CBS2 Exclusive: Rescued Exotic Bird Tests Positive For Contagious Parrot Fever; Other Families Could Be At Risk

Dr. John Charos was interviewed by Channel 2 News about a rare outbreak of psittacosis, or parrot fever, that has made its way to Long Island.

VALLEY STREAM, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — A rare, contagious bird infection has surfaced on Long Island in a bird that was housed with more than 100 others. It’s an illness that could spread to humans.

As CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported, Aretha, an exotic bird, has been sitting in isolation after testing positive for exposure to a psittacosis, also known as parrot fever.

Her caretaker is now worried about her own health. Olivia Schmalfuss’ doctor suspects she may have caught parrot fever from her bird.

“I got very sick, and I had chills and fever,” Schmalfuss said.

“If you don’t go on antibiotics, you can get severely sick,” she added. “You can have terrible pneumonia, or you can even have organ swelling.”

Schmalfuss is also concerned about other unsuspecting bird foster families.

Aretha used to live with more than 100 other birds rescued by the SPCA in December from a house in Huntington.

Volunteer families eagerly took the birds in.

Could they now be at risk?

Dr. John Charos, who has been caring for Aretha, said birds can carry the bacteria without symptoms.

“The only way that you’re really going to get it is airborne, where you’re inhaling it and you’re inhaling little microparticles of the bacteria itself,” Charos said.

The Suffolk County Health Department is investigating and has not confirmed either case. Additional testing is underway.

Meanwhile, the SPCA sent out letters advising fostering families to test for parrot fever.

Animal rescue groups think the agency should have tested the birds first.

“They should all be tested, or even if it’s hundreds of animals, spot checked,” said animal rescuer Deborah Maffetone.

The nonprofit SPCA told CBS2 that it is the responsibility of the foster family to test, that each bird was examined on site by a vet and that the chances of infection are remote.

Exotic bird retailer BTJ Jungle says it advises customers to have birds tested.

“Birds are really good at not showing them the signs of being sick,” said BTJ Jungle’s Jennifer Coppola.

Aretha is expected to pull through. Schmalfuss is also recovering after receiving a round of antibiotics to fight parrot fever.

She said she’s going public so that the dangerous illness is not mistaken for the common flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says with proper treatment the disease is rarely fatal in people. There is no firm proof that it can spread between humans.

Photo: Aretha tested positive for exposure to psittacosis. (credit: CBS2)

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