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Giardia infection and feather plucking in parrots

A parrot recovering from a giardia infection, showing some regrowth after plucking. Under wings and lower back are common areas for feather plucking due to giardia.
A parrot recovering from a giardia infection, showing some regrowth after plucking. Under wings and lower back are common areas for feather plucking due to giardia.
Sara Duane-Gladden

In many cases, causes of feather plucking in domesticated parrots are somewhat of a mystery. In an unknown percentage of cases, though, the problem is giardia.

What is feather plucking?

All parrots will lose feathers of the course of their lifetime through molting cycles. This is the process by which parrots drop old, worn feathers and regrow new feathers to replace them. Molting typically occurs several types a year, often in the spring and fall season.

Feather plucking, chewing and over-grooming is something else. It’s when a bird will disfigure their feathers or pull them out entirely on purpose, leaving bald, featherless patches of skin. In extreme cases, birds will even begin mutilating the exposed skin.

It’s often believed that feather plucking is a result of psychological problems or stress. Birds are very sensitive and intelligent creatures, making them susceptible to depression and anxiety. Certainly, feather plucking is a sign that something is wrong with the bird or its environment. In some cases, the problem could be giardia.

What is giardia?

Giardia is a parasite found in water and when if finds a host, it lives in the intestinal tract of numerous species, including people, birds and other animals. The parasite is believed to interfere with absorption of nutrients and fat metabolism. Once a giardia infection has set in, the parasite lives in the intestine and is sometimes passed out of the body via stool. It can survive for long periods of time outside the body, which can contribute to the spread of infection. Giardia is one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in the United States.

What are the symptoms?

Giardia causes relatively mild symptoms in parrots and is often entirely asymptomatic. Infected parrots that experience physical or emotional stress can see symptoms develop more readily. Parrot owners who suspect giardia should watch for the following symptoms:

• Feather disfigurement and plucking, in particular on legs, lower back and under wings
• Intense itching, accompanied by scratching or wanting to be scratched
• Screaming as if in pain when scratching, grooming or plucking
• Pica – eating or licking things that aren’t food
• Excessive, constant grooming of feathers
• Acute, chronic or recurrent diarrhea
• Stool with an unusually bad odor
• Depression
• Lethargy
• Anorexia & weight loss
• Death from malnutrition or an opportunistic infection if left untreated

How is giardia diagnosed?

Diagnosing giardia can be tricky. Even though the parasite can live for long periods of time outside the body, it can still be hard to spot in a test. These are the tests that are available for giardia:

• IFA & Fecal stain – Looks at stool sample under a powerful microscope
• Fecal Trichrome – Tests stool for the Giardia parasite itself (best results)
• ELISA Tests – Blood tests for the antibodies produced by the bird to combat the parasite

What is the treatment?

The good news is that giardia is treatable with the right medications. The following antiprotozoal medications are used to treat Giardiosis:

• Ronidazole
• Flagyl
• Ipronidazole
• Metronidozole

These medications are often prescribed through compounding pharmacies. Compounding pharmacies will take the medication and mix it with liquids and flavorings that are more palatable for parrots. These liquid medications are also easier to administer. Courses can last as few as 5 days or as long as 14.

How can it be prevented?

To prevent infections or re-infection, the cage should be entirely disinfected on a regular basis. Blankets should be washed and sent through a hot drier. Perches and toys that have fecal matter on them should be thrown away and replaced. Additionally, teaching your bird to drink from a water bottle instead of water bowl can go a long way towards preventing contamination and infection.

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