Birds and Antibiotics

Many people fear antibiotics. They believe they are inherently “bad” for them and for their birds. This belief is unfortunately based on the misuse and abuse of antibiotics, and has nothing to do with their true value. Before antibiotics millions died of pneumonia and tuberculosis, as well as other infectious diseases. Antibiotics changed the faced of medicine and have significantly altered the course of humankind. They are our allies when used properly, but can create havoc when used improperly.

Misuse of Antibiotics

Antibiotics are antibacterial medications. They basically kill bacteria. But not all antibiotics are created equal. For example, some kill what are called gram-positive bacteria, some kill what are called gram-negative bacteria. Over the succeeding generations since the invention of penicillin, many new classes of antibiotics have been created to deal with various bacteria, such as fluoroquinolones, one of the more popular classes used by avian veterinarians (Baytril is an example). If you give the wrong antibiotic for a specific bacteria, you either do nothing, or create an even worse infection.

Antibiotics must be given for a prescribed period of time. Doctors and veterinarians do not prescribe antibiotics for, say, 10 to 14 days because it sounds like a good amount of time. They do this because they have data to support this time-frame to adequately kill an invading pathogen. Therefore, when people (or their birds) do not comply with the proper course just because they feel better (or in the case of birds, they seem better), they risk leaving the more resistant bacteria behind. This can result in an even more virulent infection soon after. The bacteria can even mutate and develop resistance to the antibiotic. Then doctors have to take out the bigger guns. Sometimes these “stronger” antibiotics work, sometimes they don’t. Therefore, not following the prescribed course can be life threatening.

Many people do not understand how resistance works. They think a single person becomes resistant to the antibiotic. In fact, it is the bacteria that become resistant. You have, in effect, created a more deadly strain. You might say you have unleashed a bigger, more deadly pathogen on your community as a whole. What this means is that we are responsible for the whole of human and animalkind when we use antibiotics. Irresponsible use affects everyone.

Birds and Antibiotics

Many times a bird will show early signs of infection. These might be a change in fecal consistency, loss of appetite, increased need for attention, increased sleeping, or other more subtle signs. By the time your bird is sitting on the bottom of the cage you are in a dire situation. They need immediate care. The next step is to get the bird to an avian veterinarian within a few hours. The vet will often prescribe an antibiotic based on a smear that he or she looks at under a microscope. They should also take a blood sample to send to the lab for further culture. While it would be ideal to wait for this culture to come back, if a bird is deathly ill it is best to start him on something right away while awaiting results. However, don’t rely on this as the only treatment for your bird. Those culture results are important. Ask you vet to do antibiotic sensitivity testing. While this may cost a bit more, this allows the lab to determine the best antibiotic for the particular strain of bacteria present in your bird.

If the results show the antibiotic you have been giving is not the best choice, discuss with your vet the options for switching over to a more appropriate medication. You don’t want to just decide to stop the old and bring in the new. You may have to finish one course before starting the next. Discuss such issues as resistance with your vet. This important for the long-term health of your bird.

Over-the-Counter Meds

The worst thing you can do for your bird is self-diagnose his illness then buy antibiotics at the pet store. These are typically mixed in water. They are very broad-spectrum and rarely useful in most infections. There are a few exceptions, but you cannot possibly figure these out without a veterinary exam and culture. At best, these medications give a false sense of security and can cause you to waste valuable time when your bird could be getting proper medical care. Time is of the essence when it comes to sick birds. They can deteriorate and die within a matter of hours if an infection takes hold.

How to Administer Them

I am a firm believe that giving oral medications must be given directly to the bird by syringe in the mouth. Mixing antibiotics in water is a hit-or-miss scenario. How much are they drinking? Are they drinking less because they don’t like the taste? Are they drinking more because they are thirsty and therefore getting too much medication? The only way to truly determine if your bird is getting the exact, correct dosage is to give it orally. While this can be a struggle with some birds, it is worth the effort. Our young human children often don’t want to take their medicine, but we’d never think twice about not making them take it!

Don’t Mix Your Meds

Home remedies are all well and good for humans, but don’t experiment on your birds. Birds are not mammals. What works on us does not necessarily work for them. It is especially important that you not give your bird home remedies during antibiotic therapy. Some foods can inhibit the efficacy of these drugs. Do not add grapefruit seed extract (GSE) to your birds water as an extra med when you are giving them antibiotics. Grapefruit is one of the foods that is well known by doctors to interfere with the absorption of some antibiotics. Natural is not by definition safe (not that GSE is natural–it is filled with preservatives).

Rebuilding Healthy Flora

Many people are concerned that antibiotics also kill good bacteria. In most cases, an otherwise healthy bird will rebuild its own flora once the infection has cleared. Feel free to give your bird probiotics, lactose-based bacteria that are used by humans to rebuild healthy flora. They are most likely harmless. However, they are also pretty much a waste of your money. These products are made from mammals for mammals. They are specific for mammalian flora. It would be nice if a true probiotic existed for birds, but the development has been too expensive in the past. The only probiotic that would be specific for birds would need to be cultivated from birds, most likely chickens. Remember that research on mammals such as dogs, cats, and rats can translate to humans, but research on birds generally does not. We are simply too different.

The Elixir of Life

It is not an exaggeration to say that antibiotics changed the course of humankind. Without them, imagine how many people would die of pneumonia, wound infections, and many diseases once considered a death sentence. If you respect these drugs and use them properly, we may have them around for a few more years. If not, we risk creating a world where a common infection has deadly consequences.