Recognizing Signs of Illness in Birds

  • Introduction

    Birds typically hide signs of illness, and many conditions produce very similar clinical pictures. These signs are often quite subtle until disease is advanced. Fortunately, quite a bit of information can be gleaned from a detailed history and careful observation.

    Why do many companion bird species hide signs of illness? Visit The Acclimation Period: Approach to Prey Species for more information

  • Sick finch


    Lethargy is a common non-specific sign of illness. The affected bird often displays closed or partially open eyes, frequent blinking, and/or unfocused eyes.

    The normal prey species in an unfamiliar setting will appear as wide-eyed and alert as it possibly can for as long as it possibly can.

  • Finch eyes closed


    The lethargic bird will display inactivity, weakness, and possibly an inability to perch, which means the bird may present on the bottom of the cage.

  • Conure on perch

    Anorexia and Weight Loss

    The owner may report a history of partial or complete anorexia and weight loss.

    Note: Some diligent bird owners weigh their pet birds regularly. As a general rule of thumb, the bird should be evaluated if it loses weight for 3 consecutive days or if it loses 10% of its body weight over any time period.

  • Fluffed lovebird


    Birds with non-specific signs of illness frequently display fluffed and ruffled feathers as well as decreased preening and unkempt feathers.

  • Cockatiels with abnormal droppings


    The owner may report a change in the quality or quantity of droppings. Abnormal droppings can also be observed during the visual examination. Note the relatively large production of urine by the bird shown here on the left.

  • Polyuria


    Transient polyuria is commonly observed birds under stress.

    The three components of the normal dropping are shown above; A: feces, B: urates, C: urine. In the image shown above the urine component is abnormally large. Polyuria can be a normal physiologic response to stress or high fluid intake, such as a formula-based diet.

  • Regurgitating kingfisher

    Gastrointestinal Signs

    Gastrointestinal signs of illness in the bird can include gagging or retching, stretching of the neck, regurgitation, or vomiting.

  • Sick budgie


    Signs of illness involving the upper respiratory tract can include periocular swelling, oculonasal discharge, sneezing, scratching around the eyes, and frequent yawning.

    Soiling or matting of the feathers on the head or around the nares is observed when oculonasal discharge or regurgitated material is flicked back by the bird. Visit Respiratory Emergencies for a video illustrating increased respiratory effort or tail bobbing.

  • Respiratory Difficulty

    Respirations should be hardly noticeable in the normal, calm bird. Signs of respiratory difficulty or dyspnea in the bird include open-mouth breathing, increased sternal motion, and tail bobbing. Additional signs of respiratory distress can include . More subtle signs of respiratory difficulty can include exercise intolerance, wings held slightly away from the body, and a prolonged respiratory recovery rate.

    Video credit:  Dr. Susan Orosz

    For additional information, view the R.A.C.E. webinar recording Avian Respiratory Anatomy, Physiology & Diseases and visit the review article Avian Respiratory Emergencies.

  • Fluffed ruffled parrot


    Many medical conditions produce very a similar clinical picture in the bird. Clinical signs of illness frequently include non-specific signs of illness, such as lethargy, closed or partially open eyes, anorexia, and a fluffed and ruffled appearance. Depending on the origin of illness, additional signs can include an increased respiratory rate or effort and abnormal stool production.

Signs of illness in birds are often quite subtle until disease is advanced. Fortunately, quite a bit of information can be gleaned from a detailed history and careful observation. View this brief slideshow for tips on the visual examination . . .

To continue you need to be a member. (Français), (Español)

Pour continuer, vous devez être un membre

Para continuar, debe ser miembro de

Already a LafeberVet Member?

Please Login

To cite this page: Pollock C. Recognizing signs of illness in birds. April 6, 2011. LafeberVet Web site. Available at