Birds don’t let us know when they are sick or dying.
In nature, any small animal that reveals signs of weakness becomes a prime target for predators.
Birds instinctively conceal symptoms of illness, even when loving pet parents keep them in the best possible conditions.
Knowing how to tell your bird is sick or dying gives you a chance to get your bird the help it needs to have a fighting chance of survival.
In this article, we will tell you what you need to know about recognizing symptoms of serious illness in birds and what to do when they appear.
Never Assume Your Bird Is “Just Sick”
Although birds can recover from many diseases, sometimes even without treatment, it is never safe to assume that your bird is “just a little sick” and no intervention is needed.
In birds, many diseases lead to death quickly if they are not treated.
Recognizing symptoms of any disease in your bird gives you the cue to take your pet to an avian veterinarian for immediate care.
Puffy Feathers All the Time
Birds sometimes puff out their feathers in response to changes in their surroundings.
Puffy feathers trap warm air, so a bird may puff out its feathers when it feels a draft. The spaces between the feathers trap body heat and keep the bird warm.
If you see your bird puffing out his feathers on a cold winter day, or when you have the air conditioner turned low, do him a favor and turn up the thermostat.
Birds may fluff out their feathers when they are sunbathing. Fluffy feathers let sunlight closer to their skin, warming them up faster.
They also fluff out their feathers to send you a message, “Pet me!”
All of these kinds of feather fluffing are normal behavior for healthy birds, but there are other times that puffed-out feathers are a sign that your bird is suffering some kind of distress.
Feather-cleaning time is another reason healthy birds may fluff out their feathers.
They fluff up so they can get at their feathers with their beaks to remove debris. If your bird’s eyes aren’t dilated, and it seems happy and calm, then puffing out feathers for preening is nothing to worry about.
When Puffed-Out Feathers Mean “I Don’t Feel So Good”
Sometimes birds puff out their feathers to send the message “You messed with the wrong bird!”
If they are angry, they will also hiss and open and close their beaks to make clicking sounds. They may lower their heads as if they were going to head-butt an opponent.
If your bird’s feathers are puffed out all the time, there are two possibilities.
One is that it is extremely distressed by something in its cage. This could be another bird, a cat that lurks close by all the time, or some sound or smell it finds offensive.
The other reason a bird might keep its feathers puffed out all the time is chills or fever. Both chills and fever are signs of infection that should be treated as soon as possible.
Feathers seem to Be in Poor Condition
Sick and dying birds often display feathers that are in obviously poor condition.
The bird may be losing its feathers, and the skin underneath them may be scaly and dry.
The edges of feathers may look disheveled, and they may lose their naturally vibrant color.
Birds may develop cysts or lumps at the base of their feathers. These tiny lumps usually aren’t visible to casual inspection; you will need to feel your bird’s skin to identify them.
Birds may pick out their feathers when they feel extreme stress.
This kind of self-harm is not usually fatal, but it is a strong indication that the bird is suffering severe fear or anxiety.
Shivering, Shaking, and Falling Down
Sick birds have trouble staying on their perches.
They may shiver, shake, and fall off their perches to the bottom of their cages.
Some birds will display more dramatic symptoms, like appearing to swoon, whirling around before falling off their perches, or going into seizures.
If you maintain an appropriate temperature inside your home, shivering, shaking, and loss of consciousness always signal that you have a sick bird.
Check room temperature first, but if you don’t get results from warming the room to an appropriate temperature in 15 minutes or less, make an appointment for your bird with the vet.
Wheezing, sneezing, labored breathing, and making clicking sounds with each breath are all signs of air sac mites and other avian respiratory infections.
Your bird may also show other symptoms of respiratory distress such as:
- Bobbing its tail up and down with each breath to expand its lungs.
- Stretching its neck to bring more air into its air sac.
- Breathing with its mouth open. Birds sometimes yawn when they are tired, just like humans do. But continuous yawning is a sign of a respiratory problem.
Any of these symptoms can point to a problem in your bird’s environment that you can correct right away.
- Fumes from heating Teflon pots and pans. Overheated or burned Teflon pots and pans emit an odorless vapor that can kill birds when they are exposed to it. If you burn a pot or pan on the stove, and your bird shows signs of trouble breathing, moving it to a location where it can get fresh air may save its life. It is also important to keep bird cages away from appliances that may have Teflon coatings, such as toaster ovens.
- Household chemicals. Air fresheners, bug sprays, and floor cleaners can cause respiratory distress in birds. If you forget and use harsh household chemicals around your bird, move it to a fresh-air location as quickly as possible.
- An all-seed diet. Bird seed is usually deficient in vitamin A. Birds need vitamin A for healthy membranes in their air sacs and lungs. Giving your bird a fruit or vegetable rich in this vitamin (usually something dark green, orange, or yellow) isn’t an instant cure, but it sometimes improves symptoms in just a day or two. In the meantime, however, check with your vet about what else to do for your bird.
Some birds, like budgerigars and cockatiels, carry respiratory infections without getting sick themselves.
If you bring a budgie or a cockatiel into your home recently, and other birds suddenly get sick, it’s safe to assume the problem is a respiratory infection that needs immediate treatment.
Loss of Appetite
Some birds will go to extremes to disguise their loss of appetite.
They may pick seeds out of their food and drop them on the floor of their cage to make it look like they are eating normally.
Large amounts of spilled food on the floor of the cage are almost always a sign that the bird may be sick or dying.
Make a habit of weighing your bird at least once a month. You can use a baby scale or a kitchen scale.
Hatchlings should gain weight every month, and adults should not be losing weight.
If you don’t have scales, feel under your bird’s breast at least once a month to make sure it is not losing body mass. You should not be able to feel its breast bone.
Refusal to eat combined with weight loss can spell impending death for your bird.
If you make sure to provide your bird with fresh food, and you clean its food cups and water bowls every day, and it still does not eat, take your bird to the vet.
Changes in Drinking Habits
There are diseases in birds that may cause them to drink less water than usual, or to drink more.
Birds that have eaten something poisonous, or that have kidney or liver problems or even diabetes, may drink unusually large amounts of water.
Birds that don’t want to eat or drink are showing signs of serious illness that can lead to death in just a few days.
In birds, regurgitation and vomiting are two very different activities.
Many birds regurgitate partially digested food to feed their offspring. Birds seeking to mate may regurgitate to feed each other.
When a bird regurgitates, it does not seem to be in distress. It moves its head forward and drops the food out of its mouth into the waiting mouth of the other bird.
When birds vomit, they won’t be attempting to feed another bird. They may not move their heads forward, and they may get vomit on their breast feathers.
They may shake and tremble and make jerking movements as the food comes out.
Vomiting is a symptom of several stomach and liver disorders that are quickly fatal in birds.
Changes in Urine and Feces
Sick birds usually show changes in their urine and feces.
If you have trouble seeing your bird’s waste in its cage, place a piece of white paper or clear plastic to catch droppings for later inspection.
- Bird urine should appear chalky white. If you don’t see any urine at all, your bird may be suffering a kidney infection. (Birds don’t have a bladder or urethra.) If you see lime-green or yellow urine, the problem may be a liver infection that is quickly fatal without treatment.
- Bloody feces may be red, if it is fresh, or dark black, after a few hours. This can be a sign of several serious conditions, including gastroenteritis and cancer of the digestive tract.
- Watery diarrhea can result from bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections.
- Oily or especially smelly feces can result from cholangitis, which can be fatal in birds.
- Undigested food in your bird’s feces can be a symptom of egg binding.
Most kinds of pet birds, from budgies to parrots to lovebirds to canaries, make some kind of sound all day.
It may be singing, trilling, imitating the sounds they hear around them, or just making a fuss, but it’s natural for birds to be vocal.
If your bird is silent, a serious health issue may be the cause. Changes to your bird’s tone or pitch may also indicate illness.
A bird that sits on its perch with its head lowered and its eyes closed, or that sits on the bottom of its cage instead of on its perch, or that hangs from the side of its cage by its beak, may be seriously ill.
Birds that usually don’t like to be touched that are suddenly OK with being held may also be suffering a serious illness.
Make a Habit of Observing Your Bird Every Day
Many diseases of birds are treatable if they are caught in time.
If you make a habit of observing your bird’s eating and drinking habits, its feces and urine, and its behavior in its cage each and every day, you have a much better chance of taking timely action that could save its life.
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