You may not be familiar with a disease called psittacosis. If you have pet birds such as parrot-like birds, you should know something about it. Psittacosis, or ornithosis, is a respiratory tract infection caused by the Chlamydia (or Chlamydophila) psittaci organism.
The sources of psittacosis include parakeets, parrots, macaws, and cockatiels, especially those that may have been smuggled into the country. Pigeons and turkeys are other sources of the disease. In most cases, this disease is spread to humans when they breathe in airborne dust particles from dried bird feces. Birds do not have to be sick to transmit the disease.
Transmission from person to person is very uncommon. Fortunately, this infection occurs rarely in children. The incubation period is a week or two but may be longer.
Signs and Symptoms
Children with psittacosis have mild flu-like symptoms that often include:
- A nonproductive cough
- A general sense of not feeling well and tiredness
Some patients develop pneumonia. On rare occasions, complications such as inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), lining of the heart (pericarditis), liver (hepatitis), and brain (encephalopathy) may occur.
When To Call Your Pediatrician
If your child has symptoms associated with psittacosis that don’t improve over several days and has been around pet birds, call your pediatrician.
How Is the Diagnosis Made?
Psittacosis is usually diagnosed by taking a medical history of the child, inquiring about exposure to birds, and evaluating the youngster’s symptoms. The diagnosis can be confirmed by blood tests that detect increases of antibodies to the bacteria.
Children with psittacosis are usually treated with azithromycin if they are younger than 8 years, and doxycycline if they are older.
What Is the Prognosis?
With proper treatment, the overwhelming majority of children recover fully from the infection.
If you have birds as pets, clean their cages frequently so their feces do not build up and become airborne. Only purchase birds from a trustworthy breeder or importer. Birds that are believed to be the source of a human infection need to be evaluated and treated by a veterinarian and may need antibiotics. Cages, food bowls, and water bowls that may be contaminated should be disinfected thoroughly, using a household disinfectant such as a 1:100 dilution of bleach or detergent, before they are used again.