A 62-yr-old Italian woman has died from psittacosis, an infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydophila psittaci. Sometimes called "parrot fever," psittacosis is an uncommon but important disease linked to contact with birds, particularly psittacines (e.g. parrots, parakeets, cockatiels). In people, C. psittaci usually causes flu-like respiratory disease, but severe pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) can occur in some individuals. With prompt diagnosis and treatment, mortality (death) rates are very low (<1%), however mortality rates are higher when diagnosis and proper treatment are delayed. It’s not clear in the this case whether psittacosis was considered early in disease nor when treatment was initiated.

Chlamydophila psittaci can cause illness in birds, but it’s also carried by a variable percentage of healthy birds, mainly psittacines. This complicates control of the disease, since you can’t tell which birds are carrying the bacterium without testing them all. In this case, the woman’s parrot died a few days before she became ill. It’s not clear from the brief report whether the bird was diagnosed with C. psittaci infection, however this is a good reminder of the need to consider pet and owner health in parallel. It also indicates why diagnostic testing is important when pets are sick, or even after they’ve died.

If a pet becomes sick, knowing what caused the disease might be of relevance to human health. Also, if physician’s ask about illness of any other individuals in the house, this should include pets, as they might get some relevant information.

In a case like this, if the bird was diagnosed with C. psittaci infection and the owner developed flu-like illness shortly thereafter, it should have been a strong indication that the person might have psittacosis, allowing for early treatment. Alternatively, even without a diagnosis, knowing that the person had a pet parrot (a risk factor for psittacosis), and that the bird had died shortly before the woman got sick, could lead to recognition that both diseases could be linked, and could lead to earlier consideration of psittacosis.

This unfortunate event should be taken as yet another reminder of the need for veterinary personnel and human physicians to communicate more effectively, and that physicians need to know about pet contact and pet health when evaluating their patients.

Image: African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). (Photo credit: Eli Duke)