|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
· 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
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
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.