As with any pet, it is important to recognize signs of injury, illness or disease in your pet bird. This is particularly important with pet birds as they often hide signs of disease, and typically have lower tolerances to disease and a reduced ability to survive certain infections or injuries, compared to larger pets such as cats and dogs.

In order to help you recognize disease or injury in your bird, it’s important to know what a healthy bird looks like. To do this, observe birds whenever you get the chance. Whether you watch wild birds at play or healthy birds in an aviary, you will likely see birds that are attentive to their surroundings. These birds frequently look in all directions to monitor for prey or potential food sources. Their feathers will be flush with their bodies, their eyes will be wide open and alert, they will breathe through their nostrils, and there will be no discharge or debris coming from the eyes or nose. Finally, most healthy birds will appear very light on their feet; they stand tall and often have a spring in their step as they move about. Generally speaking, your pet bird should show similar interest in the immediate surroundings and have similar smooth feathers, bright eyes and an alert stance.
While observing healthy birds, it’s also important to understand what normal droppings look like. Sometimes the first sign of ill health in a bird will be altered droppings. Birds’ droppings have three components:

  • the liquid portion is urine produced by the kidneys
  • the white component, known as urates, is also produced by the kidneys; and
  • the dark green or brown component represents the feces.

When you first obtain a bird, or look at healthy birds of the same species, monitor their droppings for size, shape, color, and consistency. Any change in these factors could be indicative of ill health. For example, the urates should be white in color as yellow or green can indicate liver disease or other potentially serious conditions. An increased amount of the urine or liquid portion of the dropping may indicate potential problems with the kidneys or liver, or it could indicate diabetes. A decreased amount of feces could indicate that the bird is not eating enough or not passing enough food through the bowel. If you observe one or more of the above changes, it is important to contact your veterinarian and have your bird examined as these changes could be relatively early signs of potentially serious disease.

A common, early sign of ill health in a pet bird is a reduction in the bird’s normal alert behavior. Sick birds are much more likely to sit in a corner of their cage and show little to no interest in their surroundings. This is quite the opposite of a healthy bird who typically moves about the cage and shows great interest in the environment. If you notice your bird sitting still and failing to move for more than a few hours it’s important to contact your avian veterinarian for advice as this may indicate a potentially serious illness has begun. Oftentimes birds showing a disinterest in their environments and sitting in a corner will also demonstrate ruffled feathers. It is likely that sick birds ruffle their feathers to increase the amount of air trapped close to the body, thereby further insulating themselves in attempts to keep warm. For this reason if you observe your bird sitting with ruffled feathers for more than a few hours, it would be wise to contact your veterinarian for advice.

Healthy birds should have clear bright eyes and no discharge from their eyes or nostrils (known as nares in birds). Birds should also breathe through their nares and not breathe with an open mouth. Breathing should be effortless and often difficult to notice in a healthy bird at rest. Discharge from the eyes or nares are not normal and likely indicate an eye infection and/or an upper airway infection. While these signs sometimes represent a chronic problem, any disease affecting the eyes and/or upper airway should be investigated by your veterinarian because the condition could spread to the lower airway and become potentially life threatening. Lower airway disease is often represented by open mouth breathing, visible movement of the tail with each breath (tail-bobbing) and/or changes to the voice. If you observe any of these signs your bird is most likely experiencing a medical emergency and should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

As mentioned above about healthy birds, your pet bird should appear light on his feet and move about the cage and surroundings easily and quickly. Should your bird not move about readily, this could indicate generalized ill health or internal disease, or it may indicate a problem with the feet, legs or spine. Sometimes a bird may injure a toe, foot or leg by having a toenail catch on a thread or toy. Injuries like this will often affect one leg and you may observe your bird favoring that leg. However, limping or lameness affecting one leg may also indicate potentially serious internal disease. For example the major nerves of the leg are in close proximity to the kidney. Disease or damage to the kidney may in turn affect these nerves, leading to lameness in one or both legs. That’s why any change in your bird’s ability to walk is potentially a cause for concern and should be investigated by a veterinarian.

One sign of potentially serious illness in birds that often goes unnoticed by pet owners is weight loss. Weight loss can be easily missed because of the feathers and because sick birds often ruffle their feathers, To avoid missing this sign, it’s wise to consider investing in a gram scale so you can accurately weigh your bird on a weekly or monthly basis. Getting into this routine will allow you to detect weight trends that may be important to your bird’s health. It’s important to weigh your bird at the same time of day as there may be significant fluctuations in weight throughout the day. The bird will often be lightest in the morning, and this is a wise time to weigh your bird.

While weight loss is often of most concern, weight gain can also be alarming.  If weight gain is due to fat, in your bird’s overall health may be greatly compromised. Overweight birds appear to be at greater risk for cardiovascular and liver disease. An increase in weight unrelated to fat could represent fluid buildup or potentially egg formation. If you notice either an increase or decrease in your adult bird’s weight by more than 10%, contact your veterinarian for advice.

Even with close attention to your bird’s health and careful monitoring for the above signs of illness, I still recommend your pet bird be examined at least annually by a qualified avian veterinarian. Certain diseases may be detected and treated at a much earlier stage with annual wellness examinations.