What is disease testing?

Disease testing is the process of taking feather samples, blood samples and vent swabs and testing them at a lab to check if the bird has any diseases. Disease tests are done for specific diseases, rather than analysing every cell within the sample to find out what is there. The results are usually presented as either positive or negative, however in rare cases a test may come back inconclusive, in which case the bird would need to be re-tested.

Why should I disease test?

Disease testing is a topic people either 100% agree or disagree with. It’s one of those “love or hate” things. So why should you agree to it? Simply because it can save your bird’s, and the rest of your flock’s, life. Although this may sound a bit dramatic, it is just that simple. Most psittacine diseases are extremely easily transmittable, deadly and often untreatable. Knowing if your bird carries a disease can help potentially save hundreds of other parrots’ lives. If you have any friends that have parrots, transmitting diseases through meeting up and interacting would almost be inevitable. Your friend’s bird can then pass the disease on to other people’s birds, etc. It’s one small mistake that could have drastic consequences for so many. For example, if one new free flyer that hasn’t disease tested attends a big meet, their bird could be a carrier for a disease that is spread through the air and wipe out majority of the free flight community in a matter of weeks, and they wouldn’t even know it was their bird that carries the disease.

How can I disease test?

Avian vets offer disease testing, however this may be pricy. Often vets will sedate to get blood, vent swab and/or feather samples, which could add some risks and complications, as well as costs. Testing through vets is however more reliable as everything is done in a completely sterile and sanitised environment where no other germs can contaminate and compromise the samples. The bird will also not see you as the “bad guy”, as you are not the one who did anything to them.
There are other options though, if the vet bill is something you cannot afford. There are websites (such as animalgenetics.com) that offer avian disease testing. You would need to order testing kits from them, collect all samples yourself and send them back to their lab for analysation. This is much cheaper, but there is a risk of contamination which could lead to false or inconclusive results.

What diseases should I test for?

There are hundreds of diseases a parrot could have, however most of them are treatable or very rare. The four most common – and most deadly – diseases are Polyomavirus (APV), Chlamydiosis (AC), Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease (PBFD) and Avian Bornavirus (ABV). Any parrot should be tested for at least these four diseases, but due to a lack of information not many people are aware of just how severe they are.

What is Polyomavirus?

Avian Polyomavirus (APV), which is often referred to as Budgerigar Fledgling Disease, is a disease that mostly affects baby birds, although some adult birds can be asymptomatic carriers. These carriers will shed the disease through feathers, aerosols, dust, faeces and even through eggs and crop milk. Most infected birds don’t show any symptoms and suddenly just drop dead for no apparent reason. (Axelson, 2021) Birds that do show symptoms will often have a swollen abdomen, severe weight loss, regurgitation, dehydration, diarrhoea, depression, feather abnormalities, tremors and paralysis. (Animal Genetics Inc., 2021) Testing for APV is done through blood samples and/or cloacal swabs. It is possible for a bird to carry Polyomavirus and completely shed the disease after a few months/years, but these cases must be isolated from other birds to prevent them spreading it until they test negative several times. There is a vaccine for APV, however this may not necessarily help infected chicks. The vaccine takes full effect at roughly 9 weeks of age, whereas most chicks will show signs between 4-8 weeks. (Lafeber, 2008)
The mortality rate is as high as 100% in chicks under 15 days of age. (Axelson, 2021)

What is Chlamydiosis?

Avian Chlamydiosis, also known as Psittacosis or Parrot Fever, is a zoonotic disease which means it can be transmitted to humans. All avian species of any age are at risk of catching it, from parrots to poultry and even pigeons and other wild birds all around the world. Infected birds shed the bacteria in faeces, as well as eye and nasal secretions. (NWDC, 2017) Birds who carry Chlamydiosis may not show any clinical signs for a long time, or not at all. They will, however, still be able to transmit the bacteria to other birds, for which it could end up deadly. Symptoms include discharge from the eyes and nose, lethargy, dark green droppings, difficulty moving and balancing, or even sudden death. Sometimes stress can cause a seemingly healthy bird to start showing symptoms, and shed the disease more actively. (NSW Government, 2016) Testing for AC is done through a combination of vent/throat swabs and blood samples. Treatment is available for this disease, usually this involves medication called Tetracycline and derivatives of it. (Animal Genetics UK, 2021)
Any bird that tests positive must immediately be isolated from all other animals.
Mortality rate in parrots is up to 50%, with young birds being more susceptible. (Spickler, 2017)

In humans, psittacosis generally feels very flu-like, with symptoms including fever, headaches and muscle aches. In severe cases it may also lead to pneumonia, and can be very dangerous for elderly people or people with immunodeficiencies. (GOV.UK, 2017)

What is Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease?

Beak and Feather Disease or PBFD is a virus most commonly found in Australian, African and African parrot species. As the name implies, the disease can be seen on the bird’s beak and feathers through deformities and distortion. (Northern Parrots, 2016) PBFD is spread through feathers, dust, crop milk or faeces, and the virus can survive up to years on objects like clothing or food bowls if these are not disinfected properly. Symptoms of Beak and Feather are feather loss and deformities of new feathers all over the body and deformities of the beak and claws and those becoming brittle. Some birds may become depressed and have diarrhoea. (The Parrot Society UK, 2021) It is possible for birds to completely shed the disease after a few years, these birds can however still transmit it to other birds. Any bird

that tests positive for PBFD must be isolated from all other birds immediately until it tests negative multiple times. Testing for Beak and Feather Disease is done through blood samples combined with feather samples. (Animal Genetics UK, 2021) There is no cure for the disease, birds that show symptoms usually pass within 6-12 months, however death usually occurs due to secondary infections. (Axelson, Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease in Pet Birds, 2021)

What is Avian Bornavirus?

Avian Bornavirus (ABV), which causes Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD) or Parrot Wasting Syndrome, affects the bird’s nervous system and mostly causes the stomach to dilate and become flaccid. Any parrot species can catch the disease at any age. (Pet Care Veterinary Hospital, 2021) How exactly the disease is transmitted is still unclear, all the research done so far shows the virus is shed through faeces. It could be spread through other means, which have not yet been discovered. (BirdDoctor, 2012) Symptoms of ABV include vomiting, extreme weight loss, intermittent head shaking, issues with balance, passing of undigested food and sometimes seizures. Some birds can carry the disease without being affected by it at all, but still pass it on to other birds. These are called asymptomatic carriers, and must be isolated from all other birds immediately. Testing for Bornavirus can be done through feather samples, although a blood sample is usually more reliable. (Animal Genetics UK, 2021)
Sadly, Bornavirus does not have a treatment or cure, any bird that shows symptoms will almost definitely pass. Mortality rate for this disease is almost 100%. (Robert D. Dahlhausen, 2021)

How can my bird catch a disease?

Unfortunately, it is incredibly easy for diseases to be transmitted. As mentioned above, birds can carry Polyomavirus, Chlamydiosis, Beak and Feather Disease or Bornavirus without showing any clinical signs and still spread the diseases to other birds, all it takes is one interaction with a diseased bird. Transmission can happen through inanimate objects (such as clothing) just as easily as through direct bird-to-bird contact. This is why it is so important to always disinfect everything properly when interacting with any bird that has not been disease tested.
Meeting up with other bird people, for example at parrot or free flight meets, can be tricky as not everybody in the UK parrot community agrees with disease testing. Compare parrot meets to group dog walks, for example. Why can dog owners meet up with their animals without any issues? Because they have mostly eliminated the disease problem with vaccines and treatments. Although this is fantastic news for the dog community, avian healthcare is just not as advanced yet. This is where, as a whole community, we need to think forward and implement regular disease testing throughout the country. In Scotland this is already moving along as the whole free flight community disease tests every free flighted bird at least once a year, and heavily encourages new members to do the same.

How often should I disease test?

Frequency of disease testing will depend on you and your intentions. If you would like a multi-bird household, every bird needs to be tested BEFORE joining your flock, ideally even before moving into the household. Where testing before moving is not possible, the new bird needs to be tested as soon as possible, and kept in strict quarantine from the other

birds. It is best if the new bird is in a separate building, where this is not possible it needs to at least live in a separate room. After every interaction with the new flock member you need to change clothing and thoroughly disinfect any skin the bird has come in contact with. This quarantine needs to continue until test results all come back negative.

If you intend to free fly any of your parrots, it is avian vet recommended for all of the free fliers to be tested annually. This is due to the chance of your bird catching diseases from wild birds outdoors, or from other potentially infected parrots at meets.

What should I do if my bird tests positive for any disease?

If your parrot tests positive for any disease, IMMEDIATELY isolate them from all other birds. If your bird is the only one in your household, this will not be difficult for you to do! However, if you own more than one parrot, you should try to arrange for your infected bird to stay with a friend who does not own any other avian species. It is also vital that you do NOT take your bird outdoors. Just as parrots can catch diseases from wildlife, they can also spread them. Consult your avian specialist for advice and potential treatments, depending on which disease your bird has it may be possible for your feathered friend to shed it completely. Should this be the case, and your bird tests negative after multiple months/years, it is recommended to re-test at least twice to get three consecutive negative tests. This is simply a safety precaution on the off chance that the initial negative test was compromised, thus showing a false result.

What can happen if I don’t disease test?

If you are an active member of the parrot community and regularly meet up with friends and their parrots, imagine what would happen if your bird was a carrier for any of the above mentioned diseases. Without disease testing and proper quarantine and disinfection, you would unintentionally kill all of your friends’ feathered companions without even knowing it. Sounds dramatic? Imagine free flight then. One free flier adds a new bird to their flock without quarantine or disease testing. The new bird, however, is a carrier for one of the above mentioned diseases, and the owner is none the wiser. The free flighted parrot now carries a deadly disease, although not showing any symptoms yet. The bird then goes to a free flight meet, where it interacts with most, if not all, other attending birds. This could – and almost certainly would – wipe out most of the free flight community in the country.


Nash Mayr 23/09/2021