Diagnostic Testing for Pet Birds
Our pet birds are complicated creatures. Their intelligence, nutrition and behavior still manage to confound even the most dedicated of owners. One of the most mysterious conditions of pet birds is simply their general wellness.
While most pet parents are familiar with signs of illness in their dogs and cats, pet birds continue to shock even the best of owners with their apparent “sudden onset” of illness. In fact, illnesses probably come on no more quickly in birds than their canine or feline counterparts. Instead, they are just better at hiding signs of illness and we often don’t notice the bird is sick until the condition is well progressed.
As a “prey” species most pet birds are hard-wired to look as healthy as possible for as long as they can. In the wild, a prey animal who looks sickly will be the first to be picked off by predators and as a result many prey animals are instinctively driven to try and look healthy, even when they are not. This makes it difficult for owners of pets such as birds, rabbits, rats and guinea pigs to recognize illness and systemic disease early.
For all animals, one of the most effective methods of monitoring health is regular veterinary exams and regular wellness testing. This applies a professional, objective eye to the pet in the hopes of catching subtle changes before they become a big problem. As birds are experts at looking “healthy,” regular veterinary wellness checks are especially important.
The following is a list of common diagnostic tests recommended for pet birds:
Avian Veterinary Exam
Recommended: Once Yearly*
A thorough veterinary exam is recommended for all pets at least once yearly. This exam is a complete “nose to tail” evalutaion. The doctor will examine: Weight/body condition, feather condition, eyes, ears, throat, nares, joints of wings and legs, and preen gland, lung and heart sounds, etc. During this time, the veterinarian and technician should also discuss feeding, housing, and any behavior concerns.
Even without labwork, a veterinary exam can often identify early signs of illness or disease that an owner might miss. Additionally, professional discussions of husbandry and behavior may reveal onset of problems that can be turned around with early treatment.
A variety of laboratory tests are recommended for our feathered friends. Availability of these tests may be limited by the bird’s size as most require a blood sampling.
Complete Blood Count ("CBC") – Recommended: every 1-2 years
This simple blood test looks at the number and type of various blood cells. Red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets can reveal anemia, infection or clotting problems that can be indications of a disease process.
Blood Chemistry Panel - Recommended: every 1-2 years
Often run in conjunction with a CBC, the blood “chemistry panel” can reveal a huge amount of information. This test checks various organ and body systems, including liver and kidney function, calcium levels and protein levels, to help evaluate a pet’s general health.
Bacterial Culture & Sensitivity - Recommended: every 1-2 years*
This test requires a swab sample of from either the throat or/and the cloaca. The sample is tested at the lab looking for infections which can be common in pet birds.
Special Testing: Some lab tests are only recommended the first time the bird goes to the vet or after they are exposed to new birds with unknown histories.
Chlamydia/Psittacosis – Recommended: upon acquisition of bird and/or after exposure to new birds, especially sick ones.
Avian chlamydia is a respiratory illness that can cause severe illness in pet birds. In addition, this disease is zoonotic, meaning that it can be passed on to humans. In people, avian chlamydia causes severe flu-like symptoms that do not go away on their own, however it is usually treatable once identified. Not all humans who are exposed to psittacosis will acquire it. Children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable though.
Chlamydia is passed on from bird to bird through fecal material and respiratory secretions. Once your bird has tested negative for this illness, they should never need to be retested unless they are exposed to a potentially sick bird.
PBFD – Recommended: upon acquisition of bird and/or after exposure to new birds, especially sick ones.
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (or PBFD) is a viral illness affecting the beak, feathers and immune system of parrots. In the acute form the bird may become severely ill with symptoms that include depression, regurgitation, diarrhea, weight loss and even death. The chronic form can last for months or even years before becoming fatal. Affected birds have poor feather quality, lack feather dust, may have abnormal beak and feather development, and secondary infections.
PBFD is passed from bird to bird through fecal material, feather dust, mucus and other bodily secretions. Once a bird has been tested and is considered “negative” for the disease, it does not need to be tested again unless it is exposed to a bird whose PBFD status is unknown.
Sexing – Recommended: upon acquisition of bird
While the gender of a bird is not a “disease,” knowing whether or not your bird is male or female can be very informative if he or she ever starts to act abnormally. There are some conditions (such as egg binding and cystic ovaries) that are tied to a bird’s sex, so knowing if they’re a boy or a girl can be a helpful piece of information.