Catching Songbird Fever Doesn’t Sound Nice

As beautiful as they are to watch, those brassy bluejays, delicate finches and other songbirds can carry disease, so keep hygiene at the top of the list when managing bird feeders or houses.
We’ve already seen at least one likely case of “Songbird Fever” at Hillcrest Animal Hospital this spring. It was in a cat presented with vomiting, diarrhea, a low white cell count and fever. Now, I say “likely case” because we did not get to do the testing required to isolate the culprit, salmonella bacteria. However, the kitty had been seen a few days previously eating a smallish bird and her symptoms responded to antibiotic treatment fairly quickly.

Although most cats will recover within a few days, some can be ill for weeks and about 10 per cent may die.

Birds are a common source of salmonella. They may appear quite healthy if they are “carriers” or there can be outbreaks of fatal salmonellosis among birds as is reported every year particularly during migratory seasons. Cats, dogs and people – as well as wildlife – can be affected by the bacteria which may be ingested by contact with contaminated surfaces like wood or soil or by the infected birds themselves. A cat or dog with salmonella can pass the disease on to humans and the reverse is also true.

It does take a large dose of salmonella bacteria to make most healthy animals sick, but I’ve met enough dogs that like to lick up the seed under bird feeders and seen enough kitties that have eaten a “bad bird” to know it happens fairly commonly. Domestic poultry are also carriers of salmonella and that’s one reason the recent fad of feeding raw chicken to pets is of such concern to veterinarians and doctors. Yes, These raw food diets are a serious risk to the humans that handle the raw meat as well as other people who live within the household. This is particularly true of “immune-compromised” people, the very young and the aged.

Prevention is simple…use common sense and good hygiene. Always wash your hands well after handling objects birds have contacted and keep young children away from feeders. If dead birds are seen in any number, the risks are much higher of salmonella infection. Clean up the area carefully and keep your kitties inside.

One of my more famous classmates, Dr. Scott Weese of the Ontario Veterinary College’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, has written several excellent articles on the subject. This one Dead birds what to do – gives specific advice on handling an outbreak.

Fortunately for my family, we are totally inept at attracting birds of any kind to our property and the poodles much prefer chasing chipmunks to chickadees. But those are other stories…

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist, DVM
May, 2011