A recent article in the journal Avian Pathology describes a case of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the cause of tuberculosis (TB), in a pet bird (African Grey parrot) and its owner. Mycobacterium tuberculosis mainly causes disease in people, but can sometimes be found in other animal species, including birds. In this case, the bird was presented to a veterinarian because it had a decreased appetite and nodules under its tongue. The bird was wild-caught in Africa 11 years earlier. The owner was treated for TB two-and-a-half years earlier. Apparently, the owner usually fed the bird pre-chewed food (don’t ask me why), and the vets suspected TB because of this close exposure. Because of the severity of the disease, the bird was euthanized and TB was confirmed by culture and PCR. 

Often, we get to a point like this where both an animal and person have been diagnosed with the same disease, and can’t go any further in terms of determining how each of them got the disease, and if it was transmitted between them. Fortunately, the Mycobacterium tuberculosis isolate from the owner had been saved, and they were able to compare it with the strain found in the bird. They were same. This strongly supports the theory that TB was transmitted between the owner and the bird. However, that’s as far as we can go with confidence. The authors hypothesized (reasonably) that since the owner was diagnosed first, and since TB is mainly a human issue and is rarely found in birds, that the person acquired TB from some source then infected the bird. Additionally, two other reports of TB in birds also stated that the owners pre-chewed the birds’ food.

TB in birds (and pets in general) is rare, and people shouldn’t panic about it. However, it is apparent that transmission between species can occur. Transmission from an infected person to a pet is more likely than the other way around, but both are certainly possible. It’s a good reminder that people with TB who are considered infectious should take precautions around their pets, just like they do around other people.

…and pre-chewing food for your bird is probably not a good idea, either.