A UK woman is both grieving the loss of her husband and battling illness she thinks came from a new pet parrot. The 67-year-old woman, who has chronic lymphocytic leukemia, obtained the bird to keep her company as her husband was dying of cancer. She says that she’s never felt right since she obtained the bird. She is also upset that the bird is not very tame, saying "Jasper is clearly a wild bird, and they do carry all sorts of germs, so it is a worry for me." 

Since her husband’s death, the woman has had three rounds of antibiotics to treat a respiratory tract infection that refuses to go away. No more details are provided, and presumably (hopefully) her doctors have tested or treated her for psittacosis, a disease caused by Chlamydophila psitacii – a microorganism that can be acquired from birds, especially psittacine birds like parrots.

This story raises a few relevant questions:

Was it a good time to get a pet?

  • That’s a tough question. Getting a petting during a difficult time can help many people cope, and having the pet while a family member is sick can be very beneficial. On the other hand, bringing a new pet (with the associated new pet issues) into an already stressful situation can be a problem. Also, with both the woman and her husband being sick and having weakened immune systems, there are some infectious disease risks that need to be considered. The cost-benefit of getting a pet in a situation like this is hard to determine, and it varies greatly between households. At a minimum, anyone in such a situation who is considering getting a pet should learn about potential pet-associated disease risks first so that they can make an informed decision.

Was a bird a good pet to get for this household?

  • Another question without a clear answer. Birds can be good companions, but they also carry a few diseases that are of concern, particularly for people with weakened immune systems. It’s hard to say whether a pet bird is higher risk than a pet dog or cat. It probably is lower risk from some standpoints (e.g. bites, scratches) but higher risk for certain diseases. The key is, as mentioned above, being informed about potential disease risks and what can be done to reduce these risks. With that information, you can make a more educated decision about whether a specific pet is appropriate.
  • Also, in high risk households like this, getting a new pet examined before it makes it to the household is a good idea. Such an exam provides an opportunity for a veterinarian to identify any concerns, ranging from obvious signs of disease to inappropriate behaviours. Identifying these problems before the pet makes it home allows them to be addressed quickly. This might involve treatment, prompt training, keeping the pet somewhere else for a short time while a problem is addressed, or a recommendation to return it to where it came from because of a major concern. It’s much easier to do these things (especially returning the pet) before it has made it home and people have become attached.

Should you assume that a captive-bred bird is a disease-free bird?

  • Absolutely not. Captive-bred does not equal disease-free. In fact, for some diseases, rates are higher in captive-bred birds. (I’m definitely not advocating getting wild-caught birds… just trying to make it clear that birds from breeders can carry various infectious diseases too). The point is, getting a bird from a reputable breeder is a good start, but it doesn’t negate the risks. Healthy, well cared-for birds can carry a variety of microorganisms that can infect people. Risks are higher for people with compromised immune systems, such as the individuals in the household in this case.

Pet ownership always carries some risk of infectious disease transmission. Almost always, that risk is manageable and acceptable considering the positive aspects of pet ownership. However, thought needs to go into the process to ensure that the risks are minimized and acceptable in any given situation.

Image: Green Indian Ring-Necked Parakeet