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Many bird species are high-performance and long-range aviators by nature who need an especially efficient respiratory system in order to supply sufficient oxygen to the body during flight. In addition to the lungs that ensure the oxygen exchange, they possess so-called air sacs that are inside the body and function as an oxygen reservoir. These air sacs and some other anatomic details ensure that the birds are light enough to enable them to fly.

Yet it is not only because of the exertion whilst flying that the air sacs are of great importance. They constantly ensure oxygen uptake as well. It is for this reason that an illness of the air sacs cause grave breathing difficulties which can even cause the death of the affected bird.

In addition to an inflammation of the air sacs caused by bacteria, there is another serious disease affecting this respiratory organ. Since air sacs are cavities inside the bird's body, they are predestined for an infestation of parasites. With a size of only 0.7 millimetres, the air sack mite (Sternostoma tracheacolum) is practically invisible to the human eye. These parasites thrive in humid conditions that can be found in the trachea as well as in the air sacs and prosper there if no action is taken against them with drugs.

Island Canaries and Finches are very vulnerable regarding air sack mites. The situation is different for budgies. In the 1970s, en expert found hints for air sack mites in this bird species, see "Respiratory acariasis due to Sternostoma tracheacolum in the budgerigar Externer Link". But today, most avian vets claim that these results were wrong and that there never was any known case of air sack mites in budgies so far. Despite this, there were many cases in which budgies showed all symptoms of an infestation with air sac mites (see below) and after a treatment the birds recovered soon. It is not yet known why the drugs worked or whether there are other parasites affecting the air sacks of budgies.

In the early stages of an infection, the birds subtly stop chirping. They then whistle less often and finally sound downright hoarse. In the further course of an infection, serious breathing difficulties occur that involve tail bobbing due to the enormous strain of breathing. Especially at night and during exertion (for example whilst flying), the clicking and groaning breathing sounds occur that can sometimes descend into an asthmatic whistle. Here you can listen to a sound sample of a budgie who suffered from a disease that reminded of an air sack infestation and that was cured successfully with the aid of an antiparasitic.

Diseased animals occasionally cough for minutes since they can hardly breathe. In addition, they sometimes try to get rid of the agonizing parasites by choking strenuously. Immediately after the choking movements, the animals shake their heads, which gives the appearance of them suffering from a crop infection (sour crop). An infestation of air sac mites, however, does not produce any phlegm. In the final stage of this disease, the bird is too weak to breathe and perishes in agony for it virtually suffocates.

Months can pass between infection and emergence of first symptoms! However, if you have a solitary bird that has been kept on its own for a couple of years, the possibility that it is suffering from an infection with air sac mites is small - even if it shows similar symptoms. In any case, the bird should be taken to a vet.

Air sac mites are transmitted via the air through strong coughing onto birds sitting nearby. The drinking water is another main source of transmission. If one bird of the flock is suffering an infestation of air sac mites, it is thus advisable to treat all birds since it is likely that they have been infected via the drinking water. During treatment, it is important to clean the drinking containers carefully, even if you only have one budgie. In spite of a treatment with drugs, the bird could get re-infected via a drinking container that has not been cleaned properly.

Treatment of an infection with air sac mites on one's own account is not possible; the diseased bird will die if it is not taken to a vet.

In order to kill the mites, the vet will dribble a drug onto the neck or between the shoulder blades of the sick bird which will enter its body and acts as a contact poison for the mites. This treatment should be performed thrice; on the first, fifth and ninth day of therapy. There is usually an improvement within 24 hours after the first course of treatment. In most cases, a substance called Ivomec is used here in Europe. Maybe different drugs are in use in other parts of the world.

What else can be done?
In order to help the bird to regenerate, it is vital to ensure that the bird doesn't experience exertion. Thus flights should be banned until the mites have completely disappeared from the air sacs. The more consistently the budgie breathes, the easier its oxygen uptake will be.

If the bird is very weak, you might make it feel more comfortable with a warmth therapy. Observe the bird's reaction to the infrared light. If it is of benefit to him, you can put up the lamp in the bird's proximity for a few hours every day - but only under supervision since there is otherwise a risk of burns.

Consult your vet if a steam bath for inhalation is possible for your budgie. If the vet gives it the go-ahead, put a bowl containing the recommended inhalation substance near the closed cage and drape a huge towel over cage and bowl, enabling the bird to inhale the benefiting steam without getting burned by the hot water or drowning in it.

German version of this text: Gaby Schulemann-Maier,
English translation of this chapter: Melanie Ebenhoch and Gaby Schulemann-Maier.

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