In pet birds, diseases of the respiratory tract are very common. They can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. It is critical to recognize and treat these diseases in the early stages, when it is much more likely that treatment will be effective.
Aspergillosis is the most common fungal infection in birds. It occurs in 2 forms. The first form primarily occurs in young birds and newly imported birds and is the result of exposure to a large number of spores of the Aspergillus fungus. The second, more chronic form is more likely to occur in older birds that have been in captivity. Contaminated food, water, and nesting material with poor ventilation are sources of concentrated spores. Aspergillus spores are also widespread in the environment. Birds that inhale the spores may carry them into their lungs and air sacs. When the bird becomes weakened or stressed, the disease is triggered. Aspergillosis has been diagnosed in many species of birds. Longterm malnutrition, especially vitamin A deficiency, is the most common cause of a weakened respiratory system defense that predisposes birds to the chronic form of aspergillosis.
Aspergillosis usually affects the lower respiratory tract. Although the lungs and air sacs are usually involved, the trachea, syrinx (voice organ), and bronchi may be affected as well. Infection can spread from the respiratory tract to other organs.
Signs of infection in the severe, short-term form that affects young and newly imported birds include loss of appetite and labored breathing. Sudden death may occur. White mucous congestion of the lungs and air sacs, and nodules in the lungs may be noted during examination of the bird. The air sacs may become inflamed, leading to a condition sometimes called airsacculitis.
In the chronic form, labored breathing, voice change, lack of energy, depression, and emaciation may occur. Infection of the respiratory tract can be severe before signs are noted. Extensive or chronic fungal infection may lead to bone changes and permanent malformation of the upper respiratory architecture. If the central nervous system is affected, the bird may have a lack of coordination and paralysis.
The symptoms caused by aspergillosis are similar to those seen with other respiratory infections. Treatment with antifungal drugs is often successful if the infection is caught in its early stages. It is important to check with your veterinarian whenever your bird has signs of a respiratory illness.
To help prevent aspergillosis, good hygiene, including proper ventilation of the cage or aviary area and proper nutrition, should be maintained at all times.
Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)
Avian influenza is caused by a virus that originated in wild birds but has recently become a significant concern both because of its ability to infect domestic poultry and other birds and because of its potential to infect people. With the recent discovery of new mutations, this virus may become a more significant health threat in birds and in humans.
Because of the risk of infection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States has banned the importation of pet birds from certain countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia where avian influenza has been reported. Before purchasing a new bird, you should always find out where it has come from, as well as getting it checked by a veterinarian to determine whether it has any infectious diseases.
The avian influenza virus is transmitted by direct contact with respiratory secretions and feces from an infected wild, domesticated, or pet bird. Signs of infection may include depression, loss of appetite, difficulty breathing, swelling of the head, discharge from the eyes, and diarrhea. Some infected birds may have no signs and recover, while others may die suddenly, without any signs of illness. Birds showing signs of respiratory illness should be promptly separated from other birds and examined by a veterinarian, who can diagnose avian influenza by submitting samples for isolation and identification of the virus.
Although vaccines have been developed for some types of avian influenza in domestic poultry, it is not known whether they would protect other species of birds from infection. An important way of preventing exposure to the virus is preventing contact between domestic birds and wild birds that may carry the virus.
Macaw Respiratory Hypersensitivity (Macaw Asthma)
An asthma-like disorder affecting macaws (primarily blue and gold macaws) has been recognized for several decades. The source of the irritant causing the hypersensitivity may vary, and may be difficult to determine. One common cause of respiratory irritation in macaws is the powder-down produced from “dusty” bird species (such as cockatoos and African Grey parrots). This does not mean that all macaws must be kept in separate areas from cockatoos or African Greys. As with people, only some macaws are sensitive to allergies.
Your veterinarian may need to do several procedures to determine if your macaw's respiratory condition is due to this hypersensitivity or to other causes such as bacterial or fungal infection. A blood cell count and x-rays are often performed. A tracheal wash may be necessary to determine if a combination of these diseases is present, and to select the appropriate treatment. A lung biopsy is the only way to confirm the diagnosis.
Initially, the best treatment for a bird that is in respiratory distress from this condition is oxygen. Your veterinarian may also consider the use of glucocorticoids or other anti-inflammatory drugs. Longterm management requires optimal air quality and ventilation. A good air filter (such as a HEPA filter) located near the cage is invaluable. Repeat crises may occur and necessitate rehospitalization and treatment, but a change of environment and increased ventilation will reduce the likelihood of severe relapse. Some permanent lung damage is usually present, and exercise intolerance often persists due to interstitial fibrosis (scarring) of the lungs.
Polycythemia, an increase in the percentage of red blood cells, is a very common finding on the blood work and may be the best method to screen for this disease before it becomes a noticeable problem.
Newcastle disease, caused by a virus, is a significant threat to the poultry industry but can also infect pet birds. Transmission is by respiratory aerosols, fecal contamination of food or water, direct contact with infected birds, and contact with inanimate objects that harbor the virus. It is rarely seen in pet birds in the United States.
Signs of infection include depression, loss of appetite and weight, sneezing, discharge from the eyes or nostrils, difficulty breathing, bright yellow-green diarrhea, lack of coordination, head bobbing, and spasms. In later stages, paralysis of the wings or legs, involuntary or jerky movements, twisting of the neck and unnatural position of the head, and dilated pupils may also be seen. Birds may die suddenly without any signs.
There is no cure, and treatment is not recommended. If suspected, Newcastle disease must be reported to the appropriate authorities due to its potentially devastating effects on domestic poultry. Vaccination is prohibited in birds entering the United States because it does not eliminate the carrier state and makes it difficult to detect the virus during quarantine.
Air sac mites are parasites that can be found in the entire respiratory tract of affected birds, most frequently in canaries and Gouldian finches. All stages of the mite are found within the respiratory tissues. In mild infections, birds do not usually have any signs; in heavy infections, difficult breathing with high-pitched noises and clicking, sneezing, tail bobbing, and open-mouthed breathing are noted. Excessive salivation may also be present. Signs are made worse by handling, exercise, and other stresses. Mortality can be high in heavy infections. The veterinarian will most likely prescribe an antiparasitic medication that is given by mouth or by injection.
Gapeworms are parasites that live in the wall of the trachea, usually in finches and canaries. Infected birds often have difficulty breathing and will “gape” for air—hence the name. Gapeworms are rare in caged birds, but when present, they can cause death due to lack of oxygen or pneumonia. Effective treatment is possible when it is begun early.
Sarcocystosis is caused by a protozoan parasite that invades the body's soft tissues and forms cysts in the respiratory tract, kidneys, nervous tissues, and eventually in the muscles. It is a major cause of death in parrots housed outdoors in the southern United States. In severely affected areas, even indoor birds can be infected by contaminated food. The infection occurs when birds are exposed to infected opossum feces, usually carried by insects such as cockroaches, or by rats that get into the bird's feed. The feces of these transport hosts are then consumed by birds, and a rapidly fatal disease can develop. A high death rate is observed in untreated birds such as cockatoos, African Grey parrots, Eclectus parrots, and other Old World species that have not been exposed to this parasite. Signs of infection may include a lack of energy, passive regurgitation of water, and anemia. Treatment includes supportive care with injectable fluids, supplemental feeding if needed, treatment for anemia, and longterm antiprotozoal medications.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Teresa L. Lightfoot, DVM, DABVP (Avian)