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An Explanation

of Bird Keeper's

Lung Disease


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Bird Keeper's Lung Disease
by R C McDonald
Copyright 2004

"You should probably get rid of all of your birds," my doctor said, eyeing me seriously. "There's been many cases of problems like yours amongst bird-keepers, and the best solution is usually to get rid of the birds."

I gaped at her, speechless. Get rid of my birds? Unthinkable!

But it was clear, too, that something had to be done, as to not be able to breathe is unthinkable too. I had recently had a three-month long bout with a serious flu, and had emerged at the other side with multiple allergies and seriously damaged lungs, and my doctor believed my birds were making it worse.

But I couldn't believe it. I had even noticed that my breathing tended to be worse when at work, and improve a little at home - but that could be a time-delayed reaction, she argued, saying that allergies to birds and bird dander were common, and tests were not really needed.

Still, I insisted that tests be done - I was not going to give up my birds until I had solid proof that they were making me worse.

Bird-Keepers Lung is the term most commonly used for a respiratory ailment that can afflict, well, bird-keepers, (and their birds). One of the most widely held theories is that it is caused by inhaling too much of the airborne dust from feathers, seeds, chaff, and dried droppings that is so often associated with keeping birds indoors, especially when there is a lot of them and cleanliness is not scrupulously maintained.

It is most often assumed that this problem is due to an infection in the lungs - but the fact is that allergies to inhaled substances can often have very similar symptoms.

I already knew, due to my recent research on my newly developed food allergies, that factors such as allergies to seeds, seed dust, or even seed-dust mites could be involved. As I read more, it seemed that these factors were seldom considered, yet I had a feeling that such details could be quite important - maybe even as much as the 'cleanliness' issue.

Testing for the exact allergens my body was reacting to called for multiple visits to the usually-crowded allergist's office, with a long wait often in store, but I found I didn't mind. That office was stocked with magazines filled with the exact same information I was trying to research, and more than once, I stayed longer than I had planned, because I just had to finish reading some article or another.

Among other things, I found that what kinds of seeds go into making up seed dust can make a huge difference in how people might react to it (or not), as can the age of the seed, and the presence (or not), of a tiny, seldom-mentioned critter - the seed-dust mite. These little bugs are relatives of the house-dust mite, but live and thrive in seed dust, just as much as their cousins do in house dust.

It seemed that older, dusty seed, if looked at under a microscope, is often found to be swarming with these little critters, and that many people react very strongly to them. Just as with the house dust mite, they are known to trigger allergic reactions, especially if breathed in.

In fact, just as with house-dust mites, I read that if somebody without any allergies was exposed to heavy concentrations of these tiny bugs for long enough, their chances of developing an allergy to them would grow increasingly high. I also noted that they tend to be very few or non-existant in fresh seed, and that freezing would kill any adults (although not their eggs).

But one article I found, tucked away in a magazine dedicated to allergists world-wide, fascinated me no end.

This article did not mention birds, but discussed research on reactions produced in people through the inclusion of a certain seed in the diet, both ground as a component in prepared foods, and as an extract (as in oils).

But that seed is common as a component in seed-based pet bird foods, too - they were talking about canola.

It seemed that studies in hospitals in Britain had shown that canola, especially when inhaled in particulate form, can be what they termed an 'allergen trigger'. This meant that they had found that regular exposure to the dust of this seed could begin to trigger a body to produce allergic responses to multiple substances in the diet or environment, not just to the seed itself.

They found that the longer the exposure, the higher the odds were of general allergic reactions to all sorts of common substances beginning to develop.

This information fascinated me, and thinking back, I realized that I had begun to show mild allergic reactions within a year or two of beginning to live with birds in the house, although I did not at the time recognize them.

There doesn't seem to have been much attention paid to this research yet amongst the allergy-oriented community at large - but I believe it could be a factor in understanding why allergies sometimes so suddenly arise, in some people at least - and I especially believe it could make a huge difference in many bird-people's lives.

My test results, when they finally came in, reinforced the ideas that were slowly developing in my brain as I read. I was relived to find that I was not allergic to my canaries, my finches, my waxbills or my softbills - but I did react very strongly to parrot dander, chicken and chicken eggs, and dust mites. And yes, I was allergic to canola.

I had to face the fact that I could no longer keep my hookbills, and began with a heavy heart to look for good homes for them, while at the same time taking some basic steps to remove as many house-and-seed dust mites from my environment as possible. Seed was bought in smaller lots and kept in the freezer, and I bought a vacuum that used water for a filter - I could vacuum to my heart's content, and no dust would ever escape that filter!

At the same time I removed all canola from my house and diet. I began to scan labels when shopping, and stopped buying any foods containing canola or canola oil, and I designed special seed mixes for the birds I was keeping, containing NO canola seed. This generated some surprise from my dealers, as canola or rapeseed is a common ingredient in most small-bird seed mixes.

Finally, I bought and set up air filters. After some research on initial cost, filter-replacement costs, and overall effectiveness, I settled on small units that used easily-available and relatively inexpensive Hepa filters, and included a built-in ionizer to increase their effectiveness. I found that these worked quite well, although it was true that I had to replace the filters up to twice as often as the manufacturer recommended.

To my great relief, once these steps were accomplished, I immediately noticed an improvement in my breathing. I also find it very interesting that over the longer term, I have noticed a gradual decreasing of the number and degree of my allergies - if this keeps up, within a few years, I will be back to having few if any allergies at all!

My birds have continued to do well without any canola in their diet. I was careful to see that my new seed mix presented a similar balance of nutrients as the mixes that include canaola, and my birds don't seem to miss it.

It's certain that there's a lot more to learn, on these issues - but I find what's come to light so far v-e-r-y interesting indeed. My breathing continues to slowly but steadily improve - and more than ten years after my doctor told me I would probably have to get rid of all of my birds, I still have most of them!

by R C McDonald
Copyright 2004
Reprinted with Permission

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