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Bird Sinus Health

Find out how bird sinuses work and ways to prevent respiratory problems in your parrot.

By Margaret Wissman, DVM

Respiratory problems are one of the most common reasons for avian veterinarians to see patients for examination and treatment. What are all signs of upper respiratory problems in a bird?

  • Sneezing
  • A runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Crusty discharge stuck to the facial feathers
  • Audible breathing sounds.

Here’s what you need to know about respiratory problems:

Fresh air, sunshine, adequate humidity, appropriate exercise and correct nutrition are all necessary for the respiratory tract to function optimally. One common area of deficiency is the lack of vitamin A in the diet, which is necessary for the epithelial lining of the respiratory tract to function correctly. This vitamin is usually provided in the form of beta carotene, which is converted to active vitamin A in the body.

Cuban Amazon parrot
By Gina Cioli/BowTie Studio/Courtesy Samantha Jenny
Fresh air, sunshine, humidity, exercise and the right foods are all necessary for the respiratory tract to work at its best.

Beta carotene is found in dark green leafy vegetables, and fruits and vegetables that are red, yellow or orange. Unlike vitamin A, which is toxic if overdosed, beta carotene is completely safe and nontoxic, and any excess beta carotene is excreted unchanged. If deficiency is suspected, beta carotene can be offered in a commercial liquid supplement or in the form of over-the-counter capsules filled with liquid beta carotene.

Exercise helps keep your bird’s respiratory system in tune, so, when possible, allow your bird supervised free-flight time. Take precautions though —  I hear too many stories of birds that flew out an open window, or became injured flying into a mirror or drowned in a commode. Birds with trimmed wing feathers can exercise by using toys, ladders, swings and playgyms.

Sunshine also promotes a healthy respiratory system. Allow your pet bird supervised time outdoors in a travel cage (remember to keep the cage in partial shade, provide water and ensure no predators can injure your pet bird). If you can’t provide sunshine, not filtered by glass or plastic, the next best thing is to use a full-spectrum light that has UVB output, and place it a safe distance from your bird’s cage. (Follow manufacturers’ recommendations for placement and frequency of changing the bulb.)

Improve Your Parrot's Air Quality
Fresh air should be easy to provide, in theory, but in reality, that is not always the case. Cigarette smoke and other particulates in the air from living indoors (including candle smoke, fireplace emissions, aerosol sprays, fumes from nonstick cookware, dust, dander and gases) all contribute to poor indoor-air quality.

Running air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter can result in a home where lower humidity is detrimental to tropical parrots’ respiratory systems. (Moist tissues are happy tissues!) So, in addition to keeping the air indoors clean and fresh, find a method to increase the humidity in the bird’s environment.

1) Use a vaporizer or humidifier to increase water vapor in the air, especially in confined spaces. Clean the water chamber frequently so that potentially dangerous microorganisms aren’t aerosolized. Too much humidity (for example, if the walls are wet) can be dangerous, as well, because there is the potential for pathogens like the Aspergillus fungus to start growing in the moisture, especially when combined with discarded food items, droppings and cage substrate. 

Another way to provide a humid environment is to take your bird into the bathroom when you shower. You can also mist your birds.

2) Run an air filter with HEPA filtration to cut down on particles floating in the air, such as powder down, feathers and other debris. Often it is helpful to run a type of box fan with an air conditioner filter (use one especially made for box fans to reduce the risk of accidental fire or damage) so that the HEPA filter won’t become overwhelmed and cease working properly. 

3) In addition to maintaining a smoke detector in your home, use a carbon monoxide detector, which can save your bird’s life and yours, too. Some gases found in the home can be very dangerous. Carbon monoxide can be deadly, and is colorless, odorless and tasteless.

When to Call The Vet
Healthy birds sneeze occasionally to expel dust and dander that have been inhaled, but if you notice the following, take your bird to a veterinarian:

1) Your bird sneezes more than usual, or has developed a mucoid discharge.

2) Your bird has discharge stuck to the feathers around its nares or eyes.

3) A nostril is clogged or you notice other changes.

Birds can develop a cough; however, some "coughing” birds are just copying someone in their home with a cough or cold, as well!

If a bird has had repeated bouts of sinus problems, there is a chance that the microscopic cells lining the upper respiratory tract with the little whisk broom-like projections may be permanently destroyed. If that happens, the bird is predisposed to developing sinus infections, so it may be a situation of controlling problems instead of finding a cure. But by providing adequate humidity, fresh air, beta carotene and other support care, it may be possible to prevent some infections or cause them to be less severe. 

Bird Sinus 101
To keep our pet birds in the best respiratory health, we must have an understanding of what goes on in a bird’s sinuses. So, let’s learn a bit about the anatomy of the sinuses.

First, portions of the lining of the upper respiratory tract have cells that produce mucus, and others have cells with microscopic moveable projections called cilia that wave to help sweep dust, dander, debris and organisms up and out of the respiratory system. Debris can then be sneezed out or swallowed, depending on where they up going.

Think of the sinuses as hollow pockets partly lined with those moveable cilia. The infraorbital sinuses are two triangular cavities under the skin in front of and below the eye on each side of the head. The walls consist almost entirely of soft tissues.
There are two openings to each sinus found at the top of the sinuses, one leading into an area called the caudal nasal concha and the other into the nasal cavity. One can see how this can lead to problems since gravity does not help expel any liquid or debris that becomes trapped in the infraorbital sinus. Because the infraorbital sinus is close to the eye, sometimes the eye may become involved with sinus problems, as well.

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Posted: August 9, 2012, 3:15 p.m. PST

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Reader Comments
I moved from St.Louis (humid) to Arizona (desert). I have a humidifier in the bird room during dry seasons. They love a varied diet that includes sweet potatoes and carrot rounds. Never had a problem.
Donna, Phoenix, AZ
Posted: 9/30/2015 6:45:57 PM
Good to know
n, n, TN
Posted: 11/1/2012 9:34:48 AM
There is an inexpensive eco friendly solution that continually improves indoor air quality and removes offensive odors. Air-ReNu is a blend of natural minerals made of a variety of elements, aluminum, iron, magnesium, sodium, potassium and lithium. These minerals are finely ground then mixed with paint, when applied to a wall of a home. Air-ReNu, works 24/7/365 cleansing the air of impurities and removing odors.
Vinnie Valle, Palm Coast, FL
Posted: 8/10/2012 1:41:13 PM
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