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Safe Kitchen, Safe Pet Bird

Protect your pet bird from kitchen dangers and nonstick cookware with these safety tips.

By Susan Chamberlain

News reports, magazine articles and product advertisements are always warning us about dangerous microbes lurking in our homes, particularly in the kitchen. We’re exhorted to kill germs and eliminate odors, fight mold and mildew and combat insects. When we share our homes with pet birds and parrots, we must be even more cautious. You can keep your kitchen in tip-top shape and your birds safe by following this easy guide.

Wash Your Hands!

Scrub up before you handle your bird or begin preparing its food for the day. Just as with your own food, a plethora of micro-organisms can be transmitted to your bird’s food by your hands. Possibilities for contamination lurk everywhere and, although many germs may seem innocuous, some, like salmonella and E-coli, can be quite dangerous to your bird.

To reduce the germ population, wash your hands with soap under running water for 15 to 30 seconds. Use a brush to scrub under your fingernails, especially if you’ve handled meat or poultry. Studies show that regular soap is just as effective as antibacterial soap at removing germs from your hands. In fact, it may even be preferable, as antibacterial soaps may lead to the development of resistant strains of bacteria. Rinse your hands, and use a clean towel or paper towel to dry them.

Dish Detail

If you’re like many of us who share our homes with multiple birds, you probably have more bird dishes than human dishes in the sink at the end of the day. My flock of 10 goes through at least three dishes a piece each day. Neglect the water dish for a few days, and an icky slime will build up on the interior. Thoroughly wash your bird’s dishes, especially those used for water or soft foods. Unwashed soft-food (fruit, veggies, other moist food) dishes can attract pests and host bacterial growth. The dishes might also become contaminated by bird feces, flung food or other bird-generated debris.

When washing dishes by hand, use the hottest water you can stand, and scrub and rinse each one well. Scrubber sponges or brushes mounted on handles that contain dish washing liquid are easy to use and very effective. Reserve one exclusively for use with bird dishes. Once a week, sterilize all the dishes by soaking them for several minutes in a sink or dishpan containing 1 part household bleach to 10 parts water. (Don’t forget to include the water bottle if your bird drinks from one instead of a water dish.) Rinse well and drain dry.

For chemical-free sterilization, pour boiling water into heat-safe dishes, let it stand for a few minutes, then empty and allow the dishes to air dry. Briefly immerse cleaning utensils (sponge, brush, bottle brushes) in a separate pan of boiling water as well. Use caution with plastic parts, as heat may melt them.

Under most circumstances, your bird’s dishes can be safely washed in the dishwasher. Do not put crazed (patterns of little cracks in the glaze) ceramic, cracked or chipped dishes in the dishwasher. Glass, stainless steel and impervious, dishwasher-safe plastics will withstand the rigors of the dishwasher, and most smooth surfaces will not absorb the chemicals in dish washing soap or be affected by the drying cycle. Ecover Tablets are phosphate and chlorine bleach-free dish washing tablets (for more information, go to their website here).

though I haven’t heard about pet birds suffering adverse reactions from rinse aids, for optimal safety, forego the use of these products when using the dishwasher for your bird’s dishes, as some chemical residue may remain on the surface. Rinse aids usually aren’t necessary unless you have very hard water. If that’s the case, save money and ensure your parrot’s safety by using white vinegar instead of chemicals in the rinse-aid compartment of your dishwasher. There are some “natural” rinse products available commercially, and these contain water, plant-based ethanol and coconut based surfactants.

Sponges & Dish Cloths

Bacteria thrive on moist surfaces, and the sponge with which you wipe your counters is a breeding ground for micro-organisms. Instead of actually cleaning counters and other surfaces, that sponge is likely spreading a layer of germs. Often, sponges are only briefly rinsed before taken to the next chore, thus providing a hospitable home for germs.

I prefer cotton dish cloths to sponges because you can use them with bleach-based cleaning products, throw them in the washing machine and dry them thoroughly. You can buy packages of a dozen or more dish cloths at merchandise stores. Use a clean cloth every day; more often if you routinely clean up big messes or if you’ve been preparing meat or poultry on kitchen surfaces.

Paper towels are a bird owner’s friend. I use them for everything, from cleaning up droppings on the floor to lining the bottoms of small cages. They’re great for drying hands, wiping the counter and cleaning up bird-generated messes. They’re sanitary because we use them once and throw them away. Stock up when your favorite brand is on sale.

Safe To Bathe In The Sink?

Many birds like to bathe in the kitchen or bathroom sink — the same sinks that you wash your hands, brush your teeth, rinse food or wash dirty dishes. Germs can linger on moist surfaces, so disinfect the sink with a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water, or pour boiling water over the surface to eliminate most harmful bacteria. Include the drain stopper in the process, and wipe down the fixtures as well.

Remove sink mats, dish drainers and other possibly contaminated items that your bird may come in contact with while it is bathing. Instead of permitting your bird to stand on the bottom of the sink, use a small PVC stand or shower perch.

Cleaning Solutions

While it’s impossible and probably inadvisable to attain laboratory clean conditions in your home (no germs, no resistance to disease!), it is necessary to be scrupulous in maintaining a sanitary kitchen environment. Use cleaning products according to directions, and remove your bird from the kitchen and vicinity when using strong chemicals. Aerosols and trigger-spray products (even those deemed nontoxic or natural) can be especially hazardous, as they may adversely affect your bird’s respiratory system. Birds are often sensitive to furniture and floor polish, so remove them from the area when these products are in use.

Use natural products whenever possible. White vinegar is a great window and hard surface cleaner, and its acidic nature helps inhibit mold growth. Unclog the sink by pouring baking soda down the drain and following with 1/2 cup of white vinegar. Wipe down your oven with white vinegar; it’s great for cutting grease.

For general cleaning, use 1/4-cup vinegar to a quart of water for cleaning windows, and 1/2-cup vinegar to a gallon of water for tile or vinyl floors. Vinegar is acidic and may leach color from low-end vinyl flooring. Do not use vinegar on marble, as it will eventually etch the surface. 

Nonstick Cookware

Fumes emitted by overheated nonstick cookware and appliances can kill pet birds quickly. Teflon® is the most recognizable brand name associated with nonstick products, but it must be emphasized that Teflon is a brand name, not a generic name for a coating or chemical. Other brand names for nonstick cookware include, but are not limited to Silverstone®, Calphalon®, QuanTanium® and T-Fal®. Virtually all nonstick cookware and appliances are coated with polymers containing polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE), which is the ingredient in nonstick coatings that enables food to slide off easily. When heated, PTFE releases fumes and particulate matter into the air. These odorless, colorless vapors can kill your birds within minutes.

Salespeople may be uninformed about the dangers posed to pet birds by nonstick cookware and appliances, as may manufacturers’ customer service personnel. Manufacturers also don’t state the same temperatures necessary to cause the release of PTFE fumes. Some place it at 560 degrees Fahrenheit and others indicate that it is higher or lower. Research has shown that products begin releasing such fumes at the beginning of the heating process. Birds have died when nonstick products have been heated to temperatures far below 560 degrees Fahrenheit.

Contact manufacturers of cookware products prior to purchase. Ask if the products contain polymers containing PTFE. If you are told they do not, ask for written assurance. (Keep in mind that companies cannot guarantee that any product is absolutely safe for use around birds because most products are not routinely tested on birds, and manufacturers have no control over how the product is used in your home.)

Oven parts may have been treated with chemicals PTFE to retard corrosion and these, too, may be deadly to birds when the oven is heated. The self-cleaning feature is particularly dangerous because the intense heat generated by this cycle produces smoke from food and grease and may also cause emissions from any chemically treated oven components. Because models and components change so frequently, it is impossible to recommend a specific model or brand of stove that is completely safe.

No Safe Burn

Never leave cooking food unattended. Smoke inhalation can be fatal, no matter what the source. For instance, if you burn some food in a “safe” stainless-steel pan and the smoke kills your bird, it’s certainly not the manufacturer’s fault. Read the fine print. A few manufacturers, such as Corning Revere, print warnings in product instructions against using nonstick cookware where pet birds are present.

What’s your best defense? Use stainless-steel, cast iron, glass, Corningware® or enamel pots and pans rather than nonstick cookware or appliances. Ventilate your home well when using any cooking appliance and do not keep birds in or near the kitchen or where cooking fumes may permeate the room. Because ventilation and air currents vary from home to home, it is impossible to establish a single bird-safe zone for all birds. If you live in a small apartment where it is impossible to keep birds a good distance from the kitchen, good ventilation and safe cooking habits are especially important. Install a fan in the kitchen window, and set it to blow out so that it will carry cooking fumes out of your home.

Use a timer to alert you when baking or cooking is finished. Install a range hood that vents outdoors, instead of re-circulating fumes back into the room. Use the self-cleaning feature on your oven only when you can do so with all the windows opened and your birds relocated to a safe area (a friend’s house). Open windows to let some fresh air into your home every day!

For more information on all types of cookware, visit the Cookware Manufacturers Association Pet Safety Information website.

Pet Birds In The Kitchen

Hot stoves, cooking fumes, blasts of heat from hot ovens, open pots of food, bacterial contamination from hands and surfaces from food preparation, temperature fluctuations and cooking and cleaning products all conspire to make the kitchen a dangerous place to navigate with your bird.

We all like to share our lives with our birds, and we spend a lot of time in the kitchen. A reasonable solution might be to allow your bird to accompany you in the kitchen while you’re preparing its fruit and vegetables in the morning, and in the evening while you’re making salad and preparing food for cooking. Keep your pet away from uncooked meat, poultry and fish, and wash your hands well after handling these products. Once it’s time to turn on the stove, remove your bird from the kitchen. You’ll be opening the oven, stirring pots and possibly dealing with spatters from frying, all potentially dangerous situations for your bird, whether it’s on your shoulder or perched on a nearby T-stand. Bring your bird back in once dinner has been served, but remember to give him his own dish for samples of food. No feeding from your plate or fork!

Is Silicone Bakeware Safe?

Flexible silicone bakeware is gaining in popularity, and questions have arisen about its safety around pet birds. Silicone is a synthetic rubber that contains bonded silicon (a natural element found in sand and rock) and oxygen.

According to the Hugh J. Rushing, Executive Vice-President of the Cookware Manufacturers Association, “To our knowledge, there are no fumes emitted from silicone bakeware or cookware with silicone adjuncts (handle inserts typically) that are harmful to birds, especially during normal use of such products.

“Oven baking temperatures are typically below any temperature that could cause silicone to burn. In typical air concentrations (21 percent O2), the minimum temperature at which silicone would burn would be at least 300 degrees Celsius or 572 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Rushing. “These [temperatures] are well above what can be achieved in an oven during any normal setting. Most silicones used for baking have additional fire retardant properties added that increase this margin of safety. Top of stove cookware with silicone parts probably could not get hot enough to cause ignition of silicone even in a ‘boil dry’ condition based on CMA testing. 

“Nevertheless, we continue to advise consumers not to allow pet birds in the kitchen or adjacent rooms when any sort of cooking is going on,” Rushing continued, “There’s no way to predict a bird’s sensitivity to any type of fumes, even from foods — frying potatoes, sautéed butter and even pan-fried meats have all been implicated in pet bird deaths.

The Cookware Manufacturers Association has co-sponsored a brochure (click here to read) written by an avian veterinarian, Dr. Karen Rosenthal. The brochure states that cooking fumes, smoke and odors can have detrimental effects on pet birds in and around the kitchen. “While the cautions here are the result of reports of bird death caused by overheated nonstick surfaces, I believe they should also apply to any plastic/rubber products,” Rushing said.

“Certainly any sort of combustion products (smoke) are deadly to birds due to their sensitive respiratory systems. Better to err on the side of caution than to run the risk of losing a loved pet.”

Serve Clean Fruits & Veggies

Wash produce under tepid running water. Rub produce with your hands to dislodge dirt and bacteria from the surface. Use a brush, reserved for your bird’s food, to scrub the surface of apples, beets, carrots and similar foods. Do not use bleach or detergent.

• Store fruit and vegetables in the refrigerator, not on your kitchen counter.

• Always wash squash, bananas, melons and similar “peelable” fruits and vegetables prior to cutting or peeling. Dirt and bacteria can be transferred to the edible insides when you cut through the skin.

• Remove additional bacteria and residue by drying produce with a paper towel.

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