You may have heard or observed a parrot breathing noisily, coughing, sneezing, or releasing discharge. Depending on the cause of respiratory distress, the symptoms can vary significantly.
Unsanitary living conditions are a common cause of respiratory infections. If cage husbandry is absent, pet parrots are at risk of Aspergillosis, psittacosis (parrot fever,) and respiratory parasites.
An unbalanced diet can also lead to respiratory conditions. For example, hypovitaminosis A means mucous membranes are poorly maintained, so the respiratory tract is vulnerable to pathogens.
Some respiratory infections are spread through airborne particles. Avoid exposure to wild birds to minimize the risk of introducing illness and disease to captive parrots.
Respiratory Problems in Parrots
Respiratory infections have similar symptoms, notably loud breathing through the beak. Identifying the condition and prompt treatment often significantly affect the prognosis.
Aspergillosis is a zoonotic fungal infection caused by inhaling contaminated spores of the Aspergillus fungus. These spores grow and multiply in areas of limited ventilation.
In the wild, aspergillus spores can contaminate water supplies.
While Aspergillosis is primarily a respiratory condition impacting the lower respiratory tract, the issue can spread. Mycopathologia explains how mortality is likely if Aspergillosis spreads to the liver and kidneys.
While Aspergillosis is common in the wild, it’s a life-threatening respiratory condition.
Common symptoms of Aspergillosis in parrots are:
- Labored breathing and panting.
- Loss of appetite.
- Lethargy and depression.
- Sudden loss of weight.
- Change to the parrot’s voice.
- Eye and skin infection.
Prolonged exposure to aspergillus spores leads to more serious symptoms, including:
- Malformation of the neck and head.
- Lack of mobility and muscular coordination.
- Inflammation of the air sacs.
The most common cause of Aspergillosis is unsanitary living conditions or a lack of ventilation.
Aspergillosis can also result from hypovitaminosis A, a deficiency of Vitamin A, which compromises the immune system and respiratory tract.
Minimize the risk by providing a clean, airy environment and a balanced diet.
Initial treatment for Aspergillosis in parrots is a course of oral anti-fungal drugs, most often Itraconazole, Terbinafine, Clotrimazole, Amphotericin B, or Clotrimazole.
This course of drugs will run for several weeks or months. Surgery may be required to remove fungal plaque build-up, but this will only be performed if life-critical.
2/ Avian Influenza (Bird Flu)
Avian influenza is a highly contagious and zoonotic virus in wild birds. Like human influenza, strains of this virus constantly mutate.
It’s comparatively rare for companion birds to develop avian influenza, although the virus can be spread by importing parrots from overseas that the virus has infected.
If you suspect a parrot has avian influenza, it must be quarantined and assessed by a vet.
Some birds show no symptoms when carrying a mild strain of avian influenza. The symptoms include:
- Wheezing and panting when breathing.
- Loss of appetite.
- Streaming discharge from the nares.
- Inability to retain body heat – watch for a parrot sitting at the bottom of its cage to stay warm.
- Swelling of the eyelids.
- Lack of muscular coordination.
If a bird displays these symptoms, handle it wearing gloves and a face mask.
Avian influenza is spread between parrots through physical contact or breathing in airborne particles. The virus can also live in infected birds’ fecal waste or food supplies.
If neither you nor your parrot has encountered wild birds or infected domestic poultry, it’s unlikely that you’ll be at risk of avian influenza.
A vaccine against avian influenza is available, but it’s unknown if this will be effective for parrots. As with all influenza vaccinations, there’s no guarantee it’ll be effective against new mutated strains.
Diagnoses of avian influenza are treated with prescription antiviral drugs like zanamivir and oseltamivir. An infected parrot must be quarantined until 40 days after being declared virus free.
3/ Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis (Macaw Asthma)
Many species of parrots, like blue and gold macaws, can get hypersensitivity pneumonitis. This condition is called macaw asthma, which resembles chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
This issue causes acute respiratory distress in macaw parrots, making it difficult for them to breathe without assistance. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis also weakens a macaw’s immune system, leaving it at risk of secondary infection.
Be mindful of ventilation and air quality if you care for a macaw. This is important if you house other parrots, especially those that produce powder down, as this triggers macaw asthma.
The signs of hypersensitivity pneumonitis include:
- Gasping for air.
- Inability to maintain warmth.
- Muscular weakness.
A manifestation of hypersensitivity pneumonitis will resemble an asthma attack. The symptoms may not last long, but they can be dangerous if not acted upon.
The causes of hypersensitivity pneumonitis are similar to COPD in humans – poor ventilation and the forced inhalation of allergens that irritate the respiratory tract.
Don’t allow a macaw to breathe in excessive dust or pet dander.
According to the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, the more avian dander is found in your home, the greater risk of breathing difficulties a macaw will face.
If you have a pet macaw, consider using an air purifier, especially if you keep other species, like African grey parrots and cockatoos. These birds are prone to shedding powder down.
If a macaw has acute respiratory distress, it’ll need assisted breathing through an external oxygen source.
Anti-inflammatory drugs may also be prescribed to reduce the risk of further attacks and minimize the risk of permanent scarring of the lungs.
4/ Newcastle Disease
Newcastle disease is a respiratory condition in birds caused by the spread of paramyxovirus. It isn’t zoonotic but can cause conjunctivitis in humans.
The name comes from an outbreak in the British city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1962, swiftly eliminating the area’s chicken population. Newcastle disease first reached the U.S. in 1972.
Parrots can develop a strain referred to as Exotic Newcastle disease. This is rare because federal law dictates that any parrot that enters the U.S. must be quarantined and declared free of the virus.
The symptoms of Newcastle disease include:
- Breathing through the beak and panting.
- Discharge from the eyes and nares.
- Diarrhea, often bright yellow or green.
- Loss of appetite.
- Lack of muscular control, including tics and spam.
- Bending the head and neck into unnatural positions
Many birds with Newcastle disease won’t live long enough to display these signs for a prolonged period.
Newcastle disease can be spread through airborne particles. If a parrot inhales viral particles from the air supply or contaminated food, water, or feces, it’ll be at immediate risk.
Parrots can get Newcastle disease from humans that carry the virus. Avoid contact with parrots if you keep poultry and struggle to keep the birds alive or have conjunctivitis (red eye).
There’s no cure for Newcastle disease. Infected parrots must be immediately quarantined and left to see if they can beat the virus using natural antibodies.
5/ Psittacosis (Parrot Fever)
Psittacosis, also known as parrot fever or avian chlamydiosis, is a respiratory infection caused by the presence of a bacterial organism called Chlamydia psittaci.
This dangerous, zoonotic condition can kill parrots if left untreated.
Any parrot can develop psittacosis, but it’s most common in Amazons, budgerigars, and cockatoos. The disease is usually spread through bird droppings.
If psittacosis infects a parrot, the bacteria will bind to its cells. Psittacosis is stubborn, difficult to treat, and can lead to further health concerns if not managed.
StatPearls warns how psittacosis can evolve into pneumonia.
While some parrots with psittacosis are asymptomatic for a while, the signs to look for are:
- Streaming discharge from the eyes and nares.
- Lack of appetite.
- Diarrhea and discolored feces.
- Sudden weight loss.
Always test a parrot at the first sign of psittacosis symptoms to prevent its spread. Rapidly treating Chlamydophila psittaci will enhance the parrot’s chances of recovery.
While psittacosis is contagious and can be spread by contact with infected humans or animals, the most common cause in captive parrots is stress.
Be mindful of the following stressors in a parrot’s lifestyle:
- Small, cramped cage.
- Sudden changes to diet.
- Lack of stimulation and social interaction.
- Sharp contrasts in temperature.
- Regular laying of eggs, whether fertilized or otherwise.
- Unwanted handling.
- Presence of other pets.
The parrot’s cage should also be cleaned regularly, taking particular care to remove fecal waste.
Keep a parrot’s living conditions clean and sanitary, and provide a stress-free lifestyle.
If treatment for psittacosis is required, the parrot will be prescribed doxycycline. A vet will diagnose the most suitable remedy based on blood and fecal tests.
This treatment will last at least 45 days and can leave a parrot at risk of yeast infections, so secondary drugs may also be prescribed. A parrot will be re-tested for psittacosis after 45 days.
6/ Respiratory Parasites
The most common respiratory tract parasites are:
- Air sac mites (Sternostoma tracheacolum) live in the air sacs around the lungs.
- Gapeworms (Syngamus trachea) attach themselves to the trachea wall, depriving a bird of oxygen and leaving them “gaping” for air.
- Sarcocystosis are protozoan parasites that form cysts around a parrot’s respiratory organs before spreading the muscles.
These parasitic infestations are uncommon but can be deadly to parrots.
Symptoms of a parrot with respiratory parasites include:
- Wheezing when breathing.
- Gasping for air.
- Excessive salivation.
- Regurgitating water.
Parrots don’t always show symptoms of respiratory parasites until the problem worsens.
The most common cause of respiratory parasites in parrots is the presence of wild animals or pests in the home. For example, a rodent or cockroach infestation can lead to pests accessing a parrot’s food.
Contaminated water can lead to an infestation, so consider getting a water purifier.
Traditional over-the-counter parasite medications designed to rid a parrot of gastric parasites won’t necessarily be effective against respiratory parasites. Specialist medications must be prescribed.
Some parrot breathing problems aren’t caused by viral, fungal, or bacterial infection but by rhinoliths.
Rhinoliths, also known as proliferative nasal granulomas, are solid stones that form in the nares of a parrot, restricting its ability to breathe freely.
Rhinoliths shouldn’t be confused with an everyday crust that forms around the nares, which can be resolved with a syringe of water and regular cleaning.
Rhinoliths are a greater concern and frequently a warning sign of another respiratory concern.
Rhinoliths can frequently be observed by sight. The symptoms of nasal blockages include:
- Panting and breathing through the beak as the nares are blocked.
- Foul smell from the nares.
- Unexplained epistaxis (nosebleeds.)
- Aggression as a result of pain.
If you notice these warning signs, shine a torch into the nares of the parrot. Then, seek veterinary advice if you’re confronted by a foreign object that’s obstructing nasal breathing.
An unsanitary environment or airborne toxins usually cause rhinoliths. Regularly clean the parrot’s cage and deter them from accessing dusty or messy parts of the home.
Ensure the parrot is fed a varied and balanced diet, as hypovitaminosis A can cause rhinoliths. Be mindful of epistaxis in parrots because dried blood in the nares can harden and form rhinoliths.
Rhinoliths will likely need to be surgically removed by a veterinarian.
The parrot will be sedated using a local anesthetic for a small rhinolith and general anesthesia for a more advanced procedure. Then, the stone is removed with a hook.
Always get rhinoliths removed because the larger the stone becomes, the more invasive the surgery. A vet will be forced to permanently enlarge the size of the nostrils using a drill to remove a prominent rhinolith.
Further tests must be performed on the parrot to determine if the rhinoliths were a sole concern or a symptom of a wider respiratory concern that must be addressed.