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Parrot Illness In Winter

Blizzard, N. Dakota

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Saperaud

Wintertime always brings a spike in posts and calls concerning sick parrots. I often tap avian veterinarian friends for assistance, and most also report seeing more ill birds at this time of year. Respiratory ailments seem to dominate, and many owners attribute this to drafts and low temperatures (as we’ll see, this is not actually the case). While otherwise-healthy people tend to shrug off “winter colds” as an annoyance, the dangers that respiratory illnesses pose to parrots, finches, doves and other pet birds are extremely severe. Left untreated, these infections will always worsen over time – usually quite quickly – and will often prove fatal. Also, as it is impossible to distinguish, via symptoms, common respiratory concerns from psittacosis and other diseases that may be transmittable to humans, a prompt call to your veterinarian is always in order.


Are Drafts and Cold Temperatures a Concern?

Drafts and rapid changes in temperature do not specifically cause birds to suffer respiratory distress. However, they can stress the immune system. The same may be said of birds that are kept, long-term, at lower-than-optimal temperatures. Tolerance for such conditions varies by species.


Blue & Gold Macaws

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Olaf Oliviero Riemer

If the immune system is over-worked or otherwise compromised, bacteria, parasites and fungi, which are ever-present in the environment, can take hold and sicken your pet. Minor underlying health problems, which may have been suppressed by the immune system when all was well, may also become severe. So, while drafts and such may not actually cause illness, they do “set your pet up” to become sick. Please see the article linked below for further information on heating your bird’s cage or bird room.


Acclimation to colder-than-recommended temperatures is often possible, at least with some species, but this must be done properly; please post below for further information.



Most bird owners quickly know when all is not well with their pet. While respiratory ailments can be caused by a wide variety of pathogens, the symptoms are similar. Puffed feathers, wheezing, nasal discharge, sneezing, coughing, appetite loss and/or general lethargy are the most common warning signs. Tumors, smoky environments, and even allergies and less-common problems may also be involved.


Heron with Chlamydiosis

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Joelmills

What to Do?

Your first step should be to speak with an experienced avian veterinarian. A specialist is preferable, as the causative agents of respiratory diseases can be difficult to identify, and some illnesses are more commonly seen in certain bird species or families than others (please see photo of heron afflicted with chlamydiosis). Please post below if you need assistance in locating a local avian veterinarian.


Do not take any steps to treat your bird before speaking with your vet (other than eliminating drafts, etc.). You may be instructed to clean your bird’s nares (nostrils) or raise the temperature a bit, but do so only after consultation. Common avian bacteria can cause serious problems if, for example, they become established in one’s eyes, and the risk of a zoonotic disease (one that can be transmitted to people) must be considered. Your vet can advise you as to appropriate precautions if any type of home treatment is recommended. Of course, an appointment with the veterinarian should also be scheduled.




Further Reading


Heating Your Bird Cage or Bird Room


Why is My Parrot Sneezing?

My Parrot is Sneezing – What’s Wrong!?

Sun Conure

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Melanie Phung

All parrots occasionally sneeze to clear their nares (nostrils).  However, frequent sneezing and the discharge of mucus is cause for concern.  Sometimes, a simple environmental change, such as the use of a humidifier, is all that is required.  In other cases conditions ranging from bacterial or viral infections to tumors, air sac mites or nutritional deficiencies may be involved.  Unfortunately, even if it is obvious that dry or dusty air is playing a role, medical issues cannot be ruled out without veterinary advice – websites purporting to aid in home diagnosis should not be relied upon.  In this article, we’ll review some common causes of sneezing and nasal discharge in budgies, cockatiels, cockatoos and other parrots.


General Considerations

As mentioned, an occasional sneeze is normal. The presence of mucus or other nasal discharge (with or without sneezing) should be taken as a danger sign.  Although typically associated with respiratory or related infections, mucus may also be formed when parrots need to rid their nares of dust, or in response to smoke or other chemical irritants.  Either way, prompt action is needed.  While veterinarians can draw some conclusions from the mucus’ appearance – clear, thick, coloration, presence of blood, etc. – pet owners should not speculate and attempt to resolve the problem without expert assistance.


Finger training

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Evenprime

Your Parrot’s Environment

Environmental problems are easier to remedy than are medical concerns.  While some budgies (parakeets) and some other species are adapted to arid habitats, most parrots are native to environments that are relatively humid for much or all of the year.  Indoor air in dry regions, and any indoor air that is heated or air-conditioned, is too dry for many commonly-kept parrots.


Fumes and mist or smoke from cooking, household cleaners and the like can also irritate the respiratory tract, leading to sneezing and the over-production of mucus.


Air filters, humidifiers, misting, live plants and saline flushes can be used to improve your pet’s environment.  However, be careful not to let environmental concerns mask a more serious medical condition – both can exist simultaneously.  Even if it is obvious that your home is too dry for your parrot, err on the side of caution and see a veterinarian.


Medical Concerns for Sneezing

Medical concerns that may be involved include fungal, bacterial, viral or yeast infections.  Parrots that have such ailments will usually show other symptoms as well, including appetite loss, a reluctance to move about, and labored breathing.  However, a bird may battle an infection for some time, behaving normally until a critical point is reached, at which time its condition can decline very quickly.  Therefore, a vet visit is prudent as soon as you notice unusual sneezing or a nasal discharge.



Any type of nutritional problem can weaken the immune system, leaving your pet open to attack by a variety of pathogens.  Vitamin A is of particular importance, as it is vital to the development of the cells lining the respiratory system.  Abnormal cells, common in Vitamin A deficient birds, seem to be easy targets for bacteria and other pathogens.  Most seeds are low in Vitamin A, while pellets and many fruits and vegetables have higher levels.  If your pet is on a seed-based diet, a vitamin supplement should be considered.  Please post below, and see the linked articles, for information on incorporating pellets and produce into parrot diets.


Other Possibilities

Tumors and other growths in the nares, sinuses or related areas may cause dry sneezing.  Parrots suffering from an air sac mite infestation may exhibit labored, open-mouthed breathing.




Further Reading

Nutriberries and Pellets: Improving Your Parrot’s Diet


Parrot Health: Labored Breathing and Respiratory Distress




Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease – An Incurable Parrot Virus Spreads

Cockatoo with PBFD

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by snowmanradio

The pet trade is being blamed for an emerging epidemic that is threatening captive and wild parrots worldwide.  Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) is caused by a Circovirus that evolves quickly, spreads easily, and survives for years in nests and roosting areas.  African Gray and Eclectus Parrots, Macaws, Cockatoos, Love Birds and Ring-Necked Parakeets are especially susceptible, but over 60 species have been infected. Included among these are wild populations of several endangered species, such as Swift, Orange-Bellied and Norfolk Island Green Parrots.  First identified in 1987, PBFD has recently reared its ugly head on New Zealand’s South Island, where it is killing rare Yellow-Crowned Parakeets.


An Emerging, Untreatable Parrot Disease

The virus that causes PBFD seems to have evolved in Australia, and for a time was endemic to that continent.  The threatened Orange-Bellied Parrot was the first species in which it was identified.  It has now been found in wild and pet parrot populations throughout the world.


Unfortunately, ongoing research has not yielded a cure.  Three forms of the disease are known.  Peracute and Acute PBFD afflict hatchlings and nestlings, and quickly lead to death.  Adult parrots infected with Chronic PBFD can be assisted a bit by strengthening the immune system, but they generally succumb as well.


A proper diet, exposure to sunlight or a UVA/UVB bulb, and the establishment of a natural day/night cycle has been useful in some cases.  Please see this article for more on testing, diagnosis, and treatments that may lessen the symptoms of PBFD.


The Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease Strikes New Zealand

Yellow Crowned Parakeet

Uploaded to Wiki[pedia Commons by Scott Wieman

In 2012, University of Canterbury researchers announced that a new strain of PBFD had been found on South Island, New Zealand, which until then had been free of the virus.  The island’s threatened Yellow-Crowned Parakeets were stricken.  The existence of a new strain is especially troubling, and illustrates the difficulties involved in studying and eliminating rapidly-evolving Circoviruses.  The disease was previously identified in the already-rare Red-Fronted Parakeets on Little Barrier Island, off New Zealand’s North Island (site of a Kakapo rescue operation).

The Pet Trade Connection

New Zealand is home to several of the world’s most unusual parrots, such as the alpine-dwelling, meat-eating Kea and the nocturnal Kakapo.  Despite decades of protection and study, the much-loved Kakapo is on the brink of extinction.



Uploaded to Wikipedia commons by snowmanradio

Escaped and released non-native parrots, products of the legal and illegal pet trade, are considered to be the source of the PBFD outbreak on New Zealand.  Eastern Rosellas, which are native to Australia but feral on New Zealand, were found to be infected with the virus.  Other Australian parrots that are or may be breeding in New Zealand include the Rainbow Lorikeet, Crimson Rosella, Galah, and Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo.


To determine the extent of the PBFD problem in New Zealand, researchers are monitoring native and introduced parrots.  In recent years, nearly 800 individuals representing 7 endemic parrot species were tested for PBFD.  Genetic analysis of the PBFD virus is also being undertaken.






Further Reading

Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease in Pet Parrots

 Saving the Kakapo

Kea Intelligence Shocks Researchers


The Best Way to Prevent Feather-Plucking – Make Your Parrot Work!

An exciting new study has revealed that healthy parrots prefer working for their food to eating from a bowl.  Parrots involved in feather-plucking, however, go right to their bowls and show no interest in solving problems that led to food rewards.  I think this research is important to all who share their homes with parrots.  Some progress was also made in developing a medication for birds that have begun to damage their plumage.  I have dealt with feather-plucking even in well-run zoos; it’s a sad and frustrating condition, and I hope that this new work points the way to some solutions.

Sun Conure playing

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Melanie Phung

Busy Minds and Bodies Remain Healthy

Feather plucking is heartbreaking to see, and immensely frustrating to cure.  Despite much interest from the parrot-keeping community, foolproof solutions elude us.  Feather-plucking and other forms of self-mutilation ruin the lives of countless pet parrots, many of which are eventually turned over to rescue centers, euthanized, or released.

A researcher at the Utrecht University Clinic for Companion Animals in the Netherlands offered African Gray Parrots the option of eating from a bowl or removing food from a pipe lined with holes.  Healthy birds invariably ignored the food bowls and went right to work on the pipes. Read More »

Parakeets, Cockatiels, Parrots and Cockatoos – Feather Plucking

Feather plucking (and other forms of self-mutation) is one of the most common concerns raised by parrot owners.  I’ve encountered the problem among zoo birds as well.  Despite being well-studied, feather plucking remains difficult to both prevent and cure.  Our understanding is complicated by the fact that feather plucking can be caused by widely-differing physical or emotional ailments.  But some general rules and patterns have emerged.  I’ll review these below…please be sure to post your own observations, as we still have much to learn.

Golden Conures

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Benny Mazur

Different yet Related Causes

Feather-plucking may be a reaction to a physical or emotional problem.  Sometimes, the reason is clearly physical…as when a bird plagued by mites picks at its feathers and skin.  Or the reason may be purely environmental…as when a bored parrot kept in a tiny cage adopts self-destructive behaviors.

But there are many areas of overlap.  In the example above, when the mites are eliminated, the bird will usually cease feather-picking. However, just like human infants, parrots quickly learn how to get our attention.  Let’s suppose the bird in question is housed alone and with minimal human contact.  It may very well make an association between feather plucking and attention – when it pulled at its feathers, people came; in some cases, solitary birds may even seek negative attention (i.e. yelling) if none other is provided. Read More »

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