Though it may seem strange, regurgitation to a mate, person or toy is a normal part of bird reproductive and bonding behavior.
Regurgitation is the expulsion of the contents of the crop, a specialized part the esophagus. Regurgitation is usually a normal behavior. A bird that is regurgitating will make a head-bobbing and neck-stretching type of movement. Food will be brought up and deposited on the bird's toys or mate. Such controlled regurgitation usually does not result in staining of the feathers or the beak.
Vomiting, on the other hand, is the expulsion of the contents of the proventriculus, ventriculus (specialized parts of the stomach in birds), or intestine. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to differentiate between regurgitation and vomiting.
Vomiting usually includes a rapid flick of the head, which happens so fast it is often not seen by the owners. Tell-tale signs of vomiting in birds is the flicking of small pieces of ingested food around the cage. A very common complaint is that the feathers on the head are messy and stuck together. Food may become caked on the bird's head giving it a spiky, matted appearance.
Vomiting can occur along with regurgitation and is a serious clinical sign. If you suspect that this behavior is the result of illness and not behavioral causes, a veterinarian should examine your bird.
While it can be very difficult to differentiate between regurgitation and vomiting, it’s even harder to determine an exact cause. The diagnosis requires careful observation of the bird and a complete physical examination. If at all possible, bring the bird's cage along with you, because we can often find significant clues. The veterinarian will need a complete and thorough history.
We will need to ask many questions such as: When did the condition start? How often does it occur? Have you noticed other signs of illness? Does it happen during or after certain events such as eating or while playing with toys? Does your bird display any courtship or nesting behaviors? What do you feed your bird? How often do you clean the cage and what do you use to clean it? Does your bird have access to potential causes such as foods, household items, toxins, and exposure to other birds? Do you give your bird any medications or supplements? Is your bird being treated for any other illness currently or in the past?
After the history and physical exam, laboratory tests including a complete blood count, chemistry panel, and a fecal exam to look for parasites are often needed. Radiographs may help determine a diagnosis. Blood may be tested for the presence of viruses or your bird’s immune response to them.
There are many possible causes, but some of the most common are heavy metal toxicosis, as well as proventricular, ventricular or lower GI tract diseases. Parasitic, fungal, viral and bacterial infections can all cause inflammation of the oral cavity, esophagus and crop.
Avian pox is a major viral cause of pharyngitis and esophagitis, but lesions in other organs including the skin and respiratory tract are also usually present and are of more importance. However, anything that disrupts the normal functions of the GI tract may lead to a secondary overgrowth of bacteria or fungi in the small and large intestines. Foreign body obstructions are often a surprise to owners, but are commonly seen in curious birds that like to investigate their surroundings.
Once the cause has been determined, we can begin treating. The treatment of vomiting will vary considerably depending upon the cause. If a bird is regurgitating often and the cause is determined to be behavioral, it may be helpful to remove the toys or mirror that is the focus of his regurgitation. If it is found to be true vomiting, then supportive care in the form of stable temperatures, fluid therapy for dehydration, nutritional management (sometimes withholding food may be necessary) are very important.
Depending upon the severity of the illness, the bird may need to be hospitalized. Other therapies may include medications to treat infections, changing the diet, providing appropriate therapies for diseases of other organs, removing the toxic agent from the environment and/or the bird, giving medication to help your bird pass the object if possible, and surgery if needed to remove foreign objects or tumors.
We know that this is a lot of information to take in.