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Avian Health Concerns: Recognizing and Eliminating External Parasites, Ants and Moths; Part I


The possibility of a flea or mite infestation in one’s home is a very troubling concern…pet-owners’ fears about this have been the source of many distressed calls for assistance that I have received over the years. The good news for bird keepers is that external parasites are not all that common among our feathered friends, and most are very specific in their host preferences. The few that do crop up from time to time are of concern, but all can be eliminated fairly easily, especially if detected early.

The Daily Health Check
A careful daily check of your bird is the key to early detection of a parasite problem. This is particularly important if you keep several birds, have recently added a new individual to your collection, or have brought your bird to a pet store for wing or nail clipping.

Bear in mind that not all feather and skin abnormalities are caused by parasites – feather chewing, poor nutrition and viral, bacterial or fungal disease are all possibilities (and, indeed, more likely than parasitic infestation).

First Steps
If you do discover mites or lice, a good first line treatment is Scalex Mite and Lice Spray . While this pyrethrin-based medication is often successful in eliminating the invaders, a visit to your veterinarian for a positive ID of the species involved is important (also, secondary problems, such as bacterial infections, are often associated with parasites). As most parasite eggs are unaffected by medications, you’ll need to space out the application of the spray as directed in the instructions in order to eliminate the pests as they hatch.

Red Mites
Small Arachnids (spider and tick relatives) known as red mites, Dermanyssus gallinae and related species, are the most troublesome pests in terms of transmission to other pets and people. These mites are not choosy as to their host and, unlike most avian parasites, leave the bird at night to deposit eggs in perches, nests, furniture and rugs. They can be observed crawling about the afflicted bird at night, or attached to a white sheet that has been draped over the cage.

You veterinarian will likely use Ivermectin as a treatment; red mites feed upon blood, so tests for anemia and bacterial infection are also recommended.

You should consult with your doctor and a professional exterminator concerning how best to eliminate lice that might possibly have taken refuge in your home or if you observe any upon your skin.

Scaly Face Mite
The mite most commonly found on pet birds is scaly face mite, Knemidokptes pilae. It is almost entirely limited to budgerigars, only rarely afflicting other parrots or, less commonly, finches, and does not establish itself on other pets or people.

Scaly face mites are usually found around the cere (the area just above the beak), vent and legs. They burrow into theses areas, leaving tiny holes in the skin and a powdery plaque in their wake. As you can imagine, the unfortunate bird becomes extremely uncomfortable and scratches at the affected areas. In severe infestations, the bill itself may be damaged. The mites themselves are not visible to the naked eye.

In finches, a related mite tends to focus on the feet – birds so afflicted are said to have “tasselfoot”.

Mineral oil spread about the skin to suffocate the mites is often effective, but treatment with Ivermectin is preferable.

Air Sac Mites
Air sac mites remain within the respiratory tract and are most frequently seen in canaries and other finches. Birds parasitized by these mites usually breathe heavily, with their beaks wide open. Related species, termed tracheal mites, cause “gape mouth”, a condition seen in turacos and other species commonly kept in zoo collections.

Ivermectin is the drug of choice, but it must be administered carefully – a die-off of large numbers of mites at once can cause the host bird to suffocate.

Lice are parasitic insects. Less commonly seen in pet birds than mites, various types feed upon blood, feathers or skin. Some types concentrate at the bases of the feathers, while others attach to the feathers’ lower surfaces or the skin itself.

Nearly all lice are very specific as concerns host selection, feeding upon only one particular bird species. Bird lice will not attack people or other pets, and are sensitive to Scalex (pyrethrin spray) and Ivermectin. Because lice damage the skin, a veterinarian should be consulted to rule out the possibility of a secondary bacterial infection.

Always wash well with warm water and anti-bacterial soap after handling a bird that is parasitized by mites or lice, and launder your clothes in hot water. Consult your doctor and a professional exterminator if you observe these invertebrates on your person or in your home.

Further Reading
A number of feather and skin conditions mimic the symptoms of a mite or lice infestation. You can learn how to recognize many of these at http://www.birdsnways.com/wisdom/ww48eiv.htm.

Click here to read the 2nd half of this article.


Diagnosis and Treatment of Ailments Afflicting Parrots, Canaries, Finches, Mynas and other Cage and Aviary Birds – Part 2

Click here to read the first part of this article.

Foot Ailments

Bumblefoot (swollen toe joints)

Bacterial infections (often Staphylococcus) take hold in small wounds on the feet (received from splinters, glass, frostbite, etc.) especially if droppings have been allowed to accumulate.

Prompt antibiotic treatment is necessary if surgery is to be avoided; if left untreated, gangrene will set in, resulting in loss of the foot.

Calluses (thick, hard pads on bottom of feet)

Can result from perching on perches that are too hard, or that do not vary in width.

Be sure main (roosting) perch is of a width that allows toes to extend ¾ of the way around. Other perches should be of varying widths and materials; including A & E Rope and Cable Perches and similar perches allow the bird to choose a soft surface on occasion. Concrete perches should not be used as main perch but rather only as accessory perches, i.e. near the food bowl (and not at all if calluses are present).

Feather Ailments

French Moult (damaged feathers, loss of flight and tail feathers, bleeding)

Caused by a viral infection (Polyomavirus), French moult usually afflicts young parrots. It is rarely fatal but bird may be unable to fly thereafter.

There is no known treatment; recovered birds may still harbor the virus and thus should not be bred.

Feather Cysts (small lumps on the feathers)

Most common in canaries, this condition is genetic and the result of inbreeding.

Incurable; care should be taken to avoid breeding related birds or related lined of birds to each other.

Respiratory Ailments

Tracheal Mites and Gape Worm (wheezing, difficulty breathing, gaping, coughing, voice change/loss)

The parasites responsible for these conditions may be spread by other birds (in the case of mites) or through foods, such as earthworms, that may harbor gape worms.

Ivermectin and other anti-parasite medications are effective treatments. Infected birds should be isolated from others.

Psittacosis (fluid dripping from nostrils, breathing difficulty, exhaustion, inflamed eyes, sometimes accompanied by diarrhea)

This bacterial (Clamydia) disease is readily transmittable to people and can be fatal.

Contact your family doctor and veterinarian immediately.

Digestive Ailments

Salmonella Infection (huddled posture, diarrhea, stained vent feathers, lethargy)

This bacterium can be spread by roaches, rodents, wild birds, infected pet birds and seed contaminated with rodent droppings, and is most common among birds kept in unclean and crowded situations.

Salmonella is readily transmitted to people, and may be fatal to very young, elderly or immune-compromised individuals. Veterinarian-administered antibiotic treatments are often effective.

Candidiasis (mouth open and tongue extended; white fungus may appear along inner surfaces of the bill)

This fungal disease usually occurs in the presence of Vitamin A deficiencies, and is most commonly seen in nectar feeding birds (lories, hummingbirds, sunbirds).

Antibiotics and Vitamin A supplements are usually effective.

Reproductive System Ailments

Egg Binding (swelling about vent, straining, labored breathing, sitting on floor, puffed feathers)

The inability of a female bird to pass an egg is usually the result of a calcium deficiency.

Although lubricants applied to the cloaca (vent) sometimes help, veterinary intervention is usually required. A well-balanced diet that includes the correct amounts of calcium and other minerals is particularly important for females of all species.

Cloacal Warts or Papillomas (small, hard growths on and about the cloaca, or vent)
Cloacal warts are most commonly seen in South American parrots, particularly Amazons and macaws. They may constrict the cloaca, causing constipation and preventing the bird from breeding.

Silver nitrate (bathing the affected area) cures the condition, but afflicted birds should not be allowed to breed until they have been wart-free for at least 1 year.

Information concerning commonly encountered ailments (parakeets and related species) is posted at:


Diagnosis and Treatment of Ailments Afflicting Parrots, Canaries, Finches, Mynas and other Cage and Aviary Birds – Part 1

As with all pets, a nutritious diet and proper environmental conditions are the most important factors in maintaining the health of captive birds. When health concerns do arise, you should seek veterinary assistance. The following information will help you to identify, avoid and treat (while awaiting a veterinarian’s advice) commonly encountered bird ailments. It is a good idea to always have on hand a basic first aid kit, such as the VSI Pet Care Kit

Please remember that many bird-borne illnesses are transmittable to people, where they can cause severe or even fatal reactions. Consult your doctor concerning appropriate preventative steps, even if your bird is healthy. Emerging diseases, such as Avian Flu and West Nile Virus, should also be discussed.

A Word about Stress
After working with hundreds of bird species over several decades, I can say with certainty that stress is one of the most important underlying factors affecting the health of captive birds. This applies to a greater or lesser extent to different species and individual birds, but it is of concern to all.

Unfortunately, the problems caused by stress often manifest themselves in ways that seem unrelated to stress, and so we may wind up treating an illness but neglecting its underlying cause. For example, the fungus Aspergillus is common in nearly all environments and causes healthy birds no trouble at all. Years ago, however, bird keepers noticed that birds of many species became ill with Aspergillus infections (Aspergillosus) when moved from one cage to another. Samples taken in zoos showed that this occurred despite the fact that fungus levels were the same in both cages.

The explanation is that the transfer of a bird from its usual home to another is an extremely stressful event, especially for secretive species (i.e. birds of paradise in zoos, or certain finches in the pet trade) or shy individuals. The stress weakens the bird’s immune system, and pathogens that were otherwise destroyed by it now render the bird ill. So common is this phenomenon that many zoos now routinely medicate birds before moving them to new exhibits.

Immune system stress can arise from other factors as well – threatening cage mates, noise, poor diet, inappropriate temperatures, boredom and so on. Be sure to learn as much as you can about your pets, and provide them with the proper captive environment.

Eye Ailments

Red, swollen or closed eyes are indicative of an infection or traumatic injury. Please be aware that such is also seen in birds infected with Psittacosis, a serious disease that is transmittable to people.

Apply an ophthalmic ointment or drop (drops are often washed away by the eye’s secretions). Be sure to keep the cage bars and perches clean, as birds often rub sore eyes on these.

Check back on Wednesday for the conclusion of this article.

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