I think by now, most of us are aware that the best cage liner to use for our birds is paper. It lies flat, easily allowing you to monitor your birds’ droppings; it’s non-toxic and it is cheap. That said there is one risk with using newspaper that I think it is important to be aware of. If I were to ask you how old the newspaper that lines your bird’s cage is, would the answer be that it was printed more than two weeks ago? If that is ever the case, then this post is for you.
I attend a lot of different training seminars for those who work in Australian Wildlife Rescue. I’m very lucky, some of the organisations that I belong to have some excellent training programs. At several of these training seminars I’ve listened to qualified vets talk about the importance of maintaining hygiene standards of the enclosures we keep sick and injured animals in. For the above reasons, newspaper is usually recommended as a good choice of liner. However, that recommendation is usually announced along with a frightening cautionary tale.
The story goes that there was a vet surgery in Australia that was having issues with a high number of its patients. The animals would come in and be treated for something and wind up dying of complications caused by a secondary condition. That secondary condition was aspergillosis.
Aspergillosis is the most common fungal infection found in birds. It’s usually recognised as a respiratory condition and it is usually fatal because it is so difficult to detect it early enough to effectively treat it. It is not limited to birds though – even humans can get it. It is caused by exposure to aspergillus spores, which occur naturally in our everyday environment. These spores are most commonly found in decaying food or something along the lines of moist compost/mulch. Someone with a normal healthy immune system can fight off the spores easily, but sick animals often have immune systems that are already struggling, so exposure to the spores for them is extremely dangerous.
In other words, it’s not something you usually expect to be passed from one animal to another. Instead, you look to the environment for the cause. So if a vet surgery suddenly has a lot of cases develop from patients that are in with unrelated conditions, you have to wonder what the surgery’s hygiene standards are like? The problem was, this particular surgery actually had excellent standards. They were disinfecting properly, they were lining cages with fresh newspaper. There was no obvious reason for an outbreak of aspergillosis. Needless to say, they were investigated thoroughly.
As it turns out, the source of the problem for this vet surgery was its supply of fresh newspapers. They had a dedicated set of shelves that stored 12 months worth of newspapers. The newspapers were unused, clean, dry and neatly folded. There was nothing visibly wrong with them. The only thing wrong with them was their age. The surgery kept a supply of newspapers to ensure they’d always have fresh cage lining available. Who knew that being organised was actually a bad thing?
The investigation found that aspergillus spores occur naturally in newspapers at safe levels until they hit the age of 2 weeks. Then the number of spores found in newspapers starts to increase exponentially with the age of the newspaper. The implications of this have led to Australian Wildlife Carers being taught to only use ‘new’ newspapers to line cages and enclosures.
The implications for bird owners are also interesting to think about. Aspergillosis is the most common fungal infection found in pet birds and newspapers are the most common cage lining used. Is there a connection?
It has made me look at pet stores that sell birds a little more cynically. I would have previously said that a good store would clean their aviaries and change their cage linings regularly. A good store is likely to be organised and therefore very likely to keep a store of newspapers to use when lining their cages. Very few people would think that there was something wrong with that practice. Combine that with the fact that pet stores are likely to have sick or stressed birds that are more at risk if exposed to high spore levels… It’s worrying.
Realistically, if your bird is healthy – this may not be something you have to worry about. New newspapers are perfectly safe to use. Aspergillus spores exist naturally in our environment and a healthy bird’s immune system fights them off easily and daily. However, if you have a bird with another illness that is already impacting your bird’s immune system, then this is definitely something you need to be aware of as your bird is likely to be more susceptible.
It makes sense to avoid taking the risk of exposing your bird to high levels of aspergillus spores if you can. It’s why the newspapers in the bottom of my cages are always under 2 weeks of age. It’s also one of the reasons why I lightly spray misted water over any cage lining and then roll it before I remove/disturb it. I don’t want any spores or dust becoming air born if I can help it.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.