Ever heard the saying that if something seems too good to be true then it probably is? I think that’s what was bugging me about my Blue & Gold Macaw, Fid. I found myself with this beautifully good-natured creature that just seemed so perfect. I kept waiting for bad health news or for something to go wrong.
I put Fid through every screening test that my vet could think of; just to be sure he was ok. Fid had a full blood profile done and amongst other bits and pieces he was tested for psittacosis, PBFD, Polyomavirus and Pachecos disease. Samples were taken and stored in case any repeat or more in-depth tests were needed at a later date. This was important because some medications can alter results of a test; it made sense to take samples before he started any form of treatment.
It was the first time I’ve screened for Pachecos disease (think Herpes). My vet advised me to do this test because it’s common in Macaws overseas and is a risk particularly if you don’t know where the bird was bred or if it might have been exposed to smuggled/imported birds. The rest of my flock are either native or common here, so I haven’t had to think of importation risks before. It definitely pays to ask the vet what screening tests are relevant to specific circumstances!
In my last blogpost on Fid, I said that within 24 hrs I had some results, which weren’t great. I was already dealing with some issues that had come up in the poo tests. His blood profile had some concerning abnormalities and the immunocomb test for psittacosis came up with a faint antibody response for the disease. Technically this faint result was a negative, but there was just enough there to make the vet question the result. So it was decided to send one of Fid’s stored samples off for a different type of psittacosis test (testing for antigens), which in theory would give a more definite answer.
Initially Fid was an absolute nightmare to deal with at night, particularly the first night. The only way I could describe it, would be to say that he was absolutely terrified of the dark. If you turned out the light to put him to bed, the crying was just incredible. When I say crying – picture a bird clinging to my chest making loud hiccuping sob noises just like a small child. It was enough to break my heart. The first night was spent in my bedroom, under a heat lamp. The added heat seemed to help settle him.
It was a week before I was able to start weaning him off the heat lamp. I set a timer and he’d wake me up crying when it went off. Gradually I managed to get it to turn off earlier each night. It has now been a couple of months since that first night. He still cries if there is anything that goes bump in the night. With 3 dogs, a cat and the local possum population’s highway running across my roof – this tends to be quite a frequent occurrence! I felt a bit like someone who had brought a small child home who still wouldn’t sleep through the night. Needless to say, it made me wonder if he was completely healthy?
Then I got some good news. The second psittacosis test came back negative for the disease, and the rest of his tests all came back clear too. Fid had been on doxycycline injections (just in case he had psittacosis). It was decided that as macaws can be sensitive to the injections and he was testing clear anyway, to switch him to medicated water for the last 2 weeks of the course. This was a precaution on the off-chance that both tests had been false negatives for the psittacosis. Meanwhile, the abnormalities in Fid’s poo had cleared up. His weight was increasing, his colour had improved and he was becoming more and more energetic. All good signs!
The main problem now was getting him to sleep through the night. Considering his tests were clear, the vet suggested I start to gently move him out of quarantine. The vet hoped that having other birds around would help calm him. Fid’s stress levels were a real concern healthwise, so this seemed like a good idea. He advised me to do it slowly as introducing him to 8 other birds in one hit might freak him out. In terms of there being a risk of Fid still being contagious – even if he had psittacosis, he was considered safe to be around. Birds stop shedding the disease approximately 24 hrs after treatment has been started and he’d been on treatment for 6 weeks with no further symptoms. He was still on treatment so the vet assured me there was no real risk.
Fid started to sleep in the same room as a few of my other birds. It worked. Contented beak grinding is apparently contagious. Apart from a slight whinge about not wanting to go to bed, Fid started sleeping through the night. I can’t tell you how relieved I was!
2 weeks passed and Fid continued to improve. His weight finally hit the 1kg (1,000 grams) point. I was happy. My vet checked in with me and was pleased to hear he was doing well. My vet told me he’d be overseas for a week and advised me of who was filling in for him while he was away – just in case I needed anything. It was nice to have a vet that cared so much.
Naturally, at about the same time that my vet’s plane was taking off, Fid started sneezing. His weight had dropped 20grams overnight. Hmmm. 20 grams is not a lot for a macaw but I found myself watching him more closely. He didn’t sleep through that night, waking me up crying repeatedly. By the next morning my concerns had grown more serious. Fid was sneezing with a lot of discharge and he was picking his nose. Picture a bird with pink nostrils (normally white) that keeps sticking his toe up his nose. He was trying to sleep on his side and his weight was now reading 70 grams lighter than where he’d been the week before. I now knew he was in serious trouble. I had pulled out the heat lamp to get him through the night, but now needed it during the day too. I re-quarantined him but there was no avian vet available to see him until the next day (it was a Sunday so the vets were closed), so I made sure he was drinking the medicated water.
I was sooooo glad that my vet had done all of the screening tests. It made all the difference in the world when Fid’s system crashed. He needed treatment urgently and there wasn’t really time to try and work out what had caused him to deteriorate so quickly, in order to work out what treatment to give. Fid didn’t have weeks for waiting for test results and fortunately he didn’t have to. I could confidently rule out everything that he had been tested for except for psittacosis. He had all of the symptoms of psittacosis and had had one faint response to a test. Relapses are common for psittacosis and it is possible to get false negatives – so it all added up. He was being treated for it but it was suddenly obvious that the 2 weeks of medicated water hadn’t worked. Obviously he hadn’t drunk enough. Psittacosis has roughly a 2-week incubation period, so even the timeframe made sense. Fid needed an injection and he got one.
My problem was that as Fid hadn’t responded to the medicated water – he had become contagious. Within 12 hours of his injection, I was sneezing and so were the birds that had been sleeping in the same room as him. Psittacosis can be extremely dangerous to humans – usually results in pneumonia. I wasn’t sure if the other birds were imitation sneezing (the joys of talking birds) but considering my own health, I wasn’t taking chances and got them straight onto treatment and myself too. The others stopped sneezing within 48 hours; I took closer to 4 days. Unfortunately I knew from past experience that I am REALLY allergic to all tetracyclines (that’s actually a common allergy), so I had to take my doctor’s second preference for treatment. Fortunately it has worked.
To cut a long story short, it’s just under three weeks of treatment later. Full treatment for birds takes 8 weeks and having a relapse means you start the 8 weeks all over again. Fid doesn’t do well with injections (is losing feathers at the injection sites), but they are working. His weight is back up to 1kg (1,000 grams). His colour is good and his behaviour is great. He’s happy; he’s active (a little naughty). His strength is back too (walnut shells aren’t safe near him!) My personal tests are clear and none of my other birds have shown any signs apart from those first 48 hrs either. I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ll have more tests to get through once treatment is over.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.