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Poxvirus Infections In Birds

Poxvirus is an infection which can affect any bird and is called after the species which is being affected; canary pox, lovebird pox and so on.  With the import restrictions which are now in place, the number of birds which become affected by this has fallen in recent years.  The severity of the disease can be mild in some cases and deadly in others.

What is Poxvirus?

Poxvirus has a proper name of Poxviridae and is the same family of viruses as smallpox, something we have all heard of.  The family of viruses was first known in 1796 when a physician Edward Jenner inoculated someone against cowpox to stop them getting smallpox. 

Diagnosis

Poxvirus is spread through the bites of insects like mosquitoes, and they can carry the virus for a month or more after feeding on a bird which carries it.  Birds which do recover from the illness do not remain as carriers of the virus.

Birds who live outside and have cracks in their skin are at a higher risk of infection.  However, the disease cannot get past intact skin.  The disease is diagnosed by using a microscopic exam of cells swabbed from the lesions under a microscope. 

Some species which are closely related can pass the infection across, such as fowl pox which affects chickens can easily transmit to turkeys and other domestic fowl.

General Symptoms

There are three main symptoms of poxvirus which have been recorded and vary in their severity.

1.  Septicemic Poxvirus

This is quickly fatal to the bird and affects nearly every part of their body, causing a blueness to the skin as well as a refusal to eat, lethargy and fluffed feathers.

Commonly affected species: canaries, finches

2.  Diphtheroid Poxvirus

This is known as Wet Pox .  The bird’s eyes are swollen and have a discharge (conjunctivitis).  Brown or grey lesions develop inside the mouth and an inflammation of the inner throat, the esophagus and trachea which means eating and even breathing is very difficult.  These symptoms usually follow a skin infection stage but can occur without it.  Corneal ulcers can occur which permanent affect eyesight.  It has a 50-60% mortality rate (example from unvaccinated chickens).

Commonly affected: passerines, blue fronted amazons, Pionus parrots

3.  Cutaneous Poxvirus

This is the early stage of the disease known as Dry Pox where small nodules or growths can be seen similar to abscesses.  Areas without feathers often have crusty scabs and the eyes and mouth of the areas usually worst affected.  These lesions can cause secondary infections and can be present for six weeks or even longer.  The virus is also very resilient in its presence under these lesions.

Common affected: Raptors, Psittacines

The course of the disease, depending on its severity, can take from three to five weeks to run its natural course and during this time, young birds will see a stop in growth and development while laying birds will have a drop in egg production.


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General Treatment

A vet will need to be consulted immediately if you think your bird has this infection.  Once diagnosed, the disease will be treated with antibiotics or antifungals and an ointment for the skin growths.  Vitamin A supplement is also used to help recover from poxvirus.  There is no direct medication that will kill the virus, only to help the bird recover from the illness.

Once home, it is advisable to keep the bird in a hot and humid environment to help them recover.  Clean infected areas regularly as well as using ointments and carefully monitor their diet to ensure they are getting the best food to aid their recovery.

Prevention

Always prevention is better than cure though it can be difficult to do so.  A few general tips given by vets include:

  • Use screens around outside birds if there is a risk of mosquitoes
  • Try to prevent any possible causes of injuries through which the infection can enter the system
  • Isolate any birds that may be infected from others and when handling an infection, or potential infected, bird make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before doing anything else
  • Intensively clean any items such as food and water bowls which the ill bird has come into contact with using disinfectants designed for birds, usually made of 1% potassium hydroxide, 2% sodium hydroxide and 5% phenol

Probiotics are a good general health option which floods a bird’s system with good bacteria.  This means the bird can get the best from the food they consume and build the strongest possible immune system to fight diseases.

A general preventative method for all bird illnesses is to quarantine newly arrived birds away from your other pets for a period of time.  This will allow any symptoms to show and be treated before they can spread to the rest of the birds.

Vaccination

There are a variety of different vaccines now available which are specific to the bird species so if you are in an area which the virus is a potential threat, then this may be worth considering.

One example of this is for canaries where the vaccine has been created which carried a modified version of the virus.  It is applied into the wing-web in birds which are at least four weeks of age and are may be vulnerable to the pox.  Each bird is given a 0.01ml amount of vaccine.

Conclusion

Recognising the potential for a problem and trying to stop it happening is always the best option but when this cannot happen, and you face the unfortunate problem of an unwell bird, seeking rapid vet advice is also crucial.  Sometimes, there is nothing can be done for the bird, and this is a terribly sad thing but if nothing else, you have done all that you can for that bird and also, hopefully, prevent the disease from spreading to any other birds in your household or nearby.  In this country, pox virus is less of a concern as we don’t have too many mosquitoes, but vigilance and knowledge can never be a bad thing, especially with changing climate conditions.


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