Tropical birds make incredibly beautiful pets. But there are a few things to consider, to ensure you and your feathered friends stay healthy.

The dangers of bird dust

As a general rule, all tropical birds create dust, but it’s worth pointing out that some birds are more ‘dusty’ than others. Cockatoos, Cockatiels and African Greys, produce a very fine powder that coats their feathers, to help them shed water easily. The result? LOTS of airborne debris. These tiny particles, if inhaled can play havoc with you and your bird’s respiratory system.

Most parrots have very small nasal openings, that can easily be blocked by airborne debris. This can lead to serious sinus infections that are often very hard to treat. Some parrots also suffer from hypersensitivity syndrome, which can be deadly if particulate matter is inhaled over a period of time.

What is Bird Breeders Lung?

In humans, this same condition, often referred to as ‘Bird Breeders Lung’ or Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, occurs when dust, dander and dried bird droppings are inhaled by a sensitive individual. Symptoms are mild at first, often starting with a dry cough, followed by an increasing shortness of breath. A person suffering from Bird Breeders Lung will have no option but to remove their birds from the home. If exposure continues, permanent lung damage can follow, and as with parrots, there is no treatment. Although rare, this condition can lead to death.

And for people with allergies and asthma, bird dust and dander are major air borne allergens that exacerbate asthma symptoms and cause allergies to flare up.

What can you do?

So what can you do to ensure your home is a safe and happy place for you and your feathered friends? We decided to put a few questions to an expert. Judith Archer has been a tropical bird owner for more than 50 years. Judith is a retired attorney and a lifelong parrot lover. She shares her home with 31 parrots, including two African Greys and 5 Cockatoos. Making her the perfect person to share her extensive knowledge of tropical birds and how best to look after them.

Is there anything bird owners can do to minimize the amount of dust and dander their bird produces? While this can be hard to do when a cockatoo catches your heart, if you or someone in your household have any pre-existing breathing issues such as COPD, try to avoid what we often call Old World birds from Asia and Africa, especially members of the Cockatoo family, and African Greys, which put out a lot of powder and dust compared to New World birds, which are mostly South American species.

Oddly enough, and counter-intuitive as it seems, the number of parrots in your household doesn’t seem to be a factor in the more serious bird dust related medical problems, though a larger flock does mean more basic cleaning is needed!

Some avian vets discourage keeping birds in the bedroom. Giving your lungs 8 hours of “clean” air at night may help ward off medical problems.

Regular showers, the ‘wetter the better’ can help, especially with the more dusty and powdery birds. Almost all parrots can learn to enjoy a soaking weekly or more often a shower. In between, you can mist them down regularly with plain water.

Do you have any cleaning advice for bird owners? Use the same mister that you use on the birds to lightly spray the cage papers before gathering them up, and seal them in trash bags right away, and yes, pull cage papers daily! I also was surprised to realize that parrot dust and powder can stick to walls as well! A quick sweep now and then with a Swiffer-style dust mop helps. And you really, really don’t want to forget to dust the tops of ceiling fans before turning them back on in the spring! (I always forget!) Dust and powder also collect on cage bars, so if possible, roll their cages outside to clean, if they are smaller, pop them in the shower and wash them down from top to bottom.

What type of furnishings work best in the rooms where birds spend their time? Unless you just love to dust, keep the knick knacks away from the birds, and I can’t imagine having birds in a carpeted room. I’d also avoid drapes if possible, and in my dream bird room, I’d have “in window” blinds.

I love a few things built into my house: one, a whole house/attic fan that allows me, on nice days, to open all the windows and completely replace all the air in the house. I also have UV filters in my HVAC systems, which use 5″ thick filters. But the reality is these big filters can only clean the air that gets to them, and that’s a rather small percentage of the air on each floor and of course, even then it’s only when the systems are running.

Many years ago, I realized we needed air filters to cut down on the dust and powder, both for our own lungs, and the birds’, not to mention reducing the dusting time. I tried a number of units, small, large, larger, and “really big!” but hated that every weekend, I’d have to shut them off, take them apart, drag the prefilter outside to clean, and put it all back together. The final straw was when one after another, they burned after a year or less of use.

What prompted you to choose Austin? Over ten years ago, I finally decided to take the plunge and buy an Austin Air Machine, which promised virtually no cleaning needed, and a five-year warranty. There is an old ad for a razor with a man saying, “I liked this razor so much, I bought the company!’ While buying the Austin Air company was a bit out of my reach, I did become a dealer because I was so impressed with the Austin HEPAs performance. (That same first Austin Air is still running.) I enjoy helping other parrot owners protect their and their birds’ health by investing in Austin products, and talking or more often, emailing parrot owners to help them select the best Austins for their needs.

What model do you have? I run Allergy Machines, which have more material dedicated to the removal of particulate matter, but for some folks who also have dogs or cats, the Pet Machine is sometimes the best unit to start with. I say “start with” because many of my customers come back to buy more Austins after seeing the difference the first one makes, often placing the second machine in the bedroom.

What would you say are the main benefits of running your Austin in the bird room? I’ve found that the Austins make a huge difference in the dust level here, with minimal maintenance from me. I’ve lived for decades now, with thirty large parrots, including some of the dust and powder Greys and Cockatoos, but have been spared any breathing issues, or any parrots with respiratory problems. Many visitors comment in fact on how clean the household air is, and friends with breathing problems have no problems visiting. I decided early on that while Austin Air Machines are not the cheapest HEPA filters out there, they are a wise investment in your health, and that of your birds. With the added benefit of less cleaning and dusting! I tell anyone who asks that I like them because they are simple, and strong, and do only one job and do it well: produce clean air. I consider them “cheap insurance” against major health issues for myself and my flock and if one unit saves even one vet problem, it has paid for itself, but they have already paid for themselves with peace of mind.

Judith Archer is one of the founders of The Parrot Posse, a nonprofit charitable organization that helps birds in need right across the country. In the last few years, The Parrot Posse has raised over $300,000 and donated over $500,000 worth of food, toys, nuts, perches, cages, and other supplies to dozens of parrot welfare groups. The charity has also donated a number of Austin Air Allergy Machines, to help protect birds and their keepers. For more information on the Parrot Posse and the work they do, visit their Facebook page here.