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Psittacosis (Chlamydia Psittaci infections) in Pet Birds
By Eva Wallner-Pendleton
Companion birds continue to increase in popularity as pets in the
United States. Birds most frequently kept belong to the family
psittacidae, or the parrot family. Although domestic breeding of
parrots is becoming more widespread, a large number of birds are
still imported from outside the United States. By law, these
birds must enter the country through quarantine stations. There
they spend at least 30 days and are tested for disease and fed
food containing tetracycline, an antibiotic. The antibiotic
treatment is to hopefully eliminate infections with Chlamydia
psittaci, the bacterium that causes psittacosis.
Psittacosis is a complex disease that affects many species of
wild birds, and occasionally, humans that are in close contact
with birds. The organism is shed in the feces and respiratory
secretions of infected birds. Other birds pick up the organism by
inhaling contaminated aerosols. Although infected birds may
become extremely ill and die, most birds usually become
asymptomatic carriers. They carry the organism in their bodies,
shed the organism in their feces, but do not become ill, unless
severely stressed. Without specific tests, it can be difficult to
differentiate a negative from a positive psittacosis carrier.
Psittacosis infections in people are usually mild, resulting in
non-specific flu-like symptoms. Occasionally, however, severe
bacterial pneumonia may occur which may require hospitalization.
If untreated, psittacosis infections in humans may rarely result
in death. Fortunately, the disease is very responsive to
Despite the treatment of all quarantined birds for psittacosis
infections, the disease continues to be widespread in pet bird
populations in the United States. There are many reasons for this
high prevalence. For the treatment to be effective, the medicated
food must be consumed for at least 30 to 45 days. Unfortunately,
parrots are often extremely wary of new foods, and may initially
eat little if any of the medicated diet.
This may result in several days of too little antibiotic being consumed.
may then continue to be infected with psittacosis after leaving
quarantine. Another reason this infection may be widespread is
because of illegal smuggling of birds the United States. Since
these birds are not treated or tested, they frequently harbor
diseases including psittacosis.
After leaving quarantine, birds are usually purchased by large
distributing operations. A distributor may have hundreds or
thousands of birds at any one location. These are then sold to
bird breeders or pet stores. At each distribution point, birds
come into contact with large numbers of other birds. Conditions
are often crowded, allowing diseases to spread quickly. The
incidence of psittacosis, which is probably an uncommon disease
in the wild, is thus greatly increased.
So how can the prospective buyer of a pet bird be assured that
the animal purchased is free from psittacosis or other infectious
diseases? Several steps are suggested.
1) The seller (pet store) should be able to give the buyer a
basic history of the bird, including previous owners, if it was a
domestic raised or imported bird, and other pertinent
2) Look for general signs of health in a bird including presence
of a shiny, tight feathering covering of the body.
3) Look for firm, not runny, stools in the prospective pet. The
stool is usually dark green, with some white portions.
4) Eyes and nostrils should be free of any discharge.
5) The body condition can be assessed by checking the breast
muscles and breast bone (keel). Healthy birds are well-fleshed in
this area, and the breast bone can barely be felt.
6) If the bird passes the above criteria, then insist on a
pre purchase examination by a veterinarian with experience in
7) The examination should include:
a. fecal bacteria and parasite check
b. basic avian blood panel
c. psittacosis antibody and/or antigen test
These steps will help insure that the new pet will be free from
psittacosis and be in good health. It is important to follow your
veterinarian's recommendations on nutrition, housing, and general
safety precautions in the home. These recommendations will help
maintain your pet bird's health for many years to come.