Parrot Fever (Psittacosis)

Written by Gretchen Holm
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What Is Parrot Fever?

Parrot fever, also called parrot disease and psittacosis, is very rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been fewer than 50 confirmed cases per year in the United States since 1996, although many cases may have gone undiagnosed or unreported (CDC).

As the name suggests, the disease is acquired from birds. However, parrots are not the only possible culprits. Other pet birds may also carry the infection and pass it to humans.

How Is Parrot Fever Transmitted?

Parrot fever is an infection caused by a specific type of bacteria called Chlamydia psittaci.

In most cases, humans catch parrot fever from birds. These birds do not have to be parrots. Other birds, including chickens, turkeys, pigeons, cockatiels, parakeets, and ducks, can also carry the infection.

You can catch parrot fever from an infected bird in several ways. Simply handling the bird or breathing in fine particles of its urine, feces, or other bodily excretions may lead to an infection. You may also become infected if the bird bites you or if you kiss the bird (touch your mouth to its beak).

Catching the disease from an infected person is possible, but very rare. This may occur when you inhale the fine droplets that are sprayed into the air when the sick person coughs.

What Are the Symptoms of Parrot Fever?

This disease typically resembles the flu or pneumonia. Symptoms typically begin approximately 10 days after exposure, but may take as few as four or as many as 19 days to show up.

Parrot fever has many of the symptoms that you might associate with the flu, including:

  • fever and chills
  • nausea and vomiting
  • muscle and joint pain
  • diarrhea
  • weakness
  • fatigue
  • cough, typically dry

Other possible symptoms, which may not seem flu-like, include chest pain, shortness of breath, and intolerance to light.

In rare cases, the disease may cause inflammation of various internal organs. These include the brain, liver, and parts of the heart. It can also lead to decreased lung function and pneumonia.

How Is Parrot Fever Diagnosed?

Since parrot fever is such a rare condition, your doctor may not suspect this disease at first. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have recently been exposed to any potentially sick birds or if you work in a pet shop, veterinarian’s office, poultry-processing plant, or any other workplace that puts you into contact with birds.

To diagnose parrot fever, your doctor will generally perform several tests. Blood and sputum cultures can reveal whether you have the type of bacteria that causes this infection.

A chest X-ray or CT scan can show the pneumonia that is sometimes caused by the disease.

Your doctor order an antibody titer test to see if you have antibodies to the bacteria that causes parrot fever and how much antibody you have. Antibodies are proteins the immune system produces when it detects a foreign, harmful substance (antigens) like bacteria or parasites.

Changes in the level of antibodies can indicate that you have been infected with the bacteria that causes parrot fever: Chlamydia psittaci.

How Is Parrot Fever Treated?

Parrot fever is treated with antibiotics. Tetracycline and doxycycline are two antibioticsthat are very effective against this disease. However, your doctor may sometimes choose to treat you with other types or classes of antibiotic.

With proper treatment, you should make a full recovery.

How Can I Recognize a Bird with Parrot Fever?

Birds infected with the bacteria that cause parrot fever don’t necessarily show symptoms. They can also carry the bacteria for months before any outward signs appear. Just because a bird does not look or act sick does not mean that it is not infected.

Infected birds may shiver or have difficultly breathing. Other symptoms include:

  • discharge from the eyes or nose
  • diarrhea
  • discolored droppings in various shades of green
  • weight loss
  • lethargy and sleepiness

The sick bird may eat less or even completely stop eating.

How Can I Prevent Parrot Fever?

If you have pet birds, you can take some simple steps to help reduce you chances of getting parrot fever. These include cleaning your birdcages every day and taking good care of your birds to help prevent them from getting sick. Feed your birds properly and give them enough space, so they are not crowded together in the cage. If you have more than one cage, make sure the cages are far apart so that feces and other matter can’t be transferred between them.

If you acquire a new bird, isolate the bird and monitor it for sickness for at least 30 days before allowing it to be in contact with other birds (GA Public Health).

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