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  • Writer's pictureSandra Witt

Escherichia coli ... the infamous E.coli bacteria

More and more bird owners are realizing that Parrots need regular checkups like any other member of the family. As part of those examinations owners are requesting the use of pathology (lab examination of samples taken from the bird) to get a diagnosis of any problems they might see.

This is very important so we know what (if any) treatments are needed to treat or prevent disease.

While this is a positive step that shows owners are becoming more educated on proper husbandry, its also alarming to see the amount of misinformation being spread online by so-called Parrot Experts. One example of the bad information out there is the "interpretations" on Gram Stain results.

Look, if you want to believe what a self-proclaimed expert says because it's stated with "conviction" then there's nothing anyone can say to change your mind, but for goodness sake, look it up! Read scientific or academic publications on the subject and listen to licensed, trained medical professionals and then ask yourself, "Does it REALLY make sense that the entire medical community is WRONG and this one person is right?"

Yet another classic example of bad information being passed off as fact relates to E.coli bacteria.

E.coli (Escherichia coli) is a member of a group of bacteria that live in the gut of most animals. Mammals have E.coli in their intestines as part of the normal bacteria, and the presence of the E.coli itself is not necessarily a major concern, it is simply an indicator that there's some contamination.

In birds this bacteria may or may not be normal, but many E.coli strains are harmless while some serotypes can cause serious food poisoning. Some strains can move themselves (motile) while others cannot; some have capsules around them, others do not. It is very difficult to know which of the many types of E.coli are present in your bird by simple cultures in the laboratory; it is not really even known which are problematic for Parrots. The strains of E.coli that affect people and other mammals may not even be a problem in birds since they seem to have a different set of E.coli that acts differently in their intestines. Even a nasty form of the bacteria in the gut of a parrot does not automatically mean it will get sick since there are many factors that will determine the outcome ... lab tests can only determine the presence of an organism it cannot predict the affect that organism will have on your bird.

Most cases of 'infection' involve the bird swallowing bacteria from contaminated food or water. If that bacteria is a particularly pathogenic strain, then your bird may get an infection in the gut which might present as diarrhea (usually the most common sign). Those may not be the only symptoms your bird experiences, and some infections can lead to sudden death. Typically a bird with an active E.coli infection will present fluffed up and lethargic, the bird will stop eating, lose weight, and may have diarrhea.

It is reported that a majority of E.coli that get into a bird are passed without even being noticed. One survey (Avian Diseases 32: 79 - 83, 1988) found that from population of clinically normal birds (mostly cockatoos), up to 84% of the swabs taken from NORMAL birds (not sick) (from the cloaca) detected E.coli bacteria. The point being that bacteria are everywhere and only a small percentage are even capable of causing disease. If your bird is healthy then the bird's own immune system will likely fight off the infection on its own.

You cannot look at a Gram stain and conclude a bird has E.coli simply because there are Gram negative bacteria. Even if the lab is able to grow the bacteria and identify it as E.coli, you don't know that the bacteria is actually that prevalent IN the bird unless the sample was specially preserved. Why? Well because that sample you gave to the vet might have had a few E.coli bacteria in it, but in transit to the lab those bacteria were happily multiplying. So, it is not really reasonable to expect that you will get the right answer by sending a sample wrapped in plastic to a lab, and it takes a specialist to type these bacteria to determine if they are disease-producing or just passing through.

If your bird is sick, and a transport swab is used to collect a fresh, uncontaminated sample (from the cloaca) and the lab grows predominantly E.coli, and ALL other potential causes for illness have been rejected, then you can be satisfied that E.coli is your problem. The treatment is broad spectrum antibiotics.

If you want to promote good health in birds you need good:

  • Hygiene and aviary management practices (including food storage and handling, ventilation, etc.)

  • Quarantine and health management (veterinary visits)

  • Clean, fresh water supply


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