Pet birds can be very hardy, as long as they are kept in a clean, healthy environment and fed a proper and varied diet that covers all their nutritional needs. In fact, some of the larger parrot species we keep like macaws, Amazons, African greys and cockatoos can live up to 50 years or more when cared for properly. But like any living being, birds can suffer from a number of health issues, and it is imperative to recognize the signs of illness or trouble early so the right treatment can be given as soon as possible.
The biggest problem with caged birds is that they will hide an illness until they are very sick. If at any time a bird owner calls and says their bird seems to be tired all the time, is not eating or acting normally, or if the bird has any discharges or other physical symptoms of sickness, the owner needs to bring their pet to an avian veterinarian right away. Make it clear that the bird is extremely ill and not to wait on getting treatment.
In some cases, a pet bird has done so well at hiding its illness that the owner finds the bird dead at the bottom of the cage. Although birds can suffer heart attacks and other issues that can cause death quickly, often it’s a disease or other health issue that caused the bird’s demise. This is why it’s extremely important to watch for signs that there may be an issue and the best indicators are behavioral changes.
When birds are moved from one environment to another—such as a new shipment of birds arriving at a pet store—they will be stressed and will most likely not be acting normally for the first few days. However, during this initial period, a bird should still eat and look alert. If a bird seems to be lethargic and sleeping a lot during the day, fluffed up and uninterested in anything around it, or doesn’t eat much, the bird needs to be taken to an avian veterinarian. Sometimes stress can cause a health issue, whether it is from a move, a change at home or something else, therefore it is best to try to keep any changes to a minimum and keep a close eye on any new birds.
Once a pet bird has acclimated to a move, the store personnel or new owner should observe any new birds to get a baseline of the pet’s behavior. A healthy bird will be active and alert, and its eyes will look bright and clear. The feathers should look clean and neat, with the bird preening them every day. Certain species lose feathers all the time, but all birds will go through a strong molt twice a year where larger and longer feathers are lost from the wings and tail. New feathers look like pins or shafts, and should come in quickly. There should not be any bald spots showing on a healthy pet bird.
If feathers do not grow in properly or at all, that can be a sign of illness. Plucking feathers can often start out as a nutritional deficiency or parasite problem, and then become a habit. Sometimes the feathers will never grow in properly again or at all once they have been overly plucked. Any time a bird starts to pluck or is scratching excessively, it needs to be checked and if no health issues are found, then it can be behavioral and a sign that the bird has been overly stressed, bored, or has had some strong and/or sudden change in its life that caused the bird to pluck. No matter what the reason, the bird needs to be seen by a veterinarian as soon as this behavior starts.
All birds like to vocalize in some way and it is a sign of good health for them to make some noise—especially in the morning just after waking up and before going to bed. Some species can be nosier than others, and individual birds may be more talkative. For example, male birds usually babble more than females in most species. If a normally talkative bird is suddenly very quiet, it can be a sign the bird is feeling unwell.
The feet show how birds are closely related to reptiles. A bird’s feet are covered in smooth scaled skin that should be clean, and not display any odd bumps or crustiness. A bird’s nails grow constantly and must be kept at a correct length and not allowed to overgrow. Perches are made to help keep a bird’s nails short but certain species—and even some individual birds—can have very fast-growing nails, so it is important to keep an eye on them. If the nails need to be trimmed, an avian veterinarian can do this service or a pet store can do nail trims and be sure the bird owner has perches that can help.
The bird’s bill also grows constantly but usually between eating and chewing on items like beak conditioners, wood and toys the beak stays at a proper length. The bill should look basically smooth and clean without any discolorations or odd growths. The nostrils above should be open and clear without any discharge, and the bird should not be sneezing all the time, which may indicate an illness.
The vent under the tail should be clean without any waste stuck around it or abnormal growths or protrusions. The excrement in birds is semi-solid—about the consistency of pudding—and usually has a larger part that is darker and a white part, which is the urate. The consistency and color depend on the bird and what it eats. Changes in the amount, smell or consistency of a bird’s excrement can be a great indicator something is wrong.
Identifying any changes in a bird’s normal behavior can be the key to catching a health issue early and getting it successfully treated. Once a bird is showing signs that it is ill, it means it has become very sick, which makes treatment more difficult. Alert store employees and bird owners that they can help keep birds healthy by being observant for any changes—both physically and behaviorally—and to have them checked right away if anything seems wrong. PB
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.