A family went to a pet store and bought a bird. A cute little parrot that instantaneously became part of their family. A few weeks later, it was at an avian vet, in intensive care. The family was heartbroken when it couldn’t be saved. Turns out the bird had been hiding an illness the whole time. The vet told them that if it had been caught earlier, the bird could have recovered. If only the pet store had bothered to screen their birds for illness, then this might have been averted. The pet store however, has refused to implement that policy. I could save so many lives if I wrote a blog that helped share the story, if I named that pet store and forced them to implement that policy by launching a huge public backlash. I could help prevent this from happening to any other family. People need to be made aware. So why don’t I write that blog?
I wonder how many families think the above is about their bird? I can think of about 20 recent cases that fit that story almost exactly. Substitute ‘pet store’ with ‘breeder’ or ‘rescue’ and I can think of even more. Then there are other even worse cases when that sick little bird has brought an illness into a new home, which spreads to other birds that already lived there. In more than one case an entire household of birds has died as a result. You get the picture. If I were to name all of the pet stores, the breeders and the rescues that don’t screen their birds before selling/adopting them out, then I’d be writing the same post every week just with different names and different illnesses.
“Yesterday I was clever and was determined to change the world. Today I am wise and decided to change myself.” – Rumi
Someone sent me that quote recently and I think it applies here. Clever people think wouldn’t it be great if we could change it so that every bird, everywhere is screened before they are sold? The wise do it themselves.
If you buy or rescue a bird YOU and YOU alone take on the responsibility for it. It doesn’t matter what he, she and their friends should have done for the bird the week before. All that matters is what you do after you take on the responsibility.
THE “NEW BIRD” VET CHECK-UP
In an ideal world, everyone should take their new family member to an avian vet for a “new bird check-up” as quickly as possible after purchase. That is the new owner’s responsibility not the seller’s. This should be done whether the bird appears healthy or not.
A new bird check-up at an avian vet usually involves a number of things. The vet will do a basic check-up, in other words looking at body and feather condition; checking for any of the more obvious signs of illness or injury. The vet would normally weigh your bird and keep that weight on file for comparison at a later date. A poo test is likely to be done to check for the presence of any abnormalities, such as Megabacteria or parasites. Any relevant illness/disease screening tests will be done (usually blood tests). A blood profile can also be a good idea as it gives you an idea of any deficiencies and a thorough understanding of your bird’s overall health.
If you are lucky, the bird turns out to be healthy and suddenly your vet has a stack of ‘normal’ results to compare any future tests to, making it easier to detect an illness if one occurs down the track. If you are unlucky, an illness will be detected. If an illness is there, it’s better to catch it early as that increases your bird’s chances of recovery. It can be costly, but a new bird check-up is never a waste of time.
There are a number of reasons why I believe screening tests are best left as the responsibility of a bird’s new owner and not the responsibility of the store, breeder or rescue. One of the main reasons that I believe this is because it would be impossible to pass a blanket rule that would cover all the necessary tests that a bird might need. Logically the screening tests required are going to vary with species and location. A vet would be aware of what the risks are for your particular species and it is part of what would be covered in a new bird check-up.
As an example, when Fid my Blue and Gold Macaw joined my flock last year, one of the screening tests that my vet did was for Pachecos Disease. None of my other birds have ever been screened for that. It isn’t a common illness here. So why bother? The answer was because of his species. Blue and Gold Macaws are worth a small fortune here in Australia. This means that they have a high value where black market smuggling is concerned. Black market smuggling means illnesses get smuggled in along with the birds. Pachecos Disease is a problem for macaws and particularly in smuggled macaws. It was worth screening him for it, because I couldn’t 100% guarantee he hadn’t been exposed to a bird with it in the past. I wouldn’t dare underestimate the black market because I knew over AUD $300,000 (Australian Dollars) worth of birds had been stolen (including macaws) in the previous 2 months in my area. Ok, he tested clear for this particular disease, but it was worth the peace of mind.
There are other more common illnesses and diseases out there. I’m very aware that in Australia PBFD (Psittacine Beak & Feather Disease) and Psittacosis are rampant in our wild parrots. The threat of wild birds to domestic birds, shouldn’t be underestimated. So if a parrot has been in an aviary outside (which let’s face it most breeders have outdoor aviaries), then there’s a high chance of exposure. These diseases also exist overseas, so the threat isn’t unique to Australia. These are diseases that ALL of my birds have been screened for, multiple times.
There is one part of screening tests that a lot of people don’t understand. Depending on the type of test performed, they can’t necessarily give an “all-clear” result. Taking PBFD as an example, the most common tests to diagnose this disease are to test for the presence of the DNA of the disease (often a test called a PCR is used). The accuracy of the result will depend on what part of the DNA is being looked at and what stage of the disease the bird is at. It is possible that the bird might be incubating or not shedding the disease at the time of the test but it may still actually have the disease. So a negative result does not mean the bird is in the clear. This is still the most common way to test for the disease (and many other diseases) because it’s a fast and relatively cheap way to get a “yes it has the disease” result. There are many advantages of doing this style of test; often you can test for multiple diseases at the same time.
Other tests might look for the presence of antibodies or antigens in relation to a specific disease. In other words, these tests show if the bird has been exposed to a disease by testing to see if a bird’s immune system has activated in response to the disease’s presence. There are various types of tests that do this. Some are cheap and give an overnight yes/not showing now result. Others often cost more and take longer (up to several months) to get results. (For the disease PBFD this test is called a HI/HA test and usually takes about 2 months to get results.) This second longer style will usually give more of an idea of how the immune system has coped. The advantage is that you not only get a definite yes/no answer about the presence of the disease but you find out if the bird is doing ok and likely to recover from it. The disadvantage is the cost, the time, and the fact that these tests are usually only focusing on one disease at a time. In terms of the PBFD example, some studies show that utilizing results of both PCR and HI/HA are more accurate than using one or other of the tests separately.
It’s important to realise that multiple different tests are available to test for one illness. Depending on the bird’s species and background, one test may be more useful/accurate than another. It’s another reason that it’s impractical to enforce compulsory screening tests onto a petstore/breeder/rescue. If the new owner does it, the tests will be catering to the specific bird, not a blanket general rule. It’s something a new owner should be discussing with their vet. A discussion of the accuracy of the test should also be included in that. Negative results don’t necessarily mean the bird is disease free.
Medications can also compromise test results. If the bird has been treated for an illness with antibiotics recently or at the time of a test, this can increase the chances of obtaining a false negative. In other words, an illness can be hidden when a bird is on antibiotics. It’s why it is important to have samples taken before starting any treatment.
I personally advocate a 90 day quarantine for ANY new bird entering a household. The purpose of 90 days is to accommodate any illness that is incubating and not showing up (thereby giving a false all-clear in a test result). Some of the most common illnesses can incubate for months, so quarantine is just as important as a screening test.
Quarantine is NOT just putting birds in separate cages. Many illnesses are airborn. Quarantine means separate air space. We’re talking separate rooms, or even separate buildings. Food bowls cannot be mixed up or washed together. An appropriate disinfectant needs to be used for any cleaning. It may even be necessary for the carer to change clothing after handling a bird. The owner should ALWAYS handle the bird in quarantine LAST. This is not to say it is not important to use impeccable hand washing between handling the resident birds and the quarantine bird – but it makes it less likely that the quarantine will be broken. It really doesn’t take much to break quarantine and the slightest slip-up can be devastating.
I understand how hard it can be to keep a bird on their own. They’re social creatures and if they can hear other birds, they definitely pull on the heartstrings to make you want to break quarantine. The thing is, you’re the adult in the relationship. You have a responsibility to any other birds in your flock. The first meeting of your flock will be just as cute in 3 months time, when it is safe to do so.
I’ve been there. I was there last year with my Blue and Gold Macaw Fid. He could hear my other birds and he used to cry to see them. (Seriously – think hiccupping sobs!) He was bright, alert, a nice colour, not symptomatic of anything at the time of purchase BUT he was hiding Psittacosis. It’s a highly contagious and deadly disease. Even humans can get it. Imagine if I hadn’t quarantined him? I could have killed my whole flock. Even after treatment, he relapsed. If I’d finished treatment and then broken quarantine, I still could have killed all of my birds. The 90 day rule was heartbreaking to enforce but not as heartbreaking as the alternative.
SOME PLACES OF PURCHASE DO OFFER SCREENING TESTS.
The thing with quarantine is that we’re talking 3 months. That’s ¼ of the year. Even the best pet stores can’t afford to keep a $10 bird off the sale shelf for that time. That’s worth remembering. Even if the store does screen test their birds, they’re unlikely to follow such strict quarantine procedures as clothing changes and separate air systems. Unlike a breeder, they’re likely to be getting birds in from multiple sources. Similarly, most rescues are dealing with birds coming in from countless different locations. It’s why a new owner should assume there is a chance that a bird has been exposed to something and it’s why a new bird check-up is so important, even if you are told it has been done. (It’s also a good reason to be very wary of boarding your bird at a rescue when you are on vacation.)
Breeders on the other hand, are less likely to have birds coming in from other places, so there’s slightly less chance of the birds being exposed to illness. Many do have quarantine capabilities and I do know some excellent breeders who give the option of having screening tests done. The cost of the tests is usually added on to the purchase price. If you personally can’t quarantine at home, finding a breeder like this might be a better option for you. Another option may be to have a friend with a bird-free home keep your bird during the quarantine. That will, however, mean multiple trips to a second residence – so’ it would be best if that friend lived very close!
If your bird escapes into the wild and there is a chance that it has come into contact with wild or other domestic birds in its time away from you then it should also receive ‘new bird treatment’ when you get it back. I hate to say it, but even if the bird has a fretting mate – you’re back to the start with quarantine and screening tests. Some of these diseases are so common in wild birds that the risk is very real and it could save the rest of your flock if you remember that.
At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. Prices go up when tests are included and before joining an online appeal to make them compulsory you should really ask yourself if as a responsible person you’d be able to trust the tests done by the seller to be enough to meet your own personal standards? I know I’d want to have them done myself and that’s why I don’t condemn the stores/breeders/rescues that don’t include them. I consider them the new owner’s responsibility. There is a reason that little budgie is $10 instead of $100. Just because a bird seems cheap, it shouldn’t be considered disposable. The purchase price is not the real cost of the bird and I’d argue that the better bird people out there know that and take the responsibility for that.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.