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Psittacosis (also known as ornithosis or parrot fever) is a disease caused by bacteria called Chlamydia [Chlamydophila] psittaci.

What is psittacosis?

Psittacosis most commonly occurs in the parrot (psittacine) family, such as budgerigars and cockatiels, although other birds such as pigeons and poultry can also be infected. Infected birds can occasionally spread the infection to horses.

Infected birds may appear healthy with no signs of illness, or they may show signs of mild to severe illness. They shed the bacteria in their droppings and in respiratory and eye secretions. The bacteria can survive in dried droppings and secretions for months.

People can be infected with psittacosis by inhaling infectious aerosols and dust from dried bird droppings, secretions and feathers. Infection can also spread by mouth to beak contact (kissing) and bird bites.

Psittacosis generally causes a mild to moderate respiratory illness with pneumonia, but more severe illness can occur. People with personal risk factors including the elderly, pregnant women, or those with a medical condition or undergoing medical treatment that lowers immunity are at increased risk. Workers with these risk factors should be encouraged to discuss this with their manager and doctor.

Who is at risk?

Psittacosis is a risk for people who work with birds. This includes:

  • pet store workers
  • poultry workers, poultry transport workers, poultry meat processing workers and workers who handle poultry manure
  • wildlife carers
  • bird breeders and suppliers
  • ornithologists
  • zoo and aviary workers
  • customs and quarantine officers
  • taxidermists
  • veterinarians and veterinary nurses
  • workers who demolish, renovate or clean buildings and structures where birds roost
  • workers who mow in areas contaminated with bird droppings
  • laboratory workers who work with the bacteria.

Managing exposure

Eliminating exposure to psittacosis is the most effective way to protect workers, however this may not always be possible. Where the risk cannot be eliminated, it must be minimised.

Prevent the introduction of infection

  • Source birds from a reliable source.
  • Keep pet and farmed birds separate from wild and migratory birds.
  • Separate (quarantine) new and returning birds for a period or test/treat for avian chlamydiosis. Monitor the health of the birds during this period and contact a veterinarian if they become sick.
  • Keep young and old birds, birds of different species and birds acquired from multiple sources separate from each other.
  • Contact your veterinarian for information about keeping your birds healthy.

Workplace design

  • Use natural or mechanical ventilation to control aerosols and dust and minimise air draughts to prevent the circulation of dust and feathers.
  • Design bird housing using materials that can be readily cleaned and disinfected.
  • If cages are placed next to each other, use cages with solid sides to prevent the transfer of droppings, feathers and spilled food between cages.

Keep the workplace clean

Regular cleaning helps prevent bird droppings and secretions from accumulating and drying out. Clean bird equipment in an area dedicated for this purpose and do not use handwashing or kitchen sinks. Use a cleaning method that minimises the dispersal of aerosols and dust and avoid using dry sweeping, high-pressure washing, compressed air or household vacuum. For example:

  • apply a light mist of plain or soapy water to contaminated surfaces and equipment before cleaning
  • mop floors or use a suitably rated industrial vacuum (PDF, 0.62 MB)
  • use cage litter that does not produce dust (e.g. newspaper).

Clean surfaces and equipment using water and detergent and apply a disinfectant to the cleaned surface. Disinfectants require a minimum contact time to be effective. They may not work properly in the presence of organic matter such as bird droppings, so it is important to properly clean surfaces before applying a disinfectant. Alternatively, use a product that is both a detergent and a disinfectant. Speak to your veterinarian about selecting a suitable disinfectant for use around birds.

Control pest species such as rodents and insects.

Personal hygiene practices

Workers should adopt personal hygiene practices.

  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before eating, drinking and smoking, before and after contact with birds, after contact with bird droppings and contaminated equipment and after removing personal protective equipment (PPE).
  • If using a waterless hand sanitiser, make sure it contains an alcohol content of at least 60per cent, use only on visibly clean hands and wash your hands with soap and water at the first opportunity.
  • Cover cuts and other breaks in the skin with a clean, dry dressing.
  • Do not eat, drink or smoke around birds and their droppings.
  • Wear clean work clothes and footwear.
  • Avoid kissing birds.

Workers must be provided with adequate washing facilities (PDF, 0.57 MB). This should include clean running water, soap and paper towel or an air hand dryer. Field workers should be provided with portable hand washing facilities. Workers must also be provided with first aid facilities and should be instructed to clean and cover bird bites and scratches should these occur.

Managing sick and infected birds

Have a plan for managing sick and infected birds.

  • Isolate sick birds from other birds and people until they have been examined by a veterinarian.
  • Keep the number of people who handle sick and infected birds to a minimum.
  • Use dedicated equipment for the sole use of sick and infected birds. Clean and disinfect the equipment after use and before restocking. Discard items that cannot be properly cleaned and disinfected.
  • Take care when examining the carcass of potentially infected birds. Wet the carcass with water and detergent to contain dust during handling and use local exhaust ventilation where possible if opening the carcass.
  • Do not purchase, sell or process sick birds.
  • Maintain records of bird-related transactions to help identify sources of infected birds and potentially exposed persons.

Information, training, instruction and supervision

Provide workers with information about:

  • health risks from work with birds
  • how to recognise, report and manage sick and infected birds
  • safe work procedures
  • hand washing practices.

Pet stores should provide customers with information about psittacosis.

Personal protective equipment

Workers should wear gloves and a properly fitted (PDF, 0.86 MB) particulate respirator (e.g. disposable P2 respirator or higher) if cleaning bird housing or disturbing dried bird droppings. A surgical-type mask does not protect against infection.

If handling sick or infected birds, workers should wear gloves, protective clothing and a particulate respirator. Additional PPE such as safety eyewear, hair covers, and shoe/boot covers may also prevent the spread of infection.

More information

Contact Workplace Health and Safety Queensland on 1300 362 128 for information on managing infectious diseases at work. If a person is infected with an infectious disease at work, this must be notified to Workplace Health and Safety Queensland.

Contact Queensland Health on 13HEALTH (13 43 25 84) for information on psittacosis and human health. Seek advice from your general practitioner or local public health unit if you have concerns about possible exposure to psittacosis.

Contact the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries or your veterinarian for information on psittacosis and animal health.