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Dyspnea in Birds

By: Dr. Barbara Oglesbee

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Dyspnea is labored or difficult breathing. Animals who are dyspneic appear to be in distress or discomfort. They usually have an increase in respiratory rate, or tachypnea, and breathing may or may not be labored. Although diseases of the respiratory tract often cause labored breathing, other disease, such as heart disease, nervous system disorders or mechanical disorders may cause dyspnea or tachypnea.

Dyspneic birds usually breathe with their mouths open. Breathing may require a whole body effort, manifested by "tail bobbing," where the tail moves up and down with every breath. In some birds, a squeaking noise can be heard with each inspiration.

Some birds have unique behaviors that may be mistaken for dyspnea. For example, cockatoos often hiss when excited or frightened. African grey parrots make a growling, gurgling tracheal noise when captured and restrained. Pionus parrots make a distinct wheezing noise when excited.

There are many causes of dyspnea and tachypnea. Some of the most common include:

  • Respiratory disease – pneumonia, air sac infections, allergic pneumonitis, tracheitis
  • Toxins – inhaled teflon fumes, carbon monoxide
  • Obstruction of the trachea – inhaled seeds, tumors, abscess, goiter
  • Compression of the air sacs – enlarged abdominal organs, ascites (fluid accumulation in the abdomen), neoplasia (cancer)
  • Pain
  • Cardiac disease
  • Nervous system disorders – brain trauma, neoplasia

    Birds have an extremely efficient respiratory system and generally do not become dyspneic or tachypneic until disease processes are well advanced. Any bird that appears to have difficulty breathing should be seen by a veterinarian.

    What To Watch For

  • Open mouthed breathing
  • Whole body excursions with every breath or "tail bobbing"
  • Lethargy, sitting with feathers fluffed up
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Weakness – birds that are too weak to stay on a perch are in critical condition
  • Anorexia

    Veterinary Care

    Your veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on how severely dyspneic the bird is and based on physical examination findings. Since several different respiratory and non-respiratory diseases may cause dyspnea and tachypnea, extensive diagnostic testing may be necessary.

    A complete history is extremely helpful in reaching a diagnosis. Be prepared to tell your veterinarian when the problem began, any other symptoms you've noticed, the type of diet your bird is on and any exposure to other birds.

    Diagnosis May Include                

  • A thorough physical examination, including auscultation (listening with a stethoscope)
  • Radiography (X-Rays) to evaluate the lungs, air sacs and abdominal cavity
  • A complete blood count (CBC) and serum biochemistry panel
  • Blood tests or choanal samples for Chlamydiosis (Psittacosis) or Aspergillosis
  • Endoscopy – viewing the trachea, air sacs or lungs with a rigid endoscope to collect samples for biopsy or culture
  • Sampling the trachea for bacterial culture and cytology (looking at cell types for evidence of infection or inflammation)

    Treatment May Include

    Treatment for dyspnea and tachypnea may include any combination of:

  • Placing the bird in an oxygen cage
  • Antibiotics or anti-fungal medications
  • Nebulization with humidified air and antibiotics or anti-fungal medications
  • Severely dyspneic birds or those with other clinical signs in addition to dyspnea usually require hospitalization for 24-hour care.

    Home Care

    Dyspneic birds require veterinary attention. After seeing the veterinarian, be sure to:

  • Give all medication as directed, for as long as directed, even after the symptoms appear to be gone.
  • Watch for a change in breathing, and report any changes to your veterinarian.

  • If improvement is not seen, report this to your veterinarian.

  • Keep the bird in a separate room from birds that create a lot of feather dust (cockatoos, cockatiels, African grey parrots).

  • Do not smoke cigars or cigarettes around the bird.

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