Most of us have heard at one point or another that you can’t cook with non-stick pans around pet birds, and if you have not heard now you know! The culprit lurking on the pan’s surface is the polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE or commonly Teflon) coating that makes the cookware non-stick. PTFE and related coatings (PFOA, PFOS, etc.) emits toxic fumes when heated that are especially dangerous to birds due to their unique respiratory system. These coatings are the most common source of inhaled poisoning in companion birds. This article will discuss why pet birds are particularly sensitive to PTFE fumes, which cookware is safe to use around birds, and other sources of PTFE to look out for when trying to keep our feathered friends happy and healthy.
Why Are Birds So Sensitive to PTFE?
As mentioned above, the respiratory systems of birds differ greatly in form and function to the more familiar respiratory systems of mammals. While humans and our furry mammalian pets rely on a diaphragm to expand and contract our lungs during respiration, the lungs of birds are rigid and rely on several air sacs throughout the body to ventilate them. This results in air flowing through a bird’s lungs in the same direction during both inhalation and exhalation, allowing for oxygen to be absorbed during both cycles of respiration. Additionally, the structures that air flows through and capillaries that exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen in the bird’s blood run at right angles to each other which allows for very efficient gas exchange from the lungs to the blood.
While this highly efficient respiratory system allows birds to easily absorb oxygen from the air, it also means that they more easily absorb other compounds. PTFE fumes diffuse from the heated pan into the air and can be absorbed by a bird’s lungs in this way, causing poisoning. It’s important to note that birds are sensitive to many gases and aerosols aside from PTFE that we may consider normal in our households. These include air fresheners, scented candles, and cleaning products. See this article on holiday hazards to learn more about non-PTFE items to avoid. In general, if you can smell a human-made scent, it could harm your bird.
No Source of PTFE is Safe
PTFE coated cookware should never be used when your pet bird is in the same room or an adjoining room with an open-air connection. This includes pots, pans, sheet pans, and specialty cookware (e.g. air fryer with non-stick coating). If you do decide to use PTFE coated cookware in the kitchen, ensure your pet bird is in a separate, well-ventilated room and ventilate your kitchen during and after cooking. The amount of fumes released from PTFE coated cookware is temperature dependent, so avoid overheating your cookware (save searing your steak for stainless steel or cast iron). Using cookware without a PTFE coating is the most surefire way to avoid PTFE poisoning your bird.
PTFE and similar coatings are used in a number of other household products, typically as lubricants in applications without heat to emit fumes. Some uses of these coatings that do get hot enough to pose a risk to your bird include shatterproof proof light bulbs, heat lamp bulbs, clothes irons, and items using heating wires (hair dryers, space heaters, heated blankets, etc.).
Knowing What Products Are Safe Around Birds
There are several PTFE free options for cookware. Some safe materials for pots and pans include:
- Stainless steel
- Copper or copper clad metals
- Glazed ceramic
- Cast iron (keep birds away and ventilate when seasoning)
- PTFE-free non-stick coatings
It’s sometimes hard to tell from visual inspection alone if a coated pot or pan contains PTFE or a related compound. This is especially true for countertop appliances e.g. sandwich presses that may come in a box. Always check product packaging for the term “Teflon”, “PTFE”, “PFOA”, and “polytetrafluorethylene” before purchasing for use around birds. If you are still unsure after checking the packaging, contact the manufacturer to confirm that PTFE is not used in the product’s manufacture.
Other Household Items
As previously discussed, there are many high-heat coating applications for PTFE. In general, exercise caution when products that you know get hot have a slick coating. Shatterproof light bulbs and heat lamp bulbs have caused toxicity in poultry in some recent case studies. In a 2012 case, 68 of a total of 75 recently hatched chickens were found dead with no prior signs of illness at an indoor university research facility. The investigators found that about half of the heat lamps in the brooders were PTFE coated. The Teflon coating on these lamps and bulbs often appears clear or translucent white in contrast with the black coatings on cookware, so exercise caution and check packaging for the aforementioned terms when selecting lamps for incubators or brooders. Always contact the manufacturer if you are unsure if a coating will harm your pet.
But So And So Said…
Inevitably you will come across someone at the feed store or on a forum claiming they have been cooking with Teflon pots and pans for decades right next to their pet bird without any issues. While there may be some instances where birds don’t appear to be affected, several case reports spanning more than 50 years (note that Teflon coated pans have only existed since the 1950s) show bleeding and damage to the lungs of birds exposed to PTFE fumes as well as death. Birds are naturally good at hiding injury or sickness until it becomes severe so waiting to see how the birds react is not a good course to take. Long story short, the best way to ensure your pet is happy and healthy is to keep them away from PTFE.
Clinical Signs and Treatment
Birds exposed to PTFE fumes may exhibit labored breathing, wheezing, weakness, convulsion, and incoordination. When on a perch, birds may wobble or struggle to stay upright. Unfortunately, sudden death often occurs without any signs or soon after signs develop.
If you suspect your bird has been exposed to PTFE fumes, immediately move it to an area with fresh air. Contact your veterinarian or one of the two animal poison control centers (https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/ or https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control). Death can occur very soon after exposure, so getting professional veterinary care for your bird as soon as possible after exposure is paramount to its survival.
This article was written by Joseph Gendreau at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension.