What are Air Sac Mites?

Air sac mites, or Sternostoma tracheacolum, will get into the respiratory tract of birds (most often canaries and goldfinches, but can be seen in other birds like budgies and cockatiels). These mites can be located in the bird’s trachea, voice box, lungs and air sacs. All of the different stages of the mites can be located within the respiratory tissues.

Also known as Sternostoma tracheacolum, air sac mites are parasites that will infect birds by getting into their respiratory tract, leading to a variety of symptoms.

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Symptoms of Air Sac Mites in Birds

In mild cases, birds may not display any symptoms. In some, you may notice the following:

  • Your bird may be less vocal; in the case of canaries they may stop singing
  • Deteriorating feather quality 
  • Your bird may appear fluffed up and less active

Should your bird have a more advanced case of air sac mites the following may be seen:

  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Squeaking or high-pitched noises
  • Wet nostrils
  • Excessive saliva
  • Breathing that appears labored
  • Breathing with his mouth open
  • Tail bobbing
  • Weakness
  • Loss of weight
  • Clicking sounds when he is breathing

These symptoms will be more severe after participating in activity (for example, flying) and are usually worse in younger birds.

Types 

Another parasite that can infect the respiratory system of birds is the protozoan parasite Sarcocystis falcatula. This parasite is found in parrots, especially from Australia, Asia and Africa. The parasite will cause symptoms like lethargy, weakness, difficulty coordinating muscles, anemia and respiratory difficulty in the early stages of infection.

Causes of Air Sac Mites in Birds

A bird can be infected with air sac mites when in close contact with another bird who is already infected with them. The air sac mites will be transmitted after coughing or sneezing releases a small amount of moisture with the mites into the air. Another method of transmission is through contaminated drinking water.

Diagnosis of Air Sac Mites in Birds

Air sac mites are hard to diagnose in a living bird. In some cases, the mites will be visible to the eye or can be seen by a microscope when the tissues are being examined after swabbing the bird’s trachea. Through transillumination of the trachea in a dark room, it may be possible to see the mites, which will look like dark spots that are the size of a pinhead. Using a small quantity of alcohol to wet the bird’s feathers over his trachea may help in being able to see the mites. It is important to note that just because the mites cannot be seen does not mean that they are not there. In some cases, diagnosis is made once the bird responds to treatment. 

The symptoms that your bird experiences can point to other conditions, to include an upper respiratory infection caused by bacteria, poxvirus, Chlamydophila, Atoxoplasma, Trichomonas and Aspergillus.

Treatment of Air Sac Mites in Birds

Treatment is imperative for a bird that has air sac mites, as without it he will ultimately die; the mites will multiply which will block his air passages and lead to his suffocating. You will want to work closely with your veterinarian when it comes to treatment, as too little medication won’t effectively treat the condition and too much can lead to too many of the mites dying off at once, which can then lead to a blockage in the bird’s respiratory system. 

Should there be a flock of birds, and one bird is infected with air sac mites, it is recommended that all be treated, as the others have likely been exposed to the mites. 

Ivermectin in the United States and Ivomec in Europe are the most common medications to treat air sac mites and other medications are used in different parts of the world. The medications that are used for air sac mites are toxins and so you will want to be careful to not provide too much to your bird, as it can cause additional problems and possibly death.

Recovery of Air Sac Mites in Birds

While you and your veterinarian are treating your bird for air sac mites, you will want to sanitize his drinking containers every day so that he does not get re-infected. During treatment, try to keep your bird from expending too much energy. He should not fly until he has recovered. Keeping your bird’s environment at around 90 degrees will be helpful for his recovery. In addition, you will want to keep his perch low and ensure his environment is stress free.

Should you be giving your bird supplements, make sure to talk with your veterinarian about these to be sure that they will not cause interference with the drugs that are taking care of the air sac mites.