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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Is Songbird Fever a Threat to Your Cat?

April 17, 2015 / (6) comments

I visited a farm this week and had the opportunity to watch their “barn cat” hunt. The object of her attention was a bird. Despite this little lioness’s obvious prowess, the bird escaped unscathed. I was happy for the bird, but also relieved that the cat had potentially dodged a bullet. I’m talking about a disease that goes by the intriguing name “songbird fever.”


Like many animals, songbirds (cardinals, chickadees, finches, sparrows, etc.) can become infected with Salmonella bacteria. Some individuals become sick while others become asymptomatic carriers, but in either case, they shed the bacteria in their droppings. Exposure to these droppings can then pass the infection along to other animals.


The gastrointestinal tract is actually quite good at getting rid of ingested Salmonella. The acidic environment of the stomach kills most bacteria, so it really takes quite a large dose to result in an infection. Unfortunately, bird feeders provide just the right environment for Salmonella infections to propagate.


Think about it: At this time of year, birds are migrating, breeding, and expending large amounts of energy when many of their natural food sources are just starting to become available. They will congregate in massive numbers around bird feeders, pooping as they eat.


The equation is quite simple. More birds lead to more poop, which increases the chances that birds will come into contact with high concentrations of Salmonella and become ill.


Sick and dead birds are easy prey for cats. A cat who eats a bird slowed down or killed by salmonellosis is going to be exposed to large numbers of the bacteria, which can easily overwhelm the cat’s own natural protective measures. When a cat develops a Salmonella infection after eating (or being suspected of eating) a bird, songbird fever is the result.


The clinical signs associated with songbird fever include fever (obviously), lethargy, loss of appetite, diarrhea that may have blood in it, and vomiting.


Cats are sick for a couple of days to a week or more. Up to 10% may die, especially if they are very young, very old, or otherwise immunosuppressed. Treatment for songbird fever includes supportive care (fluid therapy, anti-nausea medications, etc.), and antibiotics if the cat’s condition warrants their use.


Songbird fever is obviously bad for the cats who come down with it, but it also poses a risk to the people who come in contact with those cats. Cats with songbird fever can expose people to Salmonella while they are ill and for quite a long time thereafter. The bacteria may be shed from a cat’s intestinal tract for three to six weeks after a cat has recovered.


Salmonella can also hide out in cells within intestinal lymph nodes, the spleen, or liver. When these “carrier” cats become stressed or immunocompromised, the bacteria can take advantage of the situation and become active again, which may result in illness and/or bacterial shedding.


To protect everyone’s well-being, songbirds should not be part of a cat’s diet. Keep your cats indoors.



Dr. Jennifer Coates



Image: puchan / Shutterstock


Comments  6

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  • Good enough reason for me
    04/17/2015 02:58pm

    "The bacteria may be shed from a cat’s intestinal tract for three to six weeks after a cat has recovered."
    And still, people allow cats to walk on their counter tops tables and other food preparation areas, (It's not like you can stop them from doing it), when knowing full well that they've been digging in their litter boxes, which are full of this bacteria which originates, (obviously), from what is shed from their intestinal tract. Even if this bacteria isn't present, poopy paws in general is enough to turn my stomach when I see a cat where it doesn't belong.
    That is the number one reason why I do not and never will have a cat in my house.

  • 04/17/2015 06:24pm

    Actually, cats can be trained not to jump on counters (or anyplace else you don't want them to be). You are quite mistaken. I'd say dogs track in more dirt and poop and disease just by virtue of having to go outside!

  • 04/18/2015 02:01am

    I have yet to see a cat that can be trained to do anything other than what it wants to do of it's own free will. When I was younger my mother always had at least one cat and to this doy my sister has anywhere from one to three of them at any one time. I know many other people who have them as well and as I said, I haven't yet seen one that can be trained. That being said, I have yet to see a dog walking on a table, counter top or other food preparation surface. I'm sure there are a few cats that can be trained as well as a few dogs who will get onto a table or counter top but the ratio I see favors dogs as my pet of preference in that regard. I mean no disrespect, you may have the best cat in the world, but don't expect me to accept an invitation to eat a meal in your home.
    I've known and lived with cats and dogs all of my life so far, (almost 60 years). I've been attacked and injured by cats on several occasions, but only once by a dog, and that was my own fault. You aren't going to change my mind about what I've seen and experienced, and I'll reciprocate by not trying to change your mind.

  • HHHmmmm.
    04/17/2015 09:51pm

    I hadn't heard of Songbird Fever until now. Makes me really glad my Fluffies live indoors only.

  • 04/18/2015 02:08am

    Thank you for being a responsible cat owner. Keeping them indoors is better for them in so many ways and it also keeps your neighbors from being tempted to hurt them. Cats are not my favorite creatures by a long shot, (and for a few different reasons), but I've met a few very likeable cats. Cats, like any other pets, need love and attention, if you treat any animal as an accessory or feel burdened by it's presence it will sense the feeling and it won't be the best companion it could be. Adopting any pet is a serious commitment and I applaud those who take that commitment as seriously as they should. May you have many years of happy companionship with your pets.

  • My 50+ yrs with dogs,cats
    04/20/2015 02:14pm

    I have lived with both dogs & cats all my life, and it is pretty much true about most cats being untrainable, but you can make things harder for them to get on tables. Luckily, up until 2 yrs ago, i had 3 cats whom didn't jump except on furniture. I know, it is gross, and since i don't eat on my table anymore (watch tv while i eat!) i just wipe it down if i do have to do anything foodwise. I'm more of a dog person too but can appreciate cats. I have 1 in particular, an old guy, who actually does mind, he can't jump high for some reason esp now that he's old. He comes when called, we have a ritual where i tell him time to go to bed (or he actually tries to encourage me to go to bed by bothering me & meowing til i get my a** to bed before 4 a.m.!) I'm disabled so my animals are pretty much my life & i do try to work with the cats, the young tomcat is getting better too but i catch him on the table now & then & just grab him & put him on the floor. They are completely indoors now (were all strays that came to my parents' house, i took all of them in after my first cat passed. Couldn't even get near them as they were semi-feral & i guess this is the training part--i just walked & talked & kept things quiet, it tooks months before i would even see them. Eventually after a year, i could pet them a little. It took years tho before i gained their trust & the 16 yr old is still skittish most times. Dogs, oh god, i have had such great dogs. The last 2 (current one included here!) were a breeze to train, in fact, i pretty much played off their natural abilities. The one that passed in 2012, a lab mix, was the smartest dog, hands down, i've ever had. Now my lab/pit mix is just great, we have a very tight bond & she minds me even better when it comes to staying by me. No leash walking, a few commands (sit, stay, down, shake hands, high five, and give hugs are most common ones, and she can stand across the road from a deer or any other animal, if i say no chase or something similar, she just watches it. I think that takes tremendous willpower. So i guess the thing with most any animal is does it trust you, do you respect it, treat it fairly & not abuse or strike it, etc.? Cats are tough, i admit but i think it can be done, but by no means easy! And i do agree that cats shouldn't be on counters. I guess just being diligent about using antibacterial sprays on tables & countertops is key with a disposable paper towel. Altho not a one of our cats ever got sick when being outside hunting birds & squirrels. So sometimes i think they put the fear of God in us with those articles. It's good to know about but don't obcess about it & just enjoy life, but don't be stupid either. None of our famly all thru these years has ever gotten salmonella and we are talking loads of cats. So maybe it's more prevalent in some areas too. Who really knows? People with an immune compromised system prob are the ones more at risk. Great comments, no real arguing, just all of us giving our versions of how we've dealt with life with cats (and for me, dogs!) Ya all have a great weekend.