Dyspnea in Birds

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:

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

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

Treatment May Include

Treatment for dyspnea and tachypnea may include any combination of:

Home Care

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

In mammals, breathing is accomplished by excursions of the diaphragm, which increases the volume of the chest, thereby drawing air into the lungs. Birds do not have a diaphragm, and the lungs do not expand and contract with respiration. Instead, large air sacs fill the thoracic (chest) and abdominal cavity. Birds use their breast and abdominal muscles in order to breathe. Contraction of these muscles expand the volume of the thoracoabdominal cavity, thereby inflating the air sacs, and drawing air past the lungs for oxygen exchange. If the abdominal cavity contains an enlarged organ, a tumor or excess fluid, there may not be sufficient room for expansion of the air sacs. If the air sacs cannot expand fully, air cannot be drawn past the lungs, and the oxygen exchange is insufficient. Birds with space-occupying lesions in the abdominal cavity will often become dyspneic or tachypneic. Occasionally, the space-occupying lesion will be contained within the air sacs in the form of exudate or fungus. This is most often seen with Aspergillosis, a fungal respiratory disease.

This concept should also be considered whenever a bird is restrained. If held too tightly around the chest, the bird cannot expand the thoracoabdominal cavity. It may become very difficult for a bird to breathe when improperly restrained. Very small birds, such as canaries and parakeets, could potentially suffocate.

Birds have an extremely efficient respiratory system, which is an adaptation for prolonged, rigorous exercise such as long flights. However, most pet birds do not exercise very much, spending most of their time sitting in cages or perches (activities requiring very little oxygen expenditure). Because of this, dyspnea and tachypnea are usually not seen until diseasel processes are quite advanced. Therefore, if you notice labored respiration in your bird, veterinary attention is immediately warranted.

The advanced efficiency of the avian respiratory tract can sometimes have deadly consequences. Exposure to gases and aerosolized fumes that are often relatively harmless to other species can be acutely fatal to birds. For example, inhalation of fumes from over heated Teflon and other non-stick pans can cause a fatal acute pneumonitis. Birds will die quickly following exposure to carbon monoxide. (You may be familiar with the practice of coal miners bringing canaries into the mines. The sudden death of these birds served as a warning of toxic gas concentrations). In general, all aerosolized sprays should be used with caution, or avoided entirely, around pet birds.

There are many respiratory and non-respiratory causes of dyspnea and tachypnea in birds.

Respiratory Causes Include

Non-respiratory causes of dyspnea and tachypnea may include:

The veterinarian will recommend specific diagnostic tests depending on how severely dyspneic your bird is, how long the problems have been going on and physical examination findings. As dyspnea and tachypnea may be caused by several respiratory and non-respiratory disorders, extensive diagnostic testing may be necessary. Any combination of the following may be recommended:

Treatment In-depth

There are many causes of dyspnea and tachypnea, and the cause must be identified for proper treatment. Your veterinarian may recommend one or more of the diagnostic tests described above. In the meantime, treatment of the symptoms is needed, especially if the problem is severe. The following treatments may be applicable to some, but not all birds that are dyspneic or tachypneic. These treatments may reduce the severity of symptoms, or provide relief for your bird. However, nonspecific therapy is not a substitute for definite treatment of the underlying disease responsible for your bird's condition.