Harmless to You, Deadly to Your Feathered Friend

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet bird

Story at-a-glance -

  • Seemingly harmless items around your home can prove toxic or even deadly to pet birds
  • Polytetrafluroethylene (PTFE), found in nonstick cookware, including Teflon, it a top toxin to birds; when products that contain them are heated, it leads to the release of an odorless, invisible gas that can quickly kill your bird
  • Room sprays, plug-ins, incense, wax melts and scented candles all emit potentially toxic fumes that negatively impact air quality and can be potentially fatal for birds
  • Lead and zinc are also toxic to birds, and may be found in curtain weights, fishing weights, jewelry, bells with lead clappers, bird toys, galvanized cages and stained glass, among other sources
  • Even if you feel like you’ve bird-proofed your home, you should constantly supervise your bird whenever he’s out of his cage to ensure he doesn’t chew on wires, fly into a mirror or drown in an open container of water

More than 3.6 million households have birds as pets, with an average of about two birds per home.1 If you've ever had the pleasure of sharing your home with a bird or two, you know that they're intelligent, inquisitive and social creatures who often enjoy interacting with their owners and learning tricks.

They also need special attention paid to home air quality. If you're used to dogs or cats as pets, you may be surprised at some of the seemingly harmless household items that can be extremely dangerous for birds. Before bringing a bird home, be sure you've effectively "bird-proofed" your home for their safety — and if you're already a bird owner, be sure none of these top hazards are lurking in your home right now.

Four Top Household Hazards for Birds

1. Nonstick Cookware (Teflon) — Polytetrafluroethylene (PTFE), found in nonstick cookware, including Teflon, as well as in certain irons, hair dryers, waffle irons and heating elements, is toxic to birds. When the products that contain them are heated, it leads to the release of an odorless, invisible gas that can quickly kill your bird buddy. PTFE may also be found in stain repellents, space heaters, ceramic stove and heat lamp covers, as well as ovens.

It's a risk that's been documented for decades, but one that many new owners may not be aware of. Back in 1975, a case report in The Veterinary Record described five cockatiels that died within 30 minutes of exposure to the fumes of a nonstick PTFE-coated pan that had accidently overheated.2

While it's often said that only heating such products to very high temperatures (500 degrees F or higher) is dangerous, even lower temperatures can be dangerous, for example if a pan is left on the stove and ends up burning. Further, flaws or imperfections in the coating can cause the chemicals to be released at lower temperatures.3

According to the Pet Poison Helpline, nonstick surfaces can easily reach over 500 degrees F "when a pan boils dry or an empty pan is heated on high."4 Birds don't even have to be in the kitchen to be harmed, as they're extremely sensitive to inhaled toxins due to their highly efficient respiratory systems.

Remember the phrase "canaries in the coal mine"? Canaries were brought into coal mines because they would quickly die from poisonous gases like carbon monoxide, giving the workers a chance to get out. Pet Poison Helpline continued:5

"Birds have a very efficient system for gas exchange. Compared to mammals, more oxygen is transferred into the blood with each breath. Unfortunately, this means more toxins are also transferred into the bird with each breath, making them more sensitive to harm from inhaled toxins."

Birds may show no signs of distress until it's too late, but difficulty breathing, weakness, not using the perch or listlessness may be seen. Emergency veterinary care is needed if you believe your bird has been exposed to PTFE.

The best way to avoid PTFE poisoning is to remove PTFE nonstick items from your home. If this isn't possible, be sure to only heat them at low temperatures in with proper ventilation and keep your bird in an area of your home far from their use, in a well-ventilated area. Also be aware that other common household fumes can also be dangerous, including:6

Smoke from tobacco products

Fumes from new carpets and furniture

Upholstery sprays

Carpet freshening powders

Paints

Glues

Household cleaning products

Mothballs

Hair spray

Nail polish

2. Home Scenting products — Scented candles, wax melts, synthetic fragrance oils, plug-ins, air fresheners and room sprays all contain a myriad of chemicals that can be damaging and potentially fatal to birds.

Birds' air sacs differ from human lungs in that they don't have mucociliary clearance, or a means of self-cleaning their respiratory tract, so inhaled toxins are delivered directly to a bird's bloodstream, damaging both their respiratory systems and vital organ systems.

These products contain airborne chemicals,7 including naphthalene, benzene, formaldehyde, styrene and phthalates, which, at a minimum, disrupt birds' endocrine systems, but are also known carcinogens8 for humans.

Symptoms range from neurologic issues (including wing twitching and toe tapping) and respiratory issues (wheezing, eye and nasal discharge) to allergic responses, skin conditions9 and sudden death. And because birds are much smaller than humans, pets bio-accumulate toxins to a much greater extent than people.

Even burning unscented paraffin candles may contaminate the air enough to cause health issues.10 Using an air purifier is the best way to keep your home smelling fresh, without the use of synthetic chemicals that aren't safe around birds.

3. Lead — Lead can be hidden in places you may not expect, including paint (particularly if you live in an older home), foil from champagne and wine bottles, curtain weights, fishing weights, jewelry, bells with lead clappers, bird toys and stained glass, just to name a few. If your bird has access to questionable items, or food or liquid stored in leaded crystal, he could be at risk of lead poisoning.

I strongly recommend only buying bird toys from sources that can provide origin of materials statements. Many pet toys are imported from China and are riddled with toxic dyes, chemicals and heavy metals. Trusting your source of toys is important.

Symptoms of lead toxicity in birds include weakness, refusal to eat, weight loss, increased thirst and urination, seizures, diarrhea and depression. A blood test will reveal an elevated lead concentration. If you know your pet has consumed a lead object, a trip to the emergency vet to remove the item before the metal is absorbed will be necessary, if possible. Chelation therapy may also be used.

Also, as noted by Pet Poison Helpline, keep in mind, "Pets have long served as sentinels for lead poisoning in people, especially children. If a bird or any pet in the home is diagnosed with lead poisoning, always recommend that people in the home, especially the children, should be tested too."11

4. Zinc — Birds can be poisoned by zinc if they're kept in galvanized wire cages. Other sources of zinc that birds may ingest include fertilizers, paints, certain pennies (those minted after 1982), nails, toys, vitamins and supplements, and staples. In fact, "Zinc poisoning is the most common metal poisoning in caged birds," according to Pet Poison Helpline.

The symptoms of zinc poisoning are similar to those of lead poisoning, including lethargy, decreased appetite, diarrhea and seizures. If you suspect your bird may have ingested too much zinc, an emergency veterinarian may attempt to remove it from the GI tract. Chelation therapy may also be necessary.

The last bird I treated for zinc toxicosis acquired it by chewing on a decorative buckle he found on his owner's shoe. The buckle had high levels of zinc and the parrot got sick just mouthing the metal piece.

Bird-Proofing Your Home Will Help Keep Your Pet Safe

All pet birds need an adequately sized cage to call home, but this should only be viewed as a bedroom (like a dog crate). Birds needs a lot of exercise outside of a cage for physical and mental well-being, and when a bird is free in your home there are countless dangerous lurking around every corner.

Taking precautions ahead of time to remove items that may be dangerous to your bird, or ensuring your bird does not come into contact with those that must stay, is essential to being a responsible bird owner. Such items include:

Oil and grease

Other pets

Mirrors and windows (which your bird may fly into)

Fish bowls, toilets and other open containers of water (which your bird could drown in)

Running ceiling fans

Electrical cords

Open doors and windows

Medications

Personal care products and home cleaning products

Matches

Certain houseplants that are toxic to birds, including jasmine, daffodils, holly, honeysuckle, ivy, lilies, parsley, poinsettia, mistletoe and the morning glory plant

Batteries

Finally, birds are not only sensitive to fumes that may not bother you but also to noise and temperature fluctuations that aren't apparent to you. Your bird will want to be centrally located in a room where the family frequents (such as a living room), but you shouldn't put his cage near a loud speaker, drafty vent or window that puts him in direct sunlight with no place to cool off.

Birds are also sensitive to household EMFs and synthetic lighting, especially fluorescent lighting. Birds need direct access to natural light daily, but must be able to thermoregulate within their environment.

If your bird becomes fluffed (too cold) or begins to pant (too hot), he is stressed by the temperature and should be moved to a more comfortable environment immediately. Many birds also enjoy chewing and will readily chew on materials around your home that could cause them harm, like windowsills treated with lead paint or furniture polish.

For this reason, even if you feel like you've bird-proofed your home, you should constantly supervise your bird whenever he's out of his cage.