OUR COMPANION PARROTS do an amazing job of adapting to our world. For the most part, they live in our homes without ill effect, while giving us pleasure and a connection to nature.
But one area we sometimes overlook is air quality. One of the most difficult (if not always obvious) challenges we have is to provide a safe and wholesome breathing environment for our birds.
Human houses, closed and well insulated, are not designed for birds, whose intricate respiratory systems need fresh, moving air to stay in peak form. (See How Birds Breathe, below.)
Fumes, especially those from cooking and cleansers, can sicken and even kill house birds. In general, if you can smell it, chances are your bird shouldn't be breathing it. But what about airborne dangers that have no telltale scent?
Like humans, birds can inhale mold spores, those nasty little organisms that grow on surfaces. We can't see them, and usually don't smell them, but spores float through the air and into our lungs.
If spore concentrations are small and we are healthy, molds usually do not bother people or animals. But if we're already ill, mold can be a troublemaker. When it comes to our birds, one type of mold seems to cause more problems than all others: aspergillus.
Several types of aspergillus molds (most commonly Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, Aspergillus terreus, and Aspergillus flavus), all found worldwide, are capable of causing the disease of aspergillosis.
Aspergillosis can be a devastating respiratory illness that affects a bird's trachea, nasal passages, air sacs, or all three. It’s tough to diagnose - and even harder to cure. In advanced stages, it blocks airways and spreads to other organs.
Aspergillosis is the most common fungal infection found in wild birds. Among pet parrots, African greys and Amazons seem the most susceptible. However, any bird can develop aspergillosis. Recently, fatal cases have been reported among Jardine's parrots. My Meyer's parrot, Froggie, died from aspergillosis.
Weak birds in danger
Aspergillosis is an infectious disease – but not a contagious one. It's infectious because the mold spores can grow in living animal tissue. However, aspergillosis is not considered contagious because we acquire it from our environment, not from each other.
Like all molds, aspergillus needs dampness, warmth, and a food source to grow. It spreads by ejecting spores, microscopic tough-skinned seed-like structures, into the air.
If we're not careful, the very environment in which our house birds live can become a breeding ground for aspergillus. The most common places for a pet bird to come into contact with spores include dusty pellets and seeds; spoiled food such as decaying fruits and vegetables; droppings; and cage bedding that becomes damp, such as wood shavings, mulch and corn cobs. Peanut shells and peanuts also can carry concentrations of spores.
Healthy birds seem to be able to withstand spores without becoming ill, but a weak bird is in danger. Spores favor setting up shop in an animal that is ill, malnourished or immune-suppressed, or that has damaged tissue. Once in the presence of a suitable spot, each spore is capable of growing tentacle-like filaments called hyphae, which spread and take nutrients from the host animal.
The hyphae, together with the white and other blood cells secreted by the animal in an effort to rid itself of the invading organisms, form a mass called a granuloma. The longer the hyphae grow and the more the host continues to resist, the larger the granuloma becomes. Eventually, the mass becomes large enough to obstruct an airway, fill an air sac, or even interfere with other organs.
Is it aspergillosis - or something else?
Spotting aspergillosis before it becomes a serious problem is a challenge. The signs are subtle, range widely and can be symptoms of other diseases. By the time you notice anything wrong, your bird can be very ill.
One symptom is weight loss, which can occur even if your bird has a good appetite. Other signs: abnormal droppings, a change in voice, and depression or other behavioral changes, including difficulty moving. Chronic aspergillosis infections are thought to trigger some feather picking, especially in African greys.
Human houses,closed and insulated, are not designed for birds, whose intricate respiratory systems need fresh, moving air.
An infected bird might recover his breath more slowly after exertion or have difficulty breathing, using an open beak with outstretched neck or bobbing tail. Masses in the nasal cavity can leave nostrils with dry, crusty lesions.
Even experienced veterinarians have trouble diagnosing aspergillus. Blood tests can suggest the presence of an active fungal infection, and aspergillus can be grown from fluid and tissue samples. However, aspergillus is such a common environmental contaminant, it's easy to get false positives. Many diagnoses, unfortunately, are made post-mortem.
No instant cure
There is no instant cure for aspergillosis. Treatment can take months, and even then recovery is not guaranteed.
If a lesion can be removed surgically, that is the best first step, followed by medication. Your veterinarian will probably opt for one of these traditional anti-fungal medications: 5-fluorocytosine (5FC), itraconazole, fluconazole, clotrimazole or amphotericin B. Your bird might receive medicine via shots, orally, or, to maximize penetration into the lungs, a nebulizer (a medical device that delivers liquid medication in the form of a mist to the airways).
For infections of the nasal cavity, frequent anti-fungal rinses seem to help. One or more nasal rinses a week is a daunting prospect if your parrot is difficult to handle, but it might be the only way to maintain a healthy bird.
My friend’s African grey parrot, Seth, gets recurrent aspergillus infections if he does not get weekly medicated nasal rinses. Seth, a somewhat cranky bird, doesn’t like the procedure, but Betty and her husband have worked out a routine. While one person towels and holds Seth, the other does the rinsing.
I helped Betty after her husband had wrist surgery. I was not sure what to expect. But Betty held Seth and I rinsed each nostril a couple of times using a syringe. To my surprise, afterward Seth stood on my arm (a rare occurrence indeed), shook out his feathers, and just looked at me. We all sat for a few minutes until Seth indicated he was ready for Betty to put him back on top of his cage.
The key, I think, to Seth’s successful weekly rinses is routine. Betty tells him it is time to rinse, wraps him, and does the job. Then Seth sits with the person who rinsed him for a few minutes and life goes back to normal.
If lesions are located in the air sacs, the infection is serious. Air sacs don’t have a good blood supply, so not only do birds have a harder time getting their own germ-fighting cells to the site of the infection, medication has to be given in higher doses, which can cause kidney damage, among other problems.
If treatment is working, your bird should begin to look and act healthier. Feather picking may stop. Birds with nasal infections may no longer have a discharge. Your veterinarian will be able to determine when to stop medication by using blood tests and observation.
Youngsters at special risk
Young parrots are at greater risk for a number of ailments, including aspergillosis. This is due in part to an under-developed immune system. Some baby birds, for instance, can develop aspergillosis before hatching when aspergillus mold spores penetrate the eggs. The hatchlings can come out of the shell with well-developed lesions.
However, hasty or inept hand feeding also can invite disease. Birds can aspirate formula into their air sacs. Overly hot formula also can damage tissue and create an ideal spot for aspergillus mold to grow. That’s how one chick from a clutch can become infected while the rest remain healthy.
A hand-feeding accident might be why my seven-month-old Meyer’s parrot, Froggie, developed aspergillosis. Froggie was fine for many months. He showed no obvious symptoms until three days before he died, when he began wheezing after exertion.
Even then, I didn’t realize anything was wrong. I was an inexperienced parrot owner and didn’t know that the change in his voice could be a sign of illness. I thought it was normal for him to pant for a minute after he was startled and fluttered to the ground. (I’ve since learned wheezing episodes of any length, except in excited or nervous pionus parrots, are never normal.)
Even experienced veterinarians sometimes have trouble diagnosing aspergillosis.
The necropsy revealed a large mass at the end of the trachea that had blocked one bronchial tube for weeks, according to Froggie’s vet. When the granuloma grew larger and blocked the other bronchial tube, Froggie died.
Had I weighed Froggie regularly, I might have seen the slight drop in body weight, even though he was still eating well. But by the time he began wheezing, it was far too late. Surgery on such a large lesion positioned where it was in his respiratory tract would have killed him, and medication would not have helped with such a mass still there.
When I first got Froggie, his veterinarian put him on a course of antibiotics after a fecal stain revealed large numbers of potentially harmful bacteria. Antibiotics disrupt the natural balance of bacterial flora, sometimes inviting secondary infections, including aspergillosis.
However, I don’t think antibiotics made Froggie ill. I believe he was either overcome by spores in my home, or was injured from handfeeding at the breeder’s or the shop where I got him. Any damaged tissue would have provided prime real estate for a few spores to get established, and one small growth could have simply taken a few months to enlarge to a life-threatening point. All of my other parrots – two cockatiels, two Quakers, three parakeets, a black-headed caique and a bronze-wing pionus – are healthy.
Keeping aspergillosis at bay
If you’re careful, you should be able to keep your birds safe from aspergillosis.
First, if you purchase a bird, buy from a reputable breeder or from a clean, well-maintained bird store. If adopting from another home, have the bird thoroughly checked by a veterinarian, follow suggested quarantine procedures, and keep a close eye on the bird’s behavior and any subtle changes.
Try to find out as much of the bird’s history as possible, including whether its current behavior deviates greatly from the species’.
Doris Wilson thought her new Amazon, Pepper, was a “sweet bird” because he was so quiet when she brought him home.
HAVE YOU EVER wondered why birds are so susceptible to fumes? It’s because of the way they are built to breathe. A large portion of a bird’s body cavity is taken up with air sacs. As a result, birds are exposed to more contaminants with each breath than we are.
Bird lungs have an opening on each end through which air flows into interconnected air sacs in the neck, chest, and abdomen. Most birds have four paired air sacs, plus a single unpaired sac for a total of nine. Some of the air sacs also enter into bones.
Birds require two complete inspirations and two complete expirations to circulate air through their respiratory tracts. Humans, by comparison, require one inhalation and one exhalation. (You can think of human lungs like balloons: air comes in an opening on one end, expanding the lungs, all the gases are exchanged, then the air comes back out the same opening to be exhaled.)
Despite their more intricate respiratory system, parrots breathe more rapidly than we do: a large parrot at rest requires 25 to 40 breaths per minute, compared with 12 to 16 breaths per minute for us. A canary requires 60 to 100 breaths per minute!
That's why it's so important to provide our birds with the best air possible, taking reasonable precautions to avoid exposing them to fumes, toxins, perfumes, aerosol sprays, stale air, and organisms that are present in our air and dust, outside and inside our homes.
“It was for another reason entirely,” she says now. “He was a pretty sick bird. We worked on him for at least one year before he was on the good side of illness.”
Pepper was malnourished and had a bacterial illness, which Wilson treated. But by then he had “developed lots of small illnesses because he didn’t get off to a healthy start,” she says, including a bad fungal infection – aspergillosis – that did not appear until later. Pepper is one of the lucky ones – he is now healthy.
Maintain your parrot’s good health. Provide a stimulating environment, but allow your bird 10 to 12 hours of sleep and minimize stress. Be sure he’s getting adequate nutrition, especially vitamin A, which protects from a variety of respiratory problems. Carrots, yams, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes are the best food sources of vitamin A. Your veterinarian can discuss overall diet and determine if he needs other supplements.
Make sure you don’t provide any place for aspergillus molds to grow. Avoid corn cob, shells or shredded materials for bedding; it retains too much moisture. Most veterinarians recommend unprinted or black and white newspaper as tray liners. Change paper daily to prevent growth on damp paper, droppings, and food. Change more often if the environment is warm or the paper is wet, and don’t store disposed materials in the bird’s room.
Avoid stirring up dust in your bird’s room. Dust can contain spores and is a general respiratory irritant. A HEPA (high efficiency particulate arresting) air filtration unit will cut down on dust. HEPA filters are constructed to trap the tiniest particles, spores, and some organisms floating in the air. You might also consider investing in a vacuum cleaner that uses a HEPA filter, so you don’t blow particles from other parts of the house back into the bird room.
Be careful how you maintain humidity. Dry air can be hard on a parrot’s respiratory system and some parrot owners use a cool or warm vaporizer, but these can quickly grow bacteria and mold. Make sure you clean vaporizers according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you have the opposite problem – a damp basement or too much mold-friendly humidity in your home in general - ask your veterinarian about dehumidifiers.
Never expose your bird to fumes. Many disinfectants and air fresheners can sicken or kill birds. Cigarette smoke alone may not be fatal, but constant exposure can damage tissue and increase susceptibility to infections, including aspergillosis.
Also, be careful with food. Never feed moldy fruits or vegetables and wash fresh foods well. Remove any raw foods after a few hours - sooner if you live in a warm climate. Don’t leave damp seed and pellets in the cage.
Avoid stirring up dust, which can contain irritants, including mold spores.
Make sure any seed mixes you buy are dry and dust free. Check nuts for mold - peanuts in shells are a common source of aspergillus spores - and don’t feed if you are in doubt. Froggie loved peanuts, so to be on the safe side I have chosen not to feed even human-food grade peanuts to my birds. I feel more comfortable using unshelled nuts like walnuts and almonds as a treat.
I have also removed all plants from my parrots’ living space. It is too easy for a curious bird to get into mulch and soil, both potential sources of mold. Several times I found Froggie in my hanging spider plants, tossing pine chips on the floor. Could he have gotten spores from that? You can create an interesting and stimulating environment for your parrots with safe objects.
If possible, weigh your birds regularly. I bought a postal gram scale that weighs within 2 grams. You can find one at online stores like Drs. Foster & Smith.
Some birds are spared
Aspergillosis is not always a death sentence. Sometimes medical intervention works; in rare cases it can go away by itself, according to Dr. James Harris, owner of Mayfair Veterinary Clinic in Sandy Bay, Tasmania, Australia, and author of ParrotChronicles.com’s Ask Dr. Harris column.
“On rare occasions, a small localized pocket of fungus is walled off by the body and the bird recovers,” he said. “This is sometimes found in wild birds as a coincidental finding on a necropsy.”
Two new human anti-fungal medications - Lamisil and Voriconazole - are showing promise in treating aspergillosis in wild birds at The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota.
Dr. Robert Dalhausen, a veterinarian and avian researcher based in Milford, Ohio, has used Lamisil to cure many cases of aspergillosis in his practice. He reported some of his case histories at the Association of Avian Veterinarians Conference in 2002.
It’s not necessary to become paranoid about aspergillosis. Some exposure to disease-causing organisms is inevitable. The good news is that healthy, unstressed birds, like healthy humans and other animals, are able to cope with low levels of the aspergillus mold without developing disease.
Still, it’s a good idea to know your bird’s habits and behavior. Take reasonable precautions to keep his environment safe and clean. If he shows any of the symptoms of aspergillosis, take him to the veterinarian pronto.
If your bird should have a fungal infection, and you or a family member is immune-suppressed from medication (like steroids), disease (like AIDS), or under severe stress, you should discuss this with both your veterinarian and your physician. If your living environment has contributed to aspergillus in your parrot, it might be a threat to you as well. (See this issue's related story, Mold in my home).
Connie Menefee has worked as a researcher in the field, laboratory or library since 1974. She has won several awards for poetry and wrote a weekly small-business column for two years. She currently writes on a variety of topics and does medical and business research. She is owned by nine parrots.