Bird Breathing

The 5 Causes of Bird Breathing Problems & What To Do To Help Your Bird Fast

Is Your Bird's Breathing Normal? The Surprising Reasons Behind Respiratory Issues Unveiled. Find Out What Environmental Hazards Could Be Putting Your Feathered Friend at Risk. Take Action Now to Ensure Their Health and Happiness! 🐦

 Revised March 24, 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, “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.” 

What experts say about feather plucking birds

"Dive into the marvel of avian breathing. Birds, with their specialized air sacs and lungs, exemplify respiratory efficiency. 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 every year. Many of these deaths are caused by ordinary substances that are commonly found in our home environments. In this blog post I will explore four main causes of parrot respiratory problems.

 Bird respiratory system

How do I know if my bird has a respiratory infection? 

Before we dive 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 about the symptoms.

bird breathing heavily


Without proper awareness, you might miss subtle early 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.


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

  • Coughing

  • Poor appetite
If you observe your bird struggling to breathe, seek immediate attention from an exotics or avian veterinarian. Respiratory distress in birds is a critical medical emergency that demands prompt professional assistance.  Find an avian vet here.

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 is one symptom that the bird might have trouble breathing. It needs quick help from a vet to find and fix the problem.

Besides mucus buildup, several things can make birds cough. Stuff like dust, pollution, aerosol spays, or strong smells in the air can irritate their respiratory tract. Also, infections from bacteria, viruses, or fungi can cause coughing as their body fights the invaders. It's important for bird owners to keep their space clean and airy, get help from a vet if their bird keeps coughing, and fix anything that might be stressing their bird's breathing, so their feathered friend stays healthy.

What does it mean when your bird is breathing heavily?

When your bird is breathing heavily, it indicates a potential respiratory issue. Birds, instinctively mask pain or distress and often only show symptoms of being sick in the 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 and malnutrition. For example, a vitamin A deficiency is a very common factor in many bird respiratory infections.

How can I help my bird with respiratory problems?

  1. Place your bird in a small cage cage in a stress-free area and observe its breathing more closely.
  2. Remove your bird from any fumes or strong smells that could be bothering its breathing.
  3. Ensure it is in a well-ventilated, yet draft-free area.
  4. Check for any signs of mucus or discharge around the bird's nostrils or beak and gently clean if necessary.
  5. Monitor your bird closely for any other symptoms like lethargy, loss of appetite, or unusual behavior.
  6. Seek immediate veterinary attention if the breathing problems persist or worsen over the next several minutes, as it could indicate respiratory distress.
  7. Follow your vet's recommendations for treatment and make any necessary adjustments to your bird's living conditions to promote recovery and prevent future respiratory distress.
If your bird needs vet help, the vet might give it oxygen to help it breathe better. They might also suggest using glucocorticoids or anti-inflammatory drugs. To keep your bird healthy long-term, make sure the air where it lives is clean and well-ventilated.

What is the structure of the lungs in a bird?

Birds have a special breathing system because they use a lot of energy for flying and moving around. Their lungs are set up to get plenty of oxygen from the air they breathe. The way their lungs work lets air flow smoothly through them, so they can take in oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide easily. This helps them stay active and healthy.

In a bird's breathing system, there are air sacs connected to the lungs that help with the flow of air. These air sacs make sure the air moves in one direction when the bird breathes in and out. This setup helps them get fresh air full of oxygen all the time, which is important for their body to work well.

Birds can have trouble breathing from things like aerosol sprays, household cleaners, or Teflon cookware. Infections from bacteria and fungi can also come from a dirty cage when droppings mix with food in the tray. That's why it's important to change the tray paper frequently and make sure they have fresh air to stay healthy.

5 Main causes of bird breathing problems


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 already 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.


Cigarette and marijuana smoke is especially dangerous for birds due to their highly efficient lungs and sensitivity to chemicals. Their lungs can quickly absorb harmful substances like nicotine and tar from cigarette smoke, which can be deadly for them.

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. 

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 HVAC 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.


Teflon fumes and parrot breathing problems

 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 report that they feel so much better when they remove harmful chemicals from their home.


Strong-smelling substances like cleaning chemicals (such as ammonia, bleach, or other strong cleaners) and aerosols like bug spray or mosquito repellent can be extremely harmful to your bird. Even small amounts of these fumes, if inhaled, can lead to rapid death. If you notice a strong scent, it is even more dangerous to your bird's ultra-sensitive respiratory system.

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!

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. 


Perhaps The easiest way to support your bird's respiratory health is to ensure that your bird receives optimum, species-specific nutritional support.  

Birds require a variety of nutrients to maintain an optimal respiratory system. These nutrients play crucial roles in supporting lung function, promoting respiratory health, and ensuring efficient oxygen exchange. Here are some key nutrients that are important for a bird's respiratory system:

  1. Vitamin A: Vitamin A is essential for maintaining healthy respiratory tissues, including the mucous membranes and air sacs. It also supports the immune system, helping birds to fight off respiratory infections.

  2. Vitamin D: Vitamin D helps the lungs fight infections by boosting the body's natural defense system. It plays a crucial role in how the lungs detect and fight off harmful germs. When the innate immune system in the lungs is activated, it also triggers the long-term immune response, which helps in providing lasting protection against pathogens.

  3. Vitamin E: Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps protect cells from oxidative damage. It plays a role in maintaining the integrity of lung tissues and supports overall respiratory function.

  4. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, found in sources like flaxseeds, fish oil, and certain nuts, have anti-inflammatory properties that can benefit respiratory health by reducing inflammation in the airways.

  5. Protein: Protein is crucial for building and repairing tissues, including respiratory tissues. It also supports the immune system, helping birds to resist respiratory infections.

  6. Minerals: Minerals such as magnesium, zinc, and selenium are important for respiratory health. Magnesium helps with muscle function, including the muscles involved in breathing, while zinc and selenium play roles in immune function and tissue repair.

  7. Water: Proper hydration is essential for maintaining respiratory health. It helps keep mucous membranes moist, facilitates mucus production for trapping dust and particles, and supports overall lung function.

  8. Providing a balanced diet that includes a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and high-quality pellets or formulated diets specifically designed for birds can help ensure that they receive the necessary nutrients to maintain an optimum respiratory system. It's also important to avoid exposing birds to environmental pollutants or toxins that can compromise their respiratory health. Regular veterinary check-ups can help monitor a bird's overall health, including their respiratory system, and address any nutritional deficiencies or respiratory issues promptly.

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.

Related Posts:

Bird Safe Cleaning Supplies

Aspergillosis Kill My Bird

What Does It Mean If Your Bird Is Panting?

Caring For Your Bird’s Respiratory System In The Wake Of Wildfires


Merck Veterinary Manual. (n.d.). Lung and Airway Disorders of Pet Birds. In Pet Owner Version. Retrieved from

Rangiora Vet Centre. (2023). Chicken “Snuffles” aka Respiratory Disease. Retrieved from

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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