Gwen B. Flinchum, MAg., DVM, Diplomate – ABVP Avian


There is a common misconception that I hear frequently from bird owners:  “My bird is healthy, always has been, so I do not need to take it to a veterinarian.”  What many people do not realize is that birds do not act sick until they are in the end stages of disease.  In fact, we hear all-too-commonly: “My bird was fine yesterday but today is not acting right and is sitting on the bottom of the cage.”  When a bird is brought into our clinic at this point there may be a 50% (or less) chance that we will be able to have success in treatment.


Therefore, we have compiled a list of considerations as to why your bird may not be as healthy as you think it may be.  Hopefully after reading this list, it will be obvious as to why regular visits to an avian veterinarian are imperative.


Birds hide illness when they are sick.  As previously mentioned, birds do not always show symptoms of illness when they are sick.  This is because it is natural behavior for birds to expect that if they act sick they will be perceived as prey and will be an easy target for a larger animal to hunt and eat.  Because a bird does not act sick, this leads the owner to believe (naively) that the bird is fine and does not need to see a vet.  Nevertheless, a veterinary examination of a supposedly normal-acting bird may reveal symptoms of underlying abnormal conditions.  For example, a veterinarian may recognize changes in weight, feather color and fecal consistency.  These changes may not have been obvious to the owner, but would be considered by the veterinarian as “red flags” that could indicate potential health problems that need further investigation.


Most birds are on seed diets.  Most pet stores and breeders recommend seed-based diets.  This is because of the misconception that “seeds are what birds would eat in the wild, so that is what they should eat in captivity.”  In fact, seeds are full of fat and contain little nutritive value.  Therefore, as birds eat primarily seeds/fruits and vegetables throughout their lives they develop malnutrition and liver disease.  Symptoms of malnutrition and liver disease may not become obvious until the bird has been affected for several months or years.  That is, they will act normal but exhibit subtle changes like decline in feather quality, appetite or weight changes, lipoma development and inconsistency in color and texture of droppings.  In recent years, pelleted diets have been developed for birds and provide most of the nutrients necessary to avoid malnutrition and liver disease.  Thus, if your bird is eating a pelleted diet instead of seeds, there is a greater chance that it will outlive its normal life expectancy and have fewer health problems.


Some birds have been bred for beautiful feather color but have underlying genetic abnormalities as a result.  Examples can be seen in cockatiels and budgerigar parakeets where yellow, white and white-faced color is highly desired and selectively bred for.  Experience has shown that many of these birds have normal behavior but suffer from eye abnormalities, kidney and liver disease and decreased immunocompetence.  As a result, their life spans are usually shorter than for non-mutation breeds.


“My bird lays a lot of eggs but otherwise acts fine.”  Excessive egg laying (especially if the bird is on a seed-based diet) can lead to severe health issues such as peritonitis, liver disease, hypocalcemia and egg-binding.  In many cases owners have no clue there is a problem until they notice “one day suddenly, the bird’s belly looks big and she is sitting on the bottom of the cage, listless.”  Usually by the time the owner notices this, the bird has had chronic reproductive issues for some time.  Erratic or excessive egg laying must be controlled through medical intervention and environmental modification.


“My bird can’t be sick; it’s never around other birds.”  Many people have the mistaken assumption that the primary way a bird gets sick is from exposure to other sick birds.  This is not entirely accurate.  The condition of a bird’s immune system is one of the primary determinants of susceptibility to illness.  A bird’s immune system can be weakened by malnutrition, stress, molting or excessive egg laying.  Any of these conditions can result in illness in a seemingly healthy bird.


In conclusion, do not be lulled into a false sense of thinking your bird is perfectly healthy just because it acts that way.  It is worth investing in the “insurance” of having your bird examined by an avian veterinarian at least once a year (although every six months is the standard recommendation).  It is also important to have records established with a veterinarian so that if an emergency occurs, there will be someone you can take your bird to immediately.  If you are truly committed to maintaining your bird’s health and well-being, then your veterinarian will be committed as well.