Revised February 06, 2024
Birds have an incredible respiratory system that works differently than ours. Your parrot, for example, has more than half a dozen air sacs and a set of lungs, which is quite a bit more than our two lungs. This unique setup allows birds to breathe efficiently, not just when they breathe in, but also when they breathe out. Imagine it as a continuous flow, ensuring they always have a fresh supply of oxygen for all their flighted moments. Understanding your bird's efficient respiratory system is crucial for bird owners because it provides insights into their unique needs, helping you ensure a healthy and happy life for your feathered friend.
With their super-efficient respiratory systems, birds, like a canary in a coal mine, absorb elements from the air more effectively than humans, which can pose challenges in a household setting. Recognizing potential bird breathing issues is crucial for bird owners, as their heightened sensitivity to airborne factors could impact their well-being. Delve into understanding the five common causes of avian respiratory challenges, an essential step in maintaining a healthy environment for your feathered companion. This awareness is key, allowing you to detect potential issues early and take swift preventive measures, ensuring a safer and healthier life for your beloved bird
According to ScienceDirect.com, “Air sacs serve as internal compartments which hold air and facilitate internal air passage to allow birds to have a continuous flow of large volumes of air through the lungs as a way to increase oxygen exchange capacity and efficiency.”
"Dive into the marvel of avian breathing. Birds, with their specialized air sacs and lungs, exemplify respiratory efficiency. As an avian veterinarian, understanding and safeguarding this unique system is vital for their overall health."
Parrots fly through vast rainforests and jungles in search of food everyday! Migratory birds are capable of Intercontinental flight! Bird’s need the most efficient respiratory system possible.
Thousands of pet birds around the world die from parrot respiratory problems or illnesses every year. Many of these deaths are caused by ordinary substances that are commonly found in the home environment. In this blog post I will explore four main causes of parrot respiratory problems.
How do I know if my bird has a respiratory infection?
Before we delve into common causes of bird respiratory issues, let's understand the signs to look out for if your feathered friend might be facing a breathing problem.
Take a moment to notice your own breathing both indoors and outdoors. If you detect fragrances, experience coughing, or feel a bit breathless, your bird might be distressed.
Keep in mind that birds instinctively conceal pain, injuries, or illnesses for survival. They'll go to great lengths to hide breathing problems, making it crucial for you to be vigilant and educated.
Without proper awareness, you might miss subtle signs of breathing issues in your pet bird. These signs may only become apparent in advanced stages when the bird can no longer conceal them.
Our avian companions communicate subtle hints when facing respiratory challenges, emphasizing the need for attentive observation and understanding.
The key word here is “subtle.”
A bird breathing heavily may have the following symptoms:
- Open mouth breathing
- A clicking, rattle or gasping sound
- Tail bobbing with each breath
- A lethargic, weakness or fluffed up appearance
- Squinted eyes
- Rapid, shallow or conversely, deep, slow breathing
- Poor appetite
What causes birds to cough?
Coughing in birds is often caused by a buildup of mucus in their airways. The unique anatomy of birds results in a distinctive cough sound, resembling a honk or high-pitched squeak, with the bird often extending its neck during this action. This coughing behavior serves as an indication of respiratory distress, emphasizing the importance of prompt attention from an avian veterinarian to identify and address the underlying cause.
In addition to mucus accumulation, various factors can contribute to coughing in birds. Environmental irritants, such as dust, pollutants, or strong fragrances, may trigger respiratory distress. Infections, whether bacterial, viral, or fungal, can also lead to coughing as the bird's immune system responds to the intruders. It's crucial for bird owners to maintain a clean and well-ventilated environment, seek immediate veterinary attention if coughing persists, and address potential sources of respiratory stress to ensure the overall well-being of their feathered companions.
What does it mean when your bird is breathing heavily?
When your bird is breathing heavily, it indicates a potential respiratory issue. Birds, instinctively masking pain or distress, may exhibit this behavior in advanced stages of respiratory distress. Immediate attention from an avian vet is crucial to identify and address the underlying cause, ensuring the well-being of your feathered friend.
At this stage your bird is working all of its air sacs and lungs to full capacity just to catch a breath.
Are respiratory infections in birds contagious?
Some bird respiratory infections are contagious. For instance mites can migrate from one bird to another. Budgies and Cockatiels are prone to Mycoplasma or Chlamydophila that can be spread to other birds.
Avian respiratory infections occur more frequently in birds with compromised immune systems or malnutrition. For example, a vitamin A deficiency is a very common factor in many respiratory infections.
How can I help my bird with respiratory problems?
What is the structure of the lungs in a bird?
5 Main causes of bird breathing problems
1. BACTERIAL & FUNGAL INFECTIONS
Aspergillus is a common fungal infection or growth that kills thousands of pet birds every year around the world.
Tiny spores or microbes float in the air, which if breathed in by your pet can result in a serious upper respiratory infection needing immediate veterinary attention and treatment by antifungal and antibiotic medicines.
Symptoms only really start to appear in the later stages of infection. So by the time your bird gets treatment it is quite ill and it may take months to recover. If you see signs of distress such as open-mouthed breathing or a continually bobbing tail (a sign of labored breathing) then you need to get your bird to the vet immediately.
You can help to avoid these types of infections by making sure that your bird lives in a dry, naturally lighted and airy environment and that cage lining is changed frequently, especially in the summer.
2. CIGARETTE OR MARIJUANA SMOKE
Cigarette smoke is far worse for your bird than it is for humans. Apart from the fact that the average bird has less than 5% of the body weight of a human, their over absorbent lungs make cigarette smoke a virtual cocktail of lethal chemicals, such as nicotine, tar or whatever else the individual manufacturer has put in.
Apart from that, the airborne particles of ash from smoke lodge in your bird’s lungs making it susceptible to other illnesses Such as fungal or bacterial infections.
As a rule, If you're a smoker take it outside and away from your bird. Or, purchase a high quality air purifier and place it near your bird's cage. The air purifier will pull double-duty! Not only will it suck up the smoke but it will help keep your bird dander in check.
While not in the same league as cigarettes or marijuana, smoke from incense and candles also fall into this category. Incense and candles often have deadly fragrance additives. Apart from being a very strong smell that your bird probably won’t enjoy, the smoke is still full of toxins and ash particles and over time will have an effect.
Using a wood burning fireplace around your bird is not safe either. It's like there's a wildfire in your house spewing smoke everywhere. The smoke gets into your high vac system and is transported throughout your whole house.
A quality air purifier can really help you maintain the air quality inside of your home. Look for a unit that captures tiny particles like those found in smoke, yet that can handle oily bird dander. People in the bird community rave about Rabbit products. Here are a few of their best rated products.
3. TEFLON POISONING
Image courtesy of Environment Working Group © 2003
Teflon and birds just don't mix. The health effects of using Teflon are bad for us humans, but dyer for our birds. Did you know that Teflon can cause a disease known as Polymer Fume Fever?
Scientific name for teflon is polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). There are scientific studies regarding potential human carcinogenic properties with Teflon.
In late 2003, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), based in the United States, found that Teflon Toxicosis (or smoke inhalation due to the overheating of teflon pots and pans) is responsible for the deaths of thousands of pet birds each year, with the likelihood of many more cases going unreported.
It turns out that when heated to above 570 degrees Fahrenheit, the teflon coating decomposes releasing up to 6 very toxic gases, which not only kills birds but also makes humans sick as well.
This has been called “Teflon toxicosis", and causes the lungs of birds to hemorrhage and then fill with fluid, eventually leading to suffocation.
It’s a sad fact that in order to keep your bird safe, it is probably best to take all of your favorite non-stick cookware and replace it with either stainless steel or cast-iron. But, don’t feel too bad. A lot of bird owners have had to replace their cookware.
It's not just good for either you or your birds.
4. SPRAY CANS, AEROSOLS, CLEANING CHEMICALS
Cleaning chemicals, such as ammonia or other caustic agents, including vaporized vinegar, if inhaled by your bird can rapidly cause death, even at relatively low levels. Bug spray, including mosquito repellant is even worse.
If you think of how a burst of fly spray or caustic cleaning agent will often cause a human to get watery eyes, sneeze, or have a coughing fit, imagine the effect that the same inhalation will have on a bird who is many magnitudes smaller, and has super absorbent lungs to boot!
Apart from the toxic side effects of the chemicals, while coughing and sneezing the stress to the system is far greater for birds than humans, potentially causing serious distress and at worst, heart failure and sudden death.
A good rule of thumb regarding which products are bird safe is that if you can smell it it likely can damage your birds lungs. Many fragrances contain carcinogens.
5. COMPROMISED IMMUNITY AND MALNUTRITION
Perhaps The easiest way to support your bird's respiratory health is to ensure that your bird receives optimum, species-specific nutritional support.
I'm talking about ensuring that your bird routinely gets adequate vitamin A and Omega fatty acids in its diet.
Misinformation abounds regarding the appropriateness of a seed diet for birds, particularly our smaller companions like budgies and cockatiels. Comparatively, offering seeds to birds resembles providing a child with potato chips at every meal. Even vitamin-coated seeds prove ineffective as the bird cracks off the seed hull, causing the vitamin coating to fall to the cage bottom. It is crucial to dispel these misconceptions and prioritize a nutritionally balanced diet for optimal avian health.
Upgrade your bird's diet pronto! Switch to high-quality, science-backed bird pellets paired with a variety of fresh plant-based superfoods. Ensuring a diverse range of plant-based foods is crucial for your bird's overall well-being. Explore reputable brands such as Harrison's and Roudybush for top-notch nutrition.
Incorporating natural raw, plant-based sources is essential, yet crafting a fresh, plant-based bird chop regularly may not be feasible for every household. That's where my upcoming bird cookbook, "Chirp & Chew: Gourmet Delights for Your Feathered Friend," comes in! This guide offers super-nutritious recipes that are not only quick but also provides insights on freezing bird-sized portions. With this resource, you can ensure a rich variety of plant-based nutrition for your feathered friend without spending all day in the kitchen.
In conclusion, you're now equipped to be proactive when it comes to your bird's respiratory health. Pick up a few supplies to help your bird out today.
Can Aspergillosis Kill My Bird
Merck Veterinary Manual. (n.d.). Lung and Airway Disorders of Pet Birds. In Pet Owner Version. Retrieved from https://www.merckvetmanual.com/bird-owners/disorders-and-diseases-of-birds/lung-and-airway-disorders-of-pet-bird.
Rangiora Vet Centre. (2023). Chicken “Snuffles” aka Respiratory Disease. Retrieved from https://www.rangioravetcentre.co.nz/chicken-snuffles
Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in avian anxiety disorders and is certified in Nutrition For Mental Health. Diane has written a number of bird behavior books and she offers behavior consultations. She's developed a range of UnRuffledRx Science-backed Parrot Wellness Supplies.
Diane's products have been featured in the Journal of Avian Medicine and Surgery and at Exoticscon, a conference for exotic pet veterinarians. Her bird collars & supplements are stocked in avian vet clinics and bird stores throughout the US. With over 30 years in the field of behavior, Diane has created thousands of successful individualized behavior plans that help pets thrive.
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