Feather and Beak Disease in Parrots, Cockatoos and Lorikeets

Is Your Bird Losing Its Feathers?

Psittacine Beak and Feather disease is also known as Pittacine Circovirus disease. Psittacine Beak and Feather disease (PBFD) is a viral disease. All psittacine birds such as parrots, cockatoos and lorikeets are susceptible to the disease and it is believed that doves can be too.

Both captive and wild birds can be affected. Cells of the immune system are attacked by the virus as are those cells which are responsible for the formation of the feathers and beak. The feathers are gradually lost, hence the common name 'bald parrot syndrome', and the beak develops abnormalities. Because the immune system is weakened, affected birds are more prone to infection by other diseases.

Cockatoo with Psittacine DiseaseCredit: Wikimedia

While thought to be endemic to Australia, New Zealand and parts of Indonesia, the disease is now found in Europe and America. Descriptions of birds suffering with similar symptoms can be found as far back as the 1800s. The disease is far more severe in some species, particularly those originating from Australia and Africa. These species are also far more likely to contract the disease.

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The PBFD virus is shed in large amounts in feathers and excreta. The disease is contagious and infected birds are a source of infection for others. Contaminated surfaces such as utensils, nesting materials, clothing, bird carriers can also transmit the disease. The virus can remain viable for many months, with or without the infected bird being present. In an aviary situation, it is almost impossible to get rid of the virus.

Symptoms vary according to the species and age of the bird. There are two main clinical features:

  • Feather abnormalities and sometimes beak abnormalities
  • Immunosuppression

Feather abnormalities can take several forms. The circovirus attacks growing feathers resulting in a variety of conditions. The clinical presentation will vary according to the stage of moult when the bird caught the virus. Thus young chicks whose feathers are still growing may have 100% feather dystrophy but in older birds the change will be more gradual as the affected feathers continue to grow and unaffected plumage is discarded in the moult.

Irreversible feather loss, abnormal feather colouring, loss of powder down, weak attachment of the feathers, deformed feathers and pinching and/or necrosis of the calamus or hollow shaft of the feather are all part and parcel of PBFD. The feathers look like stubble and may be short and sometimes curled. The shaft often breaks or may be narrow or pinched. The condition becomes worse with each moult. Inactivity of the feather follicles leads to a progressive baldness.

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A bird with total feather loss generally only presents in chronic cases in cockatoos. There is a wide range of more subtle changes which may suggest that a bird has PBFD.

Cockatoos are normally the only birds to develop beak abnormalities. These abnormalities include abnormal growth of the beak (in length), symmetrical lesions on the beak, brittleness and subsequent development of fractures. In advanced cases, there is necrosis (death) of cells in the hard palate. At this point the birds find it very painful to eat.

The younger the bird the more severe the immunosuppression. Lymphocyte production is prevented, severely impairing the immune system. Such birds may suffer from a variety of secondary infections. There may be rapid weight loss and depression in the later stages. If infected from 3 to 6 weeks of age, the bird may never develop an adequate immune system. Secondary viral, fungal, parasitic and bacterial infections are common.

It is rare for birds over the age to two to become infected. Generally symptoms are seen in new feathers as the birds moult. Typically very young birds have an acute course of the disease and die within weeks of contraction of the virus. Older birds show a more chronic course, presenting with feather abnormalities and perhaps a level of immune suppression. Such birds may live a long life but be continually shedding the virus through the feathers and excreta.

A diagnosis of PBFD can be confirmed by a range of pathology tests. It is sometimes recommended that birds testing positive should be retested after 60 to 90 days as some birds may be able to fight off the disease. A second positive reading means that the bird should be regarded as permanently affected. Diseases which can be mistaken for PBFD include polyoma virus, liver disease, poor nutrition, chronic illness and feather picking.

Every effort should be made to prevent PBFD from entering an aviary because of the (almost) impossibility of eliminating the virus once it is established.

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