How Clean is Clean?

by Wanda Barras

Sanitation? Antiseptic? Disinfection? Sterilization?

Sanitation is defined as the formulation and application of measures to promote and establish conditions favorable to health. It is essential that the necessary steps be taken to control infection and contamination in aviaries and particularly in avian nurseries. A big factor in raising healthy chicks is keeping their environment nursery) free of contamination. A bird's mental and physical health is largely dependent on its environment. This is especially important for chicks prior to feathering. When birds hatch they are immunoincompetent. That is, newly hatched parrot chicks are much more susceptible to disease than mature birds because of an underdeveloped immune system (Katherine Kay Moser (1991) Psittacine Nursery Management. Association of Avian Veterinarians 1991 Avicultural Seminar).

At this critical period even relatively harmless microorganisms can, under the right circumstances, cause a disease outbreak. Conditions which promote illness and the growth of disease-causing pathogens are moisture, warmth, decaying organic matter, overcrowded and stressed or weakened livestock, darkness and undisturbed cracks and crevices. Every effort should be made to rectify these conditions by using proper sanitation and husbandry practices.

How Disease is Spread

Infectious disease is caused by pathogens (disease-causing agents). Pathogens and ultimately disease outbreaks in nurseries and aviaries are transmitted in several ways. Chicks may be contaminated by direct, indirect or airborne and by carrier (or vector) transmission. Direct transmission requires physical contact with an infected bird or with its bodr excretions. Air can spread minute bacteria, fungus, spores and viruses as well as infectious micro-organisms. Vectors or carriers spread disease by transferring organisms mechanically with their feet or with their droppings. Common vectors or pests in a nursery or aviary are wild birds, rodents, ants, flies, roaches and unsanitary handling.

Indirect contamination is by far the most common way of transmitting pathogens in the nursery or aviary. Disease-causing organisms are unwittingly spread with our hands, or with unsanitary hand-feeding equipment, bedding, housing and brooding containers. Also infected dust, water, food, dishes and cages can indirectly transmit disease. Hand-feeding utensils should be cleaned and disinfected or discarded after every use. Hand-feeding utensils and aviary equipment should first he thoroughly cleaned in hot soapy water and then soaked in a good high or intermediate-level disinfectant for the recommended period of time or between use. Thoroughly rinse before using.

It is important that we who hand-feed have an understanding of or are familiar with the various scientifically defined groups of pathogens (microbes) responsible for disease in our nursery and aviaries. Bacteria (Gram negative and Gram positive), fungi (yeast, molds), viruses, and protozoa-like organisms can cause illness. Of these four groups viruses and fungi are the most difficult to destroy. These hard-to-eradicate micro-organisms are able to withstand adverse conditions and temperature extremes. On the other hand, protozoa, simple one-celled organisms are readily destroyed by heat, sunlight and chemicals. Coccidia and Trichomonas are of this group.

Salmonella, coccoid diseases and Gram-negative bacterial infection of E.coli, Klebsiella spp., and Pseudomonas spp., are all too common in facilities lacking good sanitation practices. One of the most prevalent clinical syndromes associated with bacterial infection is septicemia, which can be caused by most, if not all, bacteria and is a result of generalized infection of multiple organs and organ systems. A good sanitation program for hand-feeding utensils and tubes is critical in preventing coccoid and other Gram negative diseases. Since yolk sack and navel infections can occur with these bacteria, it is very important to utilize antiseptics and exercise good sanitation of incubators and brooders (Fred Dustan Clark, DVM, MS (1991) Bird disease update: bacteria and fungi, PSM). It is my opinion that septicemia related to improper or virtually non-existent sanitation practices in the nursery is responsible for most avian pediatric deaths.

Terms and Definitions

Below is a list of terms and definitions with which you should become familiar. They will prove helpful when customizing a sanitation/disinfection program:

Term Description
Antiseptic A product that destroys micro-organisms or retards their rate of growth. Usually applied to living tissue such as applying antiseptic to hatchlings navels.
Biostatic Inhibits the growth and prevents further contamination of disease-causing pathogens but does not necessarily Hill them. Biostats should be used regularly to keep disease-causing organisms under control.
Vegetative A passive state of development when the bacteria is not producing.
Spores Certain bacteria form spores, more in the nature of a defense mechanism, than for reproduction. Spores of bacteria are difficult to destroy because they are resistant to heat and require prolonged exposure to high temperatures to destroy them.
Enveloped or lipophilic virus Surrounded by a lipid or fat coat. These viruses are less stable in the environment and more susceptible to disinfection.
Unenveloped, hydrophilic or capsid virus A virus with a protein coat around its central core, which protects the virus and makes it more resistant to disinfectants.
Disinfection To disinfect means to destroy infective agents, namely bacteria, viruses, and fungi. A disinfectant destroys disease-causing germs and pathogens by chemical or physical means. The EPA grants a disinfectant claim to any solution which will destroy Staph aureus, Pseudomonas aerginosa, and Salmonella, choleraesius using an official AOAC procedure. Label claims do not include efficacy against bacterial spores or Mycobacterium tuberculosis. It does not imply efficacy against viruses either. It is important that disinfection take place during the final phase of the sanitation process.

  • High-level disinfectant - Capable of killing all microorganisms and is equivalent to sterilization when contact is long enough and efficacy of solution is maintained.

  • Intermediate-level disinfectant - Kills all vegetative bacteria, fungi, tuberculosis bacilli and most viruses.

  • Low-level disinfectant - Destroys vegetative bacteria and fungus and most enveloped viruses.
Soaps and Detergents Compounds designed to cut through grease and dirt so water can help dissolve and wash away debris--hot water generally increases the effect of any cleaning agent. Soap and hot water is the first step in a sanitation program.
Sterilization The complete and total destruction of all micro-organisms, including bacteria, spores, fungi and viruses. Sterilization may be accomplished by chemical or physical means. Physical agents are heat, light, ionizing radiation, and filtration. Chemical means can be accomplished by using a high-level disinfectant. Complete sterilization can rarely, if ever be achieved in the sanitation of avian enviromnents, although that is the aim. Solutions classified by the EPA as "Chemical Sterilization Solutions" are those containing chemicals such as gluteraldehyde (Wavicide-l), and hydrogen peroxide. A periodic sterilization of all equipment and utensils is recommended as a precaution against disease outbreaks. When disease outbreaks do occur sterilization is mandatory to eradicate infectious organisms.
Sanitation The reduction of the number of bacterial contaminants to a safe level. A product labeled as a sanitizer is not concentrated enough or in contact with pathogens long enough to achieve disinfection Sanitizers reduce microorganism contamination to a safe level but does not eradicate. This level is determined by federal health and hygiene requirements (when used as directed). Sanitizers are useful in an aviary and nursery sanitation program.
Germicide (Bactericide) Kills specific types of pathogenic microorganisms when used as directed. The labels on these agents make minimum claims, excluding for example Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Carefully read labels. A germicide does not automatically kill spores, viruses, tuberculosis or funguses. Since bactericides are specific, they are useful when pathogens are identified.
Virucide An agent which kills certain specified types of viruses when used as directed. Some viruses are easy to destroy while others are very hard to kill. For this reason the EPA requires that the label on virucidal solutions specify each individual organism that has been killed according to official AOAC procedures recognized by the EPA. Also useful in eradicating identified viruses.

Sometimes it is necessary to use several types of disinfectants and cleaning procedures to effectively reduce the numbers of existing organisms. When describing an agent's affect on a type of micro-organism, the suffix '-stat' means that it prevents the multiplication of an organism and '-cide' means it kills that organism (Sainsbury,D and Sainsbury,P. (1988). Livestock Health and Housing. 3rd ed. Baillere Tindall, London) Example: a bactericide kills bacteria; a fungicide, fungi and a virucide, viruses.

Bacteria and fungi should not be a problem in an aviary or nursery which follows good hygiene practices. Viruses, on the other hand, are difficult to control without disinfectants.

Developing Your Sanitation Program

An effective sanitation program should be executed logically and approached on a continuing basis. It is mandatory that all objects, whether cage, syringe or brooder, be thoroughly cleaned before any type of disinfection or sterilization take place. Good old soap and water, a multi-purpose cleaner or a recommended disinfectant, whatever will eliminate organic matter such as feces, bird dust and old food, is a good choice.

A practical disinfection procedure would be to use 3 containers: the first vessel contains detergent and water, the second an intermediate-level disinfectant, and the third plain rinse water. Soak contaminated object in detergent and water, remove all solid matter, then soak in disinfectant solution for a minimum of thirty minutes, and thoroughly rinse in clean water. Place on a drying rack, in the sun if possible. Chose a high-level or medium level disinfectant for a more through disinfection. ALWAYS READ AND FOLLOW LABEL DRECTIONS CAREFULLY. A sterilizing agent may be necessary to prevent or stop the spread of disease. It is recommended that surfaces and objects in contact with a bird be sterilized periodically. Use a high-level disinfectant such as Wavicide-l. Overnight soaking is recommended for complete sterilization. In most cases, good sanitation does not necessitate sterilization but should be utilized periodically. With disease outbreaks, sterilization is highly recommended but is not typically warranted. Sterilization may be accomplished by autoclave, by fire, in a hot oven, by steam under pressure, by ionizing radiation or by boiling for 20 minutes. For avian use, cold (chemical) sterilization, using a high-level disinfectant, is the most practical.

Based on the pathogenic micro-organisms found in a psittacine breeding operation, the brand of disinfectant for baby brooders and feeding syringes should be a safe bactericide product with some fungicide and virucide properties as well. The disinfectant for cages, walls and floors should be an effective virucide which is least affected by the presence of organic matter (Mark Hagen, M Ag., Disease Prevention Through Proper Sanitation and Disinfection In An Indoor Psittacine Breeding facility, Dept. of Animal and Poultry Science, University of Guelph. Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1G2W1).

When developing a sanitation program, selection of a disinfectant should be based on the type of organism to be controlled, the surface or object to be disinfected, the risk of harm involved and, of course, cost effectiveness. Disinfectants are not uniformly effective against all pathogens. Therefore, a product or products should be chosen based on its effectiveness against important pathogens and its safety


There are many disinfectants and cleaning agents to choose from. Disinfectants fall into categories based on active ingredients and their ability to kill pathogens. The following are disinfectants, classified according to their chemical composition and the substances they contain. Also listed are recommended uses, advantages, disadvantages and trade names.

Type Description
Alcohol A skin antiseptic and low-level disinfectant with a 10 minute contact time, intermediate-level contact time 30 minutes. Primarily used as a skin antiseptic. Should be used at full strength. When used on glass or Plexiglas areas of brooders as a daily wipe contributes greatly to the destruction of pathogens. 70% ethyl alcohol with a 20 minute contact time proves to be a powerful broad spectrum germicide for many pathogens.

  • Disadvantages: Is inactivated by organic matter. Evaporates quickly and for this reason generally not used as an intermediate-level disinfectant because of the need for repeat applications to maintain contact time. May cause damage to some plastics.
Sodium Hypochlorite (Chlorine bleach) TRADE NAMES: Clorox, Purex

Common household bleach (a 5.25% solution of sodium hypochlorite) is a low-level disinfectant with a 2-minute contact time and intermediate-level disinfectant at 5-minutes contact time. According to Clorox documentation, bleach should not be considered a sterilant. Chlorine compounds are popular disinfectants because of their rapid killing ability against many micro-organisms and low cost (J. Cangle (1988) Disinfection of clinic and aviary. Prof Assoc. of Avian Tech. pp25-28). Considered to be a harsh but effective chemical that indiscriminately attacks micro-organisms and organic debris. For bird cages, most of the fecal matter must be removed prior to application of the bleach solution.

As a general use disinfectant, mix 3/4 C bleach to one gallon of water. For clean surfaces, apply, let stand for 5 minutes, then rinse well. For purging water pipes one gallon per 500 gallons of water is safe for bird consumption (potable levels) according to the Center for Disease Control. A solution of 3/4 C per gallon of water may be sprayed onto surfaces such as walls, cages or floors unless it beads up (in which case it should be wiped onto these cleaned surfaces) and allowed to stand for 5 minutes. All items should be well rinsed after contact.

  • Advantages: Readily available and very cost-effective. Correctly used at the 3/4 C to 1 gallon of water solution, bleach is effective as a disinfectant and kills many micro-organisms (not tuberculosis, bacterial spores and chlamydia). A potent deodorizer.

  • Disadvantages: A skin and eye irritant. Can discolor and cause pitting of the metal surfaces of cage wire and hand-feeding utensils. As with any disinfectant, bleach is inactivated by organic debris. Less effective in hard water. Bleach, stored under normal conditions has a shelf life of about six months. Will deteriorate with time and exposure to light and heat. Diluted bleach solutions should be discarded after 24 hours. Does not work well on spore forms of bacteria or mycobacterium. Vapors produced as bleach reacts with proteins can be quite irritating to avian respiratory systems.
Chlorhexidines TRADE NAMES: Nolvasan, Chlorasan, Virosan, Hibitane, Hibistat, Phisohex

A low-level disinfectant with a contact time of 10 minutes. Used as an inanimate surface disinfectant. Due to its low-level tissue toxicity it is recommended as a skin antiseptic, a treatment for mild cases of Candida and as a drinking water additive. It is also thought to inhibit the spread of some viruses. For drinking water, dilute at 10-20cc per gallon of water. For hand-feeding formula a drop or two per cup or 5cc per gallon of formula. Recommended as a daily sanitation level wash for brooders and baby containers, and as a routine brooder wipe for containers with chicks present. Used as a skin antiseptic for soiled babies.

  • Advantages: Effective against many fungus, yeast, bacteria (Gram-negative organisms) and some viruses (most enveloped viruses) including Newcastle's. A very low toxicity to birds and humans.

  • Disadvantages: Chlorhexidines have some limitations which make some routine use inadvisable. As a cleaner it has little value because of poor cleaning properties and due to a decreased effectiveness in the presence of organic matter and hard water. It is not effective against several types of bacteria including many Gram-negative bacteria and Pseudomonas. Not effective against bacterial spores or mycobacterium. Will not kill hydrophilic viruses.

    Moderately expensive, and solutions must be discarded daily to be within recommended guidelines.
Tamed Iodines TRADE NAMES: Betadyne, Povidone, Wescodyne, Virac, Prepodyne

Primarily a skin antiseptic and a low-level disinfectant (when diluted) with a 10 minute contact time, intermediate-level (full strength) with a 30 minute contact time. Can be used as a hand soap replacement and when diluted as a wash for soiled chicks. Recommended as a treatment for the umbilicus of newly hatched chicks. Iodophores or tamed iodines used at full strength are effective against a broad range of bacteria and fungi and their spores.

  • Advantages: Iodophores kill a wide range of disease-causing organisms including bacteria, fungi, many viruses, and most micro-organisms. Work equally well in warm or cold water and have a long shelf life. Tamed iodines are gentle to bird and human tissue and possess limited vapor production. Not effected by hard water. Readily available for purchase. Available in a detergent form as well as a solution.

  • Disadvantages: Moderately expensive. Iodophors can stain tissues and some materials. Can cause drying and cracking of skin with long term use. May corrode metals with prolonged exposure. Can be toxic if swallowed in large quantities. New strains of Pseudomonas may prove resistant to iodophors. Inactivated by prolonged contact with organic matter. Does not effect hydrophilic viruses such as polyomavirus and PBFD.
Phenolics TRADE NAMES: Lysol, LPH, Staphene, One-Stroke Environ, O-Syl, Matar

An intermediate-level disinfectant at a ten minute contact time. A disinfectant of choice for cleaning contaminated areas where birds do not have direct contact. An effective cleaner/disinfectant for cleaning walls and floors (a solution of 1/2 OZ. per gallon of water). A solution of 1/2 OZ. per qt. is recommended for well ventilated, heavily soiled areas.

  • Advantages: Many products are readily available. Kills fungi, Tuberculosis, certain viruses, staphylococcus and Pseudomonas bacteria.One-Stroke Environ is used by the USDA for quarantine station clean up. Retains its effectiveness in hard water. Does not stain surfaces or leave residual odor. Low cost with a high dilution ratio.

  • Disadvantages: Higher concentrations of phenols will burn skin, eyes and lungs. Good ventilation, gloves and goggles are recommended when using phenols. Does not kill nonenveloped viruses, such as parvovirus, polyomavirus, papillomavirus, adenovirus and reovirus, nor will they kill all bacteria types. Toxic to cats and may be toxic to reptiles.
Gluteraldehydes TRADE NAMES: Wavicide-l and Wavicide-06

Wavicide is the disinfectant of choice. At full strength it is a sterilant with a contact time of 10 hours (5 hours when heated) and can be reused for 42 days. One part Wavicide to 4 parts water produces an intermediate-level disinfectant with a contact time of 30 minutes, a low-level disinfectant with a contact time of 5 minutes and the diluted solution can be used for 21 days. Testing has shown that many disease-causing organisms are killed after only a few minutes' exposure to Wavicide-01. Gluteraldehydes are the preferred choice for disinfection and sterilization because of their excellent range of pathogen control and speed of action. Because it is so effective, it is highly recommended for disinfecting all hand-feeding and aviary equipment. Use as a soak for proper disinfection of aviary equipment and also for medical and hand-feeding utensils and cleaning tools. A dilute gluteraldehyde solution can be safely sprayed on cages and bird room floors for disinfection after washing. Birds should be removed or proper ventilation provided when spraying. equipment should be rinsed after disinfection.

  • Advantages: Totally effective against ALL pathogens. Equally effective in cold, hot and hard water. Effective in the presence of organic debris. Skin irritation is minimal even at 2%. Rated by the EPA as the lowest tissue irritation level possible, non-toxic and non-teratogenic. Wavicide has proven to be the best combination of stability, ease of application, range and speed of destruction of pathogens, safety for both humans and animals, long shelf life, economy, reusability, ease of application and safety. Highly recommended for aviary and nursery use.

  • Disadvantages: May require a medical license for purchase from some suppliers. EPA testing limited on animal and bird pathogens. Most tests were performed on human micro-organisms. Inadequate ventilation may result in eye and respiratory irritation in humans and birds. Prolonged contact with concentrated form may cause skin peeling and discoloration.
Quaternay Ammonium / Quats TRADE NAMES: Roccal-D

A low-level disinfectant, contact time 10 minutes. Products vary greatly. Recommended for aviary use. as a daily wipe-down of cages, perches, floors, bowls etc. Low toxicity makes bird removal unnecessary. A good choice for routine aviary disinfection. Effectivc against viruses and bacteria in a 1:200 dilution (lOcc to 1 gallon water).

  • Advantages: An excellent general disinfectant. Kills both Gram negative and positive bacteria, many viruses and chlamydia. High dilution factor make this disinfectant cost effective. No odor or color in pure form. Normally sold colored green or brown with a pleasant scent added.

  • Disadvantages: Not effective against bacterial spores, fungus, non-enveloped viruses, fungus or mycobacterium with poor Pseudomonas activity. Decreased effectiveness in the presence of organic debris and also in hard water. Not easily rinsed off surfaces, often leaving a soapy residue. Causes respiratory paralysis if ingested.
Citus-Based Disinfectants Within the last few years several citrus-based environmentally friendly products have appeared on the market. Natural Solutions by Equinox comes to mind. This Lemon Disinfectant is listed as a proven "one step" cleaner, sanitizer, fungicide, mildewstat, virucide and deodorizer in the presence of moderate amounts of organic matter. In the article Disinfectants Aagainst Avian Polyoma Virus, Dr. Branson W Richie DVM Ph.D., N. Pritchard BS, D. Pesti MS, K. Latimer DVM Ph.D., P. Lukert DVM Ph.D., stated that "Disinfectants that contain a detergent may be more effective in removing organic debris and may increase the effectiveness of a disinfectant under these conditions."

Because of Lemon Disinfectants' rating, this detergent/ disinfectant is a good choice for the wash-down phase of a sanitation program. Periodic sterilization is recommended as with any intermediate or low-level disinfectant. Lemon Disinfectant, an intermediate-level disinfectant with a contact time of 10 minutes, has proven to be effective against a broad spectrum of Gram negative and Gram positive organisms including: Klebsiella, Pseudomonas Salmonella and E. coli. Not only effective but good to the environment.

Guidelines to Proper Disinfection

  • Cleaning and disinfecting must be done thoroughly or you are wasting your time.

  • Disinfectants are inactivated by organic matter. It is important to remove debris before disinfection.

  • Always carefully read and follow label instructions.

  • After disinfection or chemical sterilization, rinse thoroughly any surface in contact with food, water or bird.

  • If unsure of product safety, ask your veterinarian.

  • Make an educated choice when selecting disinfectants and cleaning agents.

It is important to form good habits so that sanitation becomes as much a routine as cleaning. The prevention of disease through good hygiene helps avoid veterinary visits, adult and pediatric problems, and is much more reliable than depending on drugs to control disease. It is far easier and less expensive to prevent disease with good sanitation than it is to cure the problem after the fact. Many microorganisms and parasites exist as opportunists in the bird world. Under the proper circumstances, these organisms can create disease and disrupt an avian facility.

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