Your Parrot's Respiratory System

Your Parrot's Respiratory System

Bird Air Sacs

Why you need to know about your bird’s respiratory system

Birds have a super-efficient respiratory system allowing them absorb enough oxygen to fly great distances.  Why should you care about this?  Pet, house-bound birds may not need to fly great distances, but their bodies still process air at a significantly more efficient rate that we do.  This means that if household air quality contains chemicals, toxins, bacteria or fungal spores, our birds breathe them in and are prone to respiratory distress at a potentially fatal rate.

Secondly, because of the avian anatomy, you need to learn how to handle your bird safely without crushing an air sac. Always gently handle your bird gently, restraining side to side supporting wings and head.  Never hold your bird from top to bottom to avoid rupturing an air sac.

Parrots Respiratory System vs. land-dwelling animals

Parrot Respiratory System

A bird’s anatomy is quite unique and complex, designed to supplement long strenuous flight.  While parrots are not migratory birds, they still fly miles a day in search of food, clay licks and water. Bird’s lungs have evolved into super -efficient oxygen processors to allow them to engage in aerobic exercise with minimal oxygen!

Most land dwelling animals are incapable of living at such high altitudes because our lungs do not efficiently process oxygen.  Land dwelling animals lungs are relatively large for our body size and contain ducts that flow into small sacs to feed oxygen to the lungs. Air enters the mouth or nose and moves down to the trachea where it is shuttled through a complex series of- bronchi, before finally entering the tiny air capillaries. Capillaries are where spent gases are exchanged with useful, needed gases through blood.  Blood moves oxygen to all of the body’s cells.

Birds, on the other hand, have a number of air sacs scattered throughout their torso.  Birds may have 7-9 air sacs located in strategic locations to efficiently deliver oxygen to large muscle groups responsible for flight.  Pressure changes in the air sacs moves air throughout their system. The sternum to be pushed outward by muscles creating negative pressure in the air sacs and causing air to enter the respiratory system. Expiration requires certain muscles to contract to increase the pressure on the air sacs and push the air out. Because the sternum must move during respiration, it is essential to restrain your bird very gently.  Holding a bird "too tight" during grooming may result in suffocation.

Bird lungs, on the other hand, operate quite differently.  Birds lungs inflate but they don't deflate - they hold a constant volume of air. Visualize water flowing through a sponge. Air enters the bird’s lungs and then travels to nearby air sacs which function like bellows and push air through bird’s lungs. Birds need their lungs to be steady in order to maintain altitude. Continuously inflated lungs enable a bird to maintain optimum altitude levels while allowing it to have significantly higher energy levels than mammals.

How Super-Efficient Lungs Affect Indoor Bird’s

A bird’s respiratory system is much more efficient than our dogs, cats or even people. This efficient system allows more oxygen to be transferred with each breath. On the flip side, it also means that toxins in the air are also absorbed more efficiently. If we breathe the same concentration of toxins such as those from Teflon, household cleaners and paint, we barely notice a problem. The same concentration for a pet bird, though, may be lethal.

Common Causes of Respiratory Distress

BACTERIAL, FUNGAL or PROTOZOA. Each type of infection is caused by a different organism and each type of infection will require a different medication. Not one medication that will treat all three.

Prevention is the best medicine

  1. Inspect seed or pellets to insure that they are fresh and clean
  2. Always remove wet, moist food and bedding promptly.
  3. Insure that cage paper or substrate is clean and free from moisture.  Change routinely.
  4. Dripping water bottles, water splashes from bird baths etc. mix with tray debris creating a hazardous environment where bacteria and fungus prosper.
  5. Routinely clean and disinfect cage, water and food bowls and cage accessories with a bird safe disinfectant such as Pet Focus. Routine splatters and messes can be cleaned quickly with AviClean.

Symptoms of Parrot Respiratory Distress 

Please seek immediate veterinary advice any time you see your bird exhibiting signs of respiratory distress.  Stabilize the bird in a small hospital cage.  Quarantine from the bird from rest of flock. 

  • A respiratory squeak, click or wheezing
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Tail-bobbing
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Frequent stretching of the neck
  • Loss of voice


Global College of Natural Medicine (

Veterinary and Aquatic Services Department, Dr. Fosters & Smith

Dr. Thomas Caceci,


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