Respiratory Disease in Budgerigars: An Approach to Treatment

Respiratory disease in budgerigars is relatively common and, while in some circumstances death is so rapid that no treatment can be given, in other cases birds can be affected for long periods and eventually recover. The purpose of this article is to describe the types of symptoms that may be seen in birds with diseases of the respiratory system and to detail the steps that owners can take to help to nurse the affected birds back to health. Reaching the exact diagnosis is sometimes difficult and a veterinary surgeon experienced in cage bird medicine should always be consulted before a course of treatment is used. While the use of terramycin, which most fanciers seem to have, may produce a cure in odd cases, getting a proper diagnosis and having the proper treatment is much more likely to result in a cure.

The birds respiratory system extends from the nostrils (the small holes at the top of the beak) right through the bird to near the vent. Not only do they have nostrils, a windpipe and lungs like mammals but in addition, they have a series of structures called air sacs which sprout out of the lungs. These air sacs are like small balloons which go around the other internal organs and even extend into the bones of the wing. The intimate association of the air sacs with the intestines means that diseases of the intestines may also affect the respiratory system and conversely, respiratory disease can affect the intestines producing diarrhoea.

There may be a discharge from the nostrils, this can be either watery or thick and it frequently dries on the beak and the feathers around the cere. The nostrils may become blocked with this discharge, either at opening or internally, and occasionally odd objects breathed in causing blockage; I have seen a budgerigar with a millet seed stuck up its nose. As in humans, there are a number of sinuses (air spaces opening off the nose) and these can become affected causing swelling around the head and this can spread to affect the eyes which become inflamed with a discharge matting the feathers and sometimes sticking the eyelids together.

Sometimes birds sneeze, and this again can suggest respiratory disease; they may also cough. Affected birds can make other noises, there may be wheezing, there may be loss of voice or a change in the pitch of the song if the bird’s voice box is affected. Birds with breathing difficulties may make clicking noises and this is often associated with the beak pointing upwards which straightens the trachea and can ease breathing slightly. If the bird is having difficulty in breathing, the most obvious sign is tail bobbing. The tail goes up and down in time with the bird’s breathing. If the bird is really having difficulty in getting enough air into the system, it makes it almost impossible for the bird fly, climb or even perch and the rocking as it breaths may make it fall off the perch. The bird will usually feel ill at this stage and may just sit quietly in a corner with its feathers ruffled up. As death approaches the feet and beak may go blue.

If presented with a bird with these symptoms what can the owner do as first aid and how can the bird be nursed when a course of treatment has been started? First of all minimise stress. When a bird is stressed its need for oxygen increases and if bird is having difficulty in breathing, added stress may make the difference between life and death. As in most conditions prompt treatment gives a much better chance of recovery than will be the case if treatment is delayed, so contact a veterinary surgeon in your area who has experience in the treatment of cage birds or at least ask the advice of an experienced fancier. In this context, it should be stressed that if your vet has prescribed a course of treatment the full course must be given. The bird may rapidly improve and the temptation is to stop treatment. If you do this the bird may well relapse and you will be back to square one again. Affected birds should be isolated from the rest of the stock as many respiratory diseases are highly infectious and are spread through the air. Isolation in this case means completely separate from the rest of the birds in a different room; just putting the diseased bird in a show cage in the bird room isnot isolation. If you have a bird in isolation for whatever reason, always see to the healthy birds first as in this way you are less likely to spread the infection about. Where is a temptation to look at the diseased bird first when you work in the aviary ‘just to see how it is’, this temptation must be resisted.

Once a course of treatment has been started the bird will need nursing care to aid its recovery. First of all the bird must be kept warm at about 80F or 27 C. This will not only keep the bird more comfortable but will reduce the energy requirement and thus the amount the bird needs to breath. The lighting should be subdued as this appears to reduce stress and the bird is likely to be more relaxed in semi-darkness. Do not turn the light off altogether this will stop the bird eating and drinking.

If the bird is having difficulty breathing, the perches should be lowered, which makes it easier for the bird to get back on the perch where it will feel better than if it is forced to sit on the floor. Lowering the perches also means that should the bird fall off it has less far to drop and is less likely to injure itself. Make sure that food and water are within easy reach. Discharge from the nostrils or eyes can be cleaned away with moistened cotton wool and the same technique can be used to open the eyes if the lids are gummed together. If hard material is seen in the nostrils a needle can be carefully used to dislodge it.

Many birds that die when they are diseased, die not of the disease directly, but of either dehydration or starvation. A useful guide to see if these are taking place is to weigh the bird at regular intervals and I would suggest that scales to weigh birds would be worthwhile investment. If weight loss is occurring or if the bird is seen not to be eating or drinking, the first thing to do is to get some fluid in by crop tube. Budgerigars have very variable water intakes, but 5ml per day in three or four doses will be satisfactory. The addition of glucose to the water at two teaspoonfuls to the pint will supply some energy as well. If the bird has to be dosed by tube for some time, fruit varieties of baby food, diluted enough to get it down the tube, are recommended by some authorities and this will provide both energy and fluid.

The last point that must be mentioned is that a number of bird respiratory diseases can be caught by humans, and the most important of these is psittacosis. Should you have sick birds and you get flu like symptoms with a high temperature, aching joints and a cough, it is important that you contact the doctor and tell him that you have a sick bird and that you might have psittacosis. This is important because if caught early it is easily treated but if left for some time it can become serious and is occasionally fatal.

Original text Copyright 1995, Dr John R Baker.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Maryana April 6, 2012 at 5:23 pm

My parakeet is acting really strange She is losing her feathers ,her nostrils are getiing bigger every week and she shakes.Is she sick? What should i do?

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