While surprisingly robust on the whole, birds seem fragile because they only show illness when they are in dire straits. But, if you’ve ever wondered, “is my bird breathing right? then, read on.
Birds instinctively hide their injuries and illnesses as a survival mechanism. If a wild bird acts sick, its own flock-mates will literally chase it off so that it may die in private thereby preventing danger to the entire flock. You see, one ill bird will attract a hungry predator in no time. So, while hiding illness is a survival technique in the wild, it is both maddening for veterinarians and terrifying for owners who have experienced this first hand.
If a pet dog is unwell he or she will actually look sick. Eyes will droop; your dog won’t be playful, won’t eat food and will be generally lethargic. He or she may sleep most of the day, or may whine repeatedly.
The point is that dogs and to some extent cats have no need to hide an illness. They have long been domesticated and trust us enough to know that we will help them if they communicate their illness to us.
Sick Pet Birds Hide Illness
Birds are not domesticated and they see us as the flock-mate that will evict them if they are ill. Therefore, we must be able to read a birds subtle body language and rely on careful observation of bird poop and weight loss to know if the bird is sick. Human owners often miss the signs of distress illness and move to treatment too late. Learn to read your birds’ body language and symptoms of declining health.
How To Tell When A Bird Is Sick:
The bird on the right is clearly sick. Ask yourself, “what looks different about this bird?”
This birds body language says “I’m in distress!!”
- Look at it’s eyes. It looks forlorn. The eyes are not bright. In fact, it looks as though it is having difficulty keeping them open.
- Look at it’s stance. This poor bird is not standing erect or alert. It looks as though it could fall over any minute.
- See it’s center Keel Bone protruding? This bird has minimal body fat.
This bird is clearly sick. If your bird has some or any of these symptoms you should get him or her to the vet immediately. Your avian vet will strive to stabilize your bird and uncover other issues.
Signs that your bird is having difficulty breathing:
1. Tail bobbing up and down.
While birds breathe the same air that we do through their lungs, there is very little else about how they breathe that is similar to humans. Humans have lungs that act as a bellows. The diaphragm created a vacuum in the chest forcing air into the lungs to fill the empty space. The diaphragm then contracts, compressing the chest and forcing the air back out. In this way we are constantly filling and refilling our lungs.
Birds don’t have a diaphragm and their lungs remain open virtually all of the time. Breast muscles compress the chest which forces air into the air sacs that reside in the bones in the wings.
For an in-depth view of how all this works:
The point is that when a bird is distressed it is unable to use its chest muscles to force air in and out of the lungs. To facilitate breathing a bird will instead use the posterior muscles causing the tail to bob up and down. If you see this happening your bird needs an emergency to visit the vet immediately. DO NOT WAIT.
2. Wheezing or gasping.
While breathing, your bird should make very little if any sound. The presence of gasping, snuffling or wheezing is all indicative of having difficulty breathing and should be treated immediately. Also watch for sneezing and coughing.
3. Breathing with mouth open.
Ideally, your bird will be breathing through the nares. If they are blocked by mucus due to infection then your bird will attempt to breathe through its mouth. This should be taken as an immediate sign that your bird is ill and as always, a trip to the vet is in order.
4. Coughing or has a voice change.
If your bird has a voice change and is coughing a lot, that is a tale tale sign of breathing difficulties. With the unnatural use of a tail bob to breath, your bird may be taking in too much air causing even more irritation to the throat and lungs. Coughing is a sign of congestion.
5. Nasal Discharge.
Whether accompanied by sneezing and coughing or not, nasal discharge is a symptom that needs immediate attention.
6. Bluish tone to skin – Cyanosis.
This is a sign of oxygen deprivation.
- ANY OF THE ABOVE SYMPTOMS ARE SERIOUS AND POTENTIALLY LIFE THREATENING.
- If you see any of these breathing difficulty symptoms, put your bird in a hospital cage and offer immediate General Supportive Care.
- Transport your bird to the avian vet or emergency facility FAST
- Your Avian Vet will stabilize the bird and find the cause of breathing difficulties to administer treatment.
Burkett, DVM, Greg. Avian First Aid DVD
Hawcroft, Tim, BVSc, MACVSc, MRCVS. First Aid for Birds: The Essential Quick-Reference Guide. Lansdowne Publishing Ltd. 1994.