Air sac mites
Many birds are by nature pronounced high-performance, long-distance fliers who need a particularly efficient respiratory system to supply their bodies with sufficient oxygen during flight. Budgies belong to those species that can achieve such high-level flight skills. For their bodies to perform accordingly, they require an enormous amount of oxygen. In addition to the lungs, which serve to absorb this important gas, birds, therefore, possess so-called air sacs. These organs are located close to the lungs and serve, among other things, as air reservoirs. It is these air sacs that significantly support an ideal oxygen supply at low weight.
The air sacs are therefore of enormous importance for the birds’ respiration, not only during exertion such as flying. They also provide the animals with oxygen during resting phases. For this reason, diseases affecting the air sacs cause serious respiratory problems that can even lead to death.
Besides air sac inflammation caused by bacteria and air sac ruptures as a result of accidents (trauma), another serious disease can occur, and it has to do with tiny arthropods. Since the air sacs are cavities in the bird’s body, they are an ideal environment for certain parasites. With a size of only 0.7 millimeters, the so-called air sac mite (Sternostoma tracheacolum) is practically invisible to the human eye. These small arachnids feel particularly at home in the warm, moist environment of the windpipe (trachea) and air sacs. They prosper abundantly unless the affected birds are treated with medication.
Numerous bird species may become affected by air sac mites. These internal parasites are particularly common in canaries and finches. According to earlier literature, air sac mites are also supposed to occur in budgies, see for example Respiratory acariasis due to Sternostoma tracheacolum in the budgerigar. However, more recent research contradicts this study, which is already several decades old, and accordingly, the conviction is now gaining ground that budgies are usually not affected by air sac mites. Nevertheless, now and then there are cases in which budgies show the typical symptoms of such a parasitic infestation and also react positively to a treatment aimed at air sac mites. As far as I know, an explanation for why this so has not yet been found.
In the initial stage of an infestation, the affected birds stop singing almost unnoticeable. Later, they twitter less and less, and finally, they sound hoarse. As the infestation progresses, considerable respiratory difficulties set in, accompanied by tail bobbing due to the enormous effort required to breathe. Especially at night and during exertion – for example, when flying – there are cracking, groaning breathing sounds that sometimes turn into an asthmatic whistling. The following sound example comes from a budgie who was suspected of suffering from an infestation of parasites inside the air sacs and who recovered after treatment with an antiparasitic:
Diseased birds often gasp for minutes because they can breathe only with the greatest effort. Furthermore, they occasionally try to get rid of the parasites tormenting them by retching violently. In doing so, the birds shake their heads immediately after the gagging movements, which is why it appears that they are vomiting. This is often confused with the symptoms of an infection of the digestive system. In case of infestation with air sac mites, however, no mucus appears. Instead, it is dry retching. In the final stages of the disease, affected birds are too weak to breathe and die in agony as they suffocate from the mites, which often colonize the windpipe in such large numbers that they entirely clog it.
Several months can pass between the initial contact with the mites and the appearance of the first symptoms. In general, the incubation period is no longer than about half a year. So if you have kept a flock of birds for more than a year and the animals haven’t been in touch with other birds, usually, you don’t have to deal with air sac mites in case your birds are showing respiratory problems. This means you should look for other possible reasons and have your birds examined by an avian vet. That’s very important because any respiratory disease can become life-threatening if left untreated.
Transmission and infection
Air sac mites are transmitted by rattling and vigorous exhalation. They thus get out of the bird’s body into the air and are inhaled by birds perched in the immediate vicinity. Furthermore, drinking water is another important route of transmission. Therefore, if one bird in a flock suffers from an infestation with air sac mites, it is advisable to treat the whole group. The other birds were likely infected via the drinking water or by breathing in the parasites.
Clean the drinking dishes with special attention during treatment. A poorly cleaned drinking dish can cause the birds to become infected again and again, despite treatment with medication.
Treating an infestation with air sac mites is usually not possible without the help of an avian vet. Diseased birds will die sooner or later if you do not take them to the vet! To eliminate the mites, the vet will for example drip a medication (antiparasitic) into the neck or between the shoulder blades of infected birds. The drug penetrates the bird’s body, it is a contact poison for the mites settling on the tissue inside the air sacs and windpipe. This treatment should be carried out several times depending on the severity of the infestation.
Often therapy is carried out in this way in Germany: On the first, fifth, and ninth day of the treatment period, one drop of the medication is dribbled onto the bird’s skin. However, this is not the only possible treatment option. Different dosages or time intervals between the individual drug administrations can be prescribed by the avian vet.
A moderate improvement is usually seen within 24 hours after the first treatment with the drug. But there are also known cases in which it takes significantly longer for feathered patients to get relief from their respiratory problems.
How else can you help an affected bird?
To help a sick bird recover, you should ensure that your feathered patient does not have to exert herself or himself excessively. Until breathing is no longer significantly affected by the mites, your bird should not be allowed to fly. The more evenly the bird breathes again after successful treatment, the easier she or he will be able to absorb oxygen, which means that flying will not be too much of a strain on your feathered friend.
If the bird is very weak, you may help the animal by applying heat therapy. You should carefully watch how the feathered patient reacts to the radiation of a medical heat lamp. In case your bird likes it and feels comfortable, you can place the heat lamp near her or him for several hours a day. But please take this measure only under the supervision of your avian vet and always stay close to your bird. Otherwise, there is a risk of burns.
Also, discuss with your veterinarian to what extent a steam bath for inhalation is an option for your bird. Should the vet agree to this therapeutic measure, have the expert explain to you exactly how often and for how long your bird should inhale.