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Tick Related Disease in Cage and Aviary Birds

and European College Recognized Specialist in Avian Medicine and Surgery

Photographs © Neil Forbes

Avian medicine is a young, challenging and fast developing field. It is a sad reflection that there is very little original research being undertaken in any of the UK veterinary schools into many of the new and emerging bird diseases. One of the things which make working as an avian vet genuinely exciting is the potential to discover new diseases, even if at the time one does not find all the answers.

The latter is just the case with ‘tick related disease in cage and aviary birds’. This was a condition of which I first became aware of some 15 years ago. Since then, we have investigated the condition, and it is sad to report that, even after all these years, although we have some, we do not have all of the answers.

Ticks are second only to mosquitoes in terms of the numbers of infectious diseases which they are known to spread. Ticks tend to enjoy a three-year life cycle, but feed only from their host (take a meal of blood) once a year (for just a week at a time), immediately prior to undertaking their next key stage of ‘life development’.

During this research study, ticks and diagnostic samples from affected sick or dead birds were collected and subjected to investigations. We soon discovered that, contrary to previous beliefs, the ticks which cause disease in birds are specific ‘bird ticks’, namely Ixodes frontalis, as opposed to sheep, deer or hedgehog ticks (this is despite looking grossly identical to sheep ticks).

So birds do not suffer tick related disease subsequent to any association with sheep or other mammals. In this study, 70 ticks were recovered from birds of 32 different species. Half the birds were captive, the remainder being free living birds. 15 of the 70 affected birds were simply found dead, half of the latter were psittacine birds.

How Does Disease Occur

Disease is seen most commonly in outside birds who occupy aviaries under, or close to, trees. So the likely scenario is that other wild birds infected with ticks (most commonly collared doves, swallows, or raptors), roost in the trees overhanging the aviary. If, by chance, the ticks have been on these birds for about a week, having become fully engorged, they will be ready to fall off. The ticks land on the ground and take cover about the floor of the aviary. They mind their own business, hoping not to be eaten, going about their daily routine for the whole of the next year.

Annual tick activity, (eg feeding and breeding), is absolutely dependent on weather conditions. This activity - which includes disease in birds - has occurred in any month (bar December and January), although the highest incidence is in August and September. A research project in the UK showed that tick disease seasons tend to last for only 7-10 days, across the whole country. However, 2006 was the worst year since the project commenced, with cases being recorded regularly for nearly 2 months. Was this pure chance, or was this yet another affect of the warming climate? When disease does occur, numbers of birds are simultaneously affected over much of the country.

Ticks may attempt to attach to any part of a bird, although they would be instantly groomed off everywhere the beak can get to, i.e. not the head and neck, so this is where ticks will be found. As soon as the tick has attached, it injects ‘anticoagulant’ under the bird’s skin, so that the surrounding blood does not clot, and the tick can suck it out. When a tick initially attaches, it would be very small, but as it fills with blood it gradually swells, eventually reaching some 4-6mm in length, appearing similar to a ‘grey coloured coffee bean’.

Affected birds may be seen looking poorly, with closing or swollen eyelids, or swelling about the face, but often they are just found dead. Any bird found suddenly dead in an aviary should be carefully studied. If you find an area of severe bruising (a big purple patch), around the face or neck, then this bird has died of tick related disease, despite the fact that a tick may not be present.

What are the clinical signs in birds affected by tick related disease?

  • Haemorrhage around the face or neck
  • Swollen eyelids, face or neck
  • Sudden unexpected death

Is tick related disease infectious ‘bird to bird?’

Absolutely not, BUT, if one bird has been affected, you instantly know that you have ticks in your vicinity and that weather conditions are such that ticks are active, and that all other birds in the vicinity are at risk NOW. Any sick birds should be presented to an experienced avian vet as soon as possible.

I have put together a therapeutic protocol, which tends to be effective in infected birds. In the recent study, 50% of affected untreated birds die, many of whom were simply found dead, with no premonitory signs. However, overall, less than 20% of treated birds died, with none of the last eight treated birds dying.

What action should you take?

Check all your other birds, spraying them with recommended levels of a suitable and effective parasitic spray (see your avian vet for advice on safe and correct drugs and dose rates). Also, action should be taken to treat any ticks which might be active on the floor at that time (see your avian vet).

So I had ticks this year, how can I prevent them in future years?

Once ticks are in your vicinity, you should consider your birds to be at risk in future years. Suitable preventive action is essential.

  • Remove any overhanging trees
  • Keep birds in suspended cages, preferably with ground living birds living underneath them (eg poultry or quail). The latter will eat any ticks they find on the ground. It is interesting that in regions where free range poultry has been banned because of Avian Influenza risks, the incidence of tick related disease has increased dramatically in all species.
  • You could spray the ground around your aviaries on a prophylactic basis annually, prior to the main risk season. Whilst this might be effective, I would caution keepers against this, for fear of causing collateral poisonings, perhaps even affecting your own birds.
  • Birds that are at risk could be sprayed during the main risk period, on a monthly basis. This may well be sensible if you are aware that your birds are at risk, but this could conflict with breeding and rearing seasons.

So what makes infected birds die?

Sadly, this remains a mystery. In my project, infected birds and ticks were screened for commonly identified infectious diseases transmitted by ticks, i.e. Borrelia spp, Babesia spp, Bartonella spp and Ehrlichia spp. - all with negative results.

Can bird keepers help?

Yes please. If you live in the UK and find a live tick on any of your birds, please do the following:

Place the tick, still alive, in a suitable container, with air holes in the lid, with a 2” square of kitchen paper, which has been slightly dampened. Please mail this to: “Tick Project”, Great Western Exotic Vets, 10 Berkshire House, County Park Estate, Shrivenham Rd, Swindon, SN1 2NR. The tick will have just had a meal of blood and will not need to eat for a year – so please do not worry that you are being unkind.


Neil Forbes heads the avian and exotic department at Great Western Exotics in Swindon - comprising four vets, and offering specialist services and facilities for bird cases 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is the only UK approved, European College of Zoological Medicine Residency Programme.

He gained his RCVS Specialist Status (Avian Medicine) in 1992, his FRCVS by examination in exotic bird medicine and surgery in 1996, and his European Specialist Status in Avian Mediicne in 1997. Neil has lectured widely on the international circuit and contributed to over 20 books. He has received the Mackellar, Dunkin, Hunting Awards and the Dr TJ Lafeber Avian Practitioner Award. Neil is Senior Vice President of the European College of Zoological Medicine, and whilst he holds a part time lecturing post at Bristol University, he is primarily a clinician – working full time with birds.

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