Author: Dave J. Rupiper DVM, Dipl. ABVP

Recognizing illness in avian species can be next to impossible with some birds. Most birds are flock species and will mask signs of illness so as to not attract predators to the flock and to avoid hostility from flock members. Birds will even go so far as to crack seed but not ingest it in an effort to appear healthy. The result with cage birds is that many will be debilitated long before their caretakers will realize the bird is sick. 

Initial Signs of Disease

  • Fluffed plumage demonstrates that the bird is trying to maintain warmth
  • Lack of preening may indicate the bird is conserving energy
  • This may manifest as unopened pinfeathers, prolonged molt, dull or dirty plumage, dusty and flaky plumage or skin (not cockatoos)
  • Watery droppings occur as illness progresses
  • Quiet or docile nature suggests a change in behavior for many birds
  • Eating less is often consistent with illness

Advanced Signs of Disease (Requiring prompt attention)

  • Lesions on the bottom of the feet may be associated with chronic obesity, vitamin and mineral deficiency, poor perching substrate, etc.
  • A change in fecal consistency or color is consistent with gastrointestinal illness, infection, liver or kidney disease and many other illnesses
  • Innactivity, sleeping head-tucked and resting on the cage floor may all be signs of serious or advanced illness
  • Prolonged, audible or labored respiratory efforts are indicators of respiratory, heart; and in some cases, liver and reproductive diseases
  • Masses, abdominal distention or other changes in body appearance; even weight loss, may correspond to many serious problems
  • Any discharge from the nostrils, eyes, wounds or mouth; including regurgitation, suggests infections or damage to those organ systems

First Aid

First aid for birds requires two main actions: 

  1. keep the bird warm (around 90iF) and quiet 
  2. don't mess with it. Constant handling to encourage water consumption, eating, over-the-counter medicating, petting and comfort do little to benefit an ill bird. Keeping it warm with indirect heat sources, increased humidity, calm lighting, quiet location and availability of favorite food items are the best approaches. Some birds will benefit from a small degree of handling to administer water but many are best left alone until an avian veterinarian can see them. An ideal setup is to place the bird with its favorite foods and a bowl of water in a pet carrier. The carrier is placed on a heating pad (set on low) in a bathroom, with a nightlight on, and the humidity is increased by periodically steaming the bathroom with the shower.

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