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Heavy metal poisoning in pet birds on the rise

Does your pet bird look depressed and lethargic, and won’t eat? If so, your feathered friend may be getting poisoned in your very own home!

Dr Jayne Weller, avian and exotics veterinarian from the Animal Referral Hospital Homebush, regularly sees pet birds come in with heavy metal poisoning, which can cause seizures, neurological problems and even death.

“Lead poisoning is a serious health problem that we often see in pet birds throughout the year, and it can be prevented,” Dr Weller says. 

The main toxic culprits are bird cages and toys made of consumable heavy metals, such as lead. Some old houses also have lead paint on the walls (under the top coated paint) and old venetian blinds can contain metal that birds can ingest. 

“Metal (lead) tastes sweet and shiny objects are attractive to birds. They inspect it and touch the objects with their tongues, licking and picking pieces off the objects. It takes a tiny metal piece to cause a problem,” she says.  

Often times Dr Weller will see birds that are depressed, lethargic, won’t eat, and have diarrhoea and vomiting. After a few days of this, birds can lose weight and become debilitated.

“The metal itself doesn’t cause the clinical signs. Eventually, the metal is excreted via the droppings, but the body absorbs the toxins which then sits in the bone,” she says. “Over time, the toxin leaches out of the bone and the bird can continue being sick even a long time after the metal has been pooed out, requiring hospitalisation for treatment.”

Preventing avian heavy metal poisoning

To prevent lead poisoning, make sure the cage, toys and other objects in your bird’s environment are made with non-toxic materials, such as stainless steel and welded wires.

“A lot of bird toys tend to have cheap metallic paint. If you give your bird shiny toys, replace them regularly. Don’t buy from dollar shops; buy good quality stainless steel, plastic or biodegradable toys that can be chewed up,” says Dr Weller. 

For enrichment, the avian veterinarian suggests using toilet rolls, cardboard boxes and non-toxic (pesticide free) branches/sticks as natural perches, such as Bottle Brush and Eucalyptus. 

“Just give the branches a good scrub and leave out in the sun for 24 hours before use. Never put feathers from other birds in the cage as they can spread disease,” she warns. 

If your bird spends time outside the cage, ensure there are no sources of heavy metal that could be ingested.  “Lead can be found in old paint, lead curtain/blinds, stained glass, fishing weights and soldering,” she explains.  If you suspect your bird has heavy metal poisoning, see an avian veterinarian immediately.

Common symptoms of heavy metal poisoning in birds:

  • Constant thirst
  • Regurgitation of water
  • Listlessness
  • Weakness
  • Depression
  • Not eating
  • Tremors
  • Loss of coordinated movements
  • Seizures

   Source: The Pet Journo, Carline Zombrano,

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