Although cockatiels are generally hardy birds, they are prone to a few health problems, including giardia, conjunctivitis, candida, roundworms, and papillomas. They, like all birds, can also suffer from respiratory problems and other conditions that result from a vitamin A deficiency, especially if they consume diets that are high in seeds and low in foods that are rich in vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency can be prevented by feeding your bird a varied, healthy diet.
Giardia is caused by a protozoan called Giardia psittaci. Signs of a giardia infection include loose droppings, weight loss, feather picking (especially under the wings), loss of appetite, and depression. Your avian veterinarian may have difficulty diagnosing this disease because the giardia organism is difficult to detect in a bird’s feces. The disease can be spread through contaminated food or water, and birds are not immune to it once they’ve had it. Your veterinarian can recommend an appropriate medication to treat giardia.
In some birds, a giardia infection can lead to other problems, such as cockatiel paralysis syndrome, which is seen most often in lutino birds who are infected with Giardia or Hexamita. It’s caused by a vitamin E and selenium deficiency.
Signs include slow eye blink, weak jaw muscles, poor digestion, clumsiness, a weak grip, spraddle leg (a condition in which one or both of the bird’s legs stick out sideways, leaving her unable to stand normally), weak hatchlings, an increase in the number of chicks who are dead in the shell, and decreased fertility. Antiprotozoal therapy and supplemental vitamin E and selenium have successfully treated the condition.
Cockatiel conjunctivitis is seen in white or albino birds more than in normal grays. Signs include inflammation
of the eyelid and discharge from the eye with no apparent cause. Treatment with topical antibiotic ointment temporarily resolves the signs, but recurrences are common. Affected birds should not be used in breeding programs because there is some evidence that this is a genetic problem.
Cockatiel breeders need to pay particular attention to candida, which is caused by the yeast Candida albicans. Young cockatiels seem to be particularly susceptible to candida infections, which occur when a bird’s diet is low in vitamin A. Signs of candida include white, cheesy growths in the bird’s mouth and throat, a loss of appetite, regurgitation or vomiting, and a crop that is slow to empty.
The trouble with trying to diagnose a candida infection is that many adult cockatiels don’t show any signs of the condition, so a breeder may not even know he or she has infected birds until the parent birds pass the yeast to the chicks during feeding. Hand-fed chicks are not immune to the condition, either, because they can be affected by it if their throats are damaged by feeding tubes.
Veterinary assistance in the form of antifungal drugs and a diet high in vitamin A may be your best weapons against candida.
Roundworms, or ascarids, can infest cockatiels who have access to dirt, which is where roundworm eggs are found. The worms themselves are two to five inches long and resemble white spaghetti. Mild infestations of roundworms can cause weight loss, loss of appetite, growth abnormalities, and diarrhea, while heavy infestations can result in bowel blockage and death.
To diagnose roundworms, your veterinarian will analyze a sample of your bird’s droppings. He or she can then prescribe an appropriate course of treatment to clear up the problem. Raccoon roundworms, which are passed in the animal’s feces, can also affect cockatiels. To protect birds from this parasite, which can cause damage to a bird’s central nervous system, prevent raccoons from getting access to your aviaries.
Another parasite problem, sarcocystis, can be a problem in North American areas with large opossum populations. Sarcocystis infections seem more prevalent in the winter months, and male birds are more susceptible to this parasite than females. Birds affected by sarcocystis often appear healthy one day and are dead the next. Those birds that do show signs of illness before dying become lethargic, cannot breathe easily, and pass yellowish droppings. As with the raccoon roundworms, preventing opossums from accessing your aviaries can eliminate the threat of this disease. However, cockroaches can also pass along this parasite by consuming opossum feces and then being eaten by an aviary cockatiel.
Papillomas are benign tumors that can appear almost anywhere on a bird’s skin, including her foot, leg, eyelid, or preen gland. These tumors, which are caused by a virus, can appear as small, crusty lesions, or they may be raised growths that have a bumpy texture or small projections. If a bird has a papilloma on her cloaca, the bird may appear to have a wet raspberry coming out of her vent.
Many papillomas can be left untreated without harm to the bird, but some must be removed by an avian veterinarian because a bird may pick at the growth and cause it to bleed.
Although this isn’t really a health problem, some cockatiels, particularly lutinos, are prone to bald spots behind their crests. These bald spots resulted from inbreeding cockatiels to create the lutino mutation in the 1950s. Birds with noticeable bald spots on the backs of their heads are generally held out of breeding programs to try to keep the trait from being passed on to future generations.
Polyomavirus, which is sometimes called French moult, causes flight and tail feathers to develop improperly or not develop at all. Polyomavirus can be spread through contact with new infected birds, as well as from feather and fecal dust.
Adult birds can carry polyomavirus but not show any signs of the disease. These seemingly healthy birds can pass the virus to young birds who have never been exposed, and these young birds can die from polyomavirus rather quickly. Sick birds can become weak, lose their appetite, bleed beneath the skin, have enlarged abdomens, become paralyzed, regurgitate, and have diarrhea. Some birds with polyomavirus die suddenly.
At present, there is no cure, although a vaccine is under development. Protecting your pets against polyomavirus and other diseases is why it’s important to quarantine new birds and to take precautions, including showering and changing clothes, before handling your pet when you’ve gone to other bird owners’ homes, to bird marts that have large numbers of birds from different vendors on display, and to bird specialty stores.
Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease Syndrome
Psittacine beak and feather disease syndrome (PBFDS) has been a hot topic among birdkeepers for the last decade. The virus was first detected in cockatoos and was originally thought to be a cockatoo-specific problem. It has since been determined that more than forty species of parrots, including cockatiels, can contract this disease, which causes a bird’s feathers to become pinched or clubbed in appearance. Other symptoms include beak fractures and mouth ulcers. This highly contagious, fatal disease is most common in birds under three years of age, and there is no cure at present. A vaccine is under development at the University of Georgia.