Pet birds are relatively popular in the UK. A variety of species are kept as companions; from songbirds which are part of the Passeriformes order such as canaries and finches; to the Psittaciformes order which encompasses species such as parrots, parakeets, lovebirds and the ever-popular budgerigars. When we choose to share our homes with our pets there is some degree of risk with regards to diseases which we could contract from them, known as zoonotic diseases. This risk is generally low especially when mitigations such as good hygiene is practised, but how concerned should we be about zoonotic diseases we could be exposed to by our feathered friends?
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Psittacosis or Chlamydophilosis is a bacterial infection which can affect Psittaciform birds such as parrots and budgerigars. It is perhaps one of the most well-known zoonotic diseases because occasionally there have been fatal infections of people. This is however very rare. Psittacosis can be shed by affected birds without apparent symptoms. The infection in birds can present with vague nonspecific signs such as ruffled feathers, anorexia, ocular and or nasal discharge, digestive upset leading to diarrhoea and a change in a colour of the droppings. In some cases, the infection can be serious leading the bird to become very unwell.
How is psittacosis spread?
Psittacosis is transmitted by handling infected birds or inhaling particles from their droppings. The incubation period is normally around five to fourteen days.
Symptoms of psittacosis in people
Symptoms vary from mild flu like illness which can include headaches, muscle aches, chills, fever, and a dry cough. Occasionally psittacosis can result in more severe illness such as pneumonia. Some people with the infection will present no symptoms.
How is psittacosis diagnosed and treated?
Psittacosis can be diagnosed using blood or respiratory samples. Once the infection is confirmed treatment is usually antibiotics.
Salmonella has been confirmed in many passerines and psittacine species. It can cause systemic illness with a variety or manifestations or in some cases the bird may be an asymptomatic carrier of the infection. Humans can be infected by close contact with infected birds, as well as ingestion or inhalation or infected droppings. Salmonella is much more common in the wild bird population than in our pet birds.
Another bacterial infection which can be shed in infected birds’ faeces and be transmitted to humans. Symptoms are usually related to the gastrointestinal tract, such as diarrhoea.
Avian influenza or bird flu has seen a large increase in infections in the UK within the last 12 months. However, this is mostly within the wild bird population, with outbreaks seen in farmed species such as chickens. There is a theoretical risk if your pet bird has contact with the wild population, such as time outside in an open enclosure which would allow contact with wild bird droppings. However the risks to human health from indoor pet birds is very minimal from avian influenza.
This gives a few examples of infections which could in theory pose a zoonotic risk. However keep in mind this is unlikely, and in most cases it is possible to reduce that risk even further.
How can I minimise the risk of contracting an illness from my bird?
The risks are relatively small, especially if you acquire your pet from a reliable source. This is because it will have come from low-risk disease stock. In some cases the breeding stock will have been tested to rule out infections. Unfortunately, there is still an illegal trade in pet birds – particularly parrots. This means that birds can find their way to the UK pet market from either wild capture or poor breeding. It is always wise to investigate the origin of your pet bird and ask questions about any health tests that might have been carried out.
Always seek veterinary attention for your bird if it seems in ill health. If your bird has an infection prompt veterinary care may reduce the likelihood of transmission to you should it be a zoonotic infection.
Good hygiene is imperative at all times. But is especially important for those with weakened immune systems or the old or very young. It is not wise to kiss your pet bird or share food or cups. It might seem funny if your parrot sneaks a drink from your glass, but it does introduce a degree of risk.
Cleaning out your pet bird’s cage or enclosure should be done frequently to prevent the build up of faeces. It is best to do this in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhalation of particles. A mask could be worn to reduce the risk further. Always use a pet safe disinfectant to clean the cage thoroughly. And wash hands well after finishing the cleaning and after contact with your bird.