Heavy Metal Poisoning

Heavy Metal Poisoning Treatment and Prevention

How does heavy metal poisoning in birds occur?

Since birds love to chew and generally have very busy beaks, problems relating to the ingestion of metal particles are often encountered in both pet and aviary birds.

Commonly implicated heavy metals and their sources include:

Lead: environmental contamination in soil, stained glass, older houses with lead paint, metal toys/figurines, curtain weights, fishing weights and lures, shotgun pellets, champagne foil

Zinc: New wire (including galvanised aviary wire and some powder coated cages), screws, nuts and bolts, costume jewellery, metal buttons and belts, some coins

Copper:  Electrical and computer wiring, some coins, costume jewellery

Mercury: Solder, used on the back of some mirrors and bird toys (sadly)

Signs associated with heavy metal toxicity

  • Generalised depression, fluffed feathers, lack of activity, poor appetite
  • Vomiting or regurgitation (sometimes seen as sticky feathers on the head)
  • Drinking more and passing a higher amount of liquid in the droppings than normal
  • Droppings may be pink tinged or contain blood (especially in Amazon parrots)
  • Some birds may show tremors, paralysis or seizure-like activity

How can heavy metal toxicity be diagnosed?

X-rays showing metal particles in the gastrointestinal tract (or elsewhere in the body) and blood tests are often used to confirm exposure to heavy metal toxins.

Lead testing in birds
blood lead testing machine for birds, in house at the Melbourne chicken vet,  it uses 1/20th of a ml of blood and  we routinely test blood lead levels in sick hens.

What is the treatment for heavy metal poisoning in birds?

Most birds are weak and very sick following exposure to toxic heavy metals and are likely to need hospitalisation for supportive care including fluids, good quality nutrition via crop feeding, and a quiet incubator for recovery.

Metal particles are removed from the body by specific medications that can be given as injections or by mouth. Sometimes metal particles may need to be removed by surgery or endoscopy.

Birds showing neurological signs will need medications to help control these.

Chicken vet – lead poisoning
Chickens with lead poisoning from an older lead based paint – in for their follow up blood lead testing.  Eventually the top soil was changed and the lead paint removed and repainted to cure these gals.

Will my bird recover from heavy metal poisoning?

With prompt medical attention and appropriate treatment, many birds will recover from heavy metal poisoning. However, birds showing neurological signs, or those with prolonged exposure periods have a lower chance of recovery. In some birds, heavy metal poisoning is sadly fatal.

If you are concerned your bird may be affected by heavy metal poisoning, it is essential that you seek veterinary attention as soon as possible, as treatment delays can be deadly.