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Polyomavirus in Budgerigars (French Molt)

By: Dr. Branson Ritchie

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Avian polyomaviruses have a worldwide distribution and are known to infect Psittaciformes (parrots), Passeriformes (weaver finches, canaries), Galliformes (chickens and turkeys) and Falconiformes (falcons and hawks). The polyomaviruses that infect various birds are closely related but the symptoms and progression of disease in individuals and groups of birds vary dramatically.

The outcome of a polyomavirus infection in a budgerigar depends primarily on a bird's age when it is infected. Some chicks may develop normally for 10 to 15 days and then die without exhibiting any clinical signs. Other infected hatchlings may exhibit abdominal distention, hemorrhage under the skin and reduced formation of down and contour feathers. Clinical signs of disease or death are most common in 1- to 3-week-old budgerigars. Budgerigars older than 25 days of age are susceptible to infection but generally develop no signs of disease.

In aggressive aviary outbreaks, most exposed chicks can die within a several week period. The mortality rate associated with naturally acquired avian polyomavirus infections in young budgerigars may range from 25 percent to 100 percent. Older birds are considered relatively resistant to disease, while at the peak of viral activity, up to 100 percent of exposed budgerigars less than 15 days of age may die. The incubation period in chicks can range from several days to several weeks.

Some reports suggest that polyomavirus infections can cause reduced egg hatchability and early chick mortality. Other reports suggest that eggs from infected hens develop normally.

Chicks that survive the initial phase of an infection can have abnormally developed feathers, frequently referred to as French moult. This term is used to describe any slow, debilitating disease in budgerigars characterized by the progressive appearance of abnormal feathers. Any factor or infectious agent that causes damage to the blood supply of developing feathers can cause visible feather changes referred to as French moult. Avian polyomavirus, psittacine beak and feather disease (PBFD) virus, bacterial infections, fungal infections, exposure to toxins, malnutrition, drug reactions and metabolic diseases should be considered in any bird with abnormally developing feathers. In general, feather lesions caused by polyomavirus resolve after several months, while those induced by PBFD virus become progressively worse.

Infected budgerigars have been shown to shed virus in their feather dust and excrement. Virus may also be present in urates or secretions from the crop or respiratory tract. Crowding, poor air circulation, accumulation of excrement and stacking of enclosures increase the likelihood of polyomavirus transmission from infected to susceptible birds.

Polyomaviruses are considered resistant to severe environmental conditions and some disinfectants. Cool, moist conditions and freezing will preserve the infectivity of most viruses. The environmental stability of avian polyomavirus causes a considerable problem in the home or aviary. Infected hens can pass the virus through the egg.

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