What is Lead Poisoning?

Lead is one of three of the most potent heavy metals (lead, zinc, iron) that can easily cause poisoning in your bird. Both wild birds and domesticated birds are victims of this poisoning, with household items the main cause for domesticated birds, while lead sinkers, lead pellets and bullets the hazardous cause in wild birds. It takes a very little amount of lead to cause health problems in your bird. If your pet is diagnosed early, treatment is available and can lead to a complete recovery.

Your bird may suffer lead poisoning due to surprisingly common sources of this heavy metal in everyday households and the curious nature of your bird.

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Symptoms of Lead Poisoning in Birds

  • Neurological signs such as blindness and head tilting may occur or a wing droop or leg paralysis can indicate poisoning 
  • The presence of blood in the droppings, which is not actually blood but the breakdown product of blood
  • Your bird just may not ‘look’ well, sitting quietly with fluffed feathers 
  • Your bird may exhibit noticeable weakness and depression 
  • Loss of control and coordination of its body movements 
  • Constant thirst
  • Regurgitation of water
  • Frequent runny green droppings 
  • Seizures 
  • Muscle tremors 
  • Death

Causes of Lead Poisoning in Birds

  • Heavy metal poisoning such as from lead, affects your bird’s body in a variety of ways depending on the toxicity of the dose, and the type of effect it has on the body
  • Raptors and waterfowl with lead toxicity may show signs of weakness and leg paralysis and the inability to fly 
  • Wild birds can be poisoned by the lead pellets found in the wetlands, they can also ingest lead fishing weights and contaminated prey animals
  • Chronic low grade lead exposure originates from contaminated soil, plant and water
  • High grade exposure is from ingesting pieces of lead 
  • Often it is your bird’s natural curiosity and attraction to shiny objects that will place him in harm’s way; they are quick to notice enticing sparkling objects and will act on them very quickly
  • Lead poisoning affects the nervous system, kidneys, intestines and blood cells. Sources of lead are more numerous in households than you might imagine 
  • Household products containing lead include such as curtain lead weights, coins, costume jewellery, batteries, and stained glass windows 
  • Lead based paints (especially the undercoat layer in older homes, lead solder around plumbing or lead putty) 
  • The foil tops on the wine bottles are another source of poisoning so ensure they are disposed of properly 
  • Wild birds tend to be poisoned by lead fishing weights, and lead gunshot pellets

Diagnosis of Lead Poisoning in Birds

If you suspect your bird has a dose of lead poisoning, take your feathered friend along to the veterinarian to be assessed. Your avian specialist will discuss the symptoms that have raised your concerns, and whether anything has changed in your bird’s environment such as a new cage, toys or other things that may show how your bird got poisoned. The clinical symptoms include altered behavior, depression and severe weakness, droopy posture, excessive thirst, and blood in the droppings and more.

Your veterinarian will examine your bird physically and combined with the symptoms will make a tentative diagnosis.  Using X-rays and radiographs to see if there are any heavy metal particles in the crop, gizzard or within the gastrointestinal tract will assist with diagnosis. A very small amount of lead can produce toxicity in your pet. Tests on blood drawn for diagnosing work will show the level of lead in the bloodstream. These tests will be done regularly during treatment to monitor the recovery.

Treatment of Lead Poisoning in Birds

Caught early enough, this condition can be treated successfully. There are many steps to the treatment depending on the severity of the poisoning. Fluid therapy will be used to protect the vital internal organs from further damage, then to help flush the toxin out of the body. Your veterinarian will then use a metal chelating agent calcium EDTA to surround and trap the lead which will result in it being filtered it out through the kidneys or intestines. This drug is often injected twice per day until your bird shows signs of improvement. Oral D -penicillamine is also used as an oral medication. Moreover, antibiotics will need to be administered to prevent infection setting in, and crop feeding is essential to add fluids and calories to aid recovery. 

It has been shown that Vitamin B complex and Thiamine is useful in preventing the deposit of the metal into tissues, and it also helps nerve repair. Your specialist may keep your bid in an incubator in a quiet low stress environment to allow him to recover. If your bird is having seizures, an anticonvulsant will need to be given to aid your pet. Larger pieces of metal may be removed surgically if they are not passing through your bird’s system while smaller pieces can be assisted to travel through by flushing warm fluids under general anesthetic. Bulking agents added to the diet or crop fed will speed up the removal of the metal particles through the gastrointestinal system.

Recovery of Lead Poisoning in Birds

Understandably your bird will have been through a lot, and may take several weeks or so before it recovers its health fully. Your veterinarian will advise you of the recovery process, and discuss diet and environment with you. Allowing your bird to recover without any stress, and feeding a high-quality diet will ensure his health will return. Prevention is always best, and supervising your bird when he is out roaming about to ensure he is not exploring things he shouldn’t be is a priority.

Birds are like little children, they are fascinated by new things, wanting to explore and touch and often chew. For this reason, they are their own worst enemy. Because of the small size of birds in relation to their owners, it doesn’t take much of any toxic material to cause an effect on them. They have amazing eyesight and can see small shiny things that you would not normally notice. Vigilance is always needed to keep your friend healthy and happy.