What are Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis?

When thinking about household products that may be toxic to your bird, it’s unlikely that your first guess would be the frying pan on your stove. However, due to the unique sensitivity caused by the structure of a bird’s respiratory system, birds are indeed susceptible to a condition called “teflon toxicity,” more formally referred to as PTFE poisoning/toxicosis. Not to worry – a pet bird cannot fall ill simply due to the presence of the pots and pans that are integral to your household. These pots and pans can be stable and safe when used properly, and food and oils are heated at a safe heat. The noxious component of the condition takes the form of fumes caused by high-heat cooking, which is reportedly over 500 degrees F.

In all types and ages of birds, serious illness and even death can occur due to the inhalation of the toxic fumes emitted from an overheated piece of cookware that is coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE is a chemical present on most non-stick cookware, as well as appliances and other household items such as heat lamps and ironing board covers. Cookware or household products that claim to be “stain repellant” also typically list PTFE as a chemical component. While gaining more and more notoriety, PTFE toxicity is relatively unknown outside of veterinary and pet education/research communities. Bird enthusiasts must become more aware of the potentially toxic effects of household products on their avian companions. 

Unfortunately, polytetrafluoroethylene toxicosis in birds is not a slow-moving, gradual condition. In most cases, bird owners will find the bird in the cage already deceased, or in such severe respiratory distress that death is impending. In the best-case scenario, a bird will have experienced mild exposure to the noxious fumes, and will be visibly symptomatic in just enough time for an immediate veterinary visit. Clear signs and symptoms will range from mild to severe, and typically include difficulty breathing, wheezing, lack of coordination, weakness, depression, anxious behavior, tremor or seizures. Most bird owners will notice the sudden onset of physical and behavioral changes, however slight. 

Though the burning of PTFE has also been known to cause lung problems in humans, the signs of human poisoning are much less severe. “Polymer fume fever” is typified by flu-type symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness and lethargy. The overheating of pans with PTFE can cause a person who already suffers from respiratory disease (such as asthma) to have an exacerbation of symptoms; but, in most cases, a fatality is unlikely. Birds, on the other hand, have an extra-sensitivity to toxins in the air due to their respiratory anatomy. The process of flight requires an abnormally high production of oxygen within the bird to fuel the wings. The lungs of a bird benefit from a careful and extremely efficient method of gas-exchange that enables such high oxygen levels.

While this incredibly efficient system ensures the delivery of oxygen, it also ensures the delivery of whatever else is in the environment, including poisonous gas or fumes. The finest particles are easily and quickly inhalable Add to this capability its small size and high metabolic rate, and you wind up with a bird that is extremely susceptible to environmental and toxic inhalants. If there is any question of poisoning in your bird, no matter the cause, consult a veterinarian immediately.

Birds are susceptible to “teflon toxicity” or PTFE poisoning/toxicosis, a life-threatening condition caused by the toxic fumes that are emitted from overheated, PTFE-treated cookware.

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Symptoms of Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis in Birds

  • Open-beak breathing
  • Chirping
  • Weakness
  • Recumbency
  • Tremors
  • Convulsions
  • Sudden death

Causes of Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis in Birds

PTFE poisoning/toxicosis occurs when a bird inhales toxic PTFE particles. The particles ultimately cause fluid and blood to leak into the bird’s airway, causing extreme, and sometimes life-ending, respiratory distress. The anatomy of a bird makes it far more sensitive to inhalants than humans or most animals.

Diagnosis of Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis in Birds

Oftentimes, birds with PTFE poisoning succumb to sudden death. In this case, the veterinarian will conduct a post-mortem physical exam. Upon examination, the bird’s lungs will be a dark red or purplish color, with visible signs of hemorrhage and congestion. Because these signs are characteristic of a range of inhalant poisonings (such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, and natural gas), the vet cannot make a guaranteed diagnosis of PTFE affiliation. 

In a live bird, however, the owner report will likely include environmental issues and events, including the possibility of overheated teflon cookware or other household items known to cause PTFE toxicity in birds. 

Treatment of Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis in Birds

Unfortunately, death will often precede any clinical symptoms that may be apparent of this toxicosis. A small bird can die after minimal subjection to the fumes. A larger bird, however may survive the exposure; treatment in that case would involve hospitalization. NSAIDs, diuretics, and antibiotics may be administered. Supportive measures, including time in an incubator and oxygen supplementation may allow for recovery though prognosis is guarded.

Recovery of Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis in Birds

The veterinarian will advise on the care of a recovering bird. The primary lesson is to pay careful attention to any animal’s environment. 

  • Take care when using any household product, as it may affect your pets in ways that are atypical to humans
  • Beware of heating anything over 500 degrees
  • Do not burn oils on high heat
  • Using the self-clean feature of your oven can produce toxic fumes
  • Aerosols from many types of products can be toxic
  • Keep your birds away from chemicals, cleaning products, tobacco smoke and inhalants, and house them preferably in a well-ventilated area