Anorexia and Lethargy in Birds

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Emergency Situations

December 10, 2008

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, they do indicate a severely ill bird that requires immediate medical attention. Simply put, just about every serious illness will produce signs of anorexia and lethargy.

What are the causes of anorexia and lethargy in birds?

anorexia_and_lethary-1There are many causes of anorexia and lethargy in pet birds.

"Anorexia and lethargy are not diseases themselves."

These include 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 such as proventricular dilatation do not have a known cause but can produce the signs of anorexia and lethargy. Anorexia and lethargy are not diseases themselves but indicate a serious underlying medical problem 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?

Unlike dogs and cats, birds are still "wild" pets. This means that they still retain their self preservation response. This preservation response is something unique to wild animals. In the wild, an animal cannot "act sick," every time he feels ill. If he did, he might be killed by a predator or even a member of his own group. The preservation response assures that a sick animal will not "act sick" until it is really sick, and is literally dying. This is called, "survival of the fittest". Birds rarely get sick overnight. Therefore, a bird with anorexia and lethargy is EXTREMELY ILL and requires IMMEDIATE MEDICAL ATTENTION. Waiting and watching will only make things worse; you may actually wait and watch as your bird dies.

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

Because many diseases can cause the symptoms of anorexia and lethargy, many diagnostic tests will need to be run. These can include blood tests (a Complete Blood Count and Clinical Chemistry), gram stains and cultures, fecal tests for parasites, yeast, and bacteria, radiographs (X-rays), and a psittacosis test among others. There is no single test that will diagnose the many causes of anorexia and lethargy.

Is it really necessary to hospitalize my bird?

By the time many birds are seen by the veterinarian, they are literally dying. If your veterinarian recommends hospitalization, it is because your bird requires the type of critical care that cannot be given at home.

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 an incubator, fluid therapy, force-feeding, supplemental vitamins and minerals and broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy are usually indicated. If the specific cause of the illness is determined in its early stages, treatment is usually easy and inexpensive. There is no need to wait until your bird is on death's door before it sees your veterinarian. Semi-annual check-ups including annual wellness tests can detect diseases early, before they cause symptoms of clinical illness, and can prolong your bird's life.

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