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   Psittacosis Disease  

Psittacosis Disease

Psittacosis, also known as ornithosis or chlamydiosis, is a common disease of many bird species.  It is well recognised in parrot species, but is also common in pigeons, for instance.  It is considered important not only because of its effects on birds, but in particular because it is a  zoonosis: it is a disease which can be transmitted to humans.

The organism responsible for psittacosis is  Chlamydia psittaci (recently renamed Chlamydophila psittaci).  The disease is contracted by inhalation of contaminated dust from feathers or dried droppings.   Infected birds may carry the organism for long periods without any outward signs.  In periods of stress, such as travel, rehoming or in overcrowded accommodation, infected birds will shed the organism at higher levels.  These situations are classic for transmission of the infection, and accordingly all new birds should be closely monitored for signs of infection.  Ideally new birds should be tested for Chlamydia before being allowed to mix with resident populations.

The signs of psittacosis are varied, and almost any symptoms might be attributable to the disease.  Classically it causes respiratory signs or diarrhoea.  A bright green diarrhoea is a common sign, but psittacosis  is not the only cause of such a sign.  Other birds may just be vaguely unwell, lethargic, losing weight, have conjunctivitisor may seem to die suddenly.  Remember that such signs are common symptoms of many diseases in birds.  Young birds are more susceptible to a really acute infection while older birds will tend to have a more chronic form of the disease.

The clinical signs, circumstances of the illness and X-rays (the liver and spleen may be enlarged) will often lead an avian vet to suspect psittacosis.  Confirming a diagnosis can only be done by laboratory testing.  Unfortunately, the infection can be a difficult one to reliable detect on testing.  Several different tests are available and may be performed on blood samples or faeces samples.  Probably the most accurate is one called a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test which multiplies DNA from the organism.  The problem is that this test can take several days to provide a result, and so the vet may choose to perform a more rapid test in the veterinary practice or at the lab as well.

Sick birds are likely to be shedding generous quantities of the organism, and so a lab test on such a bird is likely to detect the disease if present.  The problem comes when new birds are being screened, or tests are being performed on healthy birds as part of a general health examination.  Even if these birds are carriers, they may not be shedding Chlamydia, and so a negative test can only be a guide.  Current advice when testing healthy birds is to pool faeces from three days to send to lab to increase the chances of detecting the organism.

It is possible to treat psittacosis.  The treatment is long (6 weeks of antibiotics) and all in contact birds, whether healthy or sick, should be treated.  It is important to ensure that any drugs administered are being given effectively.  It is also vital to maintain strict hygiene to prevent spread of the disease to other birds or to people.  Before ceasing treatment and removing affected birds from isolation, at least one further test for Chlamydia should be performed.  As well as isolating infected birds, owners should be careful to minimise contact with droppings.  Use of gloves and face masks is strongly recommended.  Droppings and soiled cage debris should be disposed of by incineration.  Pregnant women, children, elderly or sick people, persons on immunosuppressive drugs or infected with HIV should all avoid contact with affected birds.

In people psittacosis usually presents as a persistent and sometimes severe ‘flu’ like disease.  Bird owners who develop persistent respiratory disease or influenza symptoms, fevers, severe headaches or weakness should discuss the possibility of psittacosis with their doctors.  Once identified, the disease can be easily treated in people, but if not diagnosed it can progress to a severe illness.  Fortunately the incidence of transmission to people is quite low considering how common a disease this is.

In order to reduce the chances of your birds developing psittacosis, the following recommendations should be followed.

•  When buying new birds, take them to a veterinary surgeon for a physical examination and Chlamydia screening tests as soon as possible.
•  Isolate new birds for six weeks before introducing them to your existing stock.  Be sure to dispose of faeces and cage debris in such a way that your other birds are not exposed.
•  When buying birds, use a breeder or supplier who regularly screens their stock for Chlamydia.
•  Maintain good hygiene and disinfection in your aviaries, and reduce stress on your birds as far as possible.
•  Many vets would advise a yearly screening test for Chalamydia.

Credit: C. N. Gorman, BVSc, MRCVS, AAV

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