I am writing you as a fellow bird keeper. A while ago I became concerned about the biological health risks to caged birds. The chemicals typically used in aviculture can be dangerous; some people misuse the chemicals that they have; and worse, many people don't take the simple steps that would reduce the biological risks that cage and aviary life present to birds. Avian vets tell us that at least 75% of bird deaths are premature and that most bird illnesses could be avoided by simple preventive measures. So, I started doing some research. I looked into what cleaners and disinfectants were available and which ones were safe and how they could/should be used. I got some good help from some of the best avian vets in practice today. I ended up writing an article that will be published in the March/April Bulletin of The National Finch and Softbill Society. I was surprised by my own research because I found that the two best products are rarely known in avian circles, and yet these are the ones that avian vets and research labs are turning to themselves. They can be a little hard to find, but that's another story.


By Ross Bishop 1999

Although biosafety is an odd term, keeping your birds safe and secure from biological agents (pathogens) isn't. A number of factors go into keeping birds healthy, and good hygiene and proper diet are the most important. No one likes to lose a bird, and yet avian vets tell us that 75% of premature bird deaths are preventable. That is a sad statistic, especially in these days of increasingly restrictive CITES regulation and rising bird and importation costs. Because we keep birds in enclosures, we expose them to toxicity levels that are not natural. There is no rain to periodically rinse pathogens away, and the environment is isolated from the natural disinfecting effect of ultra-violet light. In the cage or aviary, water containers, especially with mineral supplements added, are perfect breeding environments for all sorts of pathogens. Egg and other soft foods sitting out in the warm sun beckon with the risk of salmonella or ecoli. Bird feces on perches can spread bacteria and release dangerous airborne viruses. Corners and crevices in cages and aviaries that are difficult to clean are also ideal breeding spots for all sorts of bacteria, fungi and viruses. And, the more birds you keep the greater the risk of infection and the easier it can spread.

In keeping birds in enclosed conditions we obligate ourselves to keep their living spaces especially clean and healthy. The foundation of biological safety is prevention, not cure. And, this is a classic situation where prevention is far better and easier than any cure. If you prevent diseases from getting to your birds it is much easier (and much less expensive) than trying to treat an infection after it manifests and spreads. So, if you take the time to simply wash cages, perches and aviaries more frequently, you will need to use strong disinfectants or veterinary intervention less often. That's why it is important to clean regularly and frequently. It can take more time, but I have actually found that if I clean more frequently my massive cleanup jobs are not as bad and I end up spreading the cleaning chore over several days. Maybe I spend the same amount of time, but the load feels much lighter! In any case, cleaning is the cheapest investment in bird health you will ever make. In addition to frequent cleaning, prevention also means being smart about limiting cross contamination between cages, having clean, wholesome food and water available and having quarantine facilities for new or sick birds. Don't wait to loose a bird or for one to get sick as a wake-up call to do a better job of cleaning and disinfecting. Up until now cleaning an aviary or a cage was a labor intensive process that meant scrubbing everything down, rinsing, applying a disinfectant and then washing the disinfectant off.

There is an easier way, and I will speak of it later. I will be writing about disinfectants, and there is a cardinal principle to consider here: disinfectants are chemicals that kill. That's why they work. Because they kill, there is a risk in using them - if you doubt that, just read the precautions on any disinfectant label. Then, multiply those cautions by about a factor of 10 for your birds. Birds are far more sensitive to the environment than we are. Their respiratory systems are different than ours, and they are more vulnerable to airborne toxins (chemicals), spores and airborne bacteria and viruses than humans. That is why miners used to use canaries to detect methane leaks in coal mines. In order to create biosafety for your birds you need to clean frequently and then add a layer of disinfection on top. Many people think that if a product just says that it "kills germs" it's doing a good job of protecting their birds from disease. This is not the case. There are a host of pathogens that can harm birds and only a few are bacterial. Soap and water are great as a first line of defense, but all you are doing is removing most of the organic material and reducing the pathogenic population. But, soap does not kill pathogens in the way that you need. No disinfectant works well in the presence of organic debris, so a thorough cleaning is essential for effective disinfection to take place. Once something is washed, it must be rinsed thoroughly before disinfecting to avoid a chemical reaction between the soap and the disinfectant which could possibly inactivate the disinfectant. That's easy for seed dishes and waterers, but we are also talking about cage wire and aviary walls and floors where adequate rinsing can be difficult in a home environment.

Unfortunately, there is not a single chemical that will rid your aviary or cages of all deadly pathogens. Every disinfectant has limitations. Although there are some really nasty disinfecting materials available, their very potency carries the risk of doing harm. Some are safe, but not very toxic. Some have risky side affects. All of them vary in ease of use, the time involved for the product to do its job and perhaps most importantly, what each eliminates. You are going to need more than one kind of disinfectant to combat the different pathogens that will come into your aviary. Hospitals use over 14 different types of disinfectants at any given time, and they still have a lot of trouble controlling secondary infections. Your bird room will not need 14, but you get the point. I am going to suggest a basic program that will provide good protection for most of the pathogens likely to infect your birds. But, no general program will get everything, and you may need to do something more drastic from time to time as a preventative. You will also need something more specific or stronger if you experience a particular problem.

When I first started keeping birds I read an article by a breeder who insisted that everyone should sterilize their shoes and hands each time they entered the aviary. I had an image of people wearing "clean room suits" to visit their birds. I have to admit that if I had a pair of $20,000 parrots, or if I were a breeder with hundreds of birds and thousands and thousands of dollars of breeding stock, I might consider being this careful, but you have to draw a line somewhere, and I think that sterilizing my shoes when I walk to my sun room/aviary is overkill. You are entitled to disagree. I don't want my finches so sterile that they cannot survive outside my aviary. And, although I can understand the expert's desire for a safe environment, they do not live in the real world. And, in the real world, birds die. That is why nature makes them so prolific. I also believe that it is both unfair and unethical to sell a bird with limited immunities to an unsuspecting buyer halfway across the country. However, having said all that, and as the experts have made clear to me, most people overlook some elemental and essential precautions regarding bird health. Many of the aviaries I have visited present serious risks to their birds. And the sad thing is that these conditions were easily preventable by the investment of a little more time and cleaning. The aviaries and cages I saw were simply time bombs waiting to explode. Is yours? You will have to decide how far you want take your own program of prevention.

It isn't just the birds or the food and water in an aviary that pose a threat. You are a risk to your birds too! Everything that comes into your bird room is a potential carrier - they are called fomites. We all carry pathogens and we transmit them to our birds. And, that is especially true regarding cats and dogs in the bird room. One of the smart preventions is to pay attention to all fomites - whether your hands, a food dish or spray millet. They all can present risks. The great majority of time they are harmless, and then there is that one occasion. . . The people who are familiar with diseases are adamant about our being especially careful to clean ourselves after being at the vet's, visiting a pet store, attending a bird show or visiting other people's aviaries. They advise that it is smart to shower and change your clothing and disinfect your shoes immediately upon returning from these places. This is another one of those situations where the experts can seem to be overly picky, but their job is to prevent the spread of disease, and the environments they are concerned about are prime sources of risk. So, pay attention to the possible carriers (the fomites) that come into your aviary. While we are talking about risks, remember that other bird keepers (who may be your good friends) pose a particular threat to your birds as do any new additions to the aviary. A considerate protocol would be for each of us to shower and also disinfect our shoes and hands before visiting a friend's aviary. A good quarantine practice for new arrivals is also essential. Is this overkill? Maybe, but probably not. How important are your birds to you? That is the dilemma.

Regarding disinfectants generally, it is important to be patient when using any disinfectant. Disinfectants do not work instantaneously. To kill pathogens and do a thorough job, many disinfectants must remain in contact from several minutes to several hours. If left for too short a time, the product won't do it's job, and if left too long, some products will damage the surface of the item being disinfected. The tough guys in the pathogenic world are the bacteria. Not only are some of them really hard to kill, they also mutate and can become resistant to particular chemicals. That is why a multi-chemical approach is considered wise. Although viruses are generally fragile outside their natural environments, if you need to find a disinfectant that will battle a particular virus infection you may have a special problem because virus-killing disinfectants are virus specific. There are two kinds of viruses - lipophilic and hydrophilic. Lipophilic viruses, such as herpes and influenza, are easy to destroy, while hydrophilic (nonenveloped) viruses are more difficult to kill. You must read the labels of disinfectants very carefully to find out if the product you are considering is a virucide against the virus you need to eliminate. In order to give you an overview, here are the commonly used aviary disinfectants and their major benefits and limitations:

sodium hypochlorite - household bleach
Bleaches are very harsh but very effective disinfectants. They attack pathogens, organic debris and living tissues equally well. Chlorine compounds are among the most potent sporicides and are also lethal to both lipophilic and hydrophilic viruses. It is one of the few disinfectants that will kill protozoans such as giardia. Bleach is cheap, deadly and readily available. However, there are three major problems to using it. Bleach creates toxic fumes as it dries which can be especially irritating to birds with their efficient respiratory systems (especially to young birds and especially through repeated exposure). Bleach must only be used with considerable ventilation and should never be used around birds. Bleach is also very rapidly inactivated by organic debris (any dirt left on the object being disinfected will interfere with the action of the free radicals, up to the point where no chlorine is left to act on the actual pathogens). So thoroughly wash anything you are going to treat first. Third, bleach is tough on metal. It will seriously shorten the life of any metal object it contacts. All objects treated with bleach must be rinsed thoroughly afterwards and allowed to dry before birds are allowed to contact them. Bleach incidentally, works best in the presence of sunlight which releases more free radicals which destroy cells, including pathogens. Bleach should be used in a dilution of 1 part bleach to 32 parts water (1/2 cup to a gallon of water). It must stay in contact for about 10 minutes to assure disinfection. It is the least expensive disinfectant available and is good for anything non-metalis that you can remove from the cage or aviary like food dishes, etc.

Brand Names: Nolvasan, Virosan
These are safe products to use routinely. They are more expensive than bleach, and although safer, still should not be used when birds are present. When applied they must remain in contact for about 5 minutes to work effectively, and then must be rinsed thoroughly. They are effective against many but not all, bacteria and yeast (especially candida). But they are not effective against giardia, most viruses, mycobacteria spores and pseudomonas (Virosan is especially formulated to be effective against pseudomonas). Although less toxic than phenol and aldehyde disinfectants the chlorhexidines' limitations make it less than ideal as a general disinfectant. Nolvasan is particularly good for disinfecting syringes, bowls and feeders, although it must be discarded and re-mixed daily. It is not effective in the presence of organic debris. Some aviculturists use chlorhexidine as a water additive for control of pathogens, but this is not recommended by the manufacturer, as these products were never meant for ingestion, and long term effects have not been studied.

Brand Names: Oxyfresh Dent-a-gene, Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele' Stabilized chlorine dioxide is a chlorine derivative which is a powerful oxidizing agent. It can destroy many pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. Chlorine dioxide deactivates avian polyoma virus (a hydrophilic virus). Many studies have suggested that stabilized chlorine dioxide is a superior disinfecting agent to bleach. It is used in Europe to treat drinking water because it does not form carcinogenic by-products like sodium hypochlorite does. There are very few products that are effective and can be safely used around birds, and stabilized chlorine dioxide is the best choice. Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele' is a cleaner containing stabilized chlorine dioxide. It is excellent to use for routine cleaning of cages and aviaries as it will clean and provide disinfectant protection and is not harmful. It is also an excellent washing/soaking solution for syringes, food dishes, feeders and water containers. For hard surfaces, the solution is sprayed on and then wiped off after a 5 minute exposure. Rinsing is not necessary. Oxyfresh Dent-a-gene is a full strength stabilized chlorine dioxide disinfectant that is a two-part product. The two parts are mixed (and at this stage does have toxic fumes) but once stabilized is safe for use. It is however rapidly deactivated by organic debris and exposure to sunlight, so all surfaces to be treated should be cleaned first. Once mixed, a solution can be used for 7 days if sealed tightly and kept out of the light. A spray bottle of Dent-A-Gene solution can be kept near the bird room and used on hands and shoes as fomite controller. It does not irritate skin. Oxyfresh is also an excellent deodorizer. These products are reasonably priced, and the fact that they are effective and can be safely used around birds is a blessing for any aviculturist. Denta-A-Gene was originally created as a disinfectant for dentists and its effectiveness is well documented. Research done at the University of Georgia comparing 7 common disinfectants supports the claim that Oxyfresh is highly effective against polyomavirus. Oxyfresh products are sold through a multi-level marketing program and several avian research organizations.

Brand Names: Vanodine
Most iodine-containing disinfectants also contain a detergent, and are called "iodophors". Iodophors are compounds in which the iodine is "tamed" and are considered safe to use around birds. They have a good germicidal and anti-fungal action, but not the undesirable properties of iodine. They are also a good viricide but only after prolonged exposure. They are not particularly good as sporicidal agents. They have a limited vapor production, are not affected by hard water, have a long shelf life and work well in hot or cold water. They are medium cost. Iodophores are a good disinfectant for water and food containers and aviary surfaces. Although they stain plastic and hands, when the solution has lost its brown color it's an indication to change it. For cleaning, Vanodine should be used in a solution of 1/2 fluid ounce to 1 gallon water. Vanodine needs no rinsing, is odorless and contains no alcohol or bleach. It is however, easily deactivated by contact with organic debris, is not effective against hydrophylic viruses such as polyoma, and is not effective against all strains of pseudomonas bacteria. Vanodine can be added to drinking and bathing water (1/2 teaspoon per gallon of water) to limit diseases spread through water and to help control salmonella in bird crops. (Salmonella is sometimes passed from parent to hatchling, putting the hatchling at risk). Several avian vets contacted for this article expressed serious concern regarding the effects of long term exposure to Idophors. My advice would be to consult with your vet. Note: there are several other types od disinfecting chemicals available that are far more potent (and more toxic) than the ones mentioned above. These are recommended for special situations only and in my opinion should not be used routinely or without the guidance of an avian vet.

Here is a basic plan that will provide general protection for your birds. The cleaning cycles depend of course, in your bird population, what birds you are keeping and how densely they are housed. And, keep in mind that using hot water increases the effectiveness of all cleaning agents:

Food and Water -
Food and Water Containers: Use only plastic or glass containers. These clean and disinfect much better than other materials. Buy two sets of containers so that you can use one set while the other is being cleaned and disinfected. Mark them so that the dishes are returned to the same cage or aviary each time. Wash and thoroughly clean every container, every day in hot soapy water or Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele'. Rinse thoroughly. Then soak in either bleach (1 cup per. gallon), Vanodine (1 tsp. per. gallon), Nolvasan (1-3 Tbs. per. gallon) or Oxyfresh Dent-A Gene (can be sprayed on). Change bathing water as often as is convenient, but at least once daily. Absolutely change Nekton treated water every day or more frequently. Before filling bird containers, especially in the morning, run tap water for a bit. Certain bacteria, such as psuedamonas live in most water pipes (especially the plastic ones commonly used today). This bacteria does not routinely effect humans, but can be very harmful to birds. As a better alternative, filtered water is safest for both you and your birds. Treat soaked seed with a few drops of Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele' or bleach while they are soaking. Rinse thoroughly. Treat sprouted seed after sprouting is completed by soaking in a few drops of bleach or Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele' and water for 15 minutes. Rinse thoroughly. Egg or other soft foods should not be left with birds any longer than 3-4 hours depending upon environment. Thoroughly spray all fresh produce served to birds in Oxygene Cleansing Gele'. Wait 5 minutes, then rinse. Replace substrate in small cages daily, in larger cages replace several times weekly. Cleaning hands and shoes: If you keep many birds, spray hands and shoes with Oxyfresh Dent-A-Gene before entering the aviary. Insist that any other aviculturists who visit do the same. Do the same after visiting the vet's, the pet store a bird show or another aviary. Spray hands if you are feeding babies.

With birds present: Spray exposed aviary or cage surfaces with Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele' (diluted1Tbs. per quart of hot water). Wait 5 minutes and wipe off. This only takes a few minutes and dramatically reduces the risk of infection.

Birds present: Spray all exposed surfaces with Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele' or scrub with hot soap and water. Rinse thoroughly. Treat all surfaces with Oxyfresh Dent-A-Gene. Replace substrate if using newspaper, etc.

Remove perches and scrub with stiff brush and hot soap and water or spray with Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele'. Rinse thoroughly. Treat with bleach, Vanodine, Oxyfresh Dent-A-Gene or Nolvasan. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before returning to aviary (Dent-A-Gene and Vanodine do not require rinsing). (Note: It is a good idea to have two sets of perches so you can swap sets and clean the soiled set at your leisure.)

Remove birds from cages and scrub cages with stiff brush, soap and hot water or treat with Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele'. Rinse thoroughly. Treat cage with Oxyfresh Dent-a Gene, bleach or Nolvasan (for bleach and Nolvasan keep birds out of the area where chemicals are being used. Allow cage to dry thoroughly before reintroducing birds). Follow chemical manufacturer's directions carefully.

If birds cannot be removed: Spray with Cleansing Gele', wait 5 minutes and wipe or rinse off, or scrub with soap and hot water and rinse. Treat cage with Oxyfresh Dent a-Gene. Rinsing is not necessary.

If birds can be removed: completely scrub all surfaces, including aviary wire with a stiff brush, soap and hot water or treat with Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele'. Rinse thoroughly. Treat all surfaces, wires, perches, etc. with Oxyfresh Dent-A-Gene. If aviary can be rinsed, Nolvasan or bleach may be used instead (for bleach and Nolvasan: keep birds out of the area where chemicals are being used. Allow aviary to dry thoroughly before returning birds).

If birds cannot be removed: completely scrub all surfaces with Oxyfresh cleansing Gele' or soap and hot water. Rinse thoroughly. Treat all surfaces, wires, perches, etc. with Oxyfresh Dent-A-Gene.

If birds can be removed: completely scrub all surfaces with soap, a firm bristle brush and hot water or treat with Oxyfresh Cleansing Gele'. Rinse thoroughly. Treat all surfaces, wires, perches, etc. with Oxyfresh Dent-A-Gene, bleach, Nolvasan or other heavy duty disinfectant. Follow manufacturer's use and rinsing instructions. If birds cannot be removed: Use same proceedure as for indoor aviary.

Notes: Vanodine is going through a change in distributorships at the moment and may be difficult to obtain for a while. Oxyfresh products are generally not available through catalogue or retail sources. If you send me an email note (ross@dsrt.com) or leave a message at 1-800-999-9551 # 1502041, I will put you in touch with a distributor, and will provide information on Canadian shipping.

E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca



H&D Budgerigar Society Inc.