What is Secondhand Smoke?

Nicotine is absorbed easily through the skin and feathers of birds. The smoke emitted from cigarettes will release nicotine into the air and that nicotine will settle on surfaces. These surfaces include your bird’s cage, bowls, toys and the bird itself. When a bird has nicotine land on their skin from secondhand smoke they will many times pick at their feathers or bite at their feet. Some will bite at themselves to the point that they create open wounds. 

Respiratory infections and lung cancers are also a concern for birds kept in an environment where secondhand smoke is prevalent. Pneumonia is a very serious condition in domesticated birds and can lead to death.

We all know the dangerous effects of secondhand smoke to humans, but many people do not fully grasp the health risk that secondhand smoke poses to their pets. Birds are especially susceptible to airborne toxins, such as those found in secondhand smoke. Miners used to use canaries and other small domesticated birds in the mines to serve as poisonous gas detectors. The birds would weaken and die long before the miners were affected.

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Symptoms of Secondhand Smoke in Birds

Birds, especially domesticated birds, are fragile creatures and need special care. You should pay close attention to your bird and their overall health and seek veterinary assistance when you notice something is off. Signs that your bird is suffering from secondhand smoke problems include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Problems breathing
  • Salivation
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Lung cancer
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Feather plucking
  • Refusing to eat or drink
  • Oily or dirty feathers
  • Respiratory paralysis

Causes of Secondhand Smoke in Birds

There are over 4,000 chemicals in secondhand smoke. Of those 4,000 chemicals, 69 of them are known to cause cancer. Many of these chemicals react with each other and form compounds such as formaldehyde, ammonia, cyanide, arsenic, methane and carbon monoxide. Secondhand smoke has been classified as a Class-A Carcinogen. This is the same classification that was given to asbestos. 

Your bird’s respiratory system cannot handle all of these chemicals and will cause severe illnesses to occur. Death may even occur if your bird is not removed from the contaminated space and given fresh air and appropriate treatments. The effects of secondhand smoke will be much worse in domesticated birds than in other pets because of their very sensitive respiratory system.

Diagnosis of Secondhand Smoke in Birds

The first thing your veterinarian will ask is if you or anyone in the home smokes. This will point your veterinarian in the right direction and easily locate the illness that has occurred from them being in an environment that has secondhand smoke. 

Your veterinarian will complete a complete blood count and perform an ultrasound to see what damage, if any, has been done to your bird’s lungs. They will also palpate your bird during the physical examination searching for any abnormalities to your bird’s body and feathers.

If your bird is suffering from feather plucking or other damaging behavior such as biting at their feet and legs, your veterinarian may do a wash of your bird’s feathers. If the water turns a brownish-yellow when run over your bird’s feathers, there is nicotine from the secondhand smoke covering your bird’s body.

Treatment of Secondhand Smoke in Birds

Treatments for your bird will include treating the current illness. Usually, if it is a respiratory illness such as pneumonia, antibiotics will be prescribed. If your bird’s health is severely affected, your veterinarian will recommend that your bird be hospitalized. 

When your bird is hospitalized, they will receive supportive care including fluid and nutrition therapy as well as oxygen therapy. They will be kept in a warming chamber and monitored continuously by your veterinarian and their staff.

To prevent a relapse, your bird must be removed from any environment that has secondhand smoke. Putting them in a separate room is not effective enough since secondhand smoke will deposit nicotine and other toxins on surfaces throughout the home. 

In extreme cases where respiratory distress or lung cancer has advanced, euthanasia may be recommended.

Recovery of Secondhand Smoke in Birds

Thoroughly clean and disinfect your bird’s cage, bowls and toys. You will need to do this on a regular basis to keep the toxins off your bird’s cage, bowls and toys. Regular baths will also help to remove nicotine from your bird’s body. 

You may want to invest in an outdoor flight cage for your bird if you or someone living with you is a smoker. This gives your bird plenty of opportunity on nice days to have fresh air and sunshine.

The best thing is to not smoke in your home. This reduces your bird’s exposure to secondhand smoke. Do not handle your bird while you are smoking or immediately after smoking. Wash your hands thoroughly before touching your bird because nicotine will have transferred to your hands and could then transfer to your bird.