Last Updated on February 8, 2024 by Carrie Stephens
As a veterinarian, I’m frequently asked whether pet birds like parrots, songbirds, waterfowl, and poultry can catch bird flu. There are also concerns over whether bird flu is transmissible to humans.
This topic has never been more relevant than it is now, with current bird flu outbreaks causing devastation in poultry and wild bird populations.
Alarmingly, an increasing number of bird flu cases are being recorded in mammalian species, including cats fed raw meat diets. This includes raw poultry affected by bird flu.
With 67 countries across 5 continents reporting bird flu outbreaks in 2022 alone, this virus is here to stay.
Pet bird owners need to be aware of the signs of bird flu and the measures that must be taken to keep parrots as safe as possible in light of the growing threat.
How Bird Flu Affects Parrots
All bird species, including wild and domestically kept parrots, can catch bird flu.
Household pets are at less risk of contracting bird flu than wild birds and free-range farmed birds due to a lower chance of coming into contact with the disease, but infections in pet parrots do occur.
Causes of Bird Flu
Bird flu – “avian influenza” – is caused by several strains of Avian Influenza Type A viruses.
Some strains have more potential to cause disease than others, but all are highly contagious among birds.
Severity of Bird Flu
Several different strains of bird flu exist. Some strains affect certain birds, meaning these species will experience more severe symptoms when infected with the virus.
Other species might only be mildly affected or asymptomatic (showing no symptoms).
Bird flu strains can be categorized as having either low or high pathogenicity. “Pathogenicity” refers to the ability of the virus to produce disease symptoms in the affected individual.
A low-pathogenicity viral strain will likely cause mild signs of illness in an infected bird. In contrast, a high-pathogenicity strain is more likely to cause severe illness or even death.
Birds with low pathogenicity bird flu can be sick for days or even a few weeks but usually recover with veterinary treatment.
Unfortunately, with highly pathogenic strains, death frequently occurs within 24-48 hours of symptoms.
Tragically, in some cases, the disease can be fatal so quickly that there is no time for noticeable clinical signs to develop or for veterinary assistance to be sought.
Signs of Bird Flu in Parrots
Signs a bird has contracted a low pathogenicity strain of bird flu are as follows:
- Reduced interest in (and intake of) food and water.
- Abnormal respiratory sounds such as wheezing or clicking.
- Discharge from the nares (nose holes above the beak).
- Swollen eyelids.
- A decrease in egg production, thin-shelled or misshapen eggs.
Low pathogenicity bird flu may also be asymptomatic, meaning that your parrot may show no signs of disease despite being infected and possibly even able to infect other birds.
High pathogenicity strains of bird flu may produce any of the following signs in parrots:
- Difficulty breathing due to mucus in the airways.
- Reduced food intake or stop eating entirely.
- Watery diarrhea.
- Wobbliness, weakness, or poor muscle control.
- Torticollis (twisted neck posture).
- Sudden death.
- In laying birds: sudden absence of egg production.
How To Keep Parrots Safe from Bird Flu
Bird owners can take several relatively simple measures to minimize the chances of their parrot encountering the bird flu virus.
Keeping parrots inside and preventing contact with wild birds is crucial since bird flu is most often spread from bird to bird through direct contact with infected saliva, nasal secretions, or droppings.
A parrot can also catch bird flu from objects or surfaces (including a pet owner’s clothes or hands) that have come into contact with any of the above.
So, keep your distance from wild birds, wash your hands, and change your clothes if you encounter, feed, or handle wild species.
Avoid storing cages, perches, or other objects belonging to your pet outside.
Never touch sick or dead birds without wearing appropriate PPE (personal protective equipment) or, at the very least, disposable protective gloves.
Catching Bird Flu from Parrots
The risk of contracting bird flu from an infected pet parrot is low, although it is possible.
If you believe your parrot is showing signs of bird flu, wear gloves while handling them and cleaning their cage, particularly when disposing of droppings.
Monitor your health and seek medical care should you develop a fever, signs of respiratory infection, or gastrointestinal symptoms (such as abdominal cramping or diarrhea).
Of course, seek veterinary advice so your parrot can receive timely diagnostics and treatment.
Concerns About Bird Flu
While bird flu does not usually infect humans, human cases have occurred, and it’s well-recognized within the scientific community that the avian influenza virus can rapidly mutate.
This is problematic as viruses with a high mutation rate can potentially adapt to novel hosts. For example, it’s known that bird flu strains can infect pigs, as can human flu strains.
A key concern is that if a pig becomes infected with bird flu and human flu at the same time, the two viruses may “mix” (through reassortment).
This may result in a new bird flu strain with a high potential to infect humans.
As a veterinarian, I think this creates the need for all farm employees working with pigs to receive an annual flu jab to minimize the chances of this occurring.