An Overview of Disinfectants and Their Uses

Anyone who owns a bird has probably used some sort of disinfectant at one time, either for cleaning the cage, washing the dishes, or cleaning up around the bird’s living area. Many people think that if a product just says on the label that it “kills germs” it’s doing a good job of protecting their bird from diseases. Unfortunately, choosing a disinfectant isn’t that easy.


There are many diseases–bacterial, viral, and parasitical–which can infect our birds. While many bacteria are necessary for life, some are very dangerous. Even normal bacteria can become deadly if they get a chance to grow out of control. It’s impossible to maintain a fully sterile environment for our birds. But it is better to keep things as clean as possible to prevent contamination. Many of the most common bird diseases, such as PBFD, Polyoma virus and Pacheco’s virus, are easily spread on skin, hair, clothing, shoes, and inanimate objects such as cages, toys and dishes. Some, such as Pseudomonas bacteria and Salmonella, can even be spread through the water supply, via contaminated water pipes or dirty dishes. It is common sense that we should do everything we can to keep our birds from becoming infected with preventable illnesses.

Good hygiene is one excellent way to keep your birds healthy. If you prevent diseases from gaining access to the birds, it is much easier than treating illnesses after the fact. You need disinfectants, when you purchase new or used hard-surface articles such as cages or dishes, to remove any clinging disease particles before allowing your bird contact with the object.

You can easily carry pathogens back home to your birds when going out to bird fairs, shows, the homes of bird-owning friends, pet stores, or even your vet’s office. You should use disinfectants in foot baths for shoes, and on hands before allowing visitors into your home or aviary, to prevent them from bringing diseases in on themselves.

Having one or more disinfectants is a must if you breed birds, as you will need to sterilize equipment, syringes, towels, and anything else that contacts the babies or their environment. And you would definitely need a disinfectant to clean up after an outbreak of disease.

Sometimes, however, plain soap and water will do, such as when you just need to get flung food off the wall behind a cage. It is good to keep in mind that all disinfectants are toxic to some extent, and there are occasionally times when they simply aren’t required. Before you start to scrub, ask yourself if you need to kill germs while doing this–if not, just use soap!


When you pick a disinfectant, it’s a much harder task than just grabbing a bottle off a shelf. You need to know what specific pathogens (germs) you want to destroy or deactivate. You then need to find out which disinfectant(s) will act on those pathogens. That is the first step in choosing–most disinfectants do not kill everything. Pick a product which takes care of the majority of your most worrisome pathogens, or at least the one most troublesome to you.

But once you have bought a product, you can’t just start washing indiscriminately. Educate yourself in how to use the product before you start. You need to know if the disinfectant you choose will work in the presence of organic matter (dirt), or whether you need to pre-wash the items to be disinfected before you apply the disinfecting substance. And you must know if the product you choose is toxic to birds, how to use it properly, and under what circumstances. A disinfectant which is used improperly can either be totally useless, or very dangerous to you and/or your birds. Reading the entire label on the product is very important before beginning to use the disinfectant. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions exactly, to avoid problems.

Ideally, a disinfectant would rapidly kill a large variety of pathogens, be totally safe for use on all inanimate objects, and nontoxic to humans and animals. Unfortunately such a product doesn’t exist. Every disinfectant has drawbacks to using it, varying from toxicity, to ease of use, to the time involved for the product to do its job correctly.

Few disinfectants work well in the presence of organic debris. To maximize the effects of a disinfectant, the item must be thoroughly clean first. The easier it is to clean, the more likely it will be to be disinfected adequately. Once you’ve cleaned an item, it must be rinsed thoroughly before disinfecting to avoid chemical reactions between the two solutions which could possibly inactivate the disinfectant product.

It is good to be patient when using a disinfectant. No disinfectant is instantaneous. To kill pathogens and do a thorough job of it, many disinfectants must remain in contact with the item being disinfected from several minutes to several hours! Nothing works with a wipe on-wipe off approach. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Again, read the label and use the product properly. If left for too short a time, the product won’t do it’s job, and if left too long, some products may damage the surface of the item being disinfected.

Finding a disinfectant that will battle viruses is even more confusing, because virus-killing disinfectants are very virus specific. There are two kinds of viruses–lipophilic and hydrophilic. Lipophilic viruses combine with lipids (Fats) such as cholesterol; hydrophilic viruses do not combine with lipids. Lipophilic viruses, such as herpes and influenza, are very easy to destroy, while hydrophilic viruses such as reoviruses, polyomaviruses and parvoviruses are very 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 kill.

So–which disinfectant do you pick? There are literally hundreds out on the market now. The accompanying article, Classes of Disinfectants and Their Uses , offers an overview of the different classes of disinfectants, their uses, drawbacks and strong points, and an idea of approximate costs for each class. If you are still in doubt after reading this article, do not hesitate to consult with a qualified avian vet for assistance in deciding which disinfectant, or combination, is best for your situation. It is not uncommon to need more than one kind of disinfectant to combat different types of pathogens in the same aviary. Hospitals, on the average, have over 14 different types of disinfectants in use at any given time; your home may not need 14, but just one may not be enough!


A few things the aviculturist may want to keep in mind that will help reduce the need for disinfectants– If you maintain a closed aviary, fewer pathogens will find their way to your birds.

Don’t just let everyone who comes over see your birds, especially if they have birds of their own. If you do have bird-owning friends who visit, ask them to shower and change clothing just before visiting you. A good friend will do as you ask, and a good bird owner will ask you to do the same in return!

Good hygiene goes a long way toward keeping your flock healthy–if you wash things down with soap and water more often, you will need to use strong disinfectants less often.

The more birds you have crowded together, the easier it will be for diseases to spread through your flock. YOU can carry pathogens back home to your flock. Many viruses are easily spread on clothing, hair, skin and shoes. Plan ahead when you go to bird fairs, shows, pet stores or even to the vet’s–strip and shower, and wash your clothing and shoes as soon as you arrive home from those places.

And when you do require a disinfectant in your aviary or home:

  • Using hot water usually increases the effectiveness of cleaning agents.
  • Washing items thoroughly of all organic debris (food, feces, dirt) will assist the activity of any disinfectant you choose. Be sure to rinse well after washing.
  • Read ALL instructions thoroughly before beginning to disinfect an object.

Use the best possible disinfectant for your specific situation–read about which pathogens it will kill, how difficult it is to use, and any special requirements. Don’t buy a bottle of a disinfectant if you won’t be able to use it properly for some reason (does it require protective clothing you don’t have? Will it create toxic fumes in a room you cannot ventilate?) . Take all required proper precautions before starting a disinfecting project.

The use of disinfectants is only one step in taking good care of the birds who share your life and home. Never rely on a disinfectant to take care of a disease problem after it’s gotten started–do your best to prevent the problems from getting a foothold beforehand!

For detailed information on the various types of disinfectants available, read the accompanying article
Classes of Disinfectants and Their Uses.

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