Parrots have evolved as a ‘prey species’ to larger birds of prey and mammals. They have developed the ability to mask any signs of illness in the wild. This allows them to not alert their predators that they may be an easier meal and risk being pushed out of the flock. Due to this, any signs of an illness can be subtle and easily missed; often, by the time your parrot displays signs and symptoms of being sick, they are generally quite seriously unwell.
Knowing your bird’s normal behavior and routines such as activity, droppings, appetite, and demeanor is vital. If you are in tune with what is expected, you will find it easier to spot when something is amiss.
Reasons for a behavior change can range from behavioral issues to serious illness. Still, it is essential to be vigilant and don’t be afraid to consult an experienced exotic veterinary surgeon if you notice that something is wrong.
How can I tell if my bird is sick?
Some common signs and symptoms to look out for that may indicate that your parrot is sick include:
Refusing food or decreased appetite
Birds have an extremely high metabolism, so it is essential to maintain adequate nutrition. Parrots should be fed a balanced diet of a ‘complete’ pelleted food, supplemented with fresh fruit and vegetables. They can be given seeds and nuts as an occasional treat, but this should not form a large part of the diet. Although parrots love seeds, these are often deficient in protein, vitamins, and minerals, including calcium and vitamin A. Picky birds will choose the tastiest seeds and leave the rest. Incorrectly stored seed is also liable to become contaminated with fungal spores, which can subsequently infect the parrots eating them.
Each bird has their individual appetite levels, but a change in standard feeding patterns may be a sign of an issue. Causes of a reduced appetite could include pain, injury to the beak or mouth or a general underlying systemic disease.
A change in droppings
Whilst close inspection of your parrot’s droppings is not the most enjoyable task, it is essential as a change can signal several different issues.
There are three components to normal parrot droppings. The first is the faecal (or stool) component. This is either a green or brown, solid part of the dropping. The color may vary slightly, depending on the type of food being fed. The second part is the chalky urate component, or the solid urine component, which is usually white. This is produced by birds in order to preserve water. . The third part is a clear liquid urine component.
Issues that may be seen with droppings include:
- Diarrhea/watery fecal component – this is a serious condition in small birds as it can quickly lead to dehydration. Causes can include a change in diet, stress, internal parasites, bacterial enteritis (infection in the guts), or bacterial hepatitis (infection in the liver).
- Blood in droppings – This can be caused by internal parasites; severe bacterial enteritis; heavy metal poisoning (Zinc/lead toxicity), cloacal prolapse (when inner tissue protrudes through the vent opening) or egg binding (when a female bird is unable to expel eggs from her body).
- Undigested food in droppings can be a sign of proventricular dilatation disease (a condition affecting the nerves that supply the gastrointestinal tract/intestines of birds), internal parasites, or pancreatic disorders.
- Discolored fecal component – A green-colored can indicate an issue with the liver. Brown coloring can suggest a bacterial gut infection, and pink or red can indicate possible heavy metal toxicity.
- Discolored urates – Bright green urates suggest infection with Chlamydophila (a bacterial disease affecting the whole body). Brown is suggestive of bacterial infections; pink is suggestive of heavy metal toxicity. Golden yellow urates can sometimes be seen after vitamins have been given.
- Reduced/no droppings – A reduction in droppings would suggest a decreased appetite. A complete absence of droppings should be taken very seriously as it can be a sign of anorexia or a blockage. It is important to note that parrots may still pass the urate portion without any fecal matter.
Parrot Feather Loss
Diagnosing the cause of feather loss is complicated as many potential triggers exist. Some possible reasons include viruses such as Psittacine beak and feather disease, dermatitis, external parasites, environmental trauma, injuries from other birds, bacterial or fungal infections, malnutrition, or systemic disease.
Your veterinary surgeon will work to rule out an underlying illness as a cause of the feather loss. In that case, they may deduce that the issue is caused by a behavioral condition called feather plucking (also known as ‘feather picking’ or ‘Feather Destructive Syndrome’). This condition is comparable to a human that has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Parrot Weight loss
Weight loss can be hidden by ruffled feathers in a sick bird, so it can be difficult to detect by sight alone. It is a good idea to regularly weigh your parrot (a set of electronic kitchen scales is acceptable) to monitor trends.
Weight loss can be a non-specific sign of illness, but can also be caused by increased exercise or decreased food intake. Any noted changes should always be considered part of a bigger picture.
Parrot Dwelling on Floor
You can typically expect to see your parrot perching or climbing in their cage, so any prolonged period spent at the bottom of the cage should be considered abnormal. This could be a non-specific sign of illness, but could also be caused by leg or spinal injuries, the inability to fly, being egg bound, heavy metal poisoning or a general weakness due to systemic disease.
Respiratory disease is a common problem in parrots. Signs you may see include:
- Discharge from the nares (nostrils)
- Breathing with the beak open
- Tail bobbing
- Noticeable abdominal movement when taking breaths (watch the sides of the body near the stomach)
- An increased noise when breathing
- Feathers fluffed up for a prolonged period
A common cause of breathing problems in parrots is a systemic bacterial infection called Chlamydophila psittaci (or psittacosis). Birds can often be carriers of the disease, but symptoms usually only show when their immune system is depressed. This can happen during times of stress (such as a change in environment). It is important to note that psittacosis is a zoonotic disease (a disease that can be transferred from animals to humans). Early detection and treatment are essential to protect human health as well as the health of your pet.
Other reasons your parrot has respiratory issues could be bacterial, fungal, viral, parasitic infections, or allergies (tobacco smoke, aerosols, perfume, etc.)
Neurological issues are defined as those affecting the nervous system (the brain, spinal cord and nerves). Signs that a parrot may show include weakness, head twitching, loss of balance, unable to sit on their perch, and seizures or convulsions.
Causes can include:
- Toxicity – for example, heavy metal toxicity from chewing items in their environment containing zinc or lead. Zinc toxicity is commonly seen in birds placed in cages made from zinc-coated galvanized mesh
- Head trauma due to an accident
- Hypocalcaemia (low calcium levels) – Calcium deficiency is associated with unbalanced, low-quality diets and lack of exposure to sunlight
- Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels)
- Weakness due to systemic disease
Vomiting should always be treated as a severe sign as it can quickly lead to dehydration, especially in smaller birds.
Any mucousy, fluidly, or smelly vomit is a sign that you must consult your veterinary surgeon quickly. This will enable them to stabilize your parrot and begin investigating the cause.
Vomiting can be caused by several issues such as intestinal obstructions, heavy metal poisoning, viral diseases or proventricular dilatation disease.
It is important to remember that some male birds regurgitate food as part of a courtship ritual. As long as they are in otherwise good condition, this is not an issue and is an entirely natural behavior!
A parrot that is bleeding must be classed as an emergency. Although the amount of blood lost may seem small and insignificant, birds only have tiny blood volumes, so even a slight loss may significantly impact the bird’s health and potentially prove fatal. If you have caused your bird to bleed whilst clipping its claws, you can apply an anticoagulant such as flour to stop the bleeding before you reach the veterinary surgery. Even if the bleeding has stopped, a clinical examination by a veterinary surgeon is strongly advised.
Whilst any owners of parrots know how much joy they can bring, ownership can sometimes seem very daunting. You can do your best to minimize any risks by maintaining a close relationship with your parrot. Socialize with them daily, feed them a high-quality, balanced diet, and keep a close eye on their food intake and droppings.
The main thing is to trust your instincts. You know your parrot better than anyone else, so if you suspect there may be a problem, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek help. Any reputable veterinary practice should be happy to provide advice and further guidance if you are worried about the health of your feathered companion.
Chitty, J., Monks, D. and British Small Animal Veterinary Association (2018). BSAVA manual of avian practice: a foundation manual. Gloucester: British Small Animal Veterinary Association, Cop.
Meredith, A., Redrobe, S. and Small, B. (2010). BSAVA manual of exotic pets. Gloucester: British Small Animal Veterinary Association.
Varga, M., Lumbis, R. and Gott, L. (2012). BSAVA manual of exotic pet and wildlife nursing. Quedgeley: British Small Animal Veterinary Association.