Last Updated on by Catherine Tobsing
Yesterday I saw your article about the doctor who told a woman with interstitial lung disease to get rid of her macaw.
What follows is what I know about this and my opinion on it.
This is pretty long so I will cut right to the bottom line here:
The macaw owner with lung disease should get tested to determine if she has an allergic reaction to her macaw. This will require a lot of effort because doctors don’t want to be helpful about this, and it will have to be a test made specifically for macaw feathers/droppings, and preferably made with HER macaw’s feathers/droppings.
That is custom work and costs money. However, she can start by insisting on being tested for allergies to feathers, as there are generic allergy tests for this.
What she does NOT want is to have useless and expensive general allergen testing. There are also specific allergy tests for other possible problems such as dust mites that would be worth asking for. I can tell you from experience that trying to get a doctor to order specific allergen tests for you instead of ripping you off for all the multiple generic testing is an uphill battle.
Also, there are blood tests for allergies and they are much more specific, much cheaper, and much less unpleasant than getting dozens and dozens of skin tests.
Because there is a lot more money to be had from skin testing, doctors don’t inform patients of the blood testing alternative.
If the woman has a strong allergic response to her macaw, then, sadly, she should seriously consider giving him up. Because interstitial pneumonia can progress rapidly with continuing exposure to anything that triggers the allergic response, and it is fatal. HOWEVER, don’t stop reading here.
Here are my qualifications to have an opinion:
I have a master’s degree in industrial safety and worked as a safety professional for approximately 40 years. Safety includes preventing
employees and the public from being harmed by exposure to volatile chemicals, smoke, dust, and fumes. Partway through my career, I went back to school and became a registered nurse, which helped me make sure that injured employees received the best and most effective care.
I worked with lawyers to defend my employers when they were hit with lawsuits alleging responsibility for former employees with pneumoconiosis (black lung or coal miner’s disease), asbestosis (a fibrotic lung disease caused by asbestos dust exposure), and mesothelioma (cancer caused by asbestos dust exposure).
There are a bunch of lawyers throughout the country that solicit anyone diagnosed with these conditions to become their clients; what they do is sue every single one of the client’s former employers, most of which have never had coal dust or asbestos in their facility, and then we have to defend ourselves in court.
The reason for these lawsuits is that it is much cheaper to “settle” and give the lawyer $5000 than to go to court. The lawyers make lots of money doing this to thousands of employers, without ever having to do any work and actually prove their claim in court.
I also contested (and won) EPA citations claiming my employer was polluting the air with dust from our parking lot, and with (nonexistent) smoke and emissions from our (nonexistent) smoke stacks. So I know quite a bit about the details of air pollution, dust exposure, and medical problems that can be caused by them.
I have lung problems myself. I was diagnosed with asthma shortly after I retired to my present home in Pennsylvania at age 60. Before that, I never had allergies or any breathing problems.
I have kept birds since I was 4 or 5 years old (I am 69). I have: chickens, turkeys, pigeons, ducks, button quail, canaries, 5 varieties of finch, Brazilian cardinals, and one Moluccan cockatoo who has been my roommate for 29 years. I currently care for several hundred birds, in my home, in an aviary, and in two large coops.
Discussion of “Do birds cause lung disease and should I get rid of my birds?”
Interstitial lung disease is more definitive and serious than asthma. Most people with asthma have normal lung function tests; people with interstitial lung disease do not. There is no lung damage to be seen in an X-ray of an asthma patient; interstitial lung disease involves damage to the alveoli of the lungs where oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange actually occurs, and this can be seen on an X-ray.
Interstitial lung disease is usually progressive and can worsen to the point where the patient is bedridden and eventually dies from it.
Essentially your lungs gradually cease to function. There is no cure.
No one knows what actually causes it. We do know of things that make it worse but this is extremely variable from person to person. So, the first thing is that the disease isn’t something that can be ignored. People die from it, and sometimes very rapidly. Suffocating to death is not a pleasant way to go.
Does a person with lung disease have to avoid exposure to birds (cats/dogs/flowers/trees/etc. etc. etc.)
That depends on each person and what their immune system reacts to. The first thing a doctor told me after diagnosing me with asthma was that I had to get rid of my birds.
Now, I’ve had birds all my life, including birds that yes, are proven to cause allergic reactions in some people. But I never had asthma until I moved to this particular part of PA, which happens to be famous for having so many residents with allergies and asthma.
I don’t have a dry cough and shortness of breath when I am around my cagebirds, even if I stick my nose in my cockatoo’s neck feathers. Even if I use a broom to sweep up birdseed and dust in the house (although, because I do have asthma, I should put on an N-95 respirator before I do this!).
I have these problems most often when I step outside and take a deep breath of the “fresh” air; when I’m working outside in the yard and garden and nowhere near any birds.
I also sometimes have these problems when I am inside my pigeon and chicken coops. I should wear a respirator when I go inside them, but I don’t always. If I had interstitial pneumonia instead of asthma, I would wear a respirator religiously whenever I went into the coops.
I rejected that doctor’s advice to get rid of my birds. I can state my logical reasons.
However, I asked to be tested to see if I had allergies to feathers, chickens, or pigeons, but that’s another story and I never managed to get it done.
There are tests available, though.
Can exposure to birds cause lung disease? Yes. Can exposure to birds cause lung cancer?
That’s a qualified yes.
It is well documented that exposure to pigeons can cause “pigeon fancier’s lung”, which is, yes, interstitial pneumonia and shows the characteristic damage on Xrays. When I was a kid learning from the old guys who raced pigeons, the “proper” way to care for your pigeons was to scrape all the droppings in the loft twice a day. No bedding was used. Twice a day these guys went into a small closed space and breathed the dust caused by scraping pigeon droppings from perches and floors, sweeping them up, and removing them from the loft.
Pigeons are also “feather powder” birds like cockatoos, with disintegrating feather dust to waterproof them. Both pigeon feather dust and the dust from pigeon droppings are proven allergens and long-time exposure to breathing this dust does cause lung disease in some people.
But not in EVERY pigeon fancier who did this. A pigeon fancier who develops interstitial pneumonia and is positive on allergy testing to pigeon feathers and manure needs to either get rid of his birds or ALWAYS wear a high-quality air filtering respirator when he goes near them.
People who work in poultry “factories” have, yes, gotten lung cancer, and so have people who lived next to these operations. The cancer is almost certainly caused by prolonged exposure to ammonia fumes, not the feathers and manure.
But again, prolonged unprotected exposure to poultry feather dust and manure dust can cause interstitial pneumonia in workers and people who live next to poultry “factories”, and people have died from this exposure.
No one should ever do anything that kicks up clouds of dust from chicken or pigeon manure and feather debris without wearing a tight-fitting high-quality N-95 respirator.
I don’t clean my coop enclosures without wearing one of these. To prevent potential health problems, I believe that this is good practice for anyone generating dust cleaning up after their pet birds, especially powder-feather birds like cockatoos. You may never have a problem if you don’t use a respirator, but you might so why take the chance?
Rather than actually find out what factors in a person’s environment trigger or contribute to a patient’s respiratory problems, doctors just take the generic easy way out and advise all their patients to “get rid” of anything nonessential like pets that have ever been known to cause an allergic response in anybody with lung disease.
They are covering their ass without having to do any work. If they don’t tell their patient with lung disease to eliminate exposure to the dog/cat/bird/whatever and the patient dies from the disease, then the family has an opening to sue the doctor. So they are always going to advise this, and we are just as much to blame because we sue doctors over anything.
If the woman with interstitial pneumonia really wants to keep her macaw, all of the things you mentioned should be done. Wet mopping and wet dusting instead of dry cleaning methods.
Wear a tight-fitting N-95 respirator when cleaning. Outfit the entire house and especially the room the bird lives in with HEPA (MERV-17) filtering air purifiers and keep the filters changed and clean.
Install such filters on the furnace and air conditioning systems, and use HEPA filters on the vacuum. These actions will help her condition no matter what is causing it.
If it were me, and I did NOT have an allergic response when handling my bird, or have a positive response to a specific allergen test, I personally would keep my macaw.
The most important point is whether she has a physical allergy response like coughing, increased breathing difficulty, or shortness of breath when she is around the macaw. If so, we know the macaw is part of the problem.
If this woman experiences an allergic response when she is near or handles her macaw, then she would be best off to find it a new home. If she only had asthma, I would say keep the bird and take measures to prevent the response. But interstitial pneumonia will kill you.
I hope this is of some help on this difficult subject.
I will add one more thing that may possibly be of use to some people with allergies to their pets.
I am not a doctor, I can’t prescribe medicine, and anybody who chooses to try the herb I use to control my asthma symptoms does so on their own.
Asthma medicines used in this country often work very poorly for a large percentage of people, especially black people.
Inhalers and asthma pills may in fact increase symptoms, as happened to me.
The more I used inhalers, the worse my shortness of breath became.
This response is, yes, documented in the medical literature. I once had a friend with no insurance and pretty severe asthma.
She showed me a Chinese herbal tea that controlled her symptoms.
I use it now. There is plenty of scientific documentation showing that it is effective and physiologically why, so this isn’t a superstition like drinking apple cider vinegar will cure cancer.
That means, though, that this herb is an unrefined drug, and just like foxglove is where digitalis heart medicine comes from, if you take too much you can hurt yourself and if you abuse it you can kill yourself. (It will NOT make anybody lose weight, but there has been at least one person in this country who overdosed themselves trying to do that and died.) The herb is ephedra Sinica, “ma huang, mo Huang, muhuang, asthma tea, asthma herb” and similar names on eBay.
I have been buying it from China from Rollin Chen, whose eBay seller name is rollinchen. 100 grams is $10, compared to over $600 per month for two asthma inhalers.
It is used by steeping 1 measuring teaspoon in 8 ounces of hot water for an hour or so, sweetening to taste, and take a half cup morning and evening 12 hours apart.
It should not be taken every day like Western pharmaceuticals, but only when a person is actually having problems. I end up using at times when certain trees are flowering in my area.
Contrary to what some people think, it is NOT illegal to buy or possess ma huang in this country.
It IS illegal for nutritional supplement companies to concentrate it, grind it, and sell it as pills or capsules or as a weight loss supplement. It used to be sold in vitamin and supplement stores but because of stupid people abusing it and overdosing themselves, this was prohibited.
OVERDOSE CAUSES HEART PROBLEMS AND CAN KILL YOU.
For people with brains, it is a very effective and cheap way to control asthma or allergies that cause breathing problems if the standard Western pharmaceuticals don’t work for you.