What is it and how does it affect my birds and me?

Susan L. Clubb DVM, ABVP avian practice
3319 E Rd.
Loxahatchee, FL 33470

Psittacosis is a disease caused by the organism Chlamydia Psittaci. Psittacosis is a common disease in all types of parrots. Because Chlamydia Psittaci has evolved with parrots they can often be infected and not show any signs of the disease. If they are weak or stressed however they can become sick and could die. Stress, genetics, the bird’s immunity, nutrition, and the care given your bird will all affect its resistance to developing disease.

How does psittacosis affect the bird’s body? Psittacosis can cause a variety of symptoms. Some birds show no signs of disease. Others can be in general poor condition, have respiratory, or digestive system symptoms or they may die suddenly in severe cases.

How do birds get psittacosis? Birds become infected by ingesting or inhaling the chlamydia, which are shed in the oral secretions or feces of an infected bird. When these secretions become dry, some chlamydia may become airborne on dust.

What percentage of birds is typically found to have psittacosis? The percentage of positives will depend upon the type of test used and the population tested. Birds, which are exposed to other birds, are more likely to be exposed to chlamydia so they should be tested at the time of sale and periodically (possibly at annual exams) if exposed to birds from other facilities.

How can I tell if my birds have psittacosis? There are no specific signs of psittacosis in birds. Birds must be tested to detect the disease.

Does a positive result mean that my bird actually has psittacosis? Available tests detect either antibody (the response of the birds immune system to the organism) or antigen (the chlamydial organism). If antibody is detected, it indicates exposure which may be active infection or past exposure. Looking at blood counts and analysis of blood proteins helps us to distinguish between active or past infections. A positive antigen test (swab test) indicates that the bird is shedding the organism and is infected.

Does a negative test result mean that my bird is free of psittacosis? A negative antibody test means that the bird has not been exposed or it is a very early case (within 2 weeks of infection antibody cannot be detected). A negative swab (antigen) test means that the bird was not shedding at the time. Infected birds can shed intermittently.

Are there tests that tell you conclusively that the bird(s) have psittacosis? Detection of chlamydial antigen on a swab test is definitive that the bird is shedding chlamydia. However, this test has a high level of false negatives. To be sure of the chlamydial status of a bird, a combination of tests (antigen, antibody, and blood counts) is recommended.

If the antibody test is positive but the results are not conclusive, what is the best alternative to take to be on the “safe side”? Additional tests, antigen tests, protein electrophoresis, and blood counts can be done to try to determine if the bird has an active infection. Otherwise if the birds are in the home, the “safe” thing to do is to treat the bird.

If one bird tests positive, does that mean all my birds have it? No – but since psittacosis can be airborne on dust and can infect humans, public health officials recommend treatments of all birds within the same airspace.

Is there a cure for psittacosis or should I get rid of the bird to protect my family’s health? Birds can be treated for psittacosis and an ill bird will respond very well. Recent research shows that Doxycycline given in the drinking water can provide effective blood levels of antibiotic. However, Doxycycline does not kill chlamydia, it inhibits it. The bird’s immune system must also help to eliminate the infection. Therefore a “cure” cannot be guaranteed. However, the general health of the bird will improve and therefore the immune system should also be enhanced helping him to overcome the infection. Follow-up testing is recommended.

Will the treatment harm my bird? There are seldom problems associated with Doxycycline treatment. A low percentage of birds will experience toxic problems, which usually will only be detected with blood tests. Some will have overgrowth of harmful bacteria or fungi (yeast) in the intestine. A culture after treatment and supplementation of beneficial bacteria after treatment is recommended.

How easy is it for humans to get psittacosis? Normal healthy people are not likely to become infected with most strains of chlamydia. However, the elderly, young children, and immune-suppressed people (HIV, chemotherapy, etc) are more susceptible.

From the viewpoint of my own health, how worried should I be if one of my birds tests positive for psittacosis? If you are in good health, you are unlikely to become ill. However, if you develop flu like symptoms or chronic respiratory disease, you should inform your doctor that you have been exposed to psittacosis.

What precautions do I need to take for my well-being and the well being of my family if my bird has psittacosis? We’ve been handling him already. You should treat the bird and he will not be infectious after he has received the drug for 24-48 hours. You should clean up the cage and area surrounding the cage with bleach (mix 2 cup in 1 gallon of water). Make sure all dust is removed. Discard wood perches or soft toys that cannot be disinfected. The bird will be able to catch the disease again when treatment is stopped if his environment is contaminated.

Is it possible, after treatment, that the bird still tests positive? If the antibody test is used, the bird can still test positive as antibody declines slowly and can be detected for 9 months to a year after treatment.

I’ve had my birds for years and they all look healthy, they’ve never been sick. The boarding facility I’d like to use is asking me to test my birds for psittacosis before they accept them the first time, and additionally, they’re asking me to renew the test once a year. Why should I go through this trouble & expense? You cannot tell if a bird is infected by looking at it. Birds can be chronically infected and not show any signs of disease for years.

What can I do to prevent my birds from ever getting psittacosis? You can test your birds, especially new birds, before bringing them into your home. Infected birds should be adequately treated. Avoid exposure to infected birds. Vaccines are not available but may be in the future.

Why doesn’t the breeder and/or bird store just treat all birds? Some breeders and retailers do routinely treat their birds, but they cannot treat all birds for the entire time they may be in a bird store. If a treated bird is exposed to infected birds, they can become re-infected.

What are your thoughts on the potential risks of birds as pets? Should I just get a dog or cat? All pets have potential health problems, which are managed by proper care and regular veterinary checkups. The risk of psittacosis causing a health problem in the family is low and is greatly reduced by appropriate testing and treatment. With proper care and veterinary attention, a pet bird can have a long live and be a positive addition to the family.