Stopping Disease In Aviaries: A Suggestion For Aviculture

The area in which I live is not “heavily” into aviculture. In fact, some breeds of parrots that are common elsewhere are difficult to find, and I don’t know of any large commercial aviaries in the vicinity. Yet, in the past 5 years I know of 8 breeders that have been stricken by disease in their flock. Of those 8, 5 are now out of business, 2 lost most of their flocks and started over, and the eighth one is me.I had psittacosis.

I lost about 30% of my adult flock and over 60% of my babies. I sold my car and some of my furniture to pay for the compounded doxycycline injections for over 200 birds. It has been over two years, and there has not been one single new case in my flock. Two testings of various members of the flock were negative. I beat it, if you can call it that considering my losses. It also contributed to the end of my marriage (which, in retrospect, may not have been much of a loss), and resulted in the closure of my business.

At the very beginning of the outbreak, before the first bird was even sick enough for me to notice, I sold one baby cockatiel that did have it. When the owners called me, I told them I would do whatever it took to make it right. They had no other birds, and had become attached to that one, so I paid for its treatment at the vet hospital of their choice. It recovered and is still their pet. Other than that, I sold not one single sick bird. Ever. Nor did any other aviary or pet store become infected through me. At that time, I was new to aviculture, and I was very scared. I called my bird “friends” for help. Big mistake. Soon the word was all over town, and to this day there are some people in this area that will tell you not to buy birds from me because I have diseases (PBFD, Polyoma, PDD, Psittacosis – you name it, I got it) and sell sick birds. Eight months after the outbreak, when all my birds except one pet were gone and I was living with friends because my husband had thrown me out, I tried to go to a bird fair to see old friends and maybe get a toy for Lulu. I was recognized.

They stopped me at the door and refused me entry. I went “home” and cried. (Just to clarify, let me add that after my birds had been treated and cleared, I sold them to breeders who knew the full story and had talked to my vet.)

I had an outbreak of psittacosis in my aviary. I did all the right things. I worked night and day to save as many of my birds as I could, and I saved many more than the vet thought I could. I contained the outbreak and did not spread it. I did not sell any sick birds. I treated and cleared the outbreak.

I am not a criminal I did not do anything wrong, unless you count buying one female cockatiel from a man I had done business with for years, that was properly quarantined and tested negative, wrong. Yet, I am treated worse than a criminal. I have done penance and made amends, but I cannot be forgiven nor can my shame be forgotten.

Is this right? Is this what we want to do? Are we going to stop disease outbreaks in aviaries by berating stricken breeders this way? I don’t think so.

My story is not unique. Most aviculturists have heard something similar, at least second or third hand. That is why, when it happen to them, they do everything in their power to keep it a secret and try to get through it alone, or with their vet who is required to maintain confidentiality. Let’s take a look at their options:

1) They can destroy all their birds and go out of business, or start over. Most breeders, even the careless, ignorant, or “bad” ones, still love their birds. This is not an option that many would embrace, and it certainly isn’t a good option for the birds. Nor can I understand why aviculture would condone it. Isn’t our purpose to protect and reproduce them, and share the joy they bring to our lives? Killing them just doesn’t seem to fit in there, somehow.

2) They can try to get through the outbreak in secret, treating victims as best they can, selling birds that appear healthy to get money to treat the rest, and pretend as if nothing is wrong. Can aviculture possibly support such a course of action? This is how these diseases are spread! This option puts all of us at risk, and surely is not what we want them to do.

3) They can do the “right” thing. They can call the people they’ve sold birds to, warn them of what to watch for, encourage them to have the birds tested and offer to help pay. Test, treat, or vaccinate the flock, working closely with an avian veterinarian. Shut down breeding as much as possible without destroying chicks that can reasonably be saved. Clean and disinfect, throw away things that can’t be reliably disinfected such as nestboxes. Stay away from bird fairs and other facilities until the flock is clear. Then, when the outbreak has been contained and cleared and the flock is healthy, resume breeding and get back to business. Great! Wonderful! Except for two things – A) Who can afford it? and B) What business?

Allow me to elaborate:

A) Surely there ARE big commercial breeders out there who are making money, have a state-of-the-art MAP facility, and have a fund for emergencies that will cover operating expenses for a few months and pay for medical procedures in the event of a catastrophe. But, I’m not one of them. And I bet you aren’t, either.

Most of us are small. We struggle to get by. We have day jobs, or our spouses have good jobs, that pay most of the bills. We make bird toys, or cages, or sell Amway to help out. How can we possibly afford the thousands of dollars it will cost us in breeder and chick losses, loss of income from shutting down operations, and medical procedures? Answer: Most of us can’t.

B) Unless the attitude of breeders, pet stores, and others involved in aviculture changes drastically, the breeder who attempts to properly handle a disease outbreak with integrity and honesty will be vilified, condemned, blacklisted, and badmouthed right out of existence. Even after it’s all over and the veterinarian has approved the starting up of breeding and selling birds, no one will buy them.

The word is all over the town, the region, and maybe the Internet: Don’t buy birds from so-and-so!

I conclude, and I hope you are with me, that if aviculture is to survive this situation must change. Only together, by supporting and helping the breeder who is in trouble and trying to do the right thing, can we as an industry and a community survive with integrity. This change will be drastic, and will not come easily, but I urge every one of you to think about it the next time you hear that so-and-so has psittacosis, or PDD, or polyoma. Think of helping, an offering of support, instead of turning your back on that person.

In the meantime, I have heard about something that I think can help, and is worth considering. It is an interim measure, a way to encourage stricken aviaries to do the right thing until the necessary changes begin to kick in. It works like this: the bird club or clubs and other bird-related organizations, all that wish to participate, get together with a local avian veterinarian that they trust. By donating a portion of their proceeds from raffles and bird fairs, they set up a charitable fund for helping breeders (and pet owners) in trouble. Donated funds (of course individual contributions are also welcome) are held in trust by the vet, who is then asked to watch for situations in which a breeder has a medical disaster, is trying to handle it properly, and is financially unable to do so. The veterinarian disburses the funds and tells the club and other donors who wish to know WHAT the money was spent for (PDD testing, doxycycline shots, polyoma vaccine, etc.) but not for WHO it was spent. The donors may place a limit, of amount, percentage, or a combination of the two, on how much money any one person or aviary may receive from the fund. The troubled breeder remains anonymous yet gets the help they need to contain the outbreak and continue in business. At donor discretion, the fund may also be used to help in cases where accidental or catastrophic illness threatens the life of a pet bird that can probably be saved, but the owner can’t afford necessary treatment.

Think of it as an insurance fund for aviculture – every breeder that is enabled to properly contain and clear an outbreak of disease represents one situation in which other breeders and pet owners were not placed at risk of exposure from that aviary selling sick or carrier birds, and represents avian lives that were saved. This fund idea is not perfect, nor is it a cure-all. It is, however, a way to start aviculture in the right direction, helping aviaries to contain disease outbreaks and prevent further spread of these devastating diseases while still protecting their anonymity. Anonymity that, at least for now, they must have to keep them from being run out of business by aviculturists who think “it can’t happen to them.” Although careless, ignorant, and greedy breeders who don’t take proper precautions will probably be hit harder and more often than careful ones, it can still happen to anyone, even you. Just ask me, I know. Been there, done that. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. Please, let’s begin to take the steps and make the changes that will someday mean it never has to happen to anyone else, ever again.