Chemotherapy and parrots in the home?

A fellow caregiver asked...

What are the risks of having parrots in the home with someone receiving chemotherapy if the parrots have been in the home for 20+ years?

Expert Answer

Senior Editor Melanie Haiken, who is responsible for's coverage of cancer, general health, and family finance, discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions.

Doctors often caution cancer patients to avoid contact with exotic pet birds such as parrots, parakeets, and cockatiels, because they can transmit a bacterial infection called Chlamydophila psittaci, also known as parrot fever. Because chemotherapy lowers cancer patients' white blood cell count, they need to be protected from exposure to infection.

Psittacosis, as the disease is known in humans, can be transmitted from pet birds to humans, usually by touching the bird or from feces during cage cleaning. (The bacteria can actually be inhaled from the dust that rises up as you clean the cage). The symptoms of psittacosis resemble those of a bad flu, and can lead to severe pneumonia.

There's probably no need to worry, though, because your parrot has to be sick in order for you to get sick. So if you've had your parrot for 20 years and it appears healthy, there's probably no cause for concern. Symptoms of avian chlamydiosis -- the name for the disease in birds -- include lethargy, ruffled feathers, diarrhea, and discharge from the eyes or nasal cavities.

Also, parrot fever is very rare in humans. In the 15-year period between 1988 and 2003, the CDC received reports of just 935 cases of psittacosis, which averages out to just 62 cases a year, though more may go unreported.

The best precaution you can take, according to the CDC, is to wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap every time you touch your bird, feed it, or clean the cage.