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Digestive Disorders of Pet Birds

By

Teresa L. Lightfoot

, DVM, DABVP (Avian), Avian and Exotics Department, Florida Veterinary Specialists

Last full review/revision Jan 2020 | Content last modified Jan 2020

Birds have various digestive disorders, including infections and parasites, that can cause problems. The next section discusses some of the more commonly seen disorders in detail.

Avian Gastric Yeast ( Macrorhabdosis )

Avian gastric yeast (Macrorhabdus ornithogaster) often colonizes the digestive tract of birds. It is more common in smaller companion birds such as budgerigars, parrotlets, lovebirds, cockatiels, and finches. Also, any birds that have weakened immune systems may be infected. The most common sign of infection is chronic weight loss, regurgitation, lethargy, and diarrhea. Droppings may contain undigested seeds or pellets. The percentage of deaths varies from 10 to 80% of affected birds, depending on the species and strain of the yeast. In birds that recover, both relapses and potential shedding of the organism in the droppings are likely.

Diagnosis is made by examining fresh droppings under the microscope. Positive identification of organisms aids the diagnosis, but organisms may be shed in low numbers or intermittently, so repeated evaluation may be needed. The goals of treatment are to reduce the number of organisms and improve the general health and immune status of the bird. Your veterinarian may prescribe various medications to achieve this goal. This disease can be transmitted between birds.

Candidiasis (Thrush)

Candidiasis is common and caused by infection with the yeast Candida albicans. It is the same organism that causes “thrush” in the mouths of human babies. This yeast is common in the environment and may be present in small numbers in a normal bird’s digestive tract. It may, however, cause illness under certain conditions. Very young, unweaned birds, especially those on antibiotics, may develop candidiasis due to their immature immune systems. Recently hatched cockatiels are considered most susceptible. Adult birds on longterm antibiotics or suffering from malnutrition or other illnesses may also develop candidiasis. Antibiotics can disturb digestion by killing off beneficial bacteria that normally live in the digestive tract, allowing other organisms, such as the Candida yeast, to overgrow.

Candidiasis most often affects the crop, although the stomach and intestines may be affected as well. It can also affect the skin, respiratory tract, and rarely, the central nervous system and other organs. The severity of infection often depends on the age of the bird and the state of its immune system. A very young or very ill bird may develop an infection that spreads to the blood, bone marrow, and other organs.

Regurgitation of food, lack of appetite, and general signs of illness may be caused by delayed crop emptying caused by candidiasis. Some birds develop a swollen, mucus-filled crop. Adult birds can harbor low-grade candidiasis with few signs of illness. White spots may be present in the mouth if oral Candida is present. A veterinarian can determine whether these white spots are due to candidiasis or another disease. Microscopic examination of droppings, crop contents, or regurgitated material may reveal the yeast organisms.

Good hygiene, including proper cleaning and disinfection of the cage, nest box, and any feeding utensils, is critical to minimize the amount of Candida in the environment. In baby chicks affected with candidiasis, the crop must be emptied more often and smaller amounts fed until the crop begins to function normally again. Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to aid in effectively clearing the infection.

Avian Bornavirus/Proventricular Dilatation Disease (Macaw Wasting Disease)

Proventricular dilatation disease, also known as macaw wasting disease, affects not only macaws, but many other species of pet birds. Cockatoos, conures, Eclectus parrots, and many African and Asian species have been infected. The condition is caused by avian bornavirus.

Proventricular dilatation disease affects the nerves of the digestive tract and results in stretching of the stomach and lack of normal muscular contractions. Signs include chronic weight loss (often following an initial increase in appetite), the passage of undigested food (most easily recognized when whole seeds are found in the droppings), and regurgitation. Nervous system signs (convulsions, tremors, weakness, incoordination, and blindness) may occur with or without gastrointestinal signs at the same time. Outbreaks are uncommon, but the infection can be fatal.

The transmission of proventricular dilatation disease appears to be by exposure to feces of infected birds, but other routes may exist. Isolation of affected birds is the only way to prevent transmission of the disease to other birds. Disinfection and improved ventilation is recommended and may help reduce transmission. Treatment includes providing easily digestible foods and use of anti-inflammatory medication. The virus is not long-lived in the environment, so good hygiene and ultraviolet light can help to limit the spread of disease.

Pacheco's Disease/Papillomatosis (Psittacine herpesvirus)

Psittacine herpesvirus is the causative agent of Pacheco's disease and internal papillomatosis in parrots. Pacheco's disease causes a viral inflammation of the liver and is seen most often in New World species (Amazon parrots, macaws, conures, and hawk-headed parrots). Internal papillomatosis occurs in parrots that have survived Pacheco's disease. The disease is associated with stress and often occurs during introduction of new birds, relocation, or in birds with an underlying illness or recent breeding. The disease tends to be a flock problem, particularly in breeding colonies.

The disease is spread by direct contact, through the air, or fecal contamination of food or water. Signs include diarrhea, green droppings, lethargy, regurgitation, weakness, and depression. Pink, cauliflower-like growths or tissue thickening called papillomas may occur anywhere from the oral cavity, through the digestive tract, to the cloaca of a bird. The most common, or at least the most readily detected locations, are the mouth and cloaca.

The signs exhibited depend on where the papillomas occur. Growths in the mouth may cause wheezing, difficulty swallowing, and open-mouth breathing. Papillomas further down the gastrointestinal tract may cause vomiting, loss of appetite, and wasting. Cloacal papillomas may look like and be mistaken for a cloacal prolapse. Papillomas may be seen protruding from the vent when the bird becomes stressed or during elimination. Straining to produce stool, blood in the droppings, passing gas, and an abnormal odor to the droppings may occur.

Surgical removal of the papillomas may be attempted by your avian veterinarian, but the growths often recur. Treatment is supportive. There is no permanent cure, but control for many years is possible. A vaccine is available.

Gastrointestinal Parasites

Giardiasis occurs when protozoa (microscopic, single-celled parasites) of the genus Giardia invade the intestines. It affects many species of birds but is most often seen in cockatiels. Transmission occurs when infective cysts are eaten, and adult birds may be carriers. Giardia may cause diarrhea, malnutrition, and problems with absorption of nutrients. In some birds, especially cockatiels, Giardia may lead to itching; causing a bird to scream and pull its feathers or dig at the skin with the beak. (Note: many other causes of feather plucking exist that will cause the same symptoms.) With giardiasis, droppings may be larger than normal and have a “popcorn” appearance. If baby birds are infected, they may be thin, with poor feathering, cry excessively to be fed, and may die prior to fledging. The veterinarian will most often prescribe a medication taken by mouth.

Trichomonosis (known as frounce or canker in non-pet bird species) is also the result of infection with a protozoan parasite, Trichomonas gallinae. It is occasionally seen in pet birds, notably budgies. Whitish-yellow lesions resembling cheese or curds stick to the lining of the mouth and throat, crop, and esophagus. Lesions may not be visible, but infected budgies may have signs such as increased salivation and regurgitation. Transmission may occur by direct contact (such as infected parents feeding young) or indirect contact (eating contaminated food or water). Treatment requires a medication taken by mouth.

Various types of roundworms occur in the digestive tract of pet birds, and wild birds may transmit certain roundworms to parrots housed outdoors. Transmission occurs when birds eat the roundworm eggs. Signs of infection include loss of condition, weakness, emaciation, and death. In heavy infections, the intestines can become obstructed. The veterinarian will most often prescribe a medication to kill the worms. In warm climates where exposure in outdoor aviaries is likely, a routine deworming with one of these oral medications is often performed.

Tapeworms have become uncommon in pet birds now that most are bred in captivity. These parasites are most common in cockatoos, African Grey parrots, and finches. The tapeworms are transferred from infected animals by an intermediate host that bites the animal or picks up the tapeworm organism from droppings or other discharges and then transfers the infecting parasite to a previously healthy animal. Intermediate hosts for tapeworms are most likely insects and spiders of various types, earthworms, and slugs. Signs of illness are rarely present, but segments of the tapeworm can sometimes be recognized in the droppings of affected birds. Your veterinarian will most often prescribe medication to kill the tapeworms; medicine may be given by mouth or injected into a muscle. Recurrence is rare unless the bird continues to be exposed to the intermediate host.

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