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Psittacosis Concerns Suspend Bird Sales At Petsmart Stores

Bird sales halted at Petsmart stores due to psittacosis concerns.

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Petsmart temporarily suspended bird sales at 775 of its stores in 46 states due to ongoing concerns of a bacteria infection that sickened at least 22 of its birds as well as several birds at a Petland in Minnesota and quarantined birds at a Superpetz in Georgia.

Routine testing of more than 500 birds in Petsmarts across the country revealed psittacosis in 20 cockatiels, one finch and one parakeet. The retailer, on Dec. 19, 2007, temporarily suspended bird sales at any of its stores that received birds from a single vendor, Preferred Birds of Milton, Fla., according to Jennifer Simmons, a spokesperson for Petsmart. During the temporary sale suspension, Petsmart is treating all of the birds that might have been exposed to the bacteria with antibiotic-treated feed, Simmons said. Employees are also using masks, gloves and protective gowns before entering bird areas.

"Most of this is just precautionary," Simmons said.

Although the birds remain in their aviaries in the stores, they are enclosed in glass and signs tell the public they are not for sale, Simmons said.

The state of Georgia wanted the precautions to go further, moving the birds away from the public, so it placed all Petsmarts and a Superpetz in Martinez, Ga., under quarantine for 45 days while the birds receive treatment. The quarantine applied only to birds and not other animals for sale.

After a cockatiel with psittacosis was found at a Petsmart in Gaithersburg, Md., local officials ordered all birds removed from the sale floor while the retailer initiated a 45-day treatment plan for the birds, according to Katherine Feldman, the state's public health veterinarian. 

In Florida, Danielle Stanek, a veterinarian and the state health department's medical epidemiologist, said one pet store cockatiel tested positive for the bacteria and was under treatment, but she declined to name the store. The Florida vendor where the sick birds appear to have originated from also voluntarily quarantined its stock and is no longer selling birds while they receive antibiotic treatment, Stanek said.

Other states, including Washington and Connecticut, issued warnings for consumers to be on alert for the disease despite no initial evidence of sick birds or people.

Although no Petsmart employees have been reported ill, a part-time Petland worker in her mid-forties may have contracted the illness. According to Julie Washburn, the public relations and community service coordinator for Ohio-based Petland, Inc., franchises, the employee reported herself ill to the owner of the Petland in Shakopee, Minn., where three parrots tested positive for psittacosis. The employee, who was responsible for cleaning animal areas at the store, is reportedly doing better after treatment, but Washburn said the storeowner had not yet seen a positive or negative test result. 

Petland also received birds from Preferred Birds of Florida, a vendor it has used for all of its new store openings since August 2007, according to Washburn. Preferred Birds warned Petland of a possible problem with psittacosis on Dec. 21 and sent it testing materials on Dec. 22, which subsequently lead to a positive test in a blue-and-gold macaw, a Hahn's macaw and an orange-winged Amazon. Petland tested birds at three of its stores, including two in Illinois, but the only ill birds were found at the Shakopee location. All birds were removed from the Shakopee store Dec. 24 to undergo a 45-day antibiotic treatment, Washburn said.
 
Petland continues to believe Preferred Birds is a "great source" of birds because of its immediate response to this situation, Washburn said.

Both Petsmart and Petland issued letters to people who purchased birds at the affected stores. Because the Shakopee store is new, however, it did not have complete records for all of its customers, Washburn said. Local media interviews and a Minnesota Health Department press release did alert additional bird owners to the situation, and they called the store directly, Washburn said. 

Psittacosis can be deadly in both parrots and humans but is generally treatable by a dose of antibiotics. 

"Psittacosis is certainly a public health concern," said veterinarian Feldman, but she added that it is treatable and not that uncommon.
"There's probably a certain amount of psittacosis in pet stores at any given time. The primary message out to the public is that if someone has had contact with a pet bird and then develops respiratory symptoms, they should seek medical help."

Psittacosis symptoms, however, also often look like the flu or any other wintertime illness with fever, headaches, nausea and fatigue. Infected birds might appear depressed or lethargic. They might eat and groom less or exhibit nasal discharge, breathing difficulties and watery droppings or weight loss. It spreads when a person or bird inhales or ingests contaminated fecal dust or matter.

Florida's Stanek recommended cleaning cages regularly, including removing soiled cage liners daily to prevent dried fecal matter buildup. She suggested using bleach to disinfect perches and the cage but only when the birds are removed and when done so in a well-ventilated area. All materials should be thoroughly rinsed and dried before returning the bird, she said.

"This is a bacteria that is relatively common in birds, particularly psittacine birds, the parrots," Stanek said. "It is readily treatable with antibiotics."

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Posted January 3, 2008, 11:05 a.m., EST

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