HOUSEHOLD HAZARDS FOR
Peter S. Sakas DVM, MS
Animal Hospital and Bird Medical Center
7278 N. Milwaukee Ave. Niles, IL 60714
Birds are totally reliant
upon us for the maintenance of their environment. Their longevity, freedom
from sickness and stress are dependent upon our quality of care. We must
provide adequate shelter and proper nutrition for a long and healthy life.
Many household objects can be dangerous and sometimes fatal for pet birds.
Natural curiosity, powerful beaks and the ability to fly can lead to harm if
birds are not carefully monitored.
The cage should be of the
proper size for the variety of bird. Ideally speaking, no cage is large
enough. There is the potential for injury if the cage is too small. In
addition, a cage of improper size can lead to battered wing tips as well as
damage/fraying to wing and tail feathers. It is truly a shame to see the
damage done to the beautiful tail of a macaw if it is placed in an
inadequately sized cage. The cage should be constructed of a material
suitable for the type of bird. It must be of sturdy construction for the
larger birds as they can easily dismantle a cage designed for a smaller
The material used in the
construction of the cage should be non-toxic. If the cage is wood or if you
are fabricating your own cage, make sure that the wood has not been treated
with wood preservatives as they have the potential to be poisonous.
Psittacine birds have a great need to chew so that over time there is the
potential that they may acquire sub-lethal levels of toxic components. Some
toxic preservatives include, creosote, bitumen paint, naptha compounds and
pentachlorophenol to name a few. If a preservative is to be used be sure it
is non-toxic. Avoid materials containing lead such as solder or lead-based
paint. That old cage from Grandpa's attic that had been repainted might have
been repainted with lead-based paint.
If you are using galvanized
metal in your cage be aware of "new wire disease" which is a frequently
encountered heavy metal poisoning caused by the zinc in the wire. Galvanized
wire and clips used to construct cages or galvanized containers and dishes,
which are not properly treated, are common sources of zinc. The white rust
on galvanized metal is also toxic. The brighter or shinier the metal the
more zinc is present. Scrubbing the galvanized metal with a brush and a mild
acidic solution ( vinegar ) will remove the ‘loose’ zinc and can reduce but
not totally eliminate the risk.
Birds suffering from new
wire disease may show GI problems, drink and urinate excessively, lose
weight, exhibit weakness, anemia, cyanosis and seizures. A blood sample
checking for zinc levels can confirm the disease. Most often the diagnosis
is made through the clinical signs coupled with exposure to an improperly
treated galvanized surface. Clinically and radiographically zinc toxicity is
difficult to distinguish from lead poisoning. Fortunately the treatment for
both conditions is the same, CaEDTA, an agent that ‘chelates’ or combines
with the metal in the system to prevent further absorption.
Proper bar spacing is very
important, particularly when a smaller bird is placed in a large cage. Too
wide of bar spacing could lead to escape or worse yet, trapping of the head
between the bars. It is a good idea to check the cage for any sharp edges or
projections that may pose a hazard. Larger birds will damage a cage over
time so it is recommended that you be on the lookout for any loose or bent
pieces of metal, which could cause injury.
The perches should be made
of an easily washable material and thoroughly cleaned regularly. A variety
of perches, including various diameters, flat perches, and different
surfaces may help to even out wear on the bottom of the feet and prevent
pressure sores/ulcerations. Branches from the outside make great perches,
however, they should be prepared by baking at 250 degrees F for 10 minutes.
Care must be taken if the branches had been sprayed with
insecticides/herbicides as even tiny amounts could be lethal to a bird.
Bird toys should be suitable
for the particular variety of bird. Large birds can easily dismantle or
destroy toys designed for smaller birds. Glass mirrors are hazardous to
large birds. Watch for sharp edges and hooks on toys as they may lead to
severe injury. We have seen many birds impaled on hooks used to secure
certain toys. Bells may be removed from toys by larger birds and become
lodged on the beak. For some reason the most frequent victim of this mishap,
in my experience, is the lovebird. Certain toys contain lead weights. Some
toys that are safe for smaller birds have the potential to be dangerous to
larger birds as they may crack open the toy to expose the lead weight within
(such as the penguin toy). It is important to avoid cluttering the cage with
excessive toys and cage furnishings. We have seen some cages that are so
packed with paraphernalia that it is a wonder that the bird can move about
inside at all and with that is a greater risk for injury.
Food and Water Cups
The cups should be made of
an easily washable material. Ideally they should be cleaned daily to
minimize bacterial contamination. The cleaning should be thorough, merely
running your finger around on the inside of the cups is not enough. I feel
that dirty water cups may be one of the greatest sources of infection for
Water that stands for
several days will pick up bacterial contaminants from the surrounding
environment. The addition of vitamin and other supplements to the water make
it even more suitable for bacterial growth. The condition will worsen when
bits of food or droppings are in the water. I cannot emphasize how important
a clean and fresh source of water is for the health of our pet birds. The
food and water cups should be covered/shielded or placed in such a position
that they are protected from fecal contamination. Too often do we see cups
that have droppings in the food or floating in the drinking water.
The food should be clean,
fresh and from a reputable source. Mycotoxins are chemical metabolites
produced by various species of fungi that grow on grains and foodstuffs. The
toxin produced may be present even after the fungus stops reproducing. The
amount of toxin present varies due to many factors, quite often it may be
concentrated on certain areas of the grain causing ‘hot spots’. The effects
vary depending upon the type of toxin, species of bird, nutritional and
physiologic status of the bird. A stressed bird on a poor diet is more
likely to be affected than a healthy one. It is difficult to identify the
disease as it mimics so many other conditions and quite often when the
disease develops the offending food may no longer be present making
diagnosis difficult. There is no specific antidote, rather prevent exposure
as opposed to treating the condition. All foods and seeds made available to
birds should be clean and fresh. Avoid spoiled foods and moldy or dirty
grains, which may be a possible fungal source. Food should be stored in an
area that is not damp or dusty. Special caution with poor quality corn and
peanuts as these are common sources of toxin producing molds.
Many people refrigerate
their seed. The "cooking" of seeds/pellets is a controversial topic. It is
believed that by doing this, contaminating and potentially disease causing
gram-negative bacteria will be eliminated or at least reduced in the food
material. Opponents feel that the nutritional content of the food may be
reduced. The temperatures recommended are 1) conventional oven- 350 degrees
for 10 minutes and 2) microwave- 2 1/2 minutes at the low setting. After
cooking, the food should be properly stored.
Fruits and vegetables should
be washed thoroughly to remove any residual insecticide contaminants. Wash
these foods better for your birds than you would for yourself. Birds are
very sensitive to any insecticide sprays that may have been used.
Chocolate is not recommended
for birds. It can result in hyperactivity, vomiting, diarrhea, heart
irregularities, seizures, dark colored droppings and death. Progression of
signs can be rapid if large amounts are ingested. Excess consumption of salt
can cause problems. Avocados have been shown to be toxic for pet birds. At
first only the pit was thought to be toxic but some studies suggest that all
parts, including the fruit, are toxic. The actual toxin has not been
described. There are several varieties of avocados that are commercially
available which appear to vary in their toxic capacity. Signs of toxicity
include ruffling, increased respirations, vomiting, weakness, anorexia and
death. The progression is rapid, the lungs are especially affected.
Treatment is non-specific, mainly supportive care.
Especially important are
vitamins A, D3 and calcium. Many formulated diets carry excess amounts of
these nutrients and further supplementations of these diets with vitamins
and minerals can result in life-threatening toxicities. Excess vitamin A can
cause changes to the bones. Excess vitamin D3 can cause mineralization of
certain organs, including the liver, stomach, intestines, and blood vessels.
Can lead to increased calcium levels affecting heart and muscular activity.
Excess calcium can lead to skeletal abnormalities.
The use of grit is another
area of controversy. We recommend its use only sparingly as it is not
continually required in the cage. A bird will retain grit in its gizzard and
does not need to have it replenished daily. The problem is that sick birds
(especially with digestive tract disturbances) will tend to overeat grit and
this could lead to impaction. Observe the feeding habits of your bird as
excessive intake of grit could indicate a problem. On occasion we have had
clients with sick birds that thought they were still eating, when in
actuality they were eating only grit. A constant source of minerals is
required and plain grit is not that great of a source. Good mineral
supplements include, cuttlebone, mineral block, crushed eggshells, crushed
oyster shells, bones and commercial mineral preparations.
We recommend paper as the
droppings are more easily monitored as to their number and appearance.
Carefully checking the droppings and watching for any unusual changes is an
effective means of early detection of possible disease conditions. If
corncob or wood shavings are used as bedding, an extra special effort should
be made to periodically monitor the droppings as they will become lost in
the bedding. The bedding must be from a reputable source. Dusty/dirty
bedding may be a potential source for fungal (Aspergillus) or bacterial (Klebsiella)
Nesting material composed of
fine threads should be avoided as it may wrap around the toes or legs and
acting as a tourniquet, cutting off the circulation. This may lead to
deterioration (necrosis) and loss of toes. The birds most often affected
seem to be finches and canaries. Cedar chips and other aromatic woods in
small nesting boxes may be hazardous. The aroma is too overwhelming in a
small area and can be toxic, possibly leading to death.
Overgrown Toenails and Beaks
Check the toenails and beak
regularly and be aware of overgrowth or unusually rapid growth. For example,
in fatty liver disease of parakeets a rapidly overgrowing upper beak with
areas of hemorrhage (seen as black spots) may be diagnostic. Deterioration
and beak overgrowth may indicate Beak and Feather Disease in a cockatoo.
Therefore it is very important to be a good observer as many such changes
seen may help aid in the early diagnosis with better success in treatment if
identified properly. Nonetheless, the usual problem caused by overgrown beak
and toenails are impairment to eating and movement. If they are too long
there is the potential for cracking leading to severe injury or hemorrhage.
If they are not absolutely
necessary for identification they should be removed. Bands are a hazard as
they may become hooked whereupon the bird may injure its leg (sprain,
dislocation or fracture). The band may also become irritating to the leg and
possibly cause swelling and inflammation of the leg. There is a potential
hazard that the band may become constricting on the leg and act as a
tourniquet with resultant loss of the leg if the problem is not soon
identified. This problem occurs mainly with canaries and cockatiels,
although any banded bird may be at risk. Always be certain that the band
moves freely on the leg. Examine the legs periodically and watch for any
Dangers in the Household
Exercise caution whenever
birds are allowed freedom in the house. Many seemingly innocent common
household furnishings can be dangerous. If you are not at home to monitor
your bird, it is best to keep it caged.
Windows and mirrors do not
appear to be a barrier to flying birds. They may unwittingly proceed
headlong into them, possibly causing severe injury or loss of consciousness.
If your bird flies free try to keep these surfaces covered. If you want to
prevent this type of injury it would be a good idea to keep the wings
The danger is obvious. The
loss of a pet bird is not uncommon due to this and can easily be avoided if
proper precautions are taken.
Open Containers of Water
The risk of drowning exists
whenever there are open containers of water. Birds have drowned by falling
into sinks, commodes, pots of water, etc. If your bird flies freely in your
home, such containers should be covered. Caution must be exercised whenever
your bird is nearby and you are in the kitchen cooking or at the sink.
These can cause serious
injury to flying birds. Surprisingly injuries from this occur much more
frequently than you (and myself) would imagine. If your bird is free flying
be extremely careful when the ceiling fan is in operation.
Birds do have sensitive
hearing so that loud noises can cause stress, leading to lowered resistance
to infection or emotional problems such as feather picking.
Other Pets in the Household
A very frequent cause of
injury for pet birds. A cat bite or cat scratch can be lethal to a bird
unless properly treated. The bacteria from this type of cat injuries can
cause a systemic infection, so even if the bird looks fine there can be
severe disease developing. Seek veterinary care if it does occur for proper
therapy. Injuries due to dogs are moreso due to blunt trauma or puncture
wounds. We have had two instances of ferrets causing the death of pet birds,
one of them being a cockatoo. Even though a bird may be large it may not be
able to defend itself adequately. Jealous or aggressive birds may cause
severe injuries to other birds in the household. Beaks can be traumatized or
even ripped off. However, one of the more common injuries is of the toes.
Toe lacerations, fractures, and amputations are seen if a bird lands on the
cage of an aggressive bird or vice versa. So even if your pets seem to live
in harmony, always be on your guard for potential confrontations. Your pets
relish your attention so that sometimes jealousy can motivate them to attack
Hot cookware, hot food and
hot range tops can be dangerous. Remember, even though a burner is turned
off it still remains hot enough to blister the feet of a bird for some time.
A good rule is to keep the bird away from the range while you're are
Compounds for Pet Birds
A listing of some poisonous
compounds. Birds are particularly sensitive to many of these due to their
small size and very efficient metabolism.
drugs in excessive quantities/improper usage
denture cleansing solution
salt (in large amounts)
disinfectants (phenols and cresols used more concentrated than manufacturers
With disinfectants people
feel that if a little is good then alot is better. The disinfectants can lie
in pools on the bottom of aviaries and dry on the perches. Adequate rinsings
are necessary whenever disinfectants are used.
One of the most common
poisonings in avian practice. Due to their curiosity, birds will pick up
objects, chew and occasionally swallow small fragments. Lead is absorbed
into the bloodstream from the digestive tract. It is then carried to the
brain and also incorporated into the bone. It can cause nervous system
disorders and eventually lead to death.
There are many sources of
lead around the household that you should be aware of as due to their
inquisitive nature your pet bird could accidentally happen upon some. Lead
is common in weights such as curtain weights, cuckoo clock weights, fishing
sinkers, and some toys (usually within). Shotgun shot and bullets are
obvious sources. Solder, putty, linoleum, mirror backing, costume jewelry,
and some zippers are less apparent sources of lead. Ceramics not glazed to
be food safe can contain lead. Wine bottle foil has been the source of lead
poisonings on several occasions in our practice. The two most common sources
of lead poisonings are lead-based paints and leaded glass. As most paints
used now are not lead-based why does it still occur? Many times in older
homes the birds will chew through the superficial layers of the safe paint
to expose the lead-based paints beneath which are toxic. If you live in an
older home keep a wary eye out for any evidence of chewing of paint by your
birds. Also if you have any leaded or stained glass in your home make sure
that you keep your birds away from the lead surfaces. Even a small chip can
The diagnosis of lead
poisoning is through the demonstration of lead in the digestive tract. If
lead poisoning is suspected seek veterinary assistance immediately, a x-ray
will confirm the diagnosis. However, the absence of metal densities in the
digestive tract on an x-ray does not rule out heavy metal toxicity. Some
cases of lead poisoning may be from sources that do not show up well on an
x-ray such as paint chips or leaded gas fumes. Sometimes by the time
clinical signs are noted the lead may have cleared the digestive tract or
there may be slow release from the bone months after exposure. Other aids in
diagnosis are clinical signs which include vomiting, lethargy, anorexia,
weakness, excess urination, diarrhea and nervous system signs such as
ataxia, head tilt, blindness, circling, paresis, paralysis, head tremors,
convulsions and death. Some birds die with no clinical signs displayed.
Hemoglobinuria (blood in the urine) is a clinical sign especially in Amazons
and some other birds but does not occur in all cases. It is secondary to
rupture of red blood cells within the blood vessels and may be
misinterpreted as bloody diarrhea.. Blood lead analysis will confirm the
diagnosis but results may take several days.
Lead poisoning can be
treated if identified quickly. A drug called calcium EDTA is given by
injection into the muscle and it combines with the lead in the bloodstream
so that it cannot enter the brain. It is given until there is no evidence of
lead in the GI tract or when clinical signs resolve. Mineral oil or peanut
butter can be given to aid in the passage of the lead out of the GI tract.
If large fragments of lead are present surgical removal may be required.
Houseplants can be a problem
as birds tend to nibble at vegetation, however actual plant intoxications in
pet birds are quite rare. There are few documented cases of plant poisonings
in birds and it is believed that the rapid GI transit time is thought to
play a role in the low incidence of toxicity. Determining how much a bird
ingests is difficult as they seem to enjoy shredding the leaves more than
ingesting them. Much of the data related to poisonous plants in pet birds is
extrapolated from that of mammals. I will not go into detail listing the
toxic plants as several excellent articles on this subject have appeared in
past issues of Bird Talk. Another good source is the listing of toxic as
well as safe plants for aviary use in the fine avian medical text written by
Harrison and Harrison. If you have any doubts as to the toxicity of your
houseplants call your local poison control center. If you suspect your bird
has been poisoned seek veterinary care immediately.
Birds have the most
efficient respiratory tract in the animal world. They are able to
efficiently remove oxygen from the atmosphere into the bloodstream. However,
due to this efficiency and their small size, they are more sensitive to
toxic elements in the air. Remember that canaries were used in mines to
detect gases that would otherwise be undetectable.
Following is a listing of
different elements that have been shown to be toxic for pet birds. As you
will notice from the list, many have no effect on man, so care must be taken
whenever they are used around birds.
aerosol sprays (the
propellant in the spray is toxic)
burning/overheated cooking oil/butter
polymer fumes in spray starch
fumes from self-cleaning oven
smoke from burning food
non-stick plastic sprays used to coat cooking utensils
any material that emits fumes
carbon monoxide (car exhaust/water heater)
Passive inhalation of
cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke can cause chronic ocular, dermatologic and
respiratory disease in pet birds. Birds that live in homes with smokers
often show clinical signs, which include, coughing, sneezing, sinusitis and
conjunctivitis due to the constant irritation of the respiratory system.
Many times secondary bacterial invasion occurs into the lining of the
respiratory tract, which the smoke has damaged. Clinical signs can resolve
without treatment if the source of smoke is eliminated and no secondary
infections are present.
If you notice a strange
smell or fumes, remove your bird to an area free of fumes with good
ventilation. As is evidenced from the listing above, many of these hazards
are from the kitchen. A rule of thumb is not to keep the bird in the
kitchen. Too many unfortunate situations can occur there. Many people keep
their birds in the kitchen as it is a place of great activity. If you do
keep your bird in the kitchen for this reason then exercise extreme caution
whenever any cooking or cleaning is being done in the kitchen. However, it
is preferred to keep the birds out of the kitchen.
This has been a problem that
I have been addressing for the past several years, having written many
articles and giving numerous lectures on its danger. I had written a
comprehensive article that had appeared in Bird Talk in 1986. However, it
might not be such a bad idea to review some of this information for those of
you that are unfamiliar with the problem.
is a synthetic polymer used on non-stick cooking surfaces. The most familiar
PTFE coated cookware are marketed under the trade names Teflon, Silverstone
and Supra. However, other PTFE coated products are available under other
Under normal cooking
conditions PTFE coated cookware is stable and safe. When PTFE is heated
above 530 degrees F it undergoes breakdown and emits caustic (acid) fumes.
Most foods cook at lower temperatures though, water boils at 212 degrees F,
eggs fry at 350 degrees F and deep frying occurs at 410 degrees F. But when
empty PTFE coated cookware is left on a burner set on the high setting, it
can reach temperatures of 750 degrees F or greater. Thus if a pan is being
preheated on a burner and forgotten or if water boils out of a pot then
breakdown of the PTFE can occur. Therefore PTFE coated cookware has to be
"abused" to emit toxic fumes.
The signs of PTFE toxicity
are non-specific. Birds are usually found dead in the cage or gasping for
air and then dying. The lung tissue is severely damaged by the caustic
effects of the toxic fumes. On post mortem examination changes are seen in
the lungs only, with congestion and hemorrhage in the airways.
The diagnosis is through the
signs of respiratory difficulties and death coupled with the association of
a non-stick surface that was possibly overheated. Other sources of toxic
fumes must be ruled out. The changes in the lungs are non-specific for PTFE
toxicity so there is no SPECIFIC way it can be positively identified.
PTFE coated drip pans
(burner pans) are a recently developed product and are extremely dangerous
for use around birds. The pans are exposed to the direct heat of the burners
so that under a burner set on high after 5 minutes the pan can reach over
650 degrees F and after 10 minutes over 1000 degrees F. PTFE coated cookware
is dangerous when abused, PTFE coated drip pans are dangerous under normal
usage and should be avoided if birds are present in the household.
A real threat exists as drip
pans coated with PTFE are still being marketed and distributed through mail
order houses. From what I gathered speaking with a representative of one of
the companies he stated that "hundreds of thousands" have been sold. The
fact that these can cause death in pet birds under normal usage (with
unknown effects on humans) and the fact that there are no warning labels on
these products or no composition label (so the consumer knows if PTFE is
present or not) is totally unacceptable. Deaths are still occurring and we
must as concerned consumers address this problem. Warning labels and
composition of the non-stick surface are two things that I would definitely
like to see in the future.
As you can see danger in the
household lurks in many seemingly innocent places. The purpose of this
article was to alert you to some of these dangers which can be averted if
proper husbandry practices and caution are exercised. I have always felt
that even one death or injury from any of these circumstances is too many.
It is also our duty as bird owners to share this information with other bird
owners so that we can prevent any further accidental death and injury of
these truly wonderful pets.
For information on products
and chemicals as well as assistance with poisonings, call the National
Animal Poison Control Center, University of Illinois, College of Veterinary
Medicine, Urbana, IL 61801.