Respiratory Disease in Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Respiratory diseases are among the most common problems seen in all species of pet birds. Because these problems can have a variety of causes, early diagnosis and proper treatment is necessary to prevent a severe, potentially life-threatening 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 underlying problem among many birds. Most types of seeds contained in bird diets have deficient levels of vitamin A, which is necessary for the normal development of epithelium (skin cells), which line the respiratory tract. Vitamin A deficiency results in abnormal epithelium, which is easily invaded by microorganisms, such as bacteria. However, parasites, fungi (Aspergillus), viruses, Mycoplasma (a unique kind of bacteria), and Chlamydia (the bacterial organism that causes parrot fever or chlamydiosis in birds), may all 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 on the bird’s respiratory tract from the enlarged organ. Rarely, inflammation from environmental irritants may also cause signs of respiratory disease, such as sneezing.

"Non-stick cookware containing PTFE and Teflon-coated appliances 
such as stoves and toaster ovens should never be used around birds."

Exposure to environmental toxins, such as cigarette smoke, oil-based paint, and aerosol sprays can cause respiratory signs in birds. Sudden death can occur with exposure to overheated non-stick cookware that contains Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). Cookware such as Teflon pans, heated above 536ºF (280ºC), emit an odorless, colorless vapor that causes sudden death in birds when they breathe it in. Non-stick cookware containing PTFE and Teflon-coated appliances such as stoves and toaster ovens should never be used around birds.

Are some causes more common in certain species?

Yes, and this is one of the many reasons why it is important to go to a veterinarian knowledgeable in pet bird medicine. For example, budgerigars (budgies) and cockatiels infected with Mycoplasma or Chlamydia organisms 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 air 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 they were 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 signs of respiratory disease in birds?

Birds can show a variety of clinical signs, depending on where in their respiratory tract 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. Restriction of airflow in the trachea with pus, mucus, or foreign material can cause open-mouth breathing. 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 immediately.

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

A thorough physical examination is very important, as is the history you provide your veterinarian (the signs your bird is showing, their duration, and your bird’s overall behavior). Depending on the physical exam findings, your bird’s veterinarian may place your pet in an oxygen cage to stabilize them before proceeding with the examination. Blood tests and/or radiographs may be recommended to accurately diagnose the cause of the respiratory disease. Typically, if a bird is not having difficulty breathing, your veterinarian will want to take a blood sample to check your bird’s red and white blood cell counts and organ function.

For birds showing upper respiratory signs, such as sneezing or discharge from the eyes or nose, your vet may want to perform 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). Your veterinarian may choose to culture the bird's respiratory discharge, sinus aspirate, or nasal flush samples to look for specific bacteria and fungus.

If your bird shows signs of lower respiratory tract infections, such as coughing or difficulty breathing, your veterinarian may recommend an X-ray of the bird's lungs and air sacs. In addition to general bloodwork, your veterinarian may suggest running tests to identify specific infectious disease 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 never recommended, as these medications are never strong enough to properly treat most respiratory diseases in pet birds and will only prolong the disease process. 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 can do.

"Don’t delay proper diagnosis and treatment of your bird; schedule an appointment with your veterinarian at the first signs of respiratory problems."

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, which are ineffective against most of the causes of respiratory disease in birds.

Remember, antibiotics only treat bacteria, and if the cause of the respiratory infection is not bacterial, antibiotics will not be effective. Don’t delay 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. An improper diet will be slowly corrected, and vitamin supplementation is used if vitamin A deficiency is suspected.

Seriously ill birds should be hospitalized so that injectable and aerosolized medications can be used. Gavage feeding (tube feeding) and IV fluids can be necessary in severely ill patients. Early diagnosis and appropriate therapy are key to successful treatment of birds with respiratory tract disease. In critically ill patients, there is always the risk that the disease process has become too advanced, and the patient may not survive, even with aggressive therapy.

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