Diarrhea in Birds

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Diarrhea is an increase in frequency and liquid content of the fecal component of the droppings. In birds, the droppings are composed of three elements: feces, urates and urine. The droppings are stored in the cloaca, the common emptying chamber for the gastrointestinal, urinary and reproductive tracts.

Feces are produced in the intestinal tract, and are normally green or brown in color. Urine and urates are produced in the kidneys. Usually, birds only produce a very small volume of liquid urine, and the majority of the waste from the kidneys is in the form of semi-solid, white/beige urates.

Occasionally, a larger volume of urine is produced (polyuria), which is often mistaken for diarrhea. Birds that are polyuric have a more liquid dropping, but the fecal component remains solid and formed. Birds with diarrhea have a more liquid consistency to the fecal component.

General Causes

  • Bacterial infections
  • Fungal infections
  • Viral infections
  • Dietary changes
  • Toxins
  • Foreign bodies lodged in the intestinal tract

    Your veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on how severe the diarrhea is, how long the bird has had diarrhea, and if other symptoms are present. Birds that are showing other symptoms, such as vomiting, anorexia or lethargy may require extensive diagnostic testing.

    If your bird occasionally has a few droppings with a liquid or loosely formed fecal component and has no other symptoms, it may be normal. If, however, the diarrhea is persistent (lasts more than a day), recurrent (returns frequently) or other symptoms occur, medical attention is needed.

  • What to Watch For

  • Lethargy
  • Ruffled feathers
  • Tucking the head under the wing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting or regurgitation
  • Blood in the stool, which appears as dark, green-black tarry stool
  • Lack of feces in the dropping
  • Diagnosis

    Your veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on the severity of the diarrhea, or if other symptoms are present.

    A complete history is extremely helpful in reaching a diagnosis. Be prepared to tell your veterinarian when the diarrhea began, the consistency of the diarrhea, and if it contains blood. Additionally, tell your veterinarian the type of diet your bird is on, describe his chewing habits and note any potential exposure to other birds.

    Diagnostic testing your veterinarian may perform include:                

  • A thorough physical examination
  • A complete blood count (CBC) and serum biochemistry panel
  • Sampling the crop and/or feces for bacterial culture and cytology
  • Radiography (X-Rays) to look for evidence of intestinal disease
  • Endoscopy to view the intestinal tract or body cavity
  • Treatment

    Treatment for diarrhea may include any combination of:

  • Hospitalization for fluids and injectable medications
  • Antibiotics or antifungal medications
  • Surgery or endoscopy to relieve intestinal obstructions
  • Medications to protect the intestinal tract or alter the motility of the intestinal tract
  • Home Care

    If only one or two of the droppings appears to be diarrhea and your bird has no other symptoms, return him to his usual diet, without fruits and vegetables, for 24 hours. Be sure that plenty of fresh water is available, and that the bird is drinking.

    Use only paper (no litter of any type) on the cage bottom, and change the paper daily so that you can monitor the droppings. If droppings do not return to normal within 24 hours, diarrhea worsens, or any other symptoms develop, contact your veterinarian.

    If your bird was treated for diarrhea, make sure to give all medication as directed, for as long as directed, even after the symptoms appear to be gone. Watch for a change in the droppings, and report any changes to your veterinarian.

    If improvement is not seen, the discharge is worsening or the bird develops other symptoms, alert your veterinarian immediately.

    Diarrhea occurs when the intestinal tract is unable to absorb fluid or when the cells lining the intestines secrete excessive amounts of fluid. Many factors can alter the intestinal tract’s ability to absorb or secrete fluids properly. For example, if food is not properly digested, it will tend to pull fluid into the intestines. Or, if the lining of the intestinal tract is irritated by a toxin, infection or irritation, cellular changes will cause an increase in secretion of fluid into the intestines.

    Peristaltic waves, which are rhythmic contractions of the intestinal tract that serve to push digested food forward, occur at regular controlled intervals in normal birds. In some birds with diarrhea, these waves lack coordination, so that food moves through the intestinal tract too quickly. This results in an increase in frequency of defecation, and an increase in the liquid content since fluid does not have a chance to be absorbed.

    Birds may normally have an occasional dropping in which the fecal component is not well formed. This can occur due to excitement or stress, or be due to sudden changes in the diet. For example, if a bird is fed a large quantity of fruits (and sometimes vegetables) and fruits are not normally a regular part of his diet, he may temporarily develop a loose appearing dropping. This is due in part to the increase in fluid content of the diet, but a similar type of temporary diarrhea may occur with any sudden diet change. This should resolve after all of the fruit or new food is digested, and should not last more than 12 hours after new food has been removed from the diet. If the diarrhea persists, or if the bird develops any other symptoms such as vomiting, lethargy or a change in appetite, veterinary attention is required immediately.

    The color of the feces can also change due to alterations in the diet. For example, if birds are fed heavily pigmented foods, such as berries, tomato products or colored pellets, the stool may turn the color of the food. If the stool ever appears to be a very dark green-black color, however, your veterinarian should be notified immediately, since this color may be caused by digested blood (melena).

    There are many causes of diarrhea in birds. The cause may be very simple, such as a dietary change or yeast overgrowth, or may be due to a number of complex disease processes. Many contagious diseases cause diarrhea, so it is important to inform your veterinarian of any potential contact – direct or indirect – with other birds.

  • Bacterial infection. Bacterial infections may come from other birds, from an overgrowth of dangerous bacteria on dirty food or water bowls, or spoiled foods. Often, small amounts of potentially dangerous bacteria live in the intestinal tract without causing harm. This population of bacteria can overgrow and cause disease if the bird’s immune system is not functioning properly, as may occur during times of stress. An overgrowth of harmful bacteria may also occur when antibiotics are used improperly.
  • Viral infection. Several different avian viruses may cause diarrhea. In most cases, diarrhea is only one of several symptoms. Viruses can be transmitted by direct exposure to another bird, shared food or water dishes, or on your hands or clothing, depending on the type of virus.
  • Yeast infection. Candida is a type of yeast that normally lives in small quantities in the intestinal tract. Stress or antibiotic use can also cause an overgrowth of Candida, leading to diarrhea.
  • Parasites. One of the more common intestinal parasites of pet birds is Giardia, a microscopic organism that lives in the small intestine. Giardia can cause severe diarrhea and weight loss, and is potentially transmissible to people. Other microscopic parasites, such as heximita and coccida are less common causes of diarrhea in pet birds. Intestinal worms, such as roundworms and tapeworms, may occasionally be a cause. These worms are specific to avian species and do not cause disease in mammals.
  • Cloacal papillomas. Papillomas are wart-like structures. They appear most commonly in the cloaca, but may occur anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract. Papillomas may be a cause of diarrhea. There is also a higher incidence of gastrointestinal tract cancer in birds with cloacal papillomas.
  • Obstruction. Tumors or foreign objects may block the intestinal tract. Occasionally, an intestinal intussusception (telescoping of one part of the intestinal tract into another) may cause diarrhea initially, then a lack of feces later in the course of disease.
  • Antibiotic use. Birds may develop diarrhea following treatment with antibiotics due to changes in the normal bacteria found in the intestinal tract.
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