Is My Bird Sick?

Image of a Cockatiel

Veterinarians are often presented with birds that are in very poor condition. The smallest amount of stress can quickly lead to serious illness or death in an ill bird. Birds are basically wild animals. They have a true need to appear normal, regardless of their location. What is “normal”? Sitting on a tree or perch appearing to be healthy, eating, and singing. All “appearances” are very important to a bird’s existence because if a predator were to perceive that a bird was sick or disabled, that bird would become easy prey in the wild. These instincts are not lost in caged birds. In many ways, this leads to difficulties in early recognition of disease in birds. Pet owners often fail to recognize these “cover ups” and by the time they do, the bird is ill, perhaps deathly so. They don’t realize that the bird has been ill for a very long time.

A bird will appear normal “up to the last minute”. It will sit on its perch and it will eat, sometimes until the last hours of life. In fact, its last act may be to go to the feeding tray, just the opposite of cats and dogs. People believe that just as long as the bird eats, it must be okay. This is false.

So, let’s touch on fine points about telling if you’re a bird is sick. Pet shop personnel and pet owners alike need to be aware of these things. Any bird that appears to be even mildly ill may be extremely ill. If a bird is on the bottom of the cage, it is extremely ill. If a bird can no longer hold itself on a perch, this is an emergency. This bird is critically ill and is in eminent danger of death!

What Should a Client be Instructed to do if They Believe Their Bird is Sick?

  • Bring the bird to the veterinarian in its own cage if possible
  • Do not clean the cage. The true environment of the cage must be observed. This includes the droppings.
  • Before leaving home, empty the water dish so it doesn’t spill in transit. (But put the container back in the cage).

  • Remove all grit (if present) from the cage. Cover the cage with a cover or blanket. Move slowly, keep the bird calm.
  • If the bird shows neurological damage or is weak and unsteady on the perch, remove swings or perches. Bring them with the cage.
  • Bring any medicines, vitamins and a sample of the diet the bird has been eating.

How to Know if Your Bird is Sick?

Examining a Sick Bird

Here we will touch on some of the things that practical experience has taught us at the Safari Animal Care Centers. A thorough examination of the bird’s cage can provide much useful information. It indicates the owner’s knowledge of husbandry, the general level of care the bird receives, and it even provides clues as to problems that the bird may be having. Dropping should be examined first. Of course, a newly acquired pet, excited and stressed by its new home may show several abnormal stools (wet, tan, no shape). But those recent stools should be disregarded.

The Stool

The normal dropping is firm and consists of three parts: the white (uric acid), a liquid portion (urine) and dark solid portion (fecal material). In the stool, there should be a central white dot surrounded by a cylindrical brown or greenish ring resembling a small bull’s eye. The number of droppings will average about 40 in 24 hours. A very small stain around the droppings is normal, especially if the bird has grain or fruit in the diet. The amount of urine varies with the diet i.e. more urine is produced by a bird eating large amounts of fruits when compared to a bird eating only seed. There is no noticeable strong odor if the bird is healthy. A decrease in the number of droppings or a dark green color to the stool should suggest that the bird’s appetite has decreased. Droppings pasted to the feathers around the vent suggests the bird may be constipated, is weak and unable to position normally to defecate or has disease associated with the cloaca such as a papilloma or egg binding.

Feces that are dark forest green contain considerable bile. This is common in birds that are not eating. If the urates yellowish green, there is a possibility of liver disease. Bits of tissue and blood in the droppings indicate severe inflammation that is usually associated with disease of the cloaca, lower intestinal tract or reproductive tract.
Undigested seeds indicate hypermotility in the gut, atrophy of the proventricular (stomach) or ventricular (gizzard) wall. or other condition causing poor digestion.

Blood in the urine may be associated with kidney infection or lead poisoning, especially in Amazon Parrots. Excessive urine production is common in hens during the period immediately prior to egg laying, however, birds with diabetes will also produce large volumes of urine.

Cage Examination

Small birds are often brought to the veterinarian confined in their regular cage. Observe the feed dish and cage floor to see what the bird has been eating. If grains, fruits, or vegetables are in the cage, notice their condition: fresh, wilted, soft or spoiled. Look at the mirrors for signs of regurgitation. (The mirrors and plastic birds occasionally cause a male parakeet to regurgitate crop milk as part of courtship behavior. Some birds will even regurgitate at the sight of their owner). Examine the cage bars and accessories for signs of destruction or chipped paint. Be sure the perches are the correct size for the bird’s use. Finally, since the water and feed dish will be empty, ask the owner about water consumption. Larger birds are usually presented in a smaller transport cage or carrier. In these cases, question the owner concerning the points of concern noted previously.

Bird’s Attitude

Before capturing the bird for a physical examination, observe it at a distance. Note its attitude, posture, and type of ambulation. Is the bird using its perches or resting on the floor? Is the bird crouching with ruffled feathers or actively moving about the cage? Attempt to gather as much information as possible, keeping in mind that every sick bird will perk up when it first sees you.

General signs of illness include:

  • Changes in: talking or singing habits,
  • Voice changes
  • Change in food or water consumption
  • Change in stools
  • Change in attitude i.e. form aggressive to meek or vice versa
  • Listlessness, sleepiness, lameness, and decreased activity
  • Change in appearance i.e. pasty vent or ruffled feathers
  • Prolonged molting, excessive feather loss, or feather picking
  • Exudate in and around the mouth, nares or eyes.
  • Abnormal respiratory sounds i.e. wheezing, coughing, sneezing, labored breathing (tail bobbing), open beak breathing Developing masses in or under the skin or in the abdomen

Capturing the Bird

Without fail, you must warn the owner prior to capture about two problems which may occur during capture or shortly after: The stress of capture and restraint of a sick bird may cause it to die. This is usually a risk you and the owner will have to accept if a proper diagnosis is to be made. A second problem is cardiac racing syndrome. Out of sheer fright, the heart rate greatly exceeds normal limits. The heart beats so fast that blood cannot fill in the atria of the heart and the ventricles, which drastically reduces cardiac output ability. Just as the bird becomes comfortable in the palm of your hand, it becomes quiet, subdued and limp. The bird has basically passed out. The bird can die in 20 to 30 seconds. This is a very common problem in small birds such as parakeets, canaries and finches.

To capture a bird in its cage, remove any perches or toys. Parakeets, canaries and finches can easily be captured by turning off the lights. They freeze. Parakeets can be placed in the palm of your hand on its back with the thumb and forefinger secure around its neck, just under the head. The little finger can be placed over the legs while the rest of the hand loosely cradles the bird. Do not place your fingers over the bird’s breast. It cannot breathe unless the sternum is allowed to rise and fall. Large birds require a little more skill. If the bird is civil, it can be removed without flying away or being belligerent. The capture is accomplished with a towel. Approach the bird slowly from the rear while someone distracts it from the front. Throw the towel over it. Quickly and purposefully grasp the bird’s mandible with one hand and its feet and trunk with the other. Do not be timid. Do not hesitate. At this time, you could lose a finger, if you do. It is not a problem as long as you are quick and to the point. The bird can be wrapped in the towel to restrain the wings. We do not recommend the use of leather gloves as this can cause the bird to fear hands. Also gloves give a false sense of protection when in reality, a large parrot can easily crush a finger through a leather glove.

The Physical Examination

Before conducting a systematic examination, listen for any respiratory noises and characterize them. Bubbling, rattling, hissing and squeaking noises all have some significance. Then proceed with the physical examination. Start with the head since your initial preoccupation will be with the bird’s bite. After the head, examine the feathers and skin, the pectoral muscles, the legs, feet, wings and abdomen, vent, and preen gland. In parakeets, note the color of the cere to determine the sex of the bird. The cere and beak should be checked closely for honeycombed crusts caused by face mites. Often trauma will cause hemorrhage within the lamina of the beak; or, in some passerines, the tip of the beak will be blunt or dented. Examine the bite of the beak for deformity or the need for trimming. View the eye for pox lesions, especially in canaries and wild caught parrots. If the conjunctiva is inflamed, suspect an infectious problem, either systemic or localized to the eye. Look for exudate from the nostrils and swelling of the infraorbital sinuses causing protrusion of the eye. The external ear or pinna is absent in birds but the auditory canal should be examined for presence of discharge or inflammation. Check the feathers around the head for evidence of dried mucous, one indication that the bird has vomited recently. Using a speculum, open the beak and examine the choana, mouth and larynx for lesions. Vitamin A deficiency produces a thickening of the epithelial tissue resulting in swelling and blunting of the choanal papillae and salivary glands. Sometimes a cheesy (caseous) discharge may be present. This may be confused with infections with Candida and Trichomonas, which also show a thick cheesy exudate. A wet mount smear and cytology can easily differentiate between these problems. Poxvirus lesions produce scabs and erosions. Finally, part the feathers on the top of the head to look for subcutaneous hemorrhage, which may indicate head trauma.

Leaving the head, palpate the crop to see if the bird is eating or if there is a gross distention suggesting impaction. Foreign bodies may be discovered through palpating. In parakeets, hyperplastic thyroid glands due to an iodine deficiency may possibly be located by palpation. Next check the condition of the skin and plumage, looking for mites, lice, tumors, missing or frayed feathers. Also, note the general condition of the feathers and skin. If feather loss is present, try to determine if the bird is going through a normal physiological molt, if abnormal feathers are present, or if the bird is picking the feathers. Evidence of skin irritation, broken feathers or complete absence of entire feathers on leg, breast or under the wing indicate the bird is picking the feathers. In a normal molt, healthy pinfeathers will be present. Dull, split, frayed feathers may indicate the presence of a nutritional, hormonal or other disease process. Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease is a viral disease that is a common cause of deformed feathers in cockatoos, African Gray Parrots and Eclectus Parrots.

Palpate the pectoral muscles next. Absence of muscle mass suggests chronic disease or starvation. At the cranial aspect of the pectorals near the thoracic inlet, large fat deposits can be found in obese birds. These fat deposits may even impinge on the tracheal lumen, compromising respiration. The legs should be checked for lesions or yellow subcutaneous urate deposits of gout, the feet for abscesses characteristic of bumblefoot (bacterial infection) and Poxvirus lesions. Splay legs, lesions on the feet and overgrown nails may also be observed. Examine the wings for tumors and feather structure.

The last area to examine is the abdomen, vent and preen gland. Not all birds have preen glands, however, when present, the gland is found as a small nodule at the base of the tail identified by a small tuft of fine feathers. The gland may be impacted, inflamed or show neoplasia, especially in older birds. There is a normal tuck between the end of the keel and the pelvic bones. Distention of this area may be seen with egg binding, abdominal tumors, fluid accumulation, hernias and obesity.

They Physical Examination Forms provide a convenient method for recording the history and findings of the complete physical examination.


Measurement of heart rate should be done with a pediatric stethoscope over the thorax. Since the normal heart rate is…