The Health Exam

by Bob Doneley BVSc FANZCVS (Avian Medicine) CMAV

Pet owners are accustomed to taking the family dog or cat to the veterinarian for an annual check-up, but it is even more important for a pet bird to have regular examinations, because symptoms of disease in birds tend to be much more subtle.


Isolation and quarantine of a new bird, even those that are believed to be “healthy,” is the first and most important thing an owner can do. In order to protect other birds on the premises, it is advised that all newly acquired birds be maintained separately for a period of at least six weeks following purchase. Many airborne viruses can be spread from room to room by air conditioning or heating systems, so an off-premises location is preferred.


The second most valuable step for a new bird owner is to make an appointment for a veterinary examination of any newly purchased bird within three days after purchase. If disease is present, the possibility of diagnosis and appropriate treatment is enhanced by early detection.

Even if the new bird checks out “normal,” results of diagnostic tests performed at the initial visit provide valuable reference for subsequent examinations.

Components of the Exam

History: What you know about the background of your bird such as its age, sex, origin, length of time in the household, diet, and caging, can be very important information in determining and maintaining its overall health. Even if the bird has been a household pet for a long time, we should be advised of any contact, direct or indirect, with other birds. Examples of indirect contact would be if the owner has: 1) purchased bulk seed from open bins in a pet shop that houses birds; 2) visited other aviaries, bird shows, or bird markets; 3) boarded the bird with someone who also owns birds; or 4) had a caretaker who owns birds come over to feed and water the bird.

Physical Evaluation: Observation of the bird in the cage may determine general body conformation, obesity, tumours, posture, attitude, and character of respiration. Actual hands-on examination is essential for more accurate determination of condition. Although many internal problems may not be evident from physical examination, an experienced veterinarian is better able to note abnormalities in the feathers, skin, beak, eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, bones, muscles, abdomen, and vent.

Weight: Once a bird is an adult, its weight should remain relatively constant. Checking the bird’s weight, an important part of the annual examination, will give valuable information about the bird’s health. Weight should be measured in grams, not ounces, to detect small changes. Occasionally weighing the bird at home will provide an idea of comparative gain or loss. Small electronic gram-scales are suitable for home weight comparisons. For a larger bird, be sure the scale goes to the desired weight range.

Identification: It may be necessary or advisable to have some means of permanently identifying your bird. If a closed leg ring is not already present, you might like to consider having a microchip inserted. This is an inert device (made of copper and silicon, coated in glass) that is injected under the skin on your bird’s chest. It has a unique code (similar to the barcode on supermarket items) that allows rapid identification of your bird. Discuss this issue further with our staff or veterinarians.

Laboratory Tests

Depending on the bird’s history, results of physical examination, species, age and general condition, we may suggest some of the following diagnostic tests to further evaluate the bird’s health.

Appraisal of Droppings: the appearance of the droppings (volume, colour and composition) may help the veterinarian generally assess the bird’s health and consider certain disease conditions. Most birds are nervous in the clinic, so their droppings may be abnormally loose. A faecal sample can be examined microscopically to determine the presence of internal parasites.

Test for Chlamydophila: several screening tests are available for the detection of chlamydophila, also known as psittacosis or “parrot fever.” This is an important part of the new-bird exam or annual check-up because the causative agent, Chlamydophila psittaci, may be transmitted from birds to humans (see AAV brochure on “Chlamydophila”).

Blood Tests: a blood sample might be taken to determine the amount and distribution of blood cells. This information may reveal the possibility of certain diseases, and further tests may be indicated for confirmation. A series of chemistry tests performed on the blood sample may point to imbalances in biochemical functions and suggest the possibility of disease. Blood parasites may also be detected.

Microbiology: we may recommend a culture of the choana (throat), cloaca (vent), crop (oesophagus), or some other tissue/fluid sample to determine abnormal growth of bacteria or yeast. At the same time, antibiotic sensitivity tests may be used to determine an appropriate antibiotic if the bacterial growth requires therapy.

Radiographs: bone fractures, size and relative relationship of internal organs, presence of foreign bodies or soft tissue masses such as tumours, and the condition of lungs and air sacs are often evaluated with radiographs. The use of anaesthesia is usually necessary to take radiographs it reduces stress on the bird and increases safety for everyone involved.

Cytology: with the use of special stains, a veterinarian skilled in this procedure can evaluate smears of tissues or fluids to assist in making a diagnosis.

Virus Screening: tests are constantly being developed to screen birds for existing and emerging avian viruses. The detection of viruses is especially important for aviary birds. Some viral agents do not appear as clinical disease until the bird is under stress, such as laying eggs, feeding young or at weaning, or being moved to a new home (sold or purchased).

Sex Determination: if you wish to know the bird’s sex and it is not visually discernible, ask us about the choices available for determining the sex of your bird.


Because birds mask signs of disease, signs of the beginning stages of disease often go unnoticed. Annual checkups are advised for early identification and management of potential disorders. Testing procedures are recommended based on your bird’s age, exposure to other birds and general disease risk.

New information about birds is continually being discovered. Occasionally consulting us will keep you up-to-date on recent advances.