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Respiratory Disease in Birds

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Medical Conditions, Pet Services

Respiratory diseases are among the most common problems seen in all species of pet birds. Because they can have a variety of causes, early diagnosis by your veterinarian and proper treatment is necessary to prevent severe illness.

What are some of the causes of respiratory disease in pet birds?

Respiratory problems can have many causes. Feeding an all-seed diet is a common problem among many birds with respiratory problems. Seeds contain very little vitamin A, which is needed for the normal development of epithelium (skin cells), which lines the respiratory tract. Vitamin A deficiency results in abnormal epithelium, which is easily invaded by microorganisms, such as bacteria. However, parasites, tumors, fungi (e.g., Aspergillus), viruses, Mycoplasma (a unique kind of bacteria), and especially the Chlamydophila bacteria (which causes parrot fever or chlamydiosis in birds), can cause respiratory infections in birds, as well.

Sometimes organ enlargement due to tumors or infection will result in respiratory problems (difficulty breathing) because of pressure caused by the enlarged organ on the bird’s respiratory tract.

Rarely, inflammation from environmental irritants may also cause signs of respiratory disease, such as sneezing.

Exposure to environmental toxins, such as cigarette smoke and aerosol sprays, can cause respiratory signs in birds.

"Nonstick cookware and Teflon-coated appliances, such as stoves and toaster ovens, should never be used around birds."

Sudden death can occur with exposure to overheated Teflon cookware, as burned Teflon pans emit an odorless colorless vapor that causes sudden death in birds when they breathe it in. Nonstick cookware and Teflon-coated appliances, such as stoves and toaster ovens, should never be used around birds.

Are certain causes more common in particular species?

Yes, and this is one of the many reasons that it is important to go to a veterinarian knowledgeable in pet bird medicine. For example, budgerigars (budgies) and cockatiels are often infected with Mycoplasma or Chlamydophila and may or may not show signs of infection, but they can spread these diseases to other birds.

Many older, seed-eating Amazon parrots suffer from vitamin A deficiency and as a result are predisposed to developing bacterial sinus infections, while finches and canaries are commonly infected with air sac mites.

Is it true that drafts can cause my bird to catch a cold?

No, that is a myth. While it is not healthy for a bird to receive constant direct airflow (too hot or too cold), as it would if placed directly beneath or over an air vent, respiratory disease will not develop just because of a draft. Birds are very tolerant of temperature changes, but rapid changes from cold to hot or vice-versa challenge a pet's immune system and may make it less resistant to infection.

What are some of the signs of respiratory disease in birds?

Birds can show a variety of clinical signs, depending on where in their respiratory tracts the infection lies. A bird’ s respiratory tract is roughly divided into the upper airways (nasal passages, sinuses, and trachea) and lower respiratory tract (lungs and air sacs – translucent membranes within the bird’s chest, abdomen, and inside some of their bones). Birds with infections of the trachea may show nothing more than a voice change. Birds with infections in the lungs or air sacs may have difficulty breathing.

"A bird with increased respiratory effort generally shows an up and down bob of its tail with each breath."

Some birds with respiratory disease will have watery eyes; still others will sneeze, wheeze, cough, and have nasal discharge. Mildly affected birds may not show clear respiratory signs but will just appear ruffled, fail to perch, and keep their eyes closed. A bird with increased respiratory effort generally shows an up and down bob of its tail with each breath. A bird showing any of these signs should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

With all the various causes of respiratory disease, how will my veterinarian accurately diagnose my bird's problem?

The history you provide your veterinarian (the signs your bird is showing, their duration, and your bird’s overall behavior) is very important, as is a thorough physical examination. In addition, your veterinarian has many laboratory tests at his or her disposal. Typically, as long as a bird is not having too much difficulty breathing, your veterinarian will likely want to take a blood sample to check your bird’s red and white blood cell counts and organ function.

"The history you provide your veterinarian (the signs your bird is showing, their duration, and your bird's overall behavior) is very important, as is a thorough physical examination."

For bird’s showing upper respiratory signs, such as sneezing or discharge from the eyes or nose, your vet may want to obtain a sample from a  sinus aspirate (in which a small needle is inserted into the sinus to obtain a sample) or a nasal flush (in which fluid is flushed through the nostrils to obtain a sample of material in the nasal passages). Sometimes your veterinarian may choose to culture the bird's respiratory discharge, or the sinus aspirate or nasal flush samples collected to look for specific bacteria and fungus.

If your bird is showing signs of lower respiratory tract infections, such as coughing or difficulty breathing, your veterinarian also may want to obtain a radiograph (X-ray) of the bird's lungs and air sacs. In addition to general bloodwork, your veterinarian may suggest running tests specific for particular causes of respiratory tract infections, such as chlamydiosis or aspergillosis.

Is it possible for me to treat my bird at home with medication sold at the pet store?

Using over-the-counter medications purchased from a pet store or drug store is not the best way to treat a sick bird. Just as you see a doctor when you are ill, so should your bird. The only way to properly diagnose a sick bird’s problem is to have a thorough physical examination and appropriate blood tests – something only a bird-savvy veterinarian would know how to do. People who seek out medical advice from a pet store and try to treat their birds with over-the counter drugs often waste valuable time by delaying proper therapy for their pets and end up spending more money at their veterinarian’s office treating very sick birds. In addition, most of the drugs sold at pet stores are antibiotics that are ineffective against most of the causes of respiratory disease in birds.

"To avoid delaying proper diagnosis and treatment of your bird, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian at the first signs of respiratory problems."

Remember, antibiotics only treat bacteria, and if the cause of the respiratory infection is not bacterial, no antibiotic will be effective. To avoid delaying proper diagnosis and treatment of your bird, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian at the first signs of respiratory problems.

How is respiratory disease treated in birds?

Once the correct diagnosis is made, your veterinarian may suggest a course of antibiotics if the problem is a bacterial infection. Oral or nebulized (aerosolized) antifungal drugs are used to treat fungal disease, such as aspergillosis, and oral or injectable anti-parasitic drugs are used to treat parasitic infections, such as air sac mites. Improper diets are slowly corrected, and vitamin supplementation is used if vitamin A deficiency is suspected. Seriously-ill birds are hospitalized, so that injectable and aerosolized medications can be used, and force-feeding and IV fluids can be administered, if needed. Early diagnosis and appropriate therapy are key to successful treatment of birds with respiratory tract disease.

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