by Diane Burroughs April 08, 2016 4 min read

Why is My Bird Breathing Heavily

Thousands of pet birds around the world die from parrot respiratory problems or illnesses, many of them caused by ordinary substances that are commonly found in the air. Know the signs of avian respiratory distress and seek immediate treatment.  

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. This gives them 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 a relatively weak immune system 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. Aspergillus

Aspergillus 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 anti-fungal 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. Cigarette 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.

Apart from that, 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 like 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 it’s 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.

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 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 a bird owner before has 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 vaporised 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 the 

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. 


Hey, please leave a comment or share this on your social media if you love this post! 

Join the UnRuffledRx Feather Plucking Help Facebook Group

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.