Avian and Reptile Faecal Diagnostics

Why look at faecal samples?

For many avian and reptile patients, symptoms of gastrointestinal disease may be vague and non-specific. Other specimens may harbour pathogens without showing any external signs at all. Most keepers strive to keep their animals as healthy as possible. Faecal testing is one tool that may be used to achieve this. By looking at the faecal material, pathogenic organisms or their reproductive stages may be observed and their removal then specifically targeted with appropriate medication. For others, knowing the pathogen status allows them to decide if a routine treatment is needed or has been successful. Continued reliance on chemicals can be reduced if we only treat when an actual problem exists. Many ‘routine’ medications are not registered for use in birds and reptiles and thus the results of their use can often be unpredictable or dangerous. Faecal testing may allow us to know if the drug needs to be administered at all and can therefore reduce unnecessary drug reactions.

What are the limitations of this diagnostic tool?

Whilst faecal testing can be used to diagnose a plethora of pathogenic conditions, it is not by any means the only diagnostic tool that can be employed. Veterinarians often utilise this in combination with physical examination, auscultation, palpation and blood tests. Many of the commonly diagnosed conditions such as parasites or fungal infections are however most commonly diagnosed by these means.
Conditions that CANNOT be diagnosed solely via the examination of a faecal smear include respiratory disease, viral diseases, many bacterial infections, tumours, infections localised away from the gastrointestinal tract, infections specific to the start of the gastrointestinal tract, pathogens that die quickly when the faecal sample cools or dries and diseases of the integument.
Faecal testing relies on having a fresh sample to exam so that the pathogen may be examined with the best chances of finding the organism involved. Sometimes organisms exit in the faeces intermittently so may not always be visible. Other organisms are best observed when the sample is still warm. Certain organisms may be observed in faecal material only when they reach a certain point in their life cycle. Techniques used during examination may enhance the observation of some of these organisms to maximise their identification.

Why not just go to the vet?

In the perfect world, this is exactly what you should do. For some people however, work requirements, financial limitations or geographical isolation may mean that a trip to a vet with specific training in avian or reptile diseases is not an option. In these cases, this service may help to augment direct veterinary services allowing minor issues to be dealt with in a more timely fashion

Is the procedure difficult?

From a collection point of view, the procedure is quite simple and will allow any individual to collect and suitably transport a specimen. The sooner a specimen is received, the sooner it can be assessed. For this reason Express Postal services are preferred however if you are outside the range of these services, meaningful information can still be obtained in the majority of specimens are packed appropriately.
Transportation of a sample is as simple as collecting a small sample (up to the size of a garden pea is a good guide) of fresh faeces and folding it up in a piece of aluminium foil about 10 cm x 10 cm. Pop this in a small ziplock bag and pop it in the post. When collecting a sample, avoid the urates (white bit) if possible and try and tease out any large contaminants such as lumps of fur or insect wings.

Single or Pooled samples?

Whether to assess birds or reptiles individually or as a group or ‘pooled’ sample depends on the purpose of the investigation. In ill specimens and their direct associates or quarantine specimens, single samples may be more rewarding in that they give information on that individual’s health status. In bird and reptile colonies, where the whole group is the ‘individual’, then a ‘pooled’ sample comprising 10 random samples from within the group may give a more useful, and often more cost effective overview of the health of the entire group.

Do you supply collection kits?

This can be arranged but as can be seen by the collection instructions, most people will have suitable collection equipment around the home. If a collection kit is required then additional upfront costs will be incurred to cover postage and return of sample.

How much does a service like this cost?

The costs of these tests vary from vet to vet. The prices I charge are as follows:
First sample $15.50
Subsequent samples $5 each (up to ten samples)
Subsequent samples >10 samples $4 each

POOLED Samples (up to 10 samples in one packet – one combined result)
First sample $22
Subsequent samples $9 each

COLLECTION KIT (includes return postage) $7-$13 (specify number of samples to be collected)

How do I get my results and how are they into be interpreted?

The results will either be emailed or posted to you as nominated on the request form. The results will need little interpretation as they will be presented in laymen’s terms and simple instructions rather than confusing codes and latin names. I need you to be able to understand what has been observed and what is recommended regardless of your background. In many cases, the result may be that nothing was observed. This gives you peace of mind that there may be no need to preventatively treat for appropriate pathogens in that individual. A yearly faecal test is often more cost effective than purchasing over the counter medication that may well be out of date by the time you next need to use it.

Can you supply the medication to treat the infection that has been identified?

For most of the pathogens that can be observed via fresh faecal smears the medications required can be acquired via a number of means. For the vast majority of these it is easier and often cheaper for me to direct you to your local supplier or an online supplier of the product rather than double handling the product and the increased costs involved. In the case of pathogens that may only be treated with the use of prescription drugs, a prescription will be required to obtain an appropriate product from your local veterinarian or pharmacy. As the locality at which I evaluate samples (my home) is not a veterinary clinic, I cannot supply prescription medications directly. I am however more than happy to liaise’ with your local vet on medication options that may be available from their clinic.
I hope this information will allow you to decide if this diagnostic tool will be of assistance in your situation.

For further information, request forms or collection kits please email geckodan@bigpond.com .

Dr Danny Brown
BVSc(Hons) BSC(Hons) MANZCVSc (Avian Health)