When considering keeping an animal as a pet, it is always important to think of the zoonotic diseases that the animal may carry, i.e.. diseases which can be passed from the animal to humans (and vice versa). This is especially important when considering a pet for a child.
Like many other pets, birds can carry zoonotic diseases – however, an understanding of the diseases and risks involved as well as a knowledge of how to prevent the transmission of these diseases should be more than enough to protect against infection.
There are several bacterial organisms that can be carried by pet birds – these include: colibacillosis (E. Coli), Salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis and chlamydiosis (psittacosis), although this last one is not so common. Experiments and studies have shown, however, that the chances of transmission are extremely low and that humans are more likely to be infected through other channels – for example, by eating contaminated and improperly cooked meat.
There are 2 fungal diseases which can pose serious treats to human health. The first is mycobacteriosis, a group of fungi which can potentially cause tuberculosis, but no actual case of transmission from a pet bird has actually been confirmed. Second is Cryptococcus neoformans., which can cause fatal meningitis but only in those with terminal AIDS. In any case, Cryptococcus neoformans is more likely to be carried in wild birds than pet birds.
Again, viral diseases tend to occur in wild birds and have not been in reported in pet birds.
Pet birds can host a variety of external parasites, such as lice and mites; however, these tend to be species specific and therefore even if they do transfer onto a human host, they are unlikely to be able to cause an infestation. A more real risk to humans is Giardia and Cryptosporidium, which can cause gastrointestinal disease in birds and can do the same in humans. However, again, there are no documented cases of a pet bird being directly responsible for an infection in a human.
While the chances of catching any of these zoonotic diseases from pet birds are low, this does not mean the risk is zero. There IS still a potential for infection and the risk is higher for people in 4 specific groups:
- Newborn infants & the elderly
- Patients on chemotherapy (including high doses of prednisone)
- People infected with HIV
- Organ transplant recipients on immunosuppresive drugs
People in these 4 groups have significantly weaker or compromised immune systems which mean that they may not be able to successfully fight off any disease spreading through their body. Thus, in these cases, close proximity with a pet bird may not be a good idea.
For the average pet owner, however, a few simple precautions and hygiene practices should significantly lower the risk of any zoonotic infections. First, only buy healthy pet birds and remember that captive-bred birds are less of a risk than wild-caught birds. Secondly, all new pet birds should be immediately taken for a vet examination, followed by a quarantine period of at least 30 days. Don’t give in to temptation to introduce the new pet bird to everyone in the family immediately. If a bird should die of unknown causes, make sure it receives a post-mortem by the veterinarian to determine the cause of death. Finally, every pet bird should be examined by a vet at least once a year.
In addition to these measures, it is important that every member of the family understands and follows the proper hygiene practices when dealing with pet birds. These include always thoroughly washing hands with soap after handling the pet, disinfecting the birds cage, food bowls and toys on a regular basis, never allowing the bird near food preparation areas and not cleaning any bird-related items in the kitchen sink or bathroom sink, where family members are likely to be preparing food or washing themselves. If a separate utility sink is not available, then make sure to always disinfect the sink thoroughly after use. Most of all, discourage any family members from kissing the bird on the lips!
Finally, it is important to consider the birds’ environment and routines and make sure that it is not subjected to unnecessary stress, as this can severely compromise the immune system and lead to infections taking over the body.