Seizures in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Seizures are reasonably common in pet birds and often observed in Amazon parrots, African grey parrots, budgies, canaries, cockatiels, finches, and lovebirds. A seizure may result from any disorder in the brain that causes spontaneous electrical discharge in the nervous system. This electrical discharge causes a variety of involuntary body responses or alterations in behavior. A seizure is also referred to as a fit or convulsion.

What causes seizures in birds?

Some disorders leading to seizure may be primary such as tumors, infections (bacterial, Chlamydial, viral, or fungal in origin), heatstroke, vascular events affecting the brain, or trauma (such as flying head-first into a solid object). Secondary disorders include reproductive problems, metabolic disorders, nutritional deficiencies or imbalances, and toxic events. One of the more common causes amongst pet birds is the ingestion of lead or zinc particles, which lead to toxic levels in the bloodstream and subsequent convulsions or seizures. When the cause cannot be determined, the condition is called idiopathic epilepsy or seizures.

"One of the more common causes amongst pet birds is the ingestion of lead or zinc particles..."

How can I tell if my bird is having a seizure?

There are three parts to a seizure. The initial phase is called the aura phase, where your bird may go through a period of altered behavior. The second phase is called ictus and is a period of disorientation with an inability to coordinate muscle movements. Your bird will lose its grip and fall to the bottom of the cage. Often, the body will become stiff and your bird will jerk spastically and may defecate and vocalize. This phase usually lasts 5 - 20 seconds. The third phase is called the post-ictal phase and lasts several minutes to hours. Your bird will show a variable amount of exhaustion, lethargy, confusion, disorientation, agitation, or restlessness.

What should I do if my bird has a seizure?

If your bird has a seizure, it needs immediate veterinary attention. In the meantime, place your bird in a cage with soft bedding on the bottom, remove the perches, toys, and swings to minimize injury, and place the food and water dishes in easily accessible locations.

"If your bird has a seizure, it needs immediate veterinary attention."

How will my veterinarian assess my bird?

A veterinarian experienced with birds will start with a complete history, weight, and a physical examination of your bird. A medication to stop the seizure may be administered on presentation. Your veterinarian will evaluate your bird’s diet and supplements to determine any possible deficiencies (like calcium) and the possibility of contamination. Diagnostic testing may be recommended to determine the underlying cause of the seizure. Each test provides another piece of the puzzle, and often many tests are needed to give more clarity.

"Diagnostic testing may be recommended to determine the underlying cause of the seizure."

A complete blood count (CBC) includes a red blood cell count, white blood cell count, and white blood cell differential and gives information that can indicate infections, dehydration, toxins, and anemia. Blood chemistry tests are used to measure calcium, glucose, protein, sodium, and potassium levels and to assess liver and kidney function. Tests to detect specific infectious agents may be investigated using serology and DNA testing. X-rays may be used to assess the bones, the size and position of internal organs, and to search for the presence of foreign materials such as lead or zinc. Other tests that may be recommended are an EEG (electroencephalogram), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), and CT (computer-assisted tomography).

Are there treatments for seizures in birds?

Initially, certain drugs may be given to stop the seizure activity. Specific treatments may then be implemented based on test results and the diagnosis. The range of treatments varies depending on the specific problem and may include treating the underlying disease, modifying the diet, providing nutritional supplementation, and possibly hospitalizing the bird for supportive therapy (fluids and vitamins) plus antibiotic, antiviral, antitoxin, or antiparasitic medications as indicated.

Sometimes, the condition cannot be "cured" but may be managed to improve your bird’s quality of life.

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