Psittacine Beak & Feather Disease
Psittacine beak and feather disease is not a new disease appertaining only to captive bred parrots as some may think, it was actually first reported in 1907 seen in a wild flock of birds in Australia.
PBFD is caused by a circovirus affecting the immune system, it does occur in other avian species but mainly and most severely in psittacines (parrots). It can affect all species most notably African Grey parrots and cockatoos but it has been tested positive in other species including rainbow lorikeets, orange bellied parrots, rosellas, ringneck parakeets, king parrots, swift parrots, red rumped parakeets, budgerigars, cockatiels ( which are a cockatoo) and many other species both wild and captive.
The virus can survive for years and can be transmitted simply through the air, by feather dust and faeces and can be carried on clothing, cages, feeding bowls, nesting boxes and any other area where an infected parrot might have been. It can also be transmitted via the egg to hatchlings and so onto future generations.
All birds are susceptible, from newly hatched chicks to older adult birds. Young birds however are the most susceptible as they haven't had the time to develop an immune system, as older birds have.
The incubation period for this disease can be as little as 14 days and can be many months in older birds.
Photo used by Cockatoo Sanctuary & Rescue with permission
sulphur crested cockatoo showing signs pf PBFD
Symptoms are typically overgrown and/or brittle beaks and long and/or brittle claws, loss of feather down (the powdery stuff) the birds look unkempt, their beaks become shiny due to the loss of feather down, (cockatoo species with black beaks look like grey beaks purely due to the feather down or dander, when a cockatoo is unwell it does not preen and loses the appearance of a grey beak therefore the black beak becomes shiny).
Further symptoms are brittle and bloody feathers with eventual loss of those feathers, (usually initially head, wing and tail feathers but the bird will, if it survives for any length of time with the disease, lose all its feathers and become totally bald), possible diaorrhoea, discoloured feathers, depression and lethargy, eventually death. Although this can be some time down the line.
Do not confuse a feather plucked bird with a PBFD infected bird. With PBFD often the head feathers go first, they break off do not grow in correctly and/or bleed.
Cockatoos which are feather plucked do not ever have loss of head feathers (unless another bird is doing the picking). Feather plucked cockatoos can have all their feathers missing but not the head feathers.
Birds with PBFD can survive for many months, even a few years but as yet there is no cure.
Quite often the birds die from secondary infections and not the PBFD virus itself. Because it affects their immune system, their resistance to other infections is low, as with the AIDS virus in human beings it is the secondary infections resulting from poor immune system which often kill.
Galerita cockatoo showing signs of PBFD
Testing for PBFD is the only way to be sure if the bird is a carrier or actually has the disease.
These include feather and blood testing and bone marrow biopsy, which is rather nasty.
Feather testing, is I believe to be the kindest way to test for this disease. It entails no pain, and the feathers can be moulted or fallen out, they do not even have to be plucked from the bird itself. Blood testing is very reliable, with bone marrow biopsy being the most reliable of all, but this is a highly invasive process in itself and does not come without risks to an already sick bird.
If a bird tests positive then it definitely has the disease. However if a bird tests negative it does not necessarily mean the bird is clear, just that it was not shedding the virus at the time of the test, and if that bird is showing clinical symptoms of the disease it should be re-tested.
Eventually all birds who have PBFD will die. Some birds succumb very quickly whilst others can live for quite a few years with the disease if correctly nursed and cared for. This will entail eventually hand feeding the infected bird with soft food and the bird will need to be kept warm as losing its feathers the bird will not be able to keep body warmth on its own.
Human beings CANNOT get this disease, so do not worry that you may become infected in any way.
It is a most nasty terrible disease with so much suffering for the bird and the human, so please do have your bird tested for this disease when you purchase or ask the breeder to get this carried out for you, good breeders will have no problem with this. Also please beware if you are boarding your bird when you are on holiday that your cockatoo or other parrot, can easily pick up this disease from a different environment from other boarding birds. If you are buying a 2nd or 3rd bird do keep your new bird isolated until it has been tested to avoid any unnecessary heartache.
Photo of a wild sulphur crested cockatoo in Australia showing signs of PBFD by and courtesy of Al Hanbridge.