A 44-year-old Taipei man is recovering from psittacosis, a potentially severe infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydophila psittaci, which he may have contracted from his pet bird. This bacterium is commonly found in certain bird species, particularly psittacines (parrot family), and human infections are typically associated with bird contact. Healthy birds can shed the bacterium in their respiratory secretions or feces, and shedding rates can be particularly high in some groups of birds, particularly large breeding colonies.

The affected man had typically vague initial signs of disease… fever, chills, aches and cough. It appears that he was tested for psittacosis about 10 days later, but the diagnosis was only recently made (It’s not necessarily an easy diagnosis in some cases). There’s no information about the severity of disease or whether it progressed past those initial relatively mild signs, or when treatment was started, but he’s apparently responding well to treatment and is recovering at home. His pet bird is the probable source of infection, but it’s unclear whether it’s being tested.

Psittacosis is an example of a disease for which an understanding of pet contact by the attending physician is critical. Typically, psittacosis starts off with flu-like signs. Most otherwise healthy people with fever, chills and aches that go to their doctor would probably be told to "go home, rest and take an anti-inflammatory" or, less diplomatically "get your infectious body out of my office, stay at home, and get over it." That would be reasonable advice for most people, because most people with these symptoms have a common viral infection, and a disease like psittacosis is rare. However, if the person had contact with psittacines and the physician knew it, psittacosis would hopefully come to mind and testing might be performed. Psittacosis is usually easily treated, but you have to know to test for it to diagnose it, so that proper treatment can be started. Untreated, psittacosis can cause severe, even fatal, disease.

Physicians’ knowledge about their patients’ animal contacts and zoonotic disease exposure is often very poor, which compromises their ability to promptly diagnose and manage zoonotic diseases. Better understanding of pet-associated zoonoses and communication between both people and their physicians, and between physicians and veterinarians, is needed to help reduce the risks.

A great psittacosis resource is the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians’ Psittacosis Compendium.