Bird respiratory problems

Parrot Respiratory System - What does it mean if a bird is panting?

Is your bird breathing heavily?  Maybe you hear a clicking sound when it breaths or you see it coughing.  A sure sign of respiratory distress is a bobbing tail. Find out the most common culprits of avian respiratory distress and what to do about them.

What does it mean if a bird is panting?

Each year thousands of pet birds around the world die from parrot respiratory problems or illnesses. In pet bird’s many of these deaths are caused by ordinary substances that are commonly found in the air. 

Know the signs of avian respiratory distress and seek immediate treatment.  Respiratory problems in bird's is considered a medical emergency.

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

  • Open mouth breathing
  • Potential clicking, rattle or “gaspy” sound
  • Tail bobbing with each breath
  • Lethargy, weakness or fluffed up appearance
  • Rapid, shallow or conversely, deep, slow breathing
  • Coughing
  • Poor appetite

Bird’s have much higher energy needs for their body size compared to humans, and so they are much more efficient at absorbing elements out of the air they breathe. They need an optimized respiratory system to fly great distances.

An optimized respiratory system gives bird's the benefit of being able to absorb much more oxygen out of every breath, but also means that they absorb far more of the toxins that are in the air.

This, coupled with an innate need to hide illness, injuries, and pain means that birds can contract an illness, degrade and then pass away within just a few days. Especially when it involves breathing in toxic substances. In some cases the whole process can take less than 24 hours.

Below, we've listed some of the most common causes for respiratory distress in parrots.

1. Aspergillosis

Aspergillpsis is a fungal infection or growth that can be deadly.  

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 of antifungal and antibiotic medicines.

Birds affected can take months to get better as symptoms only really start to appear in the later stages of infection. 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 regularly. Also, make sure that your bird always has access to clean food and water.

2. 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 and whatever the individual manufacturers put in.

The airborne particles of ash from the smoke lodge inside of your bird’s lungs making it susceptible to a host of other illnesses.  What's worse is that nicotine gets on your hands and every time that you pet your bird, you deposit chemicals on your birds feathers that it ingests when it preens.

As a rule, if you are a smoking household that likes to partake inside the home, then you should keep your bird in a safe location at all times.  Keep in mind that, with central air, air in one room eventually makes its way to every other room and your bird will pick it up.

While not in the same league as cigarettes, smoke from incense and scented candles also falls into this category.  Any smoke in the air is toxic for birds.  In the case of forest fires, keep your bird inside with the air conditioner running to avoid inhalation of fumes. 

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.

With an increase in raging forest fires our air quality is rapidly declining.  We've had daily air quality warning throughout much of the US this summer.  

A recent news reports that that haze in the sky is full of toxic chemicals and even deadly metal particles.  During fire season, it is best to not take your bird outside.  Even better, run the air conditioner and even consider a high quality air purifier.  Both you and your bird will be. better off.  

3. Teflon Toxicosis

Teflon fumes and parrot respiratory problems

Image courtesy of Environment Working Group © 2003

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 600 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, many bird owners before have had to do the same!  If you do choose to use teflon products, including cookware and heating devices, always stay close to monitor that it isn't overheating.


4. Spray Cans, Chemicals and Cleaning Supplies

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.

As much as possible, try to eliminate aerosols from your home.  Opt in for homemade cleaning solutions like those found on 

In all cases, you should be vigilant for signs of labored breathing in your bird and if sighted, get your bird to the vet as soon as possible. 

If you'd like to learn more about protecting your bird's respiratory health check out my other blogs:

Can Aspergillosis Kill My Bird

Check back again soon. Do you have a parrot question that you'd like help on? 

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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