Photo by Michael Steel (c)2008
What is PBFD?
BFD stands for psittacine (pronounced sidə sīn) beak and feather disease. This viral condition of birds is responsible for damage to the beak, feathers and nails as well as the immune system of infected birds.
Which Bird Species are Affected by PBFD?
PBFD affects both pet and wild parrots. The virus is found most frequently among cockatoos, African grey parrots, lovebirds, Lories and lorikeets, Eclectus parrots and budgerigars.
What Are The Symptoms?
As mentioned above and implied by the name, PBFD typically affects the feathers of infected birds; over time the beak and nails may also become affected. These classic symptoms are often first seen in African grey parrots and cockatoos between 6 months and 3 years of age. Birds may first lose their powder down (the white, fine powder produced by specialized feathers to help maintain feather health). This is typically noticed by a beak that has become glossy rather than the more typical matte appearance that is caused by powder down. More abnormal feathers will then develop progressively. These feathers are short, fragile, malformed, and prone to bleeding and breaking. Over time there will be a significant loss of feathers as the follicles become damaged. Some birds may survive for many months with this condition, but over time the beak and nails may become brittle and malformed. This condition is painful for the bird and also allows secondary infections to take hold. While an avian veterinarian may be able to make sick birds more comfortable and treat many of these secondary infections, the vast majority of birds will ultimately die from this disease.
Young birds, particularly African grey parrots, may become sick and even die before feather changes occur. Often these birds are less than 7 months of age. These birds will lose their appetite, only be able to slowly empty the crop and gastrointestinal tract, and may regurgitate. Many of these birds will die of the acute form. Young cockatoos can also develop this acute form. In addition to the non-specific symptoms observed in grey parrots, feather changes are more likely to occur in sick young cockatoos.
I’ve Heard Lovebirds And Budgerigars (Parakeets) Are Affected Differently. Is That True?
It appears that budgerigars are also infected relatively commonly. They develop rather unique symptoms in that they tend to lose their major wing and tail feathers rather than feathers all over the body, which is the case in cockatoos and African grey parrots.Yes, that’s true. Many lovebirds are infected with PBFD virus; however few of them ever show any signs of being ill. Some lovebirds may be infected and shed the virus transiently while never showing any feather abnormalities or signs of ill health. Others, typically young adults, may show feather changes and appear unkempt. Some of these birds will die from the condition while others may survive months to years or go on to recover fully.
It is important to be aware of the relatively high rate of infection among lovebirds and budgerigars, especially if you are considering introducing these birds into a house with more susceptible birds such as cockatoos and African grey parrots. As such, testing for the disease is strongly recommended when these birds are to be introduced into a house with susceptible parrots.
How Is PBFD Diagnosed?
Sometimes your veterinarian will have a strong suspicion that your bird has PBFD based upon appearance, age and species. However, it is quite likely that your veterinarian will also suggest performing a PCR test to confirm the diagnosis. This test uses advanced techniques to look for the virus’ DNA. Typically the test looks for the virus in blood, but your veterinarian may chose to take a swab from your bird’s mouth and vent. As mentioned above, your veterinarian may also suggest testing new birds, even if there are no signs of disease. This may be done to protect other birds in your house, or to increase your awareness that your new pet may be carrying this potentially serious and life-threatening virus.
If your bird is a susceptible species, young and sick with non-specific signs, your veterinarian will likely suggest performing baseline tests such as a complete blood count and a chemistry panel. These tests may then strengthen the suspicion of PBFD and your veterinarian may then suggest performing the specific DNA test for PBFD.
In any case, a positive test should be rechecked 90 days later as there are instances in which birds — even those of highly susceptible species — can be transiently infected and clear the infection without ill health. This is important to keep in mind as a single positive test should be taken seriously but not as a certainty of severe disease and death.
Can You Treat PBFD?
Unfortunately there are no antiviral drugs available to fight the virus. Your avian veterinarian can help keep your bird comfortable and fight secondary infections for variable periods of time. Sadly, however, the majority of clinically affected birds will die within a few months to a year.
Is There A Vaccine To Prevent PBFD?
Despite extensive research, there is still no commercially available PBFD vaccine.
How Can PBFD Be Prevented?
Great steps have been taken to reduce the prevalence of PBFD in the USA. This condition used to be far more common prior to the ban on importing foreign parrots in 1994. Since that time, many American breeders have taken pro-active steps to reduce and eliminate this virus from their flocks and subsequently from the pet bird market.
Unfortunately not all breeders have taken these steps and even if one breeder has, birds may be commingled with birds from other breeds as they travel from wholesaler to retail pet distributors and their new home. As such the best thing you can do is have your bird examined by an avian veterinarian and allow diagnostic testing for this and other diseases that your bird could have been exposed to. In addition to testing new birds, it is also wise to institute a strict quarantine of new additions for up to two months to help ensure they are free of disease before introducing them to other birds in your household.