Signs of Illness

Is my bird sick? Sometimes it can truly be difficult to tell if a bird is ill, as birds instinctively mask the fact that they are not well. In the wild, a bird that looks ill will quickly draw predators—to itself, and even to the flock.  With some wild birds, such a geese, an ill member is protected; with others, an ill member is driven from the flock for the survival of the majority.

When first making a home for your bird, be sure to do a thorough exam so that you can note any aberrations.  A toenail may be missing, for instance, or the beak may be slightly misaligned.  Also, it’s very important to get a baseline weight on your healthy bird, as sometimes, the only sign of illness is loss of weight.

Make sure you take a really good look at your bird at least once a week, and make a point, when holding it, to check the keel bone for weight loss.

Here are some basic signs of illness in a pet bird:

  1. Bird sitting with feathers fluffed.  This indicates your bird is cold, and birds that are ill often are cold.  They lift their feathering to trap body heat within the layers, and thus, stay warmer.  Any bird sitting with feathers fluffed should immediately be given supplemental heat—ceramic heat lamps in the appropriate dome are best, as this allows the bird to move away from the heat source if it gets too warm.  Reptile suppliers sell these lamps and domes for very reasonable prices.  Fluffed feathers can also indicate a bird in pain.
  1. Particles of hardened material on the head, crest, neck, chest.  This is a sign that your bird has been vomiting in a way that indicates illness.  Birds regurgitating for sexual, or affection, reasons will usually regurgitate onto a perch.  Particles on the head, shoulders, etc. suggest a more projectile, explosive expelling of its food.
  1. Any change in demeanor.  Examples:  a noisy bird suddenly becomes quiet.  A very active bird becomes inactive, or sleeps, for many hours of the day.  A bird with good flight skills suddenly is unable to fly with confidence, or breathes heavily after a short flight.  Excessive squawking from a normally quiet bird. 
  1. Excessive intake of food and/or water.  It’s often hard to tell precisely how much of these two things your bird ingests.  Birds eating excessive amounts of food are often eating a great deal to keep warmer, or because they feel this will help them feel better.  A bird eating excessively sits at the food bowl constantly, and eats.  Birds drinking excessive amounts of water will usually produce very watery droppings, and also, can usually be observed drinking excessively.
  1. Disinterest in food/water.  Birds that feel sick often will not eat.  Birds can spill their food without eating it, but if they aren’t eating, there will be a noticeable decrease in droppings.  If your bird is not eating, check inside his mouth, first thing, to determine if he has a sore, or an injury.  Check for droppings and change in droppings.  If your birds seems disinterested in food for more than 24 hours, it is very likely ill.  Do know that nesting hens will often eat less, and eat but once or twice a day.  This is normal eating behavior for a nesting hen. 
  1. Change in fecal/urate color, quantity and consistency.  Lime green urates often indicate a kidney infection or issue; yellow or beige urates can indicate a liver dysfunction.  Very dark, tar-like droppings can result from blood seeping into the droppings in the intestinal tract.  If you change a bird’s diet, or introduce a new food, be prepared to observe changes, but in general, a change in dropping is a sign of illness.  Be aware that birds who have stopped eating will not produce droppings, but may well produce large wet areas of clear material.  Also, be aware that nesting hens will often produce one very oversized dropping per day—this is normal for nesting hens.  Be alert to what is a normal days quantity of dropping for your bird, and always check for changes.  Often, change in droppings, or scant droppings, is the first sign of illness in your bird. 
  1. Malodorous droppings.  Your bird’s dropping should not have an odor.  If they do, your bird may have a parasitic infection such as giardia, or an intestinal infection.  Both of these are life threatening. 
  1. Blood in the cage.  Whenever blood is found in the cage, you must track down the source.  It might be a broken blood feather or a severed nail.  It might be a prolapsed cloaca or a prolapsed uterus.  Even if the bleeding seems to have stopped, always examine your bird to discover just why it was bleeding.
  1. Drooping wings.  This can be an indication that your bird is in pain, has a nutritional deficiency, or is feeling weak.  It is a sign of illness.
  1. Panting, tail bob, irregular breathing.  If your bird is panting, and holding its wings away from its body, the bird probably is simply too hot.  Move it to a cooler spot, or spray your bird with slightly cool water to offer relief.  Gasping at rest, or breathing with a noticeable effort are both signs of respiratory distress.  This may also be noted by observing a “tail bob”.  When a bird is breathing with effort, its tail will bob up and down.  A bird breathing normally will not have a tail bob.
  1. Lack of coordination, dizziness.  Is your bird have trouble perching?  Does it seem to stagger rather than hop or walk?  These are serious signs of illness—often of a metal toxicosis, particularly if vomiting is also indicated.
  1. Protruding keel bone.  Protrusion of the bony ridge that runs vertically down the chest of your bird usually indicates that a bird is too thin.  If the keel bone is sharply protruding, the bird is probably in a starvation mode.  In a normal bird, the keel bone is slightly raised; in a fat bird, the bone cannot be felt at all.
  1. A bird that is constantly at the bottom of the cage and is inactive.  If your bird is sitting on the cage bottom, it is probably too weak to perch.  If the bird is a hen, it may be eggbound.  In either case, the bird should be rushed to the vet immediately, as sitting on the cage bottom is a sign that your bird is too ill to even care that it looks ill—a very bad sign indeed.
  1. Abnormal beak growth and/or texture.  Crumbling, scaly beaks, or beaks that change in texture in anyway indicate illness in your bird.
  1. Abnormal feather growth.  Feathers that fail to properly develop, have an abnormal shape or color, or continually fall out are cause for great concern.  This may be a nutritional issue, or it may be Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, a usually fatal ailment that mostly afflicts powder birds, but can afflict any bird.
  1. Exudate from nares, eyes, mouth.  Any fluid expelled from nares, eyes and or mouth is indicative of illness.  Sometimes, a bird can get a seed hull stuck in a nare or an eye, and fluid is produced to flush the area clean.  Sometimes, on a seasonal basis, birds with allergies will have copious discharges from their nares and mouths.  But normally, nares, eyes and mouth are clear of discharges, so anything to the contrary must be considered a sign of illness.

Of course, there are obvious signs of injury:

Limping, or refusing to have one leg bear weight:  Carefully, with a magnifying glass, check for a string wrapped around a toe, or the leg.  Check for sore foot pads.  Check for an overgrown toenail.  Check from toe to abdomen for swelling.  Birds can also limp when an abdominal tumor grows to a size that causes it to impinge on the nerve which runs the length of the birds leg, so limping is not always caused by an acute injury or condition.

Single drooping wing:  Most likely, a bone in the wing is broken, or a ligament has been injured.  Birds can easily injure wings in their cages from a night fright, or by getting the wing caught between the bars, which induces panic.

Twisting of neck; holding head at odd angle.  This can indicate vestibular disease, particularly if the bird is older, but it can also be a nutritional issue.

The above are a generalized guideline.  Do keep this in mind:  by the time you see very definite symptoms of illness in your bird, the illness has probably progressed.  For this reason, never delay taking a bird exhibiting any of the above symptoms to the vet, as there is much a vet can do to save an ill bird—but the more time that goes by with the bird untreated, the harder it will be to bring on a recovery.  Delay might well cost your feathered friend his or her life.  Knowing your bird well, and being alert on a daily basis, to subtle changes in your birds health, is the absolute best preventative to losing a beloved companion to illness.

Written by:  Linda Brink

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