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by Diane Burroughs July 24, 2021 8 min read

Our pet birds are prone to developing parrot breathing problems for a variety of reasons.  If you love your bird you should learn about the five most common causes of parrot breathing problems. This easily preventable problem will help you enjoy your feathered friend for years to come.

Birds have extremely efficient respiratory systems.  In fact, your parrot has over a half a dozen air sacs and a set of lungs. Compare this to your two lungs. 

Right? There's no comparison.

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.” 

I think that's a fancy way of saying that your bird needs oxygen going to each and every cell in its body to fly.The efficient bird respiratory system enables flight. 

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.

But, there's a downside to all of that breathing efficiency, though.  It also means that birds absorb airborne contaminants at a higher rate making them prone to bird breathing problems. 

Parrot respiratory problems

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.

I’m Diane Burroughs, LCSW.  I founded BirdSupplies.com and the brand, UnRuffledRx, a line of science-backed parrot wellness products that will help your bird thrive, both emotionally and physically. In this blog, I'll answer a number of questions about parrot breathing problems and what to do about it.

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

Before I dive into  common causes of bird respiratory problems it's important  to know what to look for if you suspect that your bird may have a breathing problem.  

It's just as important to make note of your own breathing both inside the house and outdoor the air quality. You can bet your bottom dollar that if you're coughing or have a little shortness of breath your bird is in distress.

Our feathered friends put off subtle signs  when they're having bird respiratory problems.  

The key word here is “subtle.”  

You must always remember that your bird instinctively tries to hide any pain, injuries, or illnesses as a matter of survival. It will make every effort to hide breathing problems from you.

That means that, unless you educate yourself, you won't notice the subtle signs of breathing problems in your pet bird. You may only notice a problem when it's in an advanced stage and the bird can no longer hide it. 

Print out this symptom list and keep it in your bird first aid kit.

When a bird is experiencing respiratory distress it may have the following symptoms:

  • Open mouth breathing
  • Potential clicking, rattle or gasping sound
  • Tail bobbing with each breath
  • Lethargy, Weakness or Fluffed up appearance
  • Rapid, shallow or conversely, deep, slow breathing
  • Coughing
  • Poor appetite

If you notice any parrot breathing problems whatsoever, get your bird to an avian vet ASAP. Find a vet here.

What causes birds to cough?

One thing that you may not notice is how to tell when your bird is coughing. Birds don't have a diaphragm and therefore they make a different sound when they're coughing or sneezing. Sneezing sounds kind of like a clicking sound. 

A bird with a respiratory infection can cough, sneeze, or wheeze. The most obvious signs that your bird is experiencing respiratory distress is tail bobbing behavior, nasal drainage, and watery eyes.

What does it mean when your bird is breathing heavily?

By the time the infection has progressed to the point of tail bobbing, your bird is in considerable distress and needs immediate emergency care veterinarian support. 

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 toMycoplasma orChlamydophilathat 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.

5 Main causes of Parrot 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

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 ispolytetrafluoroethylene (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 thatTeflon 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.

We've been fed a mess that a seed diet is appropriate for our Birds. Especially our smallest Feathered Friends, budgies and Cockatiels. Seed diets for birds is kind of like feeding your child potato chips and every meal. Even Vitamin Coated seeds go to waste because the vitamin coating is on the seed Hull which the bird cracks off and it drops down to the bottom of the cage.

Get your bird on a new diet as soon as possible. I'm talking about premium, science backed bird pellets supplemented with fresh plant-based, superfoods that support your birds respiratory health. Two of the best quality pellet brands are Harrison's and Roudybush.

 

Of course, natural raw, plant-based food sources are a must. But, making a  fresh, plant-based bird chop every few days isn't practical for every household.I’ve found a quick start guide that actually provides super nutritious recipes. Better yet, you'll learn how to freeze bird size portions so that you're not in the kitchen all day long.

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.

If you'd like to learn more about parrot respiratory problem, check out my other blogs on the subject matter:

CanAspergillosis Kill My Bird

What Does It Mean If Your Bird Is Panting?

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

Diane Burroughs, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist trained in ABA therapy techniques. She specializes in anxiety disorders and nutrition for mental health. With over 30 years experience, in a range of settings, she’s created thousands of successful behavior plans to help turn around challenging behavior. She’s authored a number of books on supporting challenging behavior in birds.

Hey there! Because of conscientious parrot caretakers like you we are able to continue to offer valuable, science-backed parrot wellness support that will help your feathered friend to thrive so that you can enjoy it for years to come.

Please take a moment to share this blog with your friends and on your social media. If you want to learn more about science back parrot Wellness, check out my social media channels like YouTube and Pinterest. And request access to my private Facebook group, UnRuffledRx Feather Plucking Help. I can find it by clicking the banner below.


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