by Rosemary Low

Bird fancier’s lung, known to the medical profession as hypersensitivity pneumonitis, is an extremely serious and potentially fatal condition. Anyone who keeps birds indoors or in an outdoor birdroom should be aware that the disease is often misdiagnosed as viral pneumonia or asthma. It is usually difficult to diagnose, except by doctors who specialise in lung disease and some doctors have never heard of it. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing and tiredness.

In bird keepers the disease is caused by exposure to feather dust and to protein particles in some droppings, including those of pigeons. This results in inflammation of the lung (usually of the very small airways) caused by the body’s immune reaction to small airborne particles such as bacteria, mould, fungi and feather dust.

The chronic (long-term) form of hypersensitivity pneumonitis is more common in bird keepers than in any other group of people. In the USA studies document 6,000 to 21,000 cases per 100,000 persons per year in pigeon breeders and 8 to 540 cases per 100,000 people per year in farmers (caused by exposure to mould spores in hay and dairy and grain products). People who work with poultry are equally at risk.

All pigeon fanciers know about this disease and therefore wear a mask when cleaning their pigeon lofts. Extremely few parrot keepers takes these precautions with cages and aviaries. However, I would urge all parrot keepers to do so. Wearing a dust mask with a valve is recommended.

The disease causes scarring (fibrosis) of the lungs and greatly diminished lung function. Sufferers will be struggling to breathe just walking up stairs and may be so severely affected that they end up in hospital. Indeed, this is what happened to an acquaintance of mine who kept a few Budgies and Cockatiels in her house. She repeatedly visited her doctor complaining of respiratory problems and was merely told to come back in two weeks’ time. The doctor was unable to diagnose the disease. She lost a lot of weight because her appetite was affected. It was not until she was so ill she was admitted to hospital for two weeks that the correct diagnosis was made. When she left hospital she reluctantly and sadly found new homes for all her birds. 

There is an acute form of the disease that usually occurs four to 12 hours after exposure (usually heavy exposure) to the particles. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, coughing, fever, chills and an aching body. A chest x-ray might show small nodules in the lungs but, if there is no repeated exposure (unlikely, in the case of bird keepers), the symptoms will subside hours to days after exposure.

Note that bird fancier’s disease has a worse prognosis than farmer’s lung. Removing exposure to birds results only in partial improvement. The chronic disease can result in muscle wasting and weight loss.

What should you do if you think you have hypersensitivity pneumonitis?  If you go to your doctor you will probably be given a lung function test (blowing into a tube). This is not very sophisticated. You should ask to be referred to a lung specialist. Because the disease is so difficult to diagnose, even if you have a high-resolution lung scan, you might be told that the result is not conclusive. You will probably be sent for a range of breathing tests at a hospital, probably with an appointment for another test in a few months’ time to assess whether deterioration of your lung function has occurred

As soon as the specialist suspects you are suffering from the disease, you will be advised to get rid of all your birds. For some people, including many pigeon fanciers, this is unthinkable. However, the disease can become severely debilitating so that an affected person can be struggling to walk and looking after birds becomes more and more difficult. Some people are diagnosed so late that parting with their birds is absolutely necessary to prolong their lives. However, if an affected person seeks help from the medical profession before the condition becomes too debilitating, there are a number of precautions that can retard the progression of the disease. These are as follows:

·        Always wear a mask when cleaning cages and aviaries and in the presence of your birds. The cheap masks that you might buy from a do-it-yourself store, without a valve, are not adequate. You need the kind of mask (illustrated) that pigeon fancier’s use or another type that also has an exhale valve. Catalogues from do-it-yourself and trade companies feature these masks.

·        Do not keep any birds in the house, as you thus have almost permanent exposure to the feather dust and other particles that have caused the disease.

·        Keep a set of clothes to change into every time you go to your aviaries or birdrooms. Because particles can be carried on your hair, wear a jacket with the hood up or some other protective headgear. Change back into your usual clothes as soon as you leave the aviaries.

·        If possible, employ someone to clean your cages or aviaries for you.

·        Do not use feather duvets or down-filled pillows on your beds. Exposure to feathers must be reduced.

Note that if you keep a cockatoo or a parrot in the house you will be especially susceptible because they give off much feather dust. However, spraying the birds daily or allowing them to bathe will help to reduce the amount of feather dust in the environment.

If you are a bird keeper and a non-smoker and you cough regularly, it is advisable to wear a mask when tending to your birds. A friend who keeps pigeons and parrots was experiencing severe bouts of coughing every morning. She attributed this to the stress of moving house. Then she started to wear a mask when feeding and cleaning out her birds. Within three months she had ceased to cough in the mornings, indicating that it was feather dust that had caused the problem.

It is advisable to install a good quality air purifier. The type I use (Intelligent Air Purifier) is excellent and is equally useful in birdroom or kitchen. It features six different air-cleaning methods, including negative ions that circulate throughout the room, a carbon filter that traps chemicals, gases and odours and an electronically-charged plasma cell to trap pollutants. The quiet but powerful fan provides maximum air circulation. Ensure that the filters are cleaned regularly.

Many makes of air purifiers are available, depending on the size of the area in which it will be used. It is also possible to acquire a personal ioniser that is worn around the neck and cleans the air surrounding one’s face. All these measures will reduce the risk of you becoming a victim of this highly debilitating disease. It is something that most bird keepers fail to take seriously.


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