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Can Your Bird Make You Sick?

By: Suzanne Zweigart

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It may be hard to believe, but your bird can make you sick. There are several diseases that birds can transmit to people (these are called zoonotic diseases). For your own health, it is important to understand how to prevent transmission of these diseases.

Simple hygiene can prevent most of the diseases that birds and humans share. If you are conscientious about cleaning up after your bird and always washing your hands after handling your bird or his bowl and toys, it's very unlikely that you will become ill. Of course, not every bird harbors such infections, but it's always best to be safe.

Who's At Risk

The risk of getting a disease from your bird is typically highest in people who already have chronic diseases, the very young, the elderly, HIV-infected individuals, organ-transplant recipients, and people receiving chemotherapy. People at risk should speak with both their physician and their veterinarian about the relative risks of disease transmitted from pet birds. The following conditions are some of the more common infections carried by birds. This list is not all-inclusive.

Chlamydiosis

Chlamydiosis, also known as Psittacosis, can be transmitted to humans. In people, the disease causes flu-like symptoms of fever, chills and headache. If left untreated, Psittacosis can cause liver and kidney damage or even meningitis. Note: This Chlamydia is not the same infectious agent that is spread among humans as a sexually transmitted disease.

Psittacosis causes varying severity of illness in birds. Some birds are simply carriers. This is typical in the cockatiel. Other birds may lose their appetite and become emaciated, depressed and may develop difficulty in breathing or diarrhea. Without treatment, most birds die from this disease. A panel of tests is needed for diagnosis because no single test can accurately determine whether your bird is infected. These tests should be obtained as part of a pre-purchase examination, especially if there are clinical signs of Psittacosis.

Chlamydia infection is transmitted through feces and through infectious particles in the air. The infection is treated with an antibiotic, doxycycline, which is often used in humans and birds. If you find yourself or other family members coming down with "the flu" and your bird isn't feeling well, it could be Chlamydia; contact your family doctor and your veterinarian.

Avian Tuberculosis

Avian tuberculosis isn't often seen in birds, but transmission to people can lead to respiratory infections, swelling of lymph nodes below the jaw and even widespread disease in people with weakened immune systems.

The disease can be spread through the air or through the feces from infected birds. Affected birds usually have vague symptoms such as loss of weight in spite of good appetite, dull feather coloring, increase in urine output, diarrhea and anemia. Diagnostic tests aren't too reliable, but a veterinarian experienced with avian diseases will usually look in the feces for bacteria. A bird infected with Mycobacteria should be put to sleep due to the potential danger to humans.

Histoplasmosis

Histoplasmosis is a respiratory infection in people who inhale fungal spores from contaminated soil or dust. The Histoplasma fungus grows on bird feces, so it's a concern in buildings where large amounts of pigeon droppings collect in roosting sites. While this isn't a big issue in pet birds, it is prudent not to allow fecal matter to accumulate to the point that mold can grow on it.

Cryptococcus

Cryptococcus is another fungus infection. Though uncommon in pet birds, infection can cause diarrhea, paralysis, nervous-system signs and masses with a gelatinous consistency. Humans can contract this disease when they inhale the dust from dried droppings (most commonly from pigeons). Infection in people can be quite serious leading to meningitis, encephalitis (brain inflammation) or respiratory symptoms.

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