Anorexia and Lethargy in Birds

By Rick Axelson, DVM; Updated by Laurie Hess, DVM

General information

Anorexia (a loss of appetite) and lethargy (a feeling of listlessness and general inactivity) are commonly seen in sick pet birds. While not diagnostic for any specific disease, these signs can indicate severe illness in a bird that requires immediate medical attention. Simply put, just about every serious illness seen in birds can result in anorexia and lethargy.

What are the causes of anorexia bird_examinationand lethargy in birds?

"Anorexia and lethargy are not diseases but are signs indicative of potentially serious underlying problems."

There are many causes of anorexia and lethargy in pet birds including cancer, viral or bacterial infections, fungal or yeast infections, parasites, endocrine or hormonal diseases, and organ-specific problems such as liver, heart, or kidney failure. Some diseases, do not have known causes but can produce the signs of anorexia and lethargy. Anorexia and lethargy are not diseases but are signs indicative of potentially serious underlying medical problems requiring diagnostic evaluation and appropriate therapy.

Do I have to take my bird to my veterinarian immediately, or can I just \"wait and watch\" and see if it improves?

Birds hide signs of illness as a means of self-preservation. In the wild, an animal cannot show signs of illness or he might be killed by a predator or even a member of his own group. This self-preservation response means that by the time an animal shows outward signs of illness, this animal is truly very ill and can no longer hide these signs of illness. This response helps ensure "survival of the fittest."

"Waiting and watching will only make things worse.”

Birds rarely get sick overnight. Usually birds are ill before pet owners notice outward signs of illness. Therefore, a bird with anorexia and lethargy is likely seriously ill and requires immediate medical attention. Waiting and watching will only make things worse; owners who fear that they may make a bird worse by stressing it with a trip to the veterinarian are actually making a mistake by not seeking immediate medical attention for their pet. A visit to the vet at that point may be the difference between life and death for some sick birds.

How will my veterinarian determine what is wrong with my bird?

Because many diseases can cause the symptoms of anorexia and lethargy, several diagnostic tests may need to be run including

  • blood tests (a complete blood count looking at red blood cells and white blood cells)
  • chemistry panel looking at liver and kidney enzymes, as well as proteins, blood sugar, and electrolytes
  • Gram’s stain of the stool and possible cultures of stool and other body fluids
  • fecal examination for parasites, yeast, and bacteria
  • X-rays
  • tests for specific diseases such as Parrot Fever or psittacosis.

There is no single test that will diagnose all of the many causes of anorexia and lethargy. Each test helps contribute essential information to your veterinarian to help him/her determine the cause of your bird’s illness.

Is it really necessary to hospitalize my bird?

By the time many birds are seen by the veterinarian, they are often gravely ill. If your veterinarian recommends hospitalization, it is because your bird requires the type of critical care that cannot be given at home, such as subcutaneous or intravenous fluids and feeding through a tube.

How are birds with anorexia and lethargy treated?

Treatment obviously varies with the cause of the anorexia and lethargy.

"Many of these birds are extremely ill."

In general, many of these birds are extremely ill. Hospitalization in a temperature-controlled incubator, fluid therapy, tube-feeding, supplemental vitamins and minerals, and broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy are often indicated. If the specific cause of the illness is determined early in the hospital stay, treatment may be less complicated, and the overall cost for hospitalization and testing may be less. What’s important to remember is that it is essential not to wait until your bird is on death's doorstep before it sees your veterinarian. Semi-annual preventative check-ups including annual wellness tests may detect diseases early, before they cause symptoms of clinical illness, and may prolong your bird's life. Remember, it is generally less expensive to prevent disease than to treat it.

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