What is Vomiting?

Part of the commitment we make to a bird upon adoption or purchase is to provide appropriate medical care in case of illness. When we love our pets, we want them to be healthy and happy and live for many years. If we spot a subtle change in our bird’s behavior or health, we may wonder if we are over-reacting to something insignificant. At other times, however, our avian friend may provide us with a clear signal that something is wrong. At these times, there is no mistaking the signs and symptoms in front of us.

Such is the case with vomiting in birds. If you see your bird attempting to expel food, stay calm and observe the bird’s behavior. Do not interfere with the bird. Birds commonly do something that looks like they are vomiting. However, they are simply trying to regurgitate the contents of their mouth, esophagus and gut. Like a cat, a regurgitating bird will nod its head and stick out its neck until it brings up any unwanted contents. If you have had your bird for a while, you will likely have observed this behavior more than a few times. Commonly, birds will “cough up” or regurgitate whole pieces of food, including intact seeds. A bird often chooses to regurgitate for natural reasons, some having to do with courtship or parenting. Sometimes, it may just be trying to become comfortable after a large meal. Overall, it is a common process for birds, and unlike mammals, it is not painful. Birds do not have diaphragms, and likely do not experience the miserable contractions we humans face upon becoming sick and vomiting.  

It is important for bird owners to understand the difference between vomiting and regurgitation. Regurgitation is the process as described above. When done, the bird will likely drop the food and go about its ordinary business. Vomiting, however, is not a natural or comfortable process for a bird, and may be a sign of some type of health condition. The difference between the two actions lies in both the appearance of the food and the behavior of the bird. Unlike regurgitation when the food comes up intact, vomited food is digested or almost-digested, and will be expelled in some liquid form. The bird will forcefully shake its head from side to side before it spits out the liquid. The force of the vomiting may send the liquid to all parts of the cage.

Your bird may forcefully try to empty the food into the crop (diverticulum of the esophagus). The liquid has an acidic quality to the taste, and may cause a “burning” sensation in the bird’s esophagus, mouth and stomach. Understandably, the bird will forcefully try to expel as much as it can. Unlike regurgitation, which may be done purposefully to feed offspring or a mate, the bird has no good reason to vomit.  If the bird appears to be vomiting a lot of liquid or fluid, or continues to try to vomit, seek immediate veterinary care. Tell the veterinarian if your bird has had diarrhea or other atypical symptoms or behaviors.

There is a discernable difference between regurgitation and vomiting in birds; regurgitation is the natural process of bringing up soft food, while vomiting is an unnatural, forceful expulsion of liquidized, semi-digested food.

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Symptoms of Vomiting in Birds

There are many reasons your bird may vomit. Vomiting may be its only symptom; however other symptoms may be present. Describe any symptoms to the veterinarian. 

  • Lethargy
  • Ruffled or “fluffed” appearance
  • Watery green droppings 
  • Blood in the stool has a tar-like appearance
  • Twitching
  • Seizure
  • Tucking the head under the wing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Discomfort
  • Lack of feces in the dropping
  • Sudden death

Causes of Vomiting in Birds

The best way to understand what is happening with your bird is a fast trip to the vet. Meanwhile, here are some potential reasons why a bird may be vomiting (as opposed to regurgitating):

  • Bacterial infection – may be caused by spoiled food or old water
  • Parasites – worms, hexamita
  • Poisoning/toxins – such as plants, toys with lead or zinc
  • Intestinal or esophageal obstruction (blockage)
  • Yeast infection - Candida
  • Virus
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Medication side-effects
  • Cancer in the GI system
  • Diabetes
  • Motion sickness
  • New diet
  • Fungus
  • Trauma
  • Allergies
  • Behavioral/unhappy with cage/noise/people

Diagnosis of Vomiting in Birds

This may be a complicated diagnosis. The vomiting may have a simple reason such as inappropriate food or motion sickness. Other reasons are unclear from just looking at the bird and may require more invasive testing. The vet will need a full explanation of the incidences of regurgitation or vomiting. Know the kind of food that your bird eats. 

Your bird will be physically examined. It is likely that the bird will have a blood test, and a serum biochemical panel. Samples may be taken of the feces or crop for culturing bacteria. Depending on symptoms, some birds may require an X-ray or other imaging. An endoscopy will look at the bird’s esophagus, stomach and intestines.

Treatment of Vomiting in Birds

Treatment will depend upon the diagnosis. It is likely, however, that the vet will try to make the bird more comfortable by providing stomach medications that will lessen pain and soothe any type of raw feeling. If the vomiting was substantial, the bird may benefit from fluids. In the case of an infection, the bird will likely receive antibiotics. Depending on the bird’s condition, the vet may choose to admit your bird for the night to watch for other symptoms.

Recovery of Vomiting in Birds

Adhere to the vet’s recommendations. Typically, food will be withheld for a period of time. Medication may need to be administered to make the bird more comfortable. Make sure to follow the instructions for the medication. If the bird starts to vomit again, call the vet immediately. Keep the bird quiet and away from noise and other birds. Reduce all stressors.