Diseases of Baby and Juvenile Birds

There is something so appealing about baby parrots. It might be those big eyes looking up at you. Or it might be the plaintive cry and the way the baby bobs its head when it sees you. The big feet and too-large beak also have a charm of their own. For me, personally, it is the newly developing pinfeathers still covered in their sheaths that are enticing me to preen them as the parent bird would. The innocent little baby parrot with its entire life ahead of it holds such potential to the future owner. While we would like every baby bird to have a smooth journey from egg to adult, it doesn't always work out that way.

Problems and diseases of baby birds can fall into four categories. Congenital defects are those that occur as a result of a genetic problem. Developmental problems occur as a result of injury, poor husbandry practices, malnutrition or from problems during incubation. Infectious problems can occur from viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa or parasites. The last category is trauma/injury.

While I am not going to get into the philosophical discussion about whether unweaned baby birds should be sold, I will say that a high percentage of problems that I see in baby birds can be directly attributed to the inexperienced hand-feeder or to babies being sold, transported or exposed to babies from other breeders prior to weaning.

Baby birds should be kept in an appropriate brooder once they have been removed from the nest or incubator. Baby birds cannot regulate their body temperature for the first few weeks of life. A brooder can maintain a specific temperature and humidity that will be correct for the neonates. Newly hatched psittacines should be maintained at approximately 90-94 degrees F with a relative humidity of 50-75%. If a baby is kept at too low of a temperature, it will not develop properly and will not digest its food properly. As the developing baby bird grows pin feathers, the ambient temperature can be lowered to 86-90 degrees F. One of the problems that I see when unweaned baby birds are sold is that often the purchaser does not have the proper facilities to maintain the correct temperature for the baby or the baby becomes chilled during transport to the new home. A heating pad placed under a laundry basket is no substitute for a brooder and will not be able to maintain temperature and humidity needed for young baby birds. This usually results in the baby developing digestive problems (often called slow crop) and secondary bacterial and fungal infections. But more on this later.

Baby birds may be raised initially by the parents or by foster birds. To have healthy baby birds, it is important that the birds raising the chicks be healthy. Many diseases can be transmitted either through the egg or in the nest or when the parents feed the babies. Other baby birds will be hatched in an artificial incubator because the breeder took the eggs from the parents (for one of a number of reasons). Incubator hatched babies often have a different set of potential problems than parent raised offspring. When considering purchasing a baby bird from any source, it is always a good idea to find out if the neonate was incubator or parent raised.

Congenital problems of baby birds are not very common. Even in breeder birds that are closely related (brother-sister pairing, parent-offspring pairing), defects in chicks are rarely reported. Occasionally, congenital defects will result in the embryo dying in the egg and not surviving to hatch. The most common congenital defects noted in parrots are atresia of the choana (meaning that the choana is improperly formed, so that there is no communication between the sinuses and nostrils, and the oral cavity) and congenital heart disease, such as ventricular septal defect (a hole in the heart between the chambers called ventricles). Other reported congenital defects include familial cataracts, hydrocephalus and missing or too small eyes.

Occasionally, a newly hatched chick may have an open umbilicus (hernia) that does not close up on its own. Sometimes yolk or internal organs may protrude through the opening, and this may require surgical correction. The umbilicus may also become infected, resulting in serious infection requiring appropriate medications. Retained yolk sac beyond the normal period of time (it should usually be completely absorbed within 7-10 days) may indicate infection or improper incubation.

Developmental problems commonly occur in growing baby birds. The neat thing about baby birds is that they are malleable, like modeling clay. They change from day to day, growing so quickly. So, if a baby bird develops a problem, such as a crooked beak, if it is caught early enough, it can be quite simple to correct by the use of a grinding tool and physical therapy. However, if the beak has begun to harden before the defect is discovered, the correction may involve general anesthesia, corrective grinding and prosthetics that may need to remain on the beak for several months.

Splay leg problems or other leg problems are often encountered. Newly hatched rose-breasted cockatoos and other types of cockatoos that are heavy-bodied may not be able to support their own body weight on their legs. For these types of birds, it is often advantageous to keep each baby in a small container that doesn't allow the legs to slide out from under them sideways and to provide a type of material underfoot that provides them with traction. In cases where the legs are already splayed, hobbles, splints, saddles of foam or creative traction may be employed by the avian vet to correct the deformity. Again, if the condition is discovered early on, it can be much simpler to correct. If the limbs have been out of position for a period of time, it may be very difficult to correct the problem or the legs may never be normal, in spite of aggressive therapy.

Fractures of the limbs may occur while the baby bird is still in the nest, especially in African greys from pairs on their second or third clutch of chicks for the season. This probably occurs from the calcium stores being depleted by the hen from producing and feeding multiple clutches of babies. Often when the babies are removed from the nest, an obvious deformity of a leg may be noted. Usually, the fractured bones are already healed, sometimes in an abnormal position. In some cases, it may be beneficial to surgically rebreak the leg and correct the deformity, but in other cases it is best to leave the leg as is if it is functional. Surgery may actually cause other problems, especially if the nerves and tendons have been damaged in the healing process. Often the bones will remodel and the bird will do fine without surgery. My pet African grey, Poppy, is one of these birds with healed fractures of both wings, legs and hips. She was going to be euthanized by a breeder when I asked to adopt her. While she has crooked legs, she perches just fine, can hold food in her feet and plays with her toys. She is a joy and she talks up a storm! I feel blessed to have her.

Sometimes a bird will develop a crooked neck or back. If discovered when the baby bird is young enough, the bird may be placed in a special splint or saddle to help correct the deformity. If the neck is abnormally curved, application of a neck brace and then taping the brace to the side of a container can often correct the defect in a few days. These little birds really are like Play-DoughTM.

Baby birds may develop constrictions of the toes. This occurs most commonly in Eclectus and macaw babies. If the constriction is noted early on, it may be simple to correct, however, if the constriction has resulted in the loss of blood supply to the toe, this may require surgery to correct the defect, or amputation of the toe(s) may be necessary as a salvage procedure. It may be possible to prevent (or minimize) constrictions by maintaining susceptible species in a higher humidity environment and placing the babies on lotion-impregnated tissues (like Puffs PlusTM) that moisturize the feet instead of the usual bedding.

Occasionally, an injury may result in a deformity developing as the baby grows. One baby may bob on the beak of another, in a vain attempt to be fed as it would be by its parents. In addition to separating the baby birds, and making sure that they are being fed appropriately, the damage to the beak can be corrected, usually with physical therapy, unless severe. Fractures of bones can usually be immobilized with splints, and they usually heal very quickly (within 2-3 weeks), but a complicated fracture may require pins or more sophisticated devices.

One of the most serious injuries seen in baby birds is the crop burn. This occurs when food is fed to the baby that is too hot (it should be 100-105 degrees F) and the delicate lining of the crop is burned. It may occur if food is marginally too hot (115 degrees F) and fed over several feedings or if the food is very hot (greater than 120 degrees F) one time. This is why is it is so very important for the hand-feeder to use a thermometer to ensure that the temperature is correct prior to feeding a baby. Also, formula should not be heated in the microwave oven, as this will result in hot spots in the formula that can easily burn the crop lining. Recent crop burns should be managed medically with smaller feedings, antibiotics and antifungals, and what ever support care is deemed necessary by the veterinarian. Once the burn has scabbed over, it is time to attempt surgical correction. If surgery is performed too soon after the burn, the tissue will continue to deteriorate, resulting in the stitches pulling out and the repair breaking down. Often, the burn is not discovered by the owner until the scab falls off and baby food begins pouring out of the hole, which is called a fistula. Crop burns are a completely preventable problem and can be avoided by always feeding baby formula at the correct temperature.

Overfeeding a baby bird may result in the baby regurgitating formula and subsequently inhaling (aspirating) it. Aspiration pneumonia is a very serious condition requiring emergency care, fluid therapy, antibiotics, antifungals and perhaps nebulization therapy. Overfeeding may also result in a stretched crop that can no longer perform the muscular contractions that propel the food into the proventriculus (stomach). Food remaining in the crop too long can ferment, resulting in bacterial or fungal overgrowth, and toxins are produced by the bacteria present. This condition requires that the crop be emptied out and flushed after 12-24 hours to prevent further damage. A crop bra may be applied to help support the flaccid tissue until the muscles and nerves return to normal function. After testing, appropriate therapeutic should be administered.

On occasion, a feeding tube may become unattached from the feeding syringe, and the baby may swallow it. In most cases, the tube can be easily removed through the mouth by an experienced avian veterinarian. Rarely endoscopy or surgery may be required to extract a tube, especially if it has migrated into the proventriculus or other areas of the gastrointestinal tract. While I certainly don't condone ignoring a rubber or latex feeding tube that has been "lost" in a baby bird, one client of mine had her blue and gold macaw swallow a latex tube, and lo and behold, the bird passed the entire 4" long tube in one piece six months later! This is a very rare occurrence and the bird was extremely lucky as the tube could have caused a blockage in the intestines, a perforation of the intestines or other serious, life-threatening problems. Baby birds may also ingest whole peanuts, shell and all, bedding or just about anything that they can fit in their mouths and swallow. Manual retrieval, endoscopy or surgery may be used to remove the foreign body.

Stunting is a condition where a baby bird is not growing properly. Often stunted birds have stress bars on feathers, indicating disruption in the nutrition of the bird at that point of development of the feathers. Stunted birds have delayed development and may appear pale, with an overly large head. Sometimes, ears will not open (especially in macaw babies) properly. Eyelids may not appear over the eye, which can be seen under the skin. The skin may be wrinkly and feathers may not be developing properly. There may be many causes for stunting, including chronic infection, malnutrition, being maintained at too cool of a temperature, incorrect incubation parameters, hen being depleted of nutrients when producing eggs or being fed an incorrect diet.

While some infections in neonates come from the parent birds or from other baby birds in the nursery, often many medical problems are a result of improper husbandry. What I mean is that babies that are kept at the incorrect ambient temperature are much more susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections. Overfeeding, underfeeding, feeding formula that is too hot or too cold, feeding formula that is too thick or too thin, feeding a baby at incorrect intervals, anyone of these things can precipitate a health crisis in a baby bird. Formula may be used or handled inappropriately, which may result in disease. I have had clients save unused formula in the refrigerator for use at the next feeding. This is a dangerous practice, as bacteria and toxins can be forming in the stored formula. Formula should be mixed up fresh at every feeding. It is vital that owners read the instructions on the hand-feeding formula container and follow them to the letter, measuring the ingredients and not guessing. It is also very important that the formula is not changed by the owner adding ingredients such as peanut butter or human baby foods. Adding ingredients will change the fat to protein ratio, which can have serious effects on a baby bird's digestion. By adding fat to the formula, this will cause digestion to slow down and this can begin a cascade of problems. If the owner continues to feed the baby on the same schedule, this may result in the baby being fed new formula on top of the food still remaining in the crop.

Healthy baby birds should be fed 10-12% of their body weight per feeding. For example, a 300 gram baby bird should be fed about 30 cc of formula per feeding. Some babies, especially cockatoos, will beg continually for food, even when full, and owners may tend to overfeed them, which can be dangerous, as the baby may aspirate formula. Over time an overfed baby may become overweight, eventually resulting in liver damage. In my opinion, no baby should ever need to be fed more than 100 cc of formula per feeding, even large macaw babies, as large volumes will overstretch the crop.

The term "slow crop" is not a disease, but a symptom. Anything that alters the motility of the GI tract can result in food not moving out of the crop properly. As the food sits in the crop, bacteria and yeast will begin proliferating, and some bacteria will produce toxins that can be absorbed by the baby, making it sicker. So the baby that isn't digesting its food properly will begin to suffer from a myriad of problems, including dehydration, bacterial infection, fungal infection (usually with Candida), toxemia and/or malnutrition. It is necessary to have old formula pumped out of the crop if digestion has slowed, and this should be done within 12-24 hours. If antibiotics are necessary, they may be given by injection and not orally, since the medication may not be absorbed properly from the unhealthy GI tract. Any baby bird that is receiving antibiotic therapy should also receive an antifungal medication to prevent a yeast overgrowth. In my experience, using the antifungal, nystatin, is no longer the most effective drug to use in babies. To be effective, nystatin must come in contact with the yeast organism directly. I usually use a combination of nystatin and fluconizole, as fluconizole works systemically. I have found this to be a very safe and effective combination. There are several different medications that can be given to try to stimulate the GI tract to aid digestion.

Baby birds that have digestive problems may need fluids, which can be administered under the skin, intravenously or intraosseously (where a catheter is placed into a bone, which works like administering fluids in a vein). Once the digestive tract begins functioning normally again, fluids and medications can be given orally, and formula can also be started up again.

Parent-raised baby birds may suffer from intestinal parasites. Roundworms are one type of worm that can be seen in young birds. It should be noted that fecal parasite exams may not always show worm eggs, as the GI transit time is so fast that eggs don't concentrate, like they do in dogs and cats, meaning that it is possible to get false negative results. Tapeworms may also be found in young birds, but these worms require an intermediate host of possibly a grain beetle or cockroach that must be consumed by the bird. Giardia, a one-celled protozoan organism, may be passed from parent to baby in the nest. This organism can cause digestive problems in baby birds, and has caused deaths among nestlings of several species, including cockatiels, budgerigars, canaries and finches. Giardia can be very difficult to diagnose, as it is not passed in every dropping and may require special tests and staining methods to confirm. Treatment has classically been attempted with metronidazole, which isn't the most effective drug for this problem. Other medications, such as fenbendazole, that are effective in dogs and cats, can cause liver damage or even death in birds. The most effective drug that I have found is called ronidazole, which is very safe and efficacious.

External parasites are not very common in most pet and breeder birds. However, they do occasionally occur. Feather lice can be seen on the primary and secondary wing and tail feathers, but do not do much harm. Several different types of mites can infest pet birds and most feed at night on the bird and then crawl off to hide in cracks and crevasses of the cage during the day. With severe infestation, mites can cause feather abnormalities and feather cysts, as well as anemia.

Any infections that can cause disease in an adult bird can also do so in baby birds. Because young birds do not yet possess a fully functioning immune system, most diseases may cause more serious disease than that found in adults.

Psittacosis, caused by the primitive bacteria, Chlamydophila, can cause serious disease in baby birds. Left untreated, it can result in permanent damage to the lungs, air sacs and liver. There are several excellent tests to try to confirm psittacosis in pet birds, but no test is 100% accurate in a live bird. Mycoplasmosis is another primitive organism that can cause respiratory disease in young birds.

An infection of the temporomandibular joint of a baby bird (most often seen in cockatiels) can result in a condition known as "lockjaw." When the jaw joints are affected, the baby bird may not be able to open its beak and may therefore starve to death, as it will be unable to eat. This is most often caused by the bacterium, Bordetella avium, however other bacteria can also cause abscesses of the TMJ.

The yeast, Candida albicans, is a common cause of infection in the mouth, choana and crop of young birds, especially in those birds that are receiving antibiotic therapy without concurrent use of an antifungal. Candidiasis usually has the appearance of white, fuzzy lesions in the mouth or crop. Routine Gram's staining of the choana and crop can help diagnosis this condition.

Many viruses can affect baby and juvenile birds. Psittacine circovirus, the organism that causes Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, can cause disease in young birds. Many young birds exposed to this virus will mount an effective immune response and rid their bodies of this virus, never causing feather abnormalities or disease. A small percentage of babies that acquire the PBFD virus will develop feather abnormalities as the feathers grow in, and they will get progressively more ill due to suppression of the immune system. These sick birds will eventually succumb to the effects of this virus.

Polyomavirus is another infection that is very dangerous to unweaned baby birds. If exposed, most will die after acute signs of illness. The babies may show bruising or excessive bleeding before death due to liver damage. A vaccine is available that can prevent serious illness or death in unweaned baby psittacines. Vaccines should be administered subcutaneously at five and seven weeks of age. Full immunity should protect a young bird two weeks after the second vaccine. Any baby bird that will be exposed to other parrots should be vaccinated prior to putting them together. However, quarantining new birds is always recommended. Juvenile psittacines that have reached weaning age can still acquire the polyomavirus infection, but they are not likely to die unless their immune systems are already being challenged by other infections (such as psittacosis, PBFD, etc.) Adult birds can also develop infection from polyomavirus, but most are not likely to die (except Eclectus, grass parakeets and caiques). Adults may show mild signs of vague illness when infected, and they may shed virus into the environment, exposing any birds in the area. Adults may also be vaccinated.

Any tests that can be performed on adult birds can also be done on baby and juvenile birds. Blood tests, radiographs, serology, Gram's stains, bacterial and fungal cultures, ultrasound and more can easily be performed on baby birds. Surgery can be performed on baby birds, as well, and anesthesia is very safe, as long as the crop is empty at the time of surgery to prevent possible regurgitation and aspiration of formula or crop contents.

When evaluating a baby bird, the avian vet will ask many questions regarding the baby bird's environment, feeding schedule, other pets in the household, methods of disinfection of equipment, temperature and humidity in the brooder, and other pertinent questions. Be prepared by having your information ready for the doctor. When hand feeding a baby bird, make sure to note hatch date, daily weight (using an accurate gram scale and weighing the baby daily prior to the first feeding of the day), times of feeding, amount fed per feeding, brand of formula used, how formula is prepared, and any other information necessary. Be prepared to provide information about the breeder, status of parent birds, vaccination records of parents and chicks, any medications administered, any tests performed and pertinent history.

While I cannot condone the transfer of unweaned baby birds to inexperienced owners, if a baby must be sold or transferred, it is best to wait until it is at least five weeks old. Five weeks seems to be the magic age, as babies transferred after that age are much less likely to suffer from problems related to chilling, infection or changes to the feeding schedule or diet. At that age, the first polyoma vaccine may also be administered. While five week old chicks can still become ill, they seem to do much better than younger chicks when subjected to change.

Baby birds have such wonderful potential, and it is in the best interest of all of us to protect them from harm from poor husbandry practices or infections. Have all babies examined by an avian veterinarian, vaccinate them and care for them properly to give them the best start for a long and healthy life.

Copyright 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

Printer Friendly Page