How To Handle This Common Emergency Among Pet Birds.


When the phone rings, you’re cooking eggs in a skillet on the stove. It’s a friend you haven’t heard from in a long time, and she wants to speak with you. You begin speaking and utterly lose track of time, entirely forgetting about your pan on the burner. You smell smoke and rush into the kitchen twenty minutes into the talk. The water has long since gone, the eggs have erupted into black chunks all over the stovetop, and the pan’s nonstick coating has dissolved. Worse, your cockatiel, which you keep in a cage by your kitchen table, has died in the bottom of his cage. Does this seem like a far-fetched story? Regrettably, it is not.

Cases like these, referred to by vets as “acute respiratory distress,” are an all-too-common emergency among pet birds. It is often the consequence of their breathing an airborne contaminant, such as fumes generated by overheated nonstick cookware or self-cleaning ovens. Birds may also get ill if they breathe in carbon monoxide emitted by defective heaters and furnaces, strong home cleaners, pesticides, aerosolized deodorant or hair spray, or paint fumes.

Unfortunately, many pet owners may not realize that a fragrance is upsetting their bird until it is too late. “You don’t necessarily get a lot of notice that anything is wrong,” ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center veterinarian Lisa Murphy said. “Sometimes you simply discover the bird dead or dying at the bottom of its cage.”

Symptoms include difficult or open-mouth breathing, weakness or difficulty to remain on the perch, quiet or languid behavior, tail bobbing, and restless or confused behavior, according to Murphy. The bird’s feet and beak will sometimes become gray or blue.

What should you do if you see any of these symptoms? “The best thing you can do is get the bird away from the source of the problem and into fresh air right away,” said Richard Nye, DVM, an Illinois veterinarian. In his experience, that is frequently all that is required to clear out the toxins and get the bird breathing normally again.

If, on the other hand, you’ve moved your bird into fresh air and he’s still having trouble breathing after a few minutes, you should take him to an emergency veterinary clinic. There, your bird may be given oxygen therapy or a diarrhetic to try to get fluid out of its lungs, bronchial-dilators to open up his airways so the veterinarian can get some oxygen in there, or anti-inflammatory drugs or antibiotics.

Of course, you could have burned dinner and your bird isn’t acting strangely. “It would probably still be a good idea to get that bird out of that area and into some fresh air until that contaminated area has had a chance to air out and no longer has that smell to it,” Murphy said.

Bad odors should not be overlooked. “Acute respiratory distress is a very serious condition in birds, and many birds that suffer from it die—sometimes within minutes,” Nye explained. “However, if you take quick action, you greatly increase your bird’s chances of survival,” he added.

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