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Parasites in Birds

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Parasites, Pet Services

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Unlike dogs and cats, parasites are not commonly diagnosed in pet birds. When present however, they can cause generalized debilitation in birds. Some parasites cause specific clinical conditions.

What exactly is a parasite?

Parasites are most commonly microscopic organisms that live on or in other living organisms, benefiting themselves but not the host organism. Internal parasites, which occur inside various organs of the body, such as the stomach or intestines, include worms (e.g., tapeworms and roundworms), protozoa (e.g., Giardia), and trichomonads. External parasites, infecting skin or feathers, include mites, fleas, and ticks.

Are certain species of birds prone to certain types of parasites?

Yes. For example, canaries often develop infections with tracheal mites, which cause respiratory problems. Cockatoos (especially those that go outdoors) often develop blood parasite problems. Cockatiels often develop Giardia infections of the intestines that can cause diarrhea and severely itchy skin. Budgerigars (budgies) and canaries most commonly develop scaly leg and face lesions caused by Knemidokoptes pilae mites. Intestinal parasites, such as some intestinal worms, are more likely found in wild-caught birds.

How are parasite infections diagnosed?

Sometimes diagnosis is easy, whereas other times, different diagnostic tests must be performed. With knemidokoptic mange (mite infection), your veterinarian can often make a diagnosis based on the results of a physical examination and a microscopic analysis of the skin lesions. Intestinal parasites are often seen when the feces are examined microscopically. Blood parasites are often seen during a routine blood count.

Are parasitic infections harmful?

While not usually fatal when diagnosed early, parasites can cause discomfort (as in the case of skin parasites) or malnutrition (as in the case of intestinal parasites). Overwhelming parasitic infections in young or small birds can be serious, causing intestinal obstruction or severe anemia, and even fatal. At the very least, parasites irritate birds and make them unhealthy and prone to secondary infections.

How are parasitic infections treated?

External parasites are often treated with specific topical or oral antiparasitic medications. Additionally, the bird's environment, including its cage, food and water bowls, and perches and toys, should be thoroughly disinfected.

Internal parasites can be treated with a variety of oral or injectable medications. Due to the life cycles of most parasites, several treatments may be needed. Annual veterinary examinations and fecal tests can help determine if your bird is infected with parasites.

My veterinarian recommends multiple fecal tests, yet they are always negative. Why are all these tests needed?

Keep in mind that a single negative fecal test may be meaningless, as the test looks for parasite eggs in the stool, and the parasite may not be producing eggs at the time of the test. Because some parasites shed eggs intermittently, and only adult stages are capable of reproducing, multiple fecal tests are often necessary to diagnose parasites. Fecal examinations are relatively inexpensive, so having one or two tests performed each year will not cost much but will help ensure your bird's health.

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