Anorexia (loss of appetite) and lethargy (listlessness and general inactivity) are common symptoms of both pet and wild birds. While not specific to any disease, these signs can indicate severe illness in a bird that requires immediate attention by an avian veterinarian. Every serious illness in birds can result in anorexia and/or lethargy.
What causes anorexia and lethargy in birds?
There are many causes of anorexia and lethargy in pet birds, including cancer, viral or bacterial infections, fungal or yeast infections, external and intestinal parasites, endocrine or hormonal diseases, toxicities, nutritional imbalances, and organ-specific problems such as liver, heart, or kidney failure.
Anorexia and lethargy are not specific disease entities but indicate potentially serious underlying medical problems requiring diagnostic evaluation and appropriate therapy.
"Anorexia and lethargy are not specific disease entities but indicate potentially serious underlying medical problems..."
Do I have to take my bird to my veterinarian immediately, or can I wait to see if she improves?
Birds hide signs of illness as a means of self-preservation. In the wild, an animal cannot show signs of illness, or he/she might be seen as an easy target by a predator or even a member of his own group/flock. This self-preservation response means that by the time an animal shows outward signs of illness, this animal has been sick for some time and can no longer hide these signs. This response helps ensure "survival of the fittest."
Birds rarely get sick overnight. Birds often hide symptoms of illness for days or weeks before their owners notice outward signs of illness. Therefore, a bird with anorexia and lethargy is likely seriously ill and requires immediate medical attention. Waiting and watching will only make things worse. Owners who fear that they may make a bird worse by stressing it with a trip to the veterinarian are making a mistake by not seeking immediate medical attention for their pet. Seeking care from an avian veterinarian may be the difference between life and death for some sick birds.
"Seeking care from an avian veterinarian may be the difference between life and death for some sick birds."
How will my veterinarian determine what is wrong with my bird?
Because many diseases can cause the symptoms of anorexia and lethargy, several diagnostic tests may need to be performed, including one or more of the following:
- Blood tests (a complete blood count looking at red blood cells and white blood cells)
- Blood chemistry profile looking at liver and kidney enzymes, as well as protein, calcium, blood glucose, and electrolyte levels
- Gram’s stain of the stool and possible cultures of stool and other body fluids
- Fecal examination for parasites, yeast, and bacteria
- Radiographs (X-rays)
- Tests for specific diseases such as psittacosis, aspergillosis, and polyomavirus
No single test will diagnose all the many causes of anorexia and lethargy. Each test helps contribute essential information to your veterinarian to help him/her determine the cause of your bird’s illness.
Is it necessary to hospitalize my bird?
By the time many birds are seen by a veterinarian, they are already gravely ill. If your veterinarian recommends hospitalization, it is because your bird requires the type of critical care that cannot be given at home, such as subcutaneous or intravenous fluids and gavage feeding, which requires delivering a liquid diet through a tube inserted into the oral cavity and into the crop. Some disease treatments may require injectable medications. Your veterinarian may place your bird in an Avian ICU unit to control the body’s temperature. An oxygen cage may be utilized in respiratory disease cases.
"If your veterinarian recommends hospitalization, it is because your bird requires the type of critical care that cannot be given at home..."
How are birds with anorexia and lethargy treated?
Treatment varies with the underlying cause of anorexia and lethargy.
In general, many of these birds are extremely ill. Hospitalization in a temperature-controlled incubator with fluid therapy, tube feeding, supplemental vitamins and minerals, and broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy is often indicated. If the specific cause of the illness is determined early during the hospital stay, treatment will be directed to treat the specific illness.
It is important to remember that it is essential not to wait until your bird is on death's doorstep (i.e., lying on its side, having difficulty breathing, or having seizures) before it sees your veterinarian. Semi-annual preventative check-ups, including wellness tests, may detect diseases early, before they cause symptoms of clinical illness, and may prolong your bird's life. It is also generally less expensive to prevent disease than to treat it.