Avian Heart Disease

Just like humans, pet birds, particularly the long-lived species, can suffer from heart disease (atherosclerosis), falling victim to hardening of the arteries, high cholesterol and heart attacks. Heart disease is fairly common in caged birds, affecting many species.

Birds known to be prone to developing atherosclerosis include waterfowl, pigeons and doves, chickens, turkeys, and related birds), and Psittaciformes (parrots). Psittacine birds most commonly affected include Amazona species, especially blue fronted amazons (Amazona aestiva), African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus), cockatoos, Monk or Quaker parrots (Myiopsitta monarchus), and macaws.

The causes of atherosclerosis in pet birds may be genetic, or a factor of age, but avian heart disease is now believed to be primarily an inflammatory disease, resulting after a long period of chronic inflammation. Similarly to the development of heart disease in people, diet plays a large part. A ‘perch potato’ is not much different to a ‘couch potato.’ And eating ‘junk food is just as bad for pet birds as it is for people. The type of dietary fat eaten most likely affects the development of atherosclerosis more than the total amount of fat consumed.

Unlike wild birds which must constantly work to feed themselves, caged birds are frequently compromised by lack of exercise, nutritional deficiencies and unnatural climate conditions. Combined with the bird’s naturally high blood pressure, these factors make the risks of heart disease more significant. The avian heart is much like our own heart, having four chambers and being strongly muscled to pump blood to the rest of the bird’s body.

Clinical signs:

Signs of heart disease in birds are often nonspecific and can also be accompanied by other diseases which disguise the clinical picture. The most frequent signs seen are…

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • A bluish discoloration of the skin around the eyes, particularly in African Grey parrots
  • Abdominal distension
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Exercise intolerance

How is avian heart disease diagnosed?

Diagnosing heart disease in birds is considerably more complicated than in people. There has been little clinical research into avian heart disease, and normal reference values for most tests do not exist. Diagnostic techniques are also compromised by the size of the patient, the bird’s naturally fast heart rate, and the degree of stress placed each test may put on the patient.

Diagnosis is most often based on examination, but if the patient is in a stable condition radiographs can be used to visualise the heart and evaluate its position, size, and shape.

Treatment protocols:

Few studies of avian heart disease exist and many of the drugs we routinely use in mammals have not been tested in caged and aviary birds. Drugs that might work well in one bird species may not necessarily work well in another. The end result is that heart disease has a poor prognosis for affected birds. The disease is often not recognised until the heart fails or the heart is showing advanced disease changes.

However, just as it is with people, prevention of heart disease is far better than treatment after the fact. Factors that have been linked to the development of atherosclerosis in birds include long-term diets high in fat or cholesterol and a lack of exercise. Bird owners should reduce the fat in your bird’s diet, avoid fatty foods that can cause cholesterol plaques in your bird’s arteries and make sure your bird gets plenty of exercise. Proper diet can go a very long way to reducing or preventing heart disease in your pet bird. Our staff at the hospital are happy to advise on the optimum diet for your birds.

Regular exercise is absolutely vital. You must get your parrot out of its cage and moving regularly and frequently. And make sure your bird has an annual checkup at the hospital so any diseases can be caught early.