Respiratory Disease

General Information
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 be caused by many factors. Nutrition is important to the integrity of the cells lining the respiratory passages and obese birds will have less space for airsacs to expand and contract as is necessary for efficient breathing. Diets based on seed, nuts, or people food tend to lack sufficient vitamin A and tend to be high in carbohydrates, oils, and fat that creates excessive fat in pet birds.

Sometimes bacterial or fungal infections occur and these may be isolated to the upper respiratory passages (nasal sinuses) or lower respiratory tract (airsacs, lungs, or trachea). Eggs, fluid, or abdominal masses can press against the airsacs and mimic respiratory disease. Allergies are considered uncommon in birds so do not “wait and see” if your bird demonstrates respiratory symptoms. Overheating may cause a bird to pant. If you see this and the weather is hot, immediately move your bird someplace cooler and mist them with water lightly, especially on the feet, to help them cool off. Finally, exposure to environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke and aerosol sprays can cause respiratory disease.

Sudden death can occur with exposure to overheated Teflon cookware.

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.

Is it true that drafts can cause my bird to catch a cold?
While it is not healthy for a bird to receive constant direct air flow as it would if placed directly beneath an air vent, respiratory disease won’t develop just because of a draft.

What are some of the signs of respiratory disease in birds?
Birds can show a variety of clinical signs. For example, some birds with infections of the trachea or lungs and air sacs may show nothing more than a voice change. Some birds with respiratory disease will have watery eyes; still others will sneeze, wheeze, cough, and have a nasal discharge. Yet other birds will just appear ruffled, fail to perch, and keep their eyes closed. A bird with increased respiratory effort will have a tail bob with each breath.

With all the various causes of respiratory disease, how will my veterinarian accurately diagnose my bird’s problem?
The history you provide is very important as is a thorough physical examination. Otherwise, your veterinarian has laboratory tests at his or her disposal. Bloodwork (serum biochemistry and hematology) are important to check general organ function and to see whether the immune system is responding to an infection or whether the red blood cells are present in high or low numbers. A sinus aspirate or flush may also be performed. Sometimes your veterinarian may choose to culture the bird’s respiratory discharges to look for specific bacteria and yeast. A radiograph (X-ray) of the bird’s lungs and air sacs can often reveal diagnostic information.

Is it possible for me to treat my bird at home with medication sold at the pet store?
Absolutely not! First, a pet store clerk who is not a veterinarian and has no medical training and no access to medical tests is unlikely to correctly diagnose the cause of your bird’s problem. Second, most of the antibiotics sold at the pet store are ineffective against most of the causes of respiratory disease in birds. If the cause of the respiratory infection is not bacterial in origin, no antibiotic will be effective. To avoid delaying proper diagnosis and treatment of your bird, you should schedule an appointment 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. Antifungal drugs are used in cases of fungal disease like aspergillosis, and parasites are most commonly treated with oral or injectable anti-parasitic drugs. 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 aerosol medications can be employed, and force feeding and IV fluids can be administered if needed.