Parrot Disease: Ornithosis or Bird Disease

Ornithosis – outdated also known as psittacosis or colloquially as parrot disease – is one of the dreaded infectious diseases that can affect both birds and people in their vicinity. Ornithosis is contagious and one of those diseases that humans and animals can mutually infect. The technical term for this is “zoonosis”. The good news: Detected in good time, the ornithosis can be treated well – by the general practitioner and the veterinarian.

Why is the Disease Called “Parrot Disease”?

There is a simple reason why ornithosis is popularly described and in older medical treatises as “parrot disease” or psittacosis: In the first documented cases of the disease, it was unequivocally proven that it was infected by a parrot bird. It is now known that psittacosis does not only come from parrots but is generally transmitted by birds. It is therefore correct to speak of ornithosis in sick people today, i.e. the bird disease.

Unfortunately, the term “parrot disease” is so firmly established even among laypeople that parrots and parakeets wrongly appear as the solely responsible carriers of infection. Ornithosis can also be transmitted from all sorts of other feathered animals – from the domestic fowl to the blue tit. In everyday life, however, the pathogens from wild birds to humans are rather unlikely. The risk groups include people who, for example, have very close contact with larger groups of birds, either professionally or as a breeder. Ornithosis is a recognized occupational disease among zoo animal keepers, employees of poultry farms, and pet shops.

What Causes the Ornithosis?

Ornithosis is a bacterial infection. The trigger is the Chlamydia psitacci bacterium from the chlamydia family. These are bacteria, but they have some properties in common with viruses. Chlamydia, for example, cannot move on their own and cover their energy needs through the metabolism of their host cells. The bacterium can survive outside an organism and is passive but environmentally resistant until it finds a host again. The infection is transmitted either by inhalation or by smear infection. The chlamydia reaches the next host via the dried or fresh excrement of infected birds or secretions. The incubation period between infection and onset of the disease is approximately two weeks in humans. Have your animals examined and inform the vet about possible routes of infection, for example in the case of new birds in the herd.

What are the Symptoms of Ornithosis in Humans?

In infected humans, the pathogens affect the liver and spleen; however, they primarily penetrate the cell tissue of the lungs via the respiratory tract and continue to multiply there. As a rule, ornithosis manifests itself through symptoms similar to those of atypical pneumonia. The symptoms are very variable. Some patients show hardly any symptoms, others suffer from a very strong feeling of illness. Symptoms include:

Symptoms of an ornithosis

  • Previous flu-like illness;
  • Slowly rising fever;
  • Chills;
  • Headache and body aches;
  • Sore throat;
  • Dry cough;
  • Occasionally pelvic inflammation;
  • More or less rattling breathing;
  • Gastrointestinal complaints;
  • Greenish diarrhea;
  • Vomit;
  • Enlargement of the liver and spleen (usually unnoticed by the patient, as initially symptom-free).

Heart muscle inflammation, skin rashes, and encephalitis can also be complications. Do you suspect that you may have ornithosis? Then expressly point out to the doctor that you are a bird owner because other types of chlamydial infections are common among humans.

How Do I Recognize Psittacosis in My Parrot?

While one speaks of ornithosis in sick people, the term psittacosis in sick parrots is still correct. In feathered patients, the disease is initially as unspecific as it is in humans. Possible symptoms are:

Possible symptoms of psittacosis:

  • Loss of appetite;
  • General weakness;
  • Emaciation;
  • Shaggy plumage;
  • Tremble;
  • Signs of paralysis;
  • Diarrhea (sometimes bloody);
  • Inflammation of the eyes and nose with discharge;
  • Pneumonia.

In psittacosis, too, the severity of the symptoms is individual; some birds show hardly any symptoms, others a disease can be clearly seen. In particularly severe cases, psittacosis (untreated) can end with death within a few hours. Latent infection is also possible: the disease does not break out, but the affected bird can spread it. If psittacosis is suspected, the veterinarian is legally obliged to report to the veterinary office.

What is the Treatment of Parrot Disease in Humans?

Evidence of an ornithosis infection is carried out in humans via a blood test. In the case of birds, the vet examines a fecal sample, and in the case of larger birds, a blood sample as well. Detected and treated in good time, the chances of recovery in humans are very good: the mortality rate is less than one percent. The doctor initiates therapy with suitable antibiotics (tetracyclines or macrolides) for treatment, which must be carefully observed.

As with all antibiotics, if the drug is discontinued prematurely, the pathogen can develop resistance. A treated ornithosis that progresses without major complications will subside within about four weeks. Ornithosis is a notifiable disease in Germany; however, only a few cases are registered each year. As a rule, this affects patients with very intensive professional contact with poultry. Ornithosis has lost much of its horror – provided that it is not abducted.

What are the Chances of Recovery for the Feathered Patient?

If psittacosis is proven in a parrot, a legal regulation takes effect: the Ornithose-Psittacosis Ordinance. This provides for behavioral measures for further handling. Sick animals must be separated and quarantined in a separate room. During care and treatment, the owner must wear protective clothing and observe hygiene regulations. All animals in the herd are treated with antibiotics; the vet will periodically check fecal samples until the infection is under control. The same applies here: If it is recognized and treated early, the chances of recovery for the affected birds are good. However, even after successful therapy, the animals can still be carriers of the pathogen. Careful hygiene in the bird household will help prevent another outbreak of the disease.

How Do I Protect Myself and My Birds From Parrot Disease?

To prevent ornithosis, a few simple precautionary measures are useful:

Measures to protect against parrot disease:

  • Hygiene and absolute cleanliness: The primary route of transmission is via particles of dried bird droppings. Regularly clean and disinfect the aviary and feces; in case of doubt, wear a face mask for larger stocks.
  • New birds should be kept isolated from resident animals for at least two weeks and observed for possible symptoms of the disease.
  • Have fecal samples from new birds routinely tested for chlamydia by the vet.
  • Even if your birds have come into contact with strange birds, for example at a holiday foster home or at an exhibition, a prophylactic chlamydia test can clarify a possible infection.
Mary Allen

Written by Mary Allen

Hello, I'm Mary! I've cared for many pet species including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, fish, and bearded dragons. I also have ten pets of my own currently. I've written many topics in this space including how-tos, informational articles, care guides, breed guides, and more.

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