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UC Davis Veterinarians Warn of Potential Aerosol Bird Toxins

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UC Davis veterinarians warn bird owners of potentially fatal inhalations.

Avian specialists at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine are warning of several potential aerosol toxicoses, and are urging bird owners to take special precautions with their fragile animals.

“Birds are exquisitely sensitive to aerosol toxins, much more so than humans,” said Leslie Woods, DVM, PhD, DACVP, professor of Clinical Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology at the school. “That is why canaries were used in the coal mines as sentinels for gas leaks to give the workers time to vacate the mines. Their fragile respiratory anatomy and physiology will cause them to die long before humans. If the workers saw dead canaries in the mines, they knew the environment was not safe for them.”

In her duties as an avian pathologist at the California Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS) laboratory at UC Davis, Dr. Woods has encountered a steady number of birds that died due to any number of a variety of avian aerosol toxicoses.

Many of those toxins revolve around the typical kitchen. CAHFS has discovered that items such as self-cleaning ovens and teflon-coated cooking pans can be culprits in bird deaths. These non-stick surfaces emit polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) gas, the cause of teflon toxicosis, when heated above 260 degrees Celsius (500 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature that can be attained when teflon-coated pans are left to boil dry or food is left to burn onto the pan. PTFE gas can kill birds within minutes.

“When I use my self-cleaning oven, I put the birds outside,” said Dr. Woods. “The odor—and therefore the gas—can be detected throughout the house and mostly upstairs, since PTFE gas rises. So it is not enough to just move the birds to another part of the house when using an item that may emit PTFE gas.”

Beyond kitchen items, other PTFE sources include teflon-coated irons, ironing board covers, heat lamps, and the heating elements of some reverse-cycle heat pumps. UC Davis veterinarians warn, though, that there are many other toxins beyond just PTFE that affect the fragile respiratory system of birds.

Other avian inhaled toxins include bleach, ammonia, cigarette smoke, burned foods, spray paint and carbon monoxide (which the coal mining sentinel canaries were sent in to detect). Items such as air fresheners, hair products, nail polish, and scented candles may produce other airborne toxins. Bird owners should be sure their birds are removed to well ventilated, closed rooms in the house (or outside) when using these items.
In her treatment of birds as the chief of the Companion Animal and Exotic Pet (CAPE) Service at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, Joanne Paul-Murphy, DVM, DACZM, knows first-hand the fragility of the avian respiratory system.

“PTFE toxicosis is rapid and fatal,” said Dr Paul-Murphy. “Birds succumb to the inhaled toxin before there is time to get to a veterinarian.”

In cases of other inhaled toxins, Dr. Paul-Murphy explained that the effects can be less dramatic and there are treatments that CAPE can provide if caught early enough, such as immediate oxygen support, saline nebulization and bronchodilators. Birds showing signs of respiratory distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately. Signs may include an increased effort to inhale and exhale, short and rapid breathing, wheezing, change or loss of voice, depression, and a bluish color to the skin (usually noted in birds that have facial skin).

In addition to the toxin warnings, UC Davis veterinarians offer these helpful tips for bird owners:
•    Birds are sensitive to sudden extremes in temperature, so select a temperature range that is comfortable in the home. Avoid extreme heat and extreme cold.
•    Select cage sizes that give birds freedom of movement about the cage, with multiple perches and plenty of room to move around in the cage.
•    If possible, allow birds a period of time each day to fly outside their cages. Keep them in safe, supervised environments when doing so (no ceiling fans, no predators such as cats or dogs).
•    Keep birds on a routine daylight schedule. Views of the outdoors can be enriching, but be sure there are no drafts by the windows. If the owner is up late, cover the cage or move to a quiet room so the birds can stay on a regular sleep schedule.
•    Covering bird cages at night helps to keep out drafts and to keep birds on a regular sleep schedule. Provide a soft night light near the cage so birds have some light to be able to navigate if they fall from a perch or need to move about the cage during the night.

For more information on CAHFS and CAPE, please visit their websites at:

About the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital
The William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis—a unit of the School of Veterinary Medicine—provides state-of-the-art clinical care while serving as the primary clinical teaching experience for DVM students and post graduate veterinarian residents. The VMTH treats more than 47,000 animals a year, ranging from cats and dogs to horses, cows and exotic species. To learn more about the VMTH, please go to Timely news updates can be received on its Facebook ( and Twitter ( pages.

Rob Warren
VMTH Communications & Marketing Officer