the brain, spinal cord or other nerves 
  • An acute pulmonary disease which is a type of inflammation of the lung that obstructs the breathing or airflow from the lungs
  • It affects the muscles of the host’s body by feeding upon the tissue

Causes of Sarcocystosis in Birds

  • This condition is known as a hyper acute disease, meaning your bird may be found dead or near death having not shown any signs of illness in the previous hours
  • Sarcocystosis attacks the intermediate host (your bird) through muscular, pulmonary disease, and neurological diseases as previously described
  • Sarcocystosis is one of the major causes of death in birds (especially parrots) that are housed in outside aviaries
  • Birds found in a near death stage exhibit the symptoms listed above as well as showing an opaque liquid oozing from their beak

Diagnosis of Sarcocystosis in Birds

Diagnosis is difficult to determine due to the rapid spread of the disease within your bird causing a rapid fatality. At this moment in time, there are no specific tests available to disclose the cause of the distress in your bird – at least not until a physical internal examination after death. The plasma protein electrophoresis tests may show signs of infection but give limited information. Other tests, such an immunofluorescence antibody test (IFA), are new to this field and are being improved but still don’t offer conclusive evidence of the disease. 

Muscle biopsy can be done for the encysted stages of the disease with the quadriceps muscle providing a better biopsy site that other muscles.  Sarcocystosis in birds requires a host where sexual reproduction of the parasite can take place – the host is called a definitive host and is usually a herbivore or insect. Sarcocystosis also requires an intermediate host for asexual reproduction takes place and this host range is broad, including several different species of birds. These birds include cockatoos, cockatiels and African parrots. It also affects lorikeets, king parrots, lovebirds, and Alexandrine parakeets among many others.

Treatment of Sarcocystosis in Birds

Newly developed drugs in relation to the Sarcocystis neurona that affects horses have not yet been evaluated for the treatment of birds. There has been success although somewhat limited, with treatment using trimethoprim/sulfa and pyrimethamine. Veterinarian prescribed therapy may include a combination of drugs with antiprotozoal activity and required supportive care such as administration of oxygen and feeding by gavage. With new developments in treatments being developed and released for use, your veterinarian will be able to advise of treatment and care of your bird. Prevention in the way of aviary management (keeping the premises clean and sterile as possible and removing old food, droppings and fouled water) will help, as will ensuring possums are kept away from the aviary so their droppings don’t attract insects which in turn then are eaten by your birds.

Taking precautions to eradicate cockroaches as much as possible will help. Keeping the area free from rubbish and sweeping up old seed and bird droppings will help limit the bugs available to your birds. It is usually via a post mortem examination that tests will find changes and damages to the lung density, renal lesions and some hemorrhage signs within the body. Although this doesn’t help the deceased bird, it can warn about the cause of the disease and steps can be taken to minimise these.

Recovery of Sarcocystosis in Birds

Because of the rapid development of this disease, the success rate of treating this condition has not been very positive. Once the disease is confirmed, usually via post mortem examination, it can alert you to the condition so that steps can be taken to avoid this happening to your other birds. Thankfully the disease is not contagious between birds, but if they are in the same cage and sharing contaminated food or water then they may be affected. Restricting the access to your yard to opossums (a known carrier of the disease) will help. The opossum doesn’t need to get near the cage, it is the droppings left behind that are picked over by insects such as the cockroach which in turn gets eaten by your bird that is the path of the disease.