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COMMON AVIAN PARASITES
Common Avian Parasites
Peter S. Sakas DVM, MS
Niles Animal Hospital and Bird Medical Center
7278 N. Milwaukee Ave. Niles IL 60714
(847) 647-9325 FAX (847) 647-8498
Avian parasites commonly seen include protozoa (one-celled animals), helminths (worms) and arthropods (insects
and mites). The effects vary from benign to acute death. With companion and aviary bird species, parasitic infections
are most common in birds that were recently imported or kept in outside aviaries. Many baby birds sold by pet
retailers/brokers throughout the US are bred in warm climates, such as Florida. Because of the warmer temperatures
these birds are bred in outside aviaries with plentiful intermediate hosts (certain animals such as insects that can
carry/transmit the parasite) and the resultant risk that even domestically raised birds may harbour parasites.
Diagnosis of Parasites
Careful physical examination with the aid of magnification will assist in detecting external parasites. Swabs or
scrapings should be taken from any obvious skin or oral lesions. FRESH faecal should always be examined. Direct
mounts of faeces should be mixed with saline because plain water could cause protozoan parasites to rupture or swell
making identification difficult if they are present. Flotations can be performed with routinely used solutions.
Flotations are done by mixing a faeces with a special solution which will cause parasite eggs to float to the surface of
the solution which can then be evaluated microscopically. Necropsies may be required with sampling of intestinal
contents for parasites and appropriate histopathology (tissues preserved and sent out for microscopic analysis by a
A gastrointestinal parasite which does not require an intermediate host. It is passed by direct contact or through
ingestion of contaminated food and water. Parents may pass it to young during feeding. No resistant cyst forms, only
motile trophozoites which are 8 - 14 microns in length. They an possess undulating membrane (under the microscope
it appears to be a wavy membrane as the parasite is moving), move in a jerky manner and body size remains constant
during movement. Infection sites include the throat, esophagus, crop, trachea and intestine. Pathogenic (diseasecausing
) strains cause inflammation and white plaques on gastrointestinal mucosa (lining) or necrosis with
accumulation of cheesy material which might block the esophagus and trachea. Causes high mortality and poor
growth in young birds, adult birds may become emaciated, display dyspnea (difficult breathing) and vomiting.
Pigeons and raptors (frounce) are commonly infected. Seen also in Amazons, cockatiels, budgies, and finches.
Diagnosis made through direct smears of affected areas or fresh direct fecal examination. Drugs of choice -
Metronidazole (Flagyl), Dimetronidazole.
Gastrointestinal parasite that has a motile trophozoite and resistant cyst stage. Direct transmission occurs following
ingestion of food contaminated with faeces from infected birds. Cysts are stable in the environment and serve as a
source of infection. Cysts form as the faeces begins to dry and the cyst is very resistant which is the reason for the
persistence of the parasite in the environment. Most reports in psittacines involve budgies, cockatiels, lovebirds and
gray cheeked parakeets. Rarely seen in Amazons, conures, cockatoos, macaws and toucans. It has not been reported
in finches or canaries. Commonly found in the faeces of asymptomatic (not showing any symptoms) adult budgies and
cockatiels, suggesting an asymptomatic carrier state with intermittent shedding. Clinical signs include none, loose
malodorous stool, mucoid diarrhoea, gram negative bacterial enteritis, anorexia, depression, recurrent yeast infections,
hypoproteinemia. Poor growth and high mortality can be seen in neonatal budgies and cockatiels. Feather picking
has been described as a clinical manifestation, especially in cockatiels. FRESH faeces should be examined and mixed
with saline, NOT water. Special stains and isolation techniques can also be used. If the faeces is older than 10
minutes old the trophozoites (active forms) may not be recognizable as the parasites will begin to form a cyst which
can be more difficult to identify. Multiple fresh samples may need to be run due to intermittent shedding of trophs
and cysts. Treatment - Metronidazole. Keep aviary clean and dry which reduces the number of cysts and their
viability. Relapses are common after treatment either from endogenous Giardia or exposure to environmental
reservoirs. Giardia has a limited host range and species isolated from birds have not been found to infect other
animals. Humans and other animals (including dogs and cats) have their own forms of Giardia which does not tend
to cross contaminate, however the risk for infection does potentially exist with this parasite so take precautions if
your birds or other pets are diagnosed with Giardia.
Been described in cockatiels and lories. Can cause loose stool/weight loss. Similar to Giardia but lacks sucking disc
and are more truncated (shorter). Swims in a smooth linear fashion. Cysts are infective. Diagnosis and treatment
similar to Giardia.
Includes a variety of lifestyles and means of transmission. Pass unsporulated (undeveloped) oocysts (like an egg),
less than 45 microns in length. The oocysts undergo development in the environment and then become infective.
Infection by means of food and water contaminated by feces containing oocysts. Common in mynahs, toucans,
pigeons, canaries, finches, and lories. Infections in mynahs and toucans rarely clinical unless stressed in crowded
unsanitary conditions. Clinical disease occasionally seen in canaries and finches. Common form of enteritis in
pigeons. Diagnosis through direct fecal or flotation. Treatment - Metronidazole.
Hemoparasites (Blood Parasites)
Normally considered non-pathogenic but is a commonly occurring avian blood parasite, especially in imported
cockatoos , pigeons and other wild birds. Up to 50% of newly imported cockatoos were found to be positive, while
only 5% of long term captive birds were positive. Clinical signs, if they occur, include splenomegaly (enlarged
spleen), hepatomegaly (enlarged liver) and pulmonary edema (fluid in lungs). High parasitemia (parasites in blood)
can cause clinical problems if the bird is stressed or immunocompromised. Racing pigeons infected may perform
poorly in comparison to healthy birds. Diagnosis through peripheral blood smear, identify gametocytes which
encircle RBC nucleus. Treatment - not recommended in asymptomatic birds, if affected use quinacrine.
Causes disease in canaries and other Passeriforms. Adults are asymptomatic carriers that shed oocysts in feces.
Young are susceptible, up to 80% mortality in juvenile birds between 2-9 months of age. Parasite has asexual
reproductive cycle (parasite merely divides to produce more) in mononuclear cells (specific type of white blood cells
involved in body defence against infection) then spreads through blood to parenchymal organs (such as liver and
spleen). Clinical signs are non-specific, depression, anorexia, diarrhoea, enlarged liver and dilated gut loops (which
may be visualized through skin). Transmission is through ingestion of contaminated feces. Infected birds may
intermittently shed. Oocysts are environmentally stable and not killed by most disinfectants. Diagnosis through
identification of oocysts in feces, 20 microns, or most often histopathologically. Treatment - none effective.
Primaquine to suppress the tissue form, sulfachlor-pyrazine may decrease oocyst shedding.
Coccidian parasite that undergoes sexual multiplication in definitive host (opossum), passes oocysts in faeces which
are picked up by intermediate host, such as bird. The parasite then undergoes asexual reproduction, and spreads
through the bloodstream and encysts, often in striated (skeletal) and cardiac muscle. It is restricted to North America
and has been associated with acute death in a variety of psittacines. Pathogenicity depends upon the species of bird
and infective dose of parasite. Old World psittacines are very susceptible, New World are relatively resistant.
Infections are peracute(sudden) and birds often die before sarcocysts (which are visible to the naked eye) develop in
the muscle. Psittacine birds in outdoor facilities within the range of opossums are at risk. Cockroaches can serve as a
transport host. Fence aviaries to prevent access to opossums. Treatment - Trimethoprim, Sulfadiazine.
Can be asymptomatic. May absorb nutrients from host causing bird to be unthrifty and have diarrhoea. Most common
in finches, African greys (15-20% of imported birds), cockatoos (10-20% of imported birds) and Eclectus parrots.
No direct correlation between eosinophilia (increase in eosinophils in blood which are a type of white blood cell
which characteristically increases in parasitic infections) and parasitism. Generally infections are non-pathogenic,
although large numbers of worms can cause impaction. With severe infection, birds may die following a period of
weight loss and diarrhoea. Some feel that it may be a cause of feather picking in Old World birds. Tapeworms require
an intermediate host (such as insects or mites which carry the parasite) so infections are uncommon in birds that do
not have access to ground. Diagnosis is by identification of proglottids (tapeworm segments) or whole worms in
faeces. Individual eggs may not be noted in routine a faecal samples unless proglottid in faeces has ruptured. Treatment -
Flukes are rarely reported in imported birds. These are usually Old World species and should be self-limiting
because the intermediate hosts of origin (usually an arthropod) are not present in the US. Hepatic (liver) trematodes
have been described in cockatoos. They are periodically seen in raptors. Diagnosis through identification of
characteristic egg in feces. Treatment - Fenbendazole, Praziquantel, Ivermectin may be used in combination with one
of the aforementioned drugs.
Most common parasites found in birds maintained in enclosures with access to ground. Infections are common in
budgies and cockatiels. Have a direct life cycle (passed directly from one bird to the next). Eggs require 2-3 week
period for embryonated larvae to form in egg and become infective. Viable for long periods in moist warm
environments. Resistant to disinfectants, but can be controlled with steam and flaming. Embryonated eggs which are
ingested are directly infective. It is theorized that roundworm larvae may encyst in tissue (like dogs/cats) and stress
may cause cysts to activate. Periodically test birds that have tested positive for roundworms and periodically worm
any outdoor breeding flock. Clinical signs with severe infestation may include, distended abdomen, weight loss,
diarrhoea, malabsorption, intussusception (telescoping of a portion of the intestinal tract), blockage and death.
Diagnosis through faecal examination/flotation. Treatment - Pyrantel pamoate, Fenbendazole.
Baylisascaris procyonis (raccoon roundworm)
Has caused cerebrospinal nematodiasis (roundworms in the brain or spinal cord) from migratory larvae. The egg
hatches in the intestinal tract and the larvae goes through an obligatory migration through the body during
development before it ends up in the intestine as an adult. It is this migration that is the dangerous aspect of this
parasite. Larvae have caused visceral larval migrans (disease condition caused by migrating larvae), enter the CNS,
causing considerable damage leading to ataxia (incoordination), depression and death. Been reported in many
psittacines and ratites. No diagnostic tests available, usually diagnosed histologically at necropsy. Best means of
control is to prevent access of free-ranging raccoons to aviaries. Eggs are thick-walled and long-lived. This parasite
is also a risk for humans and other animals.
Tiny thread-like nematodes that affect the GI tract of most species of companion and aviary birds. Most common in
macaws, budgies, canaries, pigeons and raptors. Parasite has a direct life cycle. Egg embryonation can take two
weeks and eggs remain infective in the environment for months. May cause no disease or weight loss, anorexia,
vomiting and anaemia. Diagnosis through identification of characteristic bipolar egg on faecal flotation or scraping of
suspected lesions. Treatment - Mebendazole, Fenbendazole, Ivermectin.
Rare in companion birds but seen quite often in wild birds, chickens and ducks. Can visualize the parasite in the
trachea (windpipe). Adults are generally resistant, most infections in young birds. Parasite has a direct life cycle.
Clinical signs include coughing, open mouth breathing, dyspnea and head shaking. Diagnosis is through clinical
signs, visualization of parasite or presence of egg in faeces. Treatment - Thiabendazole, Mebendazole, Ivermectin and
mechanical removal of worms.
Filarial Worms (Thread-Like Worms)
Have indirect life cycle (meaning that the parasite must be transmitted through another animal, such as dog
heartworm disease which is a member of this group of parasites). Are transmitted to birds by blood feeding flies.
May see microfilariae (immature larvae) in peripheral blood smears. Commonly were seen in peripheral blood of
imported cockatoos (up to 45%) and were often found in conjunction with Haemoproteus. Adults may be in body
cavity, chambers of eyes, heart, air sacs or subcutaneous lesions causing masses on the feet/legs. Generally
considered non-pathogenic. Worms in joints and subQ lesions can cause severe problems and should be removed.
Some have responded to Ivermectin treatment.
Can cause pruritis (itching) and poor feather condition. Parasites can be observed directly or eggs (nits) attached to
feathers. Most species are host specific and die quickly when they leave the host. Dusting with pyrethrins can control
Knemidokoptes pilae (Scaly Face/Scaly Leg Mite)
Most frequently diagnosed avian mite on pet birds. Causes prominent disfiguring lesions. Most common in budgies
as ‘scaly face’ and canaries as ‘scaly leg’ or ‘tassel foot’, but other birds may be affected. Typically causes
proliferation of tissue on beak and face, can also occur on feet/ legs ( main site in canaries), cloaca and wings. As
mites burrow they create characteristic honey-combed appearance. Young birds are commonly affected and are
believed to obtain mites from parents in nest. Mites normally are present on the skin and cause no disease (like
Demodex in dogs) however, genetic predisposition or immunosuppression can lead to mite overgrowth and
development of disease. Commonly see Giardia in conjunction. It is not a contagious condition. Diagnosis through
characteristic appearance of lesions and skin scrapings of crusts which will contain mites and eggs. Treatment -
Ivermectin, orally, topically on skin or intramuscular injections. Repeat in 14 days( with scaly leg may require
several treatments at two week intervals). Additional therapy includes shaping beak if disfigured due to condition
and topical application of Eurax Cream (human mite treatment) to affected areas.
Sternostoma tracheacolum (Air Sac Mites)
Affects trachea of canaries, finches (especially Lady Gouldians), parakeets and cockatiels. Entire life cycle occurs in
respiratory tract of infected host. Eggs spread by coughing or coughed, swallowed and passed in faeces. Clinical signs
include dyspnea, coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge and open- mouthed breathing. May range from mild to severe
with resultant death by asphyxiation. Diagnosis through visualization of small black mites seen upon
transillumination of trachea (shining a light through the trachea), presence of eggs in faeces, tracheal wash and clinical
signs. If a new problem with aviary, question if any new additions were placed in the collection. Treatment -
Ivermectin, clean environment to remove eggs that may be present and could cause reinfection.
Dermanyssus (Red Mites)
Feed on blood, may cause anaemia, pruritis and poor growth in young birds. Mites emerge to feed at night, spend
daytime in crevices throughout cage/perches/toys, etc. Usually seen in recently obtained birds from aviary setting or
pet store. Free ranging birds can serve as source of infestation and should not be allowed to nest or roost in aviary.
Diagnosis through identification of mite, usually through close inspection of cage and cage contents. Check the slots
at the ends of perches and other cracks and crevices in cage or toys. May see parasites in cage at night, especially if
white paper towel or cloth is placed on bottom of cage. Treatment - Dust with Pyrethrins. Commercially available
mite protectors are generally ineffective on common avian parasites and may cause liver damage.
Numerous feather mites have been described in birds. Seen in newly acquired or imported birds. They have specific
microhabitats including specific portions of the feather. Generally non-pathogenic in host adapted species but can
cause clinical problems in non-host adapted species or with heavy infestations when mites move from feathers to
skin. Quill mites reside in the pulp of developing feathers and cause damage its growth. Diagnosis through
visualization of mites, examination of feather pulp with quill mites. Treatment - Topical pyrethrins, Ivermectin,
removal of affected feathers with quill mites.
Hopefully this information will prove useful to you in understanding some of the more commonly seen parasites in
pet birds. A successful parasite is one that is able to live in harmony with the animal it lives within and not causing
its death. That is why it is so difficult to identify animals that may be suffering from parasitic infections as quite often
they show no external signs of disease due to this relationship. However, parasites do weaken animals making them
susceptible to other infections and sap them nutritionally which may limit proper development.
A significant problem with parasites is that quite often you see no external signs initially. The bird then gets into your
collection with the resultant risk of spreading a parasitic (viral or bacterial) infection. That is why it is imperative to
deal with quality sources when you obtain your birds. They are more likely to follow a good program of disease
prevention and if a problem developed with your bird are more likely to stand behind them. It is also strongly
recommended to have any new additions to your collection evaluated by an avian veterinarian. Part of the routine
new bird physical examination is blood testing and faecal evaluation.
Also it is a good practice to isolate any new birds from your others for at least thirty days to limit the risk of
transmission of a disease the bird may be carrying. Watch for any signs of disease as the new bird, if carrying
disease, might sicken in the stress of a new environment with the resultant risk of shedding disease organisms. Wash
your hands after handling and wash its utensils separately from those of your other birds. Too often I have seen
people place a new bird directly in their collection and then have their new bird sicken with resultant disease in the
A source for some of the information in this article was the excellent book, Avian Medicine:
Principles and Application by Ritchie, Harrison, Harrison).
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