Bird Seizures: Why Do They Happen? What Can You Do?
By Louisa M. Jaskulski, RVT
Seizures are frightening to see. The bird may be unable to stand, fall off its perch, lose consciousness, and exhibit violent muscle spasms such as twitching legs and flapping wings. Alternatively, the bird may just stand and stare blankly with an “out of it” demeanor. Seizures may last from a few seconds to one or two minutes. The bird will often seem confused afterward, and may just sit on the floor of the cage while it recovers. When it is a beloved bird you are watching, it fills you with fear and confusion.
Actual seizures can involve loss of control of a bird’s skeletal muscles resulting in waves of involuntary movement. They are caused by spontaneous, temporary disturbances of the brain’s electrical activity. Often the bird will appear normal between episodes.
These differ from partial paralysis, blindness, staggering, or other nervous system disorders, which are often caused by organ disease elsewhere in the body.
Because there are many things that can cause seizures and other neurological problems in birds, it is essential to get your bird to your avian veterinarian as soon as possible when you see these signs, so that an appropriate diagnosis can be made and any possible treatment started.
POTENTIAL CAUSES OF NEUROLOGIC PROBLEMS
Physical Injury to the Brain: Examples include brain tumors, a stroke or blood clot in the brain, concussion (from flying into a window or wall) or other blow to the head, or being bitten in the head by a predator (dog, cat, raccoon). Brain tumors and parasites eat away at the brain structure, and are usually not treatable. A physical blow-type injury can result in a depressed fracture, brain swelling or a blood clot – treatment is sometimes effective if started promptly.
Nutritional Deficiencies: Deficiency of vitamins B or E, hypocalcaemia (low blood calcium levels) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) can all cause stumbling, head twisting, circling, paralysis, or spasms. Folic acid deficiency can cause neck paralysis in young turkeys. Problems with the diet are the usual culprit here. Careful diet analysis and diet change, possibly with appropriate supplementation, can help to resolve these.
NOTE - African Greys are particularly prone to seizures due to hypocalcaemia. Be sure to consult your avian veterinarian about appropriate diet for these birds.
Infectious Diseases: Some infections are known for causing central nervous system disorders. Some bacteria secrete toxins that can affect the nervous system. For example, avian botulism is caused by Clostridium Botulinum which produces a serious neurotoxin resulting in flaccid paralysis (“limber neck”) and eventually death, and particularly affects shorebirds. Psittacosis (Chlamydia psattaci) is a bacterial disease that can result in tremors, head twisting and convulsions – a really good reason to ensure all your new birds are tested for this before they exit quarantine!
Viral diseases can create neural problems. Borna virus, which can result in Proventricular Dilatation Disease (PDD), attacks the nerves. Newcastle disease is caused by a paramyxovirus, which can affect all species, and causes tremors, paralysis, and opisthotonos (where the head and tail are bent upward while the abdomen is pushed down).
There are also migrating parasites that can end up causing brain damage, as we see sometimes in the wild conure flock of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.
Fungal diseases such as Aspergillosis can infect the spine, causing serious muscle disorder and even death.
Organ Disease: Tumors of the kidneys or reproductive tract that press down on the nerves going into the legs can cause severe limping - owners initially think the bird has broken its leg. Arthrosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”) can reduce blood flow to the brain. Arthritis can diminish a bird’s agility and ability to grip and balance properly. Tumors of the spine, or spinal bony masses, can put pressure on any nerves exiting the spine in that area. Low blood magnesium due to parathyroid disease can cause tremors, shivering and twitching. Kidney or liver failure can cause the body to be poisoned by improperly processed metabolites (systemic toxemia) resulting in convulsions.
Environmental Stressors: Hyperthermia (over-heating) can occur if birds are left in the sun with no shade and inadequate water, leading to convulsions and even death. Housing that is damp and drafty can cause chills and inflammation of nerves, muscles and joints.
Toxicities: Toxicities, due to toxins such as lead, zinc, or organophosphates, can lead to ataxia (loss of muscular coordination, lack of balance) and convulsions.
Unknown Cause: Sometimes we never know the cause (“idiopathic”, unknown origin). Just as in human medicine, seizures can appear with no apparent reason and then return or resolve just as mysteriously.
RESPONSE WHILE THE BIRD IS SEIZING
When the bird is having a convulsion, or stumbling, or falling, the first concern is to keep it safe. Place the bird in dim light, in a quiet environment, provide supplemental warmth (unless there has been a concussion or other head injury, in which case supplemental heat is contra-indicated; just keep your bird from getting cold). Place perches low to the floor, and pad the floor with soft towels. Give the bird nutritious, easily digested food that it will eat, such as greens, wheat germ or NutriAn cakes. If the bird is weak or unbalanced, either remove water completely or only put in a very shallow amount, to prevent accidental drowning.
Do your best to record how long the episode(s) last, and their nature (i.e. vacant stare, trembling wings, falling over, etc.). Make note of anything the bird could have chewed or eaten that could be causing problems (zippers, costume jewelry, rubber on shoes, lead on stained glass), or if there is a source of trauma (flying into window, anyone playing rough with the bird).
Bring the bird to your avian veterinarian as soon as possible.
Depending on the diagnosis, treatments may be available to help. A concussion may require a short course of steroids. Toxicities will require medications to bind and remove the toxin. Infections can usually be treated with antibiotics, antifungals etc. Heart disease, arthrosclerosis and strokes have their own treatments. Sometimes anticonvulsant medication is helpful.
Some of our patients have benefited from acupuncture. Because birds can not be expected to stay still for extended periods with needles in them, the Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist instead injects a tiny drop of Vitamin B complex into the appropriate meridian points.The photos at the top of this article and at right show Dr. Chris Sanders, Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist at Wildwood Veterinary Hospital, treating a lovebird.
Orlando, a Lovebird being given acupuncture.
The first step always is to get to your avian veterinarian as soon as possible so a diagnosis and treatment plan can be initiated. Some birds have only rare episodes, some resolve completely, and some are sadly ongoing and even get worse. There is no way to predict. But your bird needs the hope, love, comfort and support only you can give during this time.
(Editor’s Note: See this article for a bird owner’s perspective of bird seizures.)