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Psittacosis

It's part in our downfall - Mary Ellis

I thought I would share with you all my experience (or nightmare) with this devastating disease, which even though we thought we had taken adequate precautions, managed to wipe out more than two thirds of my lovebirds in a very short space of time.

My lovebird population had been increasing steadily and my aviary had a really nice mixed collection, ranging from blue-black masked, peach-faced of all shades as well as my pride and joy lutino's. I had decided that after the last few chicks had fledged, (I had been having an excellent breeding season) I would remove all the nest boxes because autumn was fast approaching and this would give me the opportunity to get into the flights to steam clean and disinfect everything before winter set in. I had been given a lone lutino by a lady who did not want the bird anymore and I decided that after everything was stripped would be the ideal time to introduce this on to the population. I had been keeping it in a small holding aviary so that should it have any problems, they would come to light well before anything could be passed on to the rest of my birds. It had been there slightly longer than I really wanted (almost 2 months in all) but as my lovebirds had all paired off and most pairs had young I did not want to upset them by introducing new birds mid season.

The day after we stripped and cleaned everything, it was a bright and clear early autumn day and so I decided to release the lutino into the main population. I felt relieved that its isolation was finally over and it would have some company for the winter. Carefully observing it after it was introduced, it appeared to be mingling well with the other birds, after the usual squawking session that anyone who has ever kept lovebirds will be used to. Fairly quickly one of the previous years youngsters started to cuddle up with the new lovebird and peace descended again (well, as quiet as lovebirds ever get).

All seemed fine for about 2 or 3 days, with no sign of the devastation that was to come. On the morning of the following day, while feeding them, I noticed that a couple of the birds seemed puffed up and decidedly unhappy, but as it was a crisp morning I put it down to keeping warm and possibly a visit from next door's cat again. Something wasn't quite right but there was nothing I could put my finger on. (Thinking about it in the days and weeks that followed, it was the absence of the usual level of singing). As nothing was obviously wrong, I went to work. I came home later that morning to a devastating site. Four of my lovebirds were laying dead on the floor, and many others were now puffed up, several were having what appeared to be convulsions or twitches, they had already emptied both of the water bottles and the droppings that I could see were a ochre colour. I collected up the bodies and checked for signs of injuries but nothing was obvious on the bodies, except a slight discharge from the nostrils of two of them. Obviously I searched both the indoor and outdoor flights to see if I could spot a cause but there was nothing. I checked the new bird and he was singing away and seemed quite happy. Four hours passed and another 5 birds had died. I called my husband and when he got home there were two more dead including my lovely lutino's. I was crying by this point. The rest of my birds seemed to be displaying similar symptoms, nasal discharge, discoloured droppings, ranging from a sickly green through bloody, brown and almost black, difficulties breathing, spasms, fits, puffed up appearance and no appetite but excessive thirst.

With a list of symptoms to work with, we began some detective work. We already had quite an extensive collection of bird books including Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds. Robert Stroud may be more familiar to you as the birdman of Alcatraz. This proved to be invaluable and we very rapidly came to the conclusion that we probably had psittacosis. Using Stroud's as a guide, we were able to virtually rule out Avian Diphtheria, because of the absence of sores. However, I am no vet and would never presume to take what could potentially be a wrong guess as gospel so I called Peter Scott and arranged to have an autopsy carried out on one of the departed. We also collected some treatment and professional instructions on how to proceed. All of the seed was removed from the flights and replaced with liquidized seed, mixed with the treatment. We continued to lose birds, although the rate of losses decreased almost immediately treatment began but we were still distraught at each death, just in case our guess and Peter's diagnosis were mistaken. Peter called a few days later and confirmed that it was psittacosis and that he had taken the necessary steps to inform the authorities. As many of you will be aware, psittacosis is a notifiable disease.

We continued to treat all the birds as directed by Peter Scott but I became paranoid as the days passed. I would mix the food up indoors and then have to grit my teeth, afraid of what I might find in my flights. After a week and a half I entered the indoor flight and found the carrier dead. Strangely his was the last body we found. Every day, the birds continued to pick up, although we were very careful not to think it was all over, but continued the full course of treatment. We also completely disinfected everything again twice, to make sure we eradicated any possible source of re-infection. The birds actually didn't seem to mind their liquidized diet, when we switched them back to seed again they sulked and turned their noses up. Millet sprays soon changed their minds.

By the time everything was clear, we had lost 47 out of 64 lovebirds. Now, any bird that comes to us for inclusion in our collection is quarantined for at least 3 to 6 months unless we are absolutely certain of its history and origins. Alarmingly, our reading after this devastation indicates that even 6 months may not be long enough. Some reports indicate that carriers can keep their infections without displaying symptoms for years. The problem is, how far can you take paranoia before you are just being stupid? Sooner or later you have to take an educated risk and introduce the new stock. Every time I do this now, my heart is in my mouth dreading what I might find, and it takes me days of constant checking before I can settle again.

Robert Stroud

Over the years, I have heard many people from aviculturists to vets be very disparaging or dismissive of Robert Stroud and the importance of the work that he carried out over his 54 years in Solitary confinement in Fort Leavenworth and Alcatraz. Indeed, most of the treatments he indicates have been overtaken by modern medicines in the 40 years since he died. It is also true that pathology has progressed somewhat and many of the ideas are now outdated. However, as a guide to diagnosis and avian biology it is an excellent source of information. Stroud was no hero, but an unrepentant convicted murderer with a limited education. He did have the same passion as the rest of us and was an uncomplicated man who wrote in plain English.

Consult your vet

As with all diagnoses, you should always seek the advice of a qualified vet as soon as possible, but it is better to have an understanding of where to start. As most of you will have experienced, a large number of vets are not avian specialists and their level of knowledge of birds might be limited to nail and beak clipping. I am extremely lucky in Winchester, I have two excellent avian specialist vets very close to my house but not everyone is so well served. Any information is very valuable, provided it is backed up by professional diagnosis, treatment and advice.

Bibliography:
Stroud's Digest on the Diseases of Birds - Robert Stroud
TFH Publications Inc. 1964 ISBN 0-087666-435-4

 
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