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A Beak and Feather Disease Survivor- Sweetpea’s Story
Story by Mary W.

Sweetpea came into our lives in December of 1995. My daughter, then 11 years old, wanted a pet of her own, one that she could “cuddle with”, she said. We debated about the nature of such a pet, and decided that another bird, preferably a hand-fed tame baby would best fit into our avian (two cockatiels) and human family. So, with that in mind, we chose a three month old peachface lovebird who’d come right to us, and cuddled in my daughter’s hand. We named this little green fluffy ball of energy Sweetpea, the name suited her, she would cuddle in our hands, on our shoulders, and under our shirts, or in a pocket, and she loved nothing better than a scratch. She joined us, along with our cockatiels, at meals, and accompanied us as we went about our daily activities at home. We were amazed at her exhuberance and her “go-for -the gusto” attitude towards everything she encountered. She was playful, curious, and fearless in her approach to everything she encountered. Her antics kept us laughing , we never knew what Sweetpea would do next!

About two months after we got Sweetpea, we noticed that the feathers on her back and wings seemed to be fading from the bright grass green they had been, to a brownish-green, muddy- looking color. In my ignorance I thought perhaps the color change indicated that Sweetpea was acquiring her mature coloring! Sweetpea ate a varied diet, consisting of seeds, pellets, healthy (for the most part) “people food.” Her droppings were normal, and her activity level was what we had come to expect as normal. So we had no clue that this color change might indicate the presence of a serious disease in our beloved Sweetpea.

Following the color change in Sweetpea’s feathers, and no doubt corresponding to her first molt, she began to lose feathers, beginning around her eyes and beak. This feather loss continued gradually over the next few months, from her face and head, extending down her chest, back, tops of her wings, and her legs.

When the feather loss first appeared, I had taken Sweetpea to our avian veterinarian. He examined her, performed several tests, and determined that she had a yeast infection around the beak and face. In addition to the feather loss, the skin around her beak and eyes seemed inflamed and itchy, poor Sweetpea continually scratched the area. The vet said that it was a little unusual to see a yeast infection in a six month old bird, these are seen more often in baby birds still being fed by parents or handfed. So it was possible the presence of a yeast infection under these conditions might indicate that Sweetpea had an underlying immune problem. He also performed a blood count, and found that her white blood cell count was extremely low ( her WBC count was 900/mm3, normally counts in birds are 5000 to 10,000/mm3). He told me that this also suggested that Sweetpea might have a serious viral infection, and warranted further investigation, possibly for PBFD, if she continued her feather loss, and the infections did not improve.

The antifungal medication prescribed for Sweetpea had no effect , the inflammation around her face, and the feather loss continued. Thinking that the redness and swelling might be due to a bacterial infection, the veterinarian prescribed an antibiotic, which had no effect either. At this point, the veterinarian suggested that we have Sweetpea tested for PBFD. So, in March of 1996, blood was taken from Sweetpea and sent to Dr. Branson Ritchie’s laboratory at the University of Georgia for testing. In this laboratory , the blood is tested for the presence of DNA from the virus which causes PBFD. This method is the most sensitive test for PBFD, and indicates only the presence of the PBFD virus in the blood, not the clinical status of the bird from whom the blood is taken. The results must be correlated with the clinical findings in the bird, but a positive test in a bird who has feather loss and other findings associated with this disease strongly suggests that the bird does have PBFD.

The PBFD results on Sweetpea came back positive. The veterinarian informed us that usually under such circumstances, euthanasia is recommended. He said that PBFD was generally fatal, and that we could expect Sweetpea’s health to decline over a period ranging from a few months to a year, ending in her death, probably within a year or so. He told us that as PBFD progresses, the disease becomes painful and debilitating. The disease effects not only the feathers, but also the immune system, not unlike human AIDS. So the bird, besides losing feathers, falls prey to any number of infections because his immune system cannot function to fight the microorganisms which cause these infections.

We were, of course, heartbroken at this devastating news. But we declined the euthanasia at this time, since Sweetpea seemed well other than the feather loss, and some inflammation around her beak and eyes. She was still eating well, playing, enjoying life and appeared to be in no pain or discomfort, she still had her “go-for-the gusto” approach to life! We thought we would postpone the euthanasia until the time came when it was evident that Sweetpea was suffering. The veterinarian agreed with our decision, since Sweetpea didn’t act sick, and he even expressed some surprise that she seemed so perky even with the physical evidence of PBFD.

We worried about the possibility of the PBFD being contracted by our cockatiels. The veterinarian told us that research had showed that PBFD could be contracted only by young birds, generally less than one year old. He said that this research had found that it was impossible for a bird greater than three years old to contract PBFD. Since the tiels were each about eight years old at this time, the risk of their getting PBFD from Sweetpea seemed virtually nonexistent. We decided to take Sweetpea home, and give her the best life we could, keep her warm, and loved, as long as we could, until it was evident that we had to end her suffering.

We spoiled that little bird rotten! We let her eat, or drink about anything she wanted, since we thought there was not much to lose. She drank milk, orange juice, ate ice cream, crackers, in addition to her own food. Even as the feather loss continued, she played, ate well, and exhibited her normal enthusiasm and curiosity for everything going on around her. During the three to four months after her diagnosis, she wanted to spend most of her time tucked inside someone’s shirt, and we let her do this when we were home. She must have spent about 18 hours a day inside a shirt, she came out to eat, to satisfy her curiosity about something, to hassle the cockatiels, and of course when we went out, or to bed. We covered her cage well for warmth at night, and when we went out. Fortunately we live in a warm climate so we didn’t have to worry about trying to keep a featherless bird warm in cold temperatures. I think Sweetpea spent a great amount of the time under our shirts sleeping, and I now believe that she did not feel well much of that time.

There was no medication, or treatment for PBFD. Sweetpea had only the antifungal, and antibacterial medication, for treatment of her infections. I tried to make sure she had extra vitamins and protein, I sprinkled her food with Ornebac, rubbed Vitamin E oil on her face, I thought that might alleviate the redness and itchiness. I think she might have eaten some Vitamin E oil too, as I’d let her bite open the capsule containing the oil. I’d try anything anyone suggested which was reported to have anti-viral properties, or which might make Sweetpea feel better, as we waited for her decline, believing this was inevitable. We even debated the euthanasia issue, wondering if it would be kinder to put Sweetpea to sleep before she actually began to suffer from the PBFD.

About five to six months after her diagnosis, we noticed that Sweetpea looked as though she might be growing some feathers back around her beak and face, where she had first lost feathers. The feathers looked normal, and as this process continued , I took Sweetpea back to the veterinarian so he could verify that she WAS growing feathers back. He did verify that the feathers looked normal, and mentioned at this point that very rarely, a bird may survive PBFD. He said it might be possible that Sweetpea would be one of these rare survivors, but it was too soon to tell at this time.

Over the next few months, Sweetpea continued to grow feathers back on her head, chest, back, wings and legs. This time the feathers showed the adult coloring, ie, red on her forehead, peach around her face and chest, and the feather color on her back was again the bright grass green. Several times in the next year she lost some feathers again, and she still looked rather motley. But these feathers were always replaced by feathers which were normal in appearance. I took her back to the veterinarian a little over a year after her diagnosis, she was nearly fully feathered, and healthy by then. The blood test for PBFD was repeated at this time, and it came back still positive. The veterinarian said that a positive test at this time might indicate that either Sweetpea was in remission, but could relapse at any time with PBFD; that she could be an asymptomatic carrier of PBFD; or that she was fighting the PBFD virus and eventually her immune system would fight it off, and she would become negative, PBFD-free. He didn’t know which of these situations would occur, since he had never seen a bird survive PBFD prior to his experience with Sweetpea.

Sweetpea continued to thrive in the year following her second PBFD test. She grew, gained weight, and became a beautiful, brilliantly colored bird, who of course, had never really lost her exuberance for life. We had the test for PBFD repeated a third time two years after the first, positive test. This time the test results came back negative. The veterinarian told us that this was a first for him, as he had never seen a bird who was symptomatic and sick with PBFD survive this disease.

Sweetpea is now a healthy, beautiful five year old lovebird. She still continues to delight us with her enthusiasm for life, her antics, and her wonderful personality. I realize how fortunate she is, and we are, to be among the handful of documented PBFD survivors. I never realized how rarely a PBFD infected bird survives this disease. I recently spoke to our veterinarian about Sweetpea, and he said at this time that he has not seen another PBFD survivor. I’ve spoken to other avian veterinarians as well, many of them say they have not seen birds who have survived this disease. I’m sure there must be other PBFD survivors out there, we just don’t know about them.

Some of the people who know us, and Sweetpea speculate on the factors that contributed to her recovery from PBFD. Some folks say the biggest factor was the love and care we gave her while she was fighting the disease. The veterinarian suggests that maybe it was her own spirit, her own determination to keep going, and enjoy life regardless of how she might have felt. Personally, I’d say, all of the above, and a great immune system that eventually got the best of this PBFD virus. Maybe her recovery falls under the category of a miracle. I don’t think we will ever know for sure what made Sweetpea recover from PBFD, but we all agree that she is a special, and amazing bird.

Story by Mary W.

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