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I am not a veterinarian. Only a veterinarian can
diagnose and treat illness.
Contact a vet as soon as
possible if your bird shows signs of illness.
However, cases do
arise in which one cannot access a vet with experience in treating small
birds in a timely manner. In these cases, a certain amount of logical problem
solving will frequently go a long way toward dealing with a
Three things should remain foremost
in one’s mind when treating illness in canaries. First, do no harm. Taking a
shotgun approach can cause more harm than good and if by chance one of the
treatments works, one is left with the question of which treatment or
combination of treatments was effective. Second, always start with the simplest
causes and treatments and work out from there. Third, the old adage that an
ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is absolutely correct and
the importance of prevention cannot be overstated.
The single treatment that one can
apply to any illness is supportive care- providing warmth, reducing stress and
isolating the bird from other birds. Often this will be all that is
required to allow a basically healthy bird to recover.
For more in-depth discussion of
health-related issues in canaries, check out
The Practical Canary Handbook- a guide
to breeding and keeping canaries
- Signs of Illness
- Loss of Song
- Diarrhea and Loose Stools
Appetite changes- eating more or less than usual
Behavior changes such as sleeping more often or being
less active than normal. (This change in behavior is normal during the molt.
Change in droppings- becoming looser, changing color or
reduction in number. Fewer droppings can be one of the first signs that a
bird’s appetite is off.
Increased drinking of water not explained by hot
weather, increased exercise, or eating salty foods or those high in water
content such as greens, cucumber or watermelon.
“Fluffed up” appearance
Prolonged molt or absence of molt (unhealthy birds will
not molt), ragged or sparse-looking feathers, bare areas where feathers do not
Loss of song or hoarseness
Sneezing, coughing, labored breathing, tail bobbing up
and down with each breath
Eye discharge or swollen eyelid
Favoring a foot or leg
Swellings or growths
Sitting drooped on perch or sitting on the floor of the
Droppings stuck to the bird’s vent area
One of the
most important causes of disease in canaries- and one of the least understood by
many pet owners- is stress. Transporting, catching, overcrowding, chilling,
being placed in a drafty location and poor nutrition are all stressors which can
lead to illness. Any steps which can be taken to reduce stress on a bird will be
beneficial- darkening a room and removing perches from a cage will minimize the
stress of capture, for example.
Loss of song is often a sign of poor health as young,
healthy male canaries will sing given appropriate environmental conditions
such as adequate lighting, housing and diet.
The single most common cause of failure to sing-
outside of actually being a hen- is molting. The majority of male birds will
not sing during the molt and those who do usually sing more softly and quietly
The drive to sing is hormonal- male canaries sing only
when testosterone levels are normal. For this reason older birds will
sometimes sing less often as they age. As birds come into breeding condition,
they will sing more often and more loudly. Male birds caged with a hen will
often quit singing as the purpose of song is to attract a mate by announcing
one’s vigor and fitness to breed. When two males are caged together, often a
less dominant male will cease to sing in acknowledgment of the dominance of
the other male.
Almost anything that can affect a bird’s wellbeing can
lead to loss of song as well. To name only a few of the most common things
which cause birds to quit singing- air sac mites, sore throat, respiratory
infections, external parasite infestations, intestinal complaints, over
breeding, and poor nutrition.
Diarrhea and Loose Stools
Before commencing to treat diarrhea, be sure that it
exists. A few loose stools are not cause for panic. If the bird seems to be in
general good health, is singing and is not acting any differently than it
usually does chances are good that it is a passing episode and the bird will
Loose stools are a symptom rather than an illness in
itself. Diarrhea can be caused by diet, stress, bacterial or viral infections,
parasites . . . Do not assume the cause to be bacterial and begin giving
antibiotics right away- remember to start by addressing possible causes that
are the simplest to correct and proceeding from there.
Nervousness or stress due to changes in the environment
can cause a bird to pass watery stools.
After nervousness or stress, the most common cause of
loose stools is feeding too much green food or fruit. Birds which are not
accustomed to eating fruits and vegetables regularly will often gorge
themselves when offered a large amount- offer only small tidbits and gradually
increase portions until the bird becomes used to eating them.
Large stools are common in hens while they are sitting
due to the fact that they hold their stools while in the nest and leave it
infrequently. As long as the droppings are firm, there is no cause for
Don’t feed iceberg lettuce to birds- it is devoid of
nutrition, containing mostly fiber and water. Feeding it will result in loose
Wash all produce thoroughly to remove chemical
residues, bacterial contaminants and other potential problems. Give fresh food
such as greens, broccoli and carrots a short soak in water to which cider
vinegar has been added.
Do not leave fresh food in the cage for too long- a
good rule of thumb to use is to leave fresh food before the birds no longer
than you would leave your own food out.
Wash all water and food dishes with dishwashing soap
and sterilize with a 1:9 bleach/water solution. Rinse the bleach solution off
the dishes thoroughly. Maintaining clean water dishes is vital- birds
frequently fill their water dishes with bits of food and all sorts of other
things. Change water whenever it becomes dirty and provide only fresh, clean
water in clean cups, drinkers, or bottles. All treatment suggestions presume
that good hygiene is being maintained!
Withhold egg food, fruit and green food and feed a
half-teaspoonful of poppy seed until the stools firm up. Often the poppy seed
will resolve a simple bout of loose stools.
If the diarrhea is unresolved by the poppy seed or
returns when the poppy seed is discontinued, switch the bird to bottled water.
Often “city water”- water which has been chemically treated with chlorine and
other substances- can irritate a bird’s bowels; some birds are more sensitive
than others. Well water can also cause problems because it can sometimes
harbor bacteria to which small birds are less resistant than humans.
Electrolyte solutions for infants such as Pedialyte can
help a bird maintain proper electrolyte balance during periods of diarrhea.
There is now a powdered form on the market which is more economical since the
bottles for infants are much larger than needed to treat a single bird. The
powdered form is sold as a box of individual packets and can be stored for
some time at room temperature and probably indefinitely if frozen.
Add a few drops of cider vinegar to the bird’s drinking
water. The actual amount will depend on the preexisting acidity of your water
and the size of the drinker or cup. Usually a few healthy drops in a half cup
or so of water is sufficient. The reasoning behind this is that it will
acidify the gut, easing digestive disturbances.
Antibiotics (which should be prescribed by a vet) can
be effective in cases of diarrhea which resist all other treatments. See an
avian veterinarian if your bird does not respond to home treatment - a
veterinarian can perform tests on the bird’s droppings to determine the cause.
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