Caring for Infected Birds

Frequently Asked Questions from Veterinarians, Wildlife Rehabilitators, and Falconers

By Patrick T. Redig, D.V.M., Ph.D.
Director, The Raptor Center

Q: Is there any protocol for care other than supportive care (fluids, nutrition, warmth)? Should we be doing something to treat the associated spinal/brain inflammation? I assume it would have to be a non-steroid anti-inflammatory. We are not presently using Dexamethasone on these birds because of immune-suppressant concerns.

A: Maybe. Histologically what is seen mostly is necrosis and vaculolization, with varying degrees of inflammation. By all means, do not use Dexamethasone. Meloxicam, Banamine or Celebrex are indicated.

Q: Should antibiotics be used preventatively for any possible secondary bacterial infections?

A: Maybe. You may, however, just set yourself up for yeast infections. I probably wouldn’t unless there was g.i. stasis and risk of anaerobic overgrowth, in which case I’d use metronidazole.

Q: Is there any recommended vitamin supplementation?

A: Vitamin B (thiamine) may be helpful and is routine with neurological conditions. We recommend 10 mg/day.

Q: If a bird has apparently recovered, when can we safely put them outside – that is, when are they virus-free so they wouldn't infect more mosquitoes if bitten again? Is there a "rule of thumb" on the period of infection?

A: Recovered birds may have cleared the virus or they may have become asymptomatic carriers – we have no way of knowing. As a guideline, I would hold them in for two weeks after they have recovered, not so much as to prevent them being a source of virus to mosquitoes, but mostly to make sure they won’t relapse – we don’t know the course yet. In general, however, recovered birds would have very low virus counts in their blood – probably not enough to be an immediate infection source.

Q: Are there likely to be birds that will have permanent neurological damage, even if they have survived the virus infection? If so, how much time should we allow for recovery before euthanizing a bird? We have some that have been "hanging in there" for close to two weeks, but don't seem to be getting any better.

A: No one knows. I suspect that if they plateau, that’s about as much as they are going to recover.

Q: What about the equine vaccine that can possibly be used in birds? What dosage would you recommend?

A: What we know so far is that two doses can be given three to four weeks apart with no apparent side effects, at least in birds tested so far (some raptors and cockatiels). If possible, give the entire 1 cc dose (usually possible in birds more than 300 grams). Give it intramuscularly. In small birds, use small doses, but don’t try to scale it on the basis of body weight as you would an antibiotic. We have no idea if this confers protection on vaccinated birds, but it doesn’t appear to do any harm and it may prep the immune system to react more vigorously if the bird becomes infected..

Q: Regarding human risk, is the mosquito absolutely necessary for transmission of West Nile, or can it be passed from bird to person via blood-to-blood contact or otherwise?

A: For all intents and purposes, it needs a vector to transmit it. There is some very weak anecdotal evidence to the contrary (this was a bird-to-bird via fecal/oral), but given the growing number of people that have worked with sick birds in a variety of circumstances and no evidence of transmission to people, I would say there is little risk. Precautions for hygiene and sanitation are always in order when handling sick animals, and these should be satisfactory here also.

Q: What do you recommend for protecting collections of birds?

A: Protect them from mosquitoes by moving them indoors, covering the facility with mosquito netting, and/or using a USDA-approved carbon dioxide mosquito trap. Isolate infected birds in mosquito-proof areas away from other birds that may be at risk, and incinerate carcasses of dead birds. Long-term, be prepared to deal with an ongoing threat of West Nile virus for the foreseeable future.

Q: Where can I get more information about West Nile virus?

A: Two excellent sources of information are--