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Man's pet birds gave him rare case of "parrot fever"

File photo of a blue and gold macaw, a colorful variety of parrot.

Brian Lasenby, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most of us aren’t thinking much about our hobbies when we land in bed with the flu or other nasty bug. A new case study, though, suggests that telling your doctor about your pastimes and household pets might actually help them figure out what’s wrong.

That’s what happened when a 61-year-old man in England ended up in the hospital after a week of fever, coughing, breathlessness and just feeling lousy in general. At first, it looked like the flu. Lung X-rays showed that he’d developed pneumonia, which can happen in some influenza patients.

But then bouts of forgetfulness, increasing confusion, a rash, and on the third day of hospitalization, a seizure – not typical of the flu – convinced doctors that they were dealing with something else altogether.

The unusual case is described in this week’s edition of The BMJ medical journal by doctors at George Eliot Hospital, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, U.K.

During the man’s stay in intensive care, his health care team learned something that would help unravel the medical mystery. It turned out the man owned a slew of pet birds, including a cockatiel, parrots, finches, a budgie, lovebirds, doves, chickens and more. Two of his feathered friends had died recently, which raised suspicion his illness might be linked with theirs, wrote the authors.

Tests confirmed that the man had contracted chlamydophila psittaci – an infection that birds come down with and can pass to their owners through bacteria in their respiratory secretions, feather dust or feces. It is sometimes called “parrot fever.”

The man had been treated with antibiotics prior to his psittaci diagnosis, after the pneumonia was seen on his chest X-ray, but doctors prescribed a new combination of antibiotics once they knew what they were dealing with.

The man recovered well, with the exception of some later right knee swelling and pain – a secondary arthritic reaction that pops up in about two-thirds of psittaci patients, the authors explained.

Dr. La’Toya Latney, head of Exotic Companion Animal Medicine and Surgery Service at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, told CBS News, “For birds, it’s very common.” She compared it to kennel cough​, a frequent ailment in dogs​ and cats. 

While psittaci was tricky to diagnose in this British bird-lover, it’s generally easier to spot when parrots get sick. “They classically have bright green feces and urine,” Latney explained.

Other clues that a bird is sick with the bug include loss of appetite, weight loss and pink eyes. It can kill parrots and other birds if it’s not diagnosed in time, said Latney.

Messy, crowded living circumstances can breed the illness​. 

Latney, who was not involved in the British man’s case, said, “Usually you can blame the people on this one. We tend to see it when there’s high stock and density – when you have pet stress in boarding facilities, or a high volume of birds in a caging situation where fecal material is not cleaned out often. Hoarding situations where the living environment itself is not clean and where there’s not good airflow.”

Pet bird owners, zoo and pet​ shop workers and visitors, poultry farmers​ and veterinarians are all at a higher risk for coming down with the illness.

In addition, “human to human transmission is rare, but possible,” the BMJ authors wrote.

Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told CBS News that the strange case holds an important lesson for doctors and patients. “The takeaway points out that even during flu season, what appears to be the onset of a typical case of flu can often be something that is not,” he said.

Doctors need to take a careful history of their patients​, he said. 

“Take a history of hobbies of your patients, or even their occupational history. You could acquire this same bacteria from being a gardener and mowing the lawn where there’s a lot of bird droppings,” said Horovitz, adding that central nervous system symptoms are not usually typical with the flu.

He said the upside is that the condition is very treatable once it’s figured out.

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    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com