Bird Flu in Parrots: What You Should Know – A Vet’s Perspective

Avian influenza, more commonly known as bird flu, is caused by an influenza virus that primarily affects birds but can occasionally jump to humans and other animals.

While bird flu remains relatively rare in pet parrots, bird owners should be aware of the symptoms, prevention measures, and potential risks it poses.

Read on to discover in-depth information on what bird flu is, how it can potentially impact your parrot and effective measures you can adopt to safeguard your feathered companion.

What Is Bird Flu?

Avian influenza is mainly a disease of birds. This includes wild birds, birds raised for eggs or meat, and even pet birds like parrots.

Bird flu is caused by the Influenza A virus. Different strains of this virus are constantly circulating in wild bird populations, especially wild ducks, usually without causing much harm. These strains are known as Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI).

Sometimes, though, the virus mutates and becomes more virulent, meaning it starts infecting many more birds than normal and causes severe sickness that can quickly kill birds once they are infected. These types of viruses are called Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

Avian influenza viruses are not normally found in domestic birds. LPAI bird flu viruses are commonly found in the wild, particularly among water-dwelling birds. Although these birds carry the virus, they usually remain unaffected by it.

The virus can spread through their feces, saliva, and nasal secretions. If another bird comes into contact with these substances or contaminated areas, it can contract the virus. This is why locations where birds congregate closely, such as bird markets or poultry farms, are prone to bird flu outbreaks.

Can My Parrot Get Bird Flu?

While some bird species such as waterfowl and domestic poultry are the most likely to get bird flu, all birds are at risk. In some instances, pet birds like parrots can become infected if they are exposed to infected wild birds or contaminated environments.

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    The risk of a parrot getting bird flu depends on its living conditions and exposure to other birds carrying the virus. The chances are higher if your parrot comes into contact with wild birds or has access to an outdoor enclosure that could contain droppings from wild birds.

    Parrots that are kept indoors and away from other birds have a low chance of getting bird flu. It is still possible for their owners to track the virus indoors if their shoes, clothing or other items become contaminated with wild bird droppings.

    Can My Parrot Catch Bird Flu From My Other Pets?

    Birds get bird flu from other birds or exposure to the droppings and secretions from infected birds. So if you have other birds in the household, the virus would spread quickly between all of them.

    It’s not uncommon for some bird flu strains to occasionally infect other animal species, including mammals. However, the virus strain that is causing the bird flu pandemic that started in 2021 has been acting quite differently.

    Besides severely affecting commercial poultry populations and backyard flocks globally, this particular H5N1 strain is more capable of infecting and causing disease in mammals than previous bird flu strains. It has been confirmed in mink, skunks, raccoons, red foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, bears, opossums, dolphins, sea lions and seals, as well as many others.

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      In most cases, the presumed route of infection of these mammals is via eating birds that are sick or have died because they had bird flu. Cats that roam outdoors are at risk of getting the virus because they, of course, love to hunt and eat birds. Which means they will also eat sick birds and dead birds, since these are easy pickings.

      There have been multiple reports of domestic cats becoming infected with the bird flu virus, presumably because of eating infected wild birds. There has been at least one outbreak reported involving multiple cats that was caused by a commercial pet food containing meat from infected birds.

      To date, there have been no confirmed reports of cats spreading the virus to other animals, including birds. Theoretically, it is possible for an infected mammal, such as a cat, to transmit the virus to a pet bird if they were kept in close proximity.

      What Are the Signs of Bird Flu in Parrots?

      The symptoms of bird flu in parrots can vary depending on the specific strain of the virus and the severity of the infection. Some parrots may have only mild symptoms, while others can experience severe illness. Common signs of illness in parrots may include:

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        1. Respiratory Symptoms: Parrots infected with bird flu may show signs of acute respiratory distress, such as wheezing, coughing, sneezing, or labored breathing. They may also have nasal discharge.
        2. Decreased Appetite: Infected parrots often lose their appetite and may refuse to eat or drink.
        3. Lethargy: Parrots may become lethargic, weak, inactive, and less responsive to their surroundings. They may spend more time perched with fluffed-up feathers.
        4. Diarrhea: Some parrots with avian influenza may develop diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration.
        5. Swelling and Discoloration: Swelling and discoloration of the head, eyes, and neck may be seen in some cases.
        6. Neurological Signs: In severe cases, bird flu can affect the nervous system, leading to neurological signs like tremors, incoordination, neck twisting, and paralysis.
        7. Sudden Death: In highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza, sudden death without any visible symptoms can occur.

        The strain of virus causing the global bird flu pandemic of 2021 is highly pathogenic, meaning it causes severe disease. A very high percentage of birds that get infected die without warning. Those that do not die right away often have neurologic symptoms.

        What Can I Do If My Parrot Gets Bird Flu?

        If you suspect that your pet parrot may have bird flu, you must take immediate action to protect your bird’s health and prevent the potential spread of the disease.

        Here are the steps you should follow:

        1. Seek Veterinary Help: The first and most critical step is to contact an avian veterinarian promptly. These specialists have the expertise to diagnose and treat diseases in birds, including avian influenza. They will conduct a thorough examination and perform tests to confirm if your parrot has been infected.
        2. Isolate Your Parrot: While waiting for the veterinary appointment, keep your parrot separated from other birds and animals to avoid potential virus transmission. This helps control the disease and lowers the risk of spreading it further.
        3. Understand Regulatory Policies: Avian influenza is a highly regulated disease in most countries and states. When cases of avian influenza occur in domestic bird populations such as poultry, the usual response is to euthanize infected birds to halt the disease’s spread. This approach is commonly referred to as the “stamping out” policy. Some regions may have exceptions for non-poultry birds, such as those in zoo collections or private aviaries.
        4. Follow Veterinary Advice: If your bird or birds are not ordered euthanized by disease control officials, then you need medical care for your bird. Your avian veterinarian will guide you on the best care plan for your parrot depending on its condition.
        5. Comply with Regulatory Requirements: If your parrot is diagnosed with avian influenza, you must cooperate with local authorities and follow any regulatory requirements in your area. This may include quarantine measures, testing of other birds in your possession, and adherence to biosecurity protocols.
        6. Humanely Euthanize if Necessary: Depending on the specific circumstances and regulations in your area, your parrot may need to be humanely euthanized to prevent further transmission of the virus. This decision is typically made in consultation with local veterinary and agricultural authorities.
        7. Prevent Future Infections: Put strict biosecurity measures in place to prevent future infections. This includes proper hygiene practices, isolation of new birds, and regular health monitoring for your parrot and any other birds in your care.

        While humans are not the primary hosts, they can contract certain strains of avian influenza, which can cause severe illness and, in some cases, be fatal. This zoonotic risk requires strict disease control action and regulatory measures.

        Additionally, bird flu poses a significant threat to domestic poultry. Outbreaks can devastate flocks, resulting in substantial economic losses in the poultry industry and potential food shortages. It is also a serious trade issue since most countries will ban the import of poultry and poultry products from countries or regions that are experiencing outbreaks of the disease.

        Controlling bird flu is done to safeguard animal and human health, as well as ensure economic stability. This is why governments worldwide treat this disease seriously and have implemented stringent regulations to contain it.

        How Can I Protect My Parrot From Bird Flu?

        The best way to protect your parrot from bird flu is by implementing strict biosecurity protocols. Biosecurity involves preventive measures that aim to minimize the risk and transmission of infectious diseases among animals, plants, and humans.

        The most important thing you can do is keep your parrot away from wild birds, both inside and outside the home. Even if they look healthy, wild birds can be carriers of the virus without showing any symptoms.

        Other biosecurity protocols you should follow include:

        • Quarantining new birds and testing them for avian influenza before introducing them to the flock.
        • Washing your hands after handling birds or cleaning cages.
        • Don’t use second-hand cages, perches, feeders or other equipment unless they have been completely sterilized first.
        • Not allowing visitors who have recently been near other birds to handle your parrot.
        • Make sure that you do not wear dirty shoes, clothing or other items that could be contaminated with wild bird droppings in your home or other areas where you keep your parrot.

        Can I Vaccinate My Parrot For Avian Influenza?

        There are currently no commercially available vaccines for avian influenza in pet birds. Vaccines are becoming available for poultry in some parts of the world, but these are not yet available for public use.

        Many jurisdictions do not allow vaccination of birds for flu, since the preferred approach is to stamp out the disease by euthanizing infected birds. But in some cases, a specialized vaccine may be developed to protect a particular species or population of birds, such as those in captive collections.

        However, this is usually only done if there is an imminent risk of disease outbreaks in that area, and only if the regulatory authority in that particular region allows it.

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          Can I Catch Bird Flu from My Parrot?

          The likelihood of contracting bird flu from your pet parrot is extremely low since it is unlikely that your parrot is going to catch it in the first place. Even if your parrot were to become infected, the transmission of the virus from birds to humans is infrequent.

          Bird flu strains that can infect humans typically require prolonged close contact with infected birds, such as poultry, in high-risk environments like farms and live bird markets.

          How Worried Should Parrot Owners Be About Bird Flu?

          Parrot owners should be aware of bird flu but do not need to be overly worried. Normally even in wild bird populations avian influenza outbreaks are not common or widespread, and the day-to-day risk of pet birds becoming infected is normally very low.

          The risk of avian influenza transmission to your parrot will increase if the virus is affecting wild birds in your area. This risk is amplified for parrots who are allowed outdoor time or whose cages are in open areas where they can come into contact with wild birds or their droppings.

          Keep yourself informed by monitoring news and other media for avian influenza outbreaks in your region. If outbreaks are occurring in wild birds in your area, then it’s time to step up your biosecurity measures and take extra precautions to protect your parrot.

          Conclusion

          In summary, bird flu is something that parrot owners should be aware of, but there is no need to panic. The actual risk to both pet parrots and their owners is very low.

          That said, it’s always important to take precautions to protect your parrot’s health. This includes keeping your birds away from wild birds, making sure you don’t bring anything into your home that might be contaminated with wild bird droppings, and making sure that you are aware of any outbreaks in your area.

          With the right precautions in place and a vigilant eye on any potential outbreak news, you can keep your feathered family member safe and sound.

          References:

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          Dr Wendy Wilkins

          Dr Wendy Wilkins, DVM, PhD, is a seasoned veterinarian and epidemiologist, boasting 25+ years across clinical practice, research, academia, and regulatory veterinary realms. She is also the editor and a content creator for Cat BYTES, a website committed to making sure pet owners get the information they need in a way that is factual, accessible, and easy to understand.

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