When a domesticated parrot begins plucking out feathers, more often than not owners think it is due to stress, but a parasite called giardia could be to blame. In a previous article, I wrote about the giardia parasite, infection symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. In this article, I’ll explain a personal account of my experience dealing with a giardia infection in my pet parrot.
Giardia can be incredibly hard to identify and diagnose, and I know this from first-hand experience. In the summer of 2013, my then 13-year-old blue-headed pionus, Harry, started experiencing what appeared to be a mega molt: Excessive molting of feathers, in particular on his lower back just above the base of his tail. Though he seemed to be losing more feathers than usual, he also had clumps of pinfeathers that were growing. Because of the new growth, I wasn’t particularly concerned, I just did what I could to support his nutrition with high quality foods, vitamins added to his water, and pieces of cuttlebone for him to chew.
By the fall, he didn’t look any better. Instead of letting his pinfeathers grow, he would chew them off. His feather plucking had also spread from just his back, to his sides and under his wings. I thought what many parrot owners do when they’re confronted with a bird who is losing plumage: Must be stress issues. In addition to the nutritional support, I bought Harry a whole new set of perches and toys. I also committed to spending more time with him and letting him out of his cage more often. Finally, I bought several different types of parrot sprays that were supposed to sooth irritated skin, prevent excessive molting and reduce feather plucking.
For a while, he seemed to get better. The spread of feather loss seemed to slow down. I thought it looked like he was growing feathers back.
Then he again chewed off all the new growth. He acted like he was itchy, but a close inspection revealed no evidence of mites or other bugs. He didn’t want to take a bath, which used to be something he loved – instead of playing in the water spray, he would scream and run away. The rest of his intact feathers started taking on a dark, ragged look, as he was constantly preening himself. Instead of looking fluffy and iridescent green, his feathers looked thin and almost black. He had barely touched his toys, even though one was a paper piñata – a type toy that he usually finds irresistible. Even worse, he felt a little boney, even for a bird, and he looked like he had lost weight. It was time to bring him to the vet.
I had done some research on feather plucking before we arrived for his appointment, and due to his symptoms and the pattern of feather loss, I felt strongly that giardia was the issue, so during our visit, I made this suggestion to the vet. She didn’t seem at all convinced and downplayed the possibility. She said giardia is usually a problem in cockatiels, lovebirds and budgies; she’d never heard of a pionus with giardia before. She also doubted that giardia would cause feather plucking, despite the fact that it’s listed as a symptom for Giardiosis in parrots on several animal health websites. She seemed to be pushing towards the idea that Harry was reacting to stress, boredom or psychological issues.
A quick note about pionus: These birds are often referred to as “apartment birds” because they tend to do so well in small environments. They’re quiet, somewhat independent and don’t mind as much being left alone while people are at work. Of all the parrot type birds that are kept as pets, pionus are among the least susceptible to stress-related feather-plucking.
Knowing this about pionus, I insisted something was wrong and pushed for the giardia test anyway. The vet performed a fecal stain, which was negative for a giardia infection. While we waited to see if a bacterial culture would grow, she prescribed Metacam (Meloxicam), which is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory with analgesic (painkilling) effects. This drug has been effective in reducing and eliminating feather plucking for some birds.
The Metacam appeared to work – for a while. It seemed like he wasn’t grooming or plucking as much. When the vet called to ask how Harry was doing, I said he seemed to be doing better. But after about a week, Harry started shredding all of the feathers on his legs – another classic symptom of giardia-related feather plucking.
By this time, a fecal trichrome test kit that I’d ordered from the internet had arrived, so I decided I would get a second opinion. The test came with three test tubes that had a special solution inside and some swabs. The instructions said to collect the first “poop” of the morning from the bird for three days in a row. I followed the instructions and sent off the test.
Though the test was easy to perform, if you want results in a timely manner, I don’t recommend using tests bought online unless you don’t have access to an avian vet nearby. It took 10 days to get the results. I found out later from my usual vet that if she would have sent off the test, we could have had results in 2 days.
Harry tested positive for giardia. The vet prescribed a 14 day course of Ronidazole, which was provided in a banana-flavored suspension from a local compounding pharmacy. Harry’s cage was taken apart, scrubbed and everything disinfected. He also continued taking the Metacam. Within a week, I was no longer finding little piles of shredded feathers in his cage. Toward the end of his course of treatment, I disinfected the cage again.
Now it’s been several months since Harry’s diagnosis and I’m happy to say he has gained weight and is growing his feathers back. He’s grown a whole layer of downy feathers under his wings and on his legs, with some of his top layer feathers growing back, too. He's growing new feathers in other places, too, and they're all the bright, iridescent green that I'm used to seeing on him. He isn’t as bony as he was before and the amount of feathers his body is producing is a good sign that he is no longer malnourished. He is still on a very small dose of Metacam because the influx of pinfeathers could cause him enough discomfort to start plucking again. Hopefully in a few months when he looks more like his old self, he’ll be off the Metacam, too.
Reinfection is always a possibility. I haven’t been able to teach him to drink out of a water bottle, so I change his water several times I day. I make sure to keep his cage clean. I also have some Ronidazole leftover, stored in the fridge just in case I see him show signs of symptoms again. Every time I see him grooming, I get a little anxious, but as long as he continues to let his new feathers grow, I will assume the best.
Overall, this was a frustrating experience. It took a while to get to a true diagnosis because the vet didn’t think giardia was the issue. Additionally, I found out later that the first smear test the vet performed isn’t reliable for diagnosis; we would have been better off skipping this test and going directly to the trichrome test. If I had to do it all over again, I would have brought him to the vet sooner and been more insistent about giardia being the likely culprit. I deferred to the vet’s credibility on the topic because what I had learned, I’d read on the internet and you can’t always believe what you read on the web. If I had stood up for what I thought was true, he might have been treated sooner. He’s better now, though, and I’m very happy about that.
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