A Guide to Treating Cancers and Tumors in Birds

Birds, just like dogs, cats, and humans, can develop tumors that may or may not be cancerous (malignant for the former, benign for the latter). To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to tell these tumors apart, so it is important for you to take your bird to a veterinarian that specializes in the treatment of birds or exotic pets to confirm or deny the cancer diagnosis.

If the tumor is malignant, the good thing is that many types of avian cancers can be treated. But it’s important to know that the earlier the cancer is caught and treated, the better the chance your bird has of surviving. In this guide, we share more information about the diagnosis and treatment of cancers common to birds.

How Tumors Form in Birds

Tumors are caused when there is an error or mutation in a bird’s DNA. Unlike a healthy cell, the abnormal cell will continue to divide and produce more abnormal cells without control. The problem is, the immune system is unable to identify these abnormal cells, so they continue spreading unless something is medically introduced to stop them.

There are several reasons why a bird may suffer an error or mutation in her DNA. Common causes include nutritional deficiencies, carcinogens in the diet, inbreeding, toxins in the environment, and old age. Each of these weakens the bird’s immune system, making it even easier for the abnormal cells to flourish.

Common Types Cancers and Tumors in Birds

Pet birds can develop many different types of cancer, and cancer can occur at any age, although older birds are most at risk. The most common type of cancer seen in birds is squamous cell carcinoma, or malignant skin cancer. The most common areas affected include the skin on the bird’s head, on or around her beak, around the uropygial gland, and on or around the eyelids. Although this type of cancer can affect any breed, cockatiels, lovebirds, and parakeets are the most prone to it.

Fibroids and fibrosarcomas are benign and malignant tumors, respectively, that affect the fibrous tissues in the body. These are identified as abnormal bumps on the skin. They can also cause the bird’s feathers at the site of the tumor to noticeably stick up. These are most commonly found on the wings, neck, sternum, and where the beak and face meet. The breeds most prone to fibroids and fibrosarcomas include cockatoos, macaws, budgerigars, and parakeets.

Birds can also develop internal tumors that can affect the organs in the body. The most common type includes intra-abdominal masses found in the reproductive organs or the kidneys. A bird that has this type of tumor will often become sick and emaciated over time, because the tumor’s location and the pressure it puts on the abdominal tract can make it difficult for the bird to eat. Other signs include difficulty breathing and lameness in one or both legs.

There is another type of tumor can develop in the body’s lymphoid system. Lymph tissue can be found throughout the body, including in the lymph nodes, skin, gastrointestinal tract, liver, and spleen. A benign tumor in any of these areas is called a lipoma, which a malignant tumor is called a lymphosarcoma. These tumors are more prone to be found in obese birds and breeds like budgerigars, rose-breasted and sulphur-crested cockatoos, and gallah.

One type of tumor that isn’t caused by abnormal cells is a papilloma. A papilloma is a wart-like lesion that can form in the mouth cavity and the vent. It is caused by a virus called Psittacid herpesvirus, which affects breeds from South America, like the macaw and Amazon. These tumors can come and go without treatment, but in some cases, they can continue growing to the point that they can cause problems. In such cases, the tumor will need to be surgically removed.

Detecting Tumors on a Bird

You should check your bird on a regular basis for signs of lumps or bumps. If you see a mass on the bird’s skin or feel an unusual lump underneath her feathers, then you should take her to a specialized vet as soon as possible.

If the tumor looks questionable, then the veterinarian will take a biopsy of the tumor and send it to a pathologist to be tested. If the tumor is benign and not growing, then your vet will most likely recommend that you watch the tumor for any changes. If it is malignant, then surgical removal of the tumor is usually required.

In most cases, internal tumors are not as easy to detect. Therefore, you will usually notice other signs of something wrong, such as your bird not eating, refusing to stand on one leg, and weight loss. Because these symptoms can also be attributed to certain infectious diseases, your vet will need to conduct blood tests, imaging tests, and other diagnostic tests to determine what is causing your bird’s behavior.

Treatment for Cancers and Tumors in Birds

Benign tumors are the easiest to treat, as they can either be left alone or surgically removed. Malignant tumors are the more serious threat and treatment options are based on several key factors, including the seriousness of the diagnosis, where it is located, the size and weight of the bird, and more.

Chemotherapy and radiation are options that are usually used in conjunction with surgery and in cases where the bird is in such a state that she has nothing to lose. But, chemotherapy and radiation haven’t been used in the treatment of avian cancer for very long, so you may have to have your bird treated at a specialty clinic or university veterinary hospital if you chose to go this route.

Much like treatment, prognosis for a pet bird with a tumor depends on what type of tumor it is, where it is located, and how early it was caught.

Author: Giano Panzarella