What is Zinc Poisoning?

Zinc is in a lot of products and is all around the home environment, and birds being the inquisitive creatures they are, often explore new things by way of chewing on them. This chewing can lead to a build-up of zinc in your bird’s system to a very high level, high enough to even endanger your bird's life.

Zinc is a poison that accumulates in the system and is not easily eliminated. Awareness on your part as the owner is vital to prevent your bird from succumbing to zinc poisoning.

While some zinc is necessary for your bird’s health, too much zinc can cause vital organs to break down, and can even cause death.

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Symptoms of Zinc Poisoning in Birds

  • Weakness 
  • Inability to walk or perch
  • Incoordination and staggering 
  • Lethargy
  • Depression 
  • Excessive diarrhea that is dark green or bloody in color
  • Shallow breathing and shivering while sitting fluffed up 
  • Increased thirst
  • Constant urination 
  • Picking at the body feathers 
  • Regurgitation of food 
  • Seizures
  • Ataxia 
  • Death 

Types  

  • Zinc is a heavy metal toxicity and is classified as acute or chronic 
  • Acute is when the toxin is ingested in one or two large doses; an example is when your bird swallows an object that contains a lot of zinc
  • Chronic refers to the ingestion of smaller doses of the toxin over a longer period until it reaches a toxic level such as your bird chews or picks at galvanised steel or iron cages; over time, the small amounts of zinc will build up in the liver, kidneys, pancreas and body muscle

Causes of Zinc Poisoning in Birds

  • Zinc toxicity is more common if your bird is the nosey inquisitive type as they tend to chew everything they find 
  • A build up over time of zinc in your bird’s system causes damages to vital organs such as the liver and kidneys where it can build up to a highly toxic dosage 
  • Your bird often can swallow zinc objects and parts that they find, and these objects may get embedded in the gastrointestinal tract 
  • Your bird may remove metal parts off toys and swallow them, or they may drop into the soft food or water bowl, the zinc can leach out and cause poisoning 
  • Galvanised wire, clips and chains all contain some zinc
  • Some galvanised coatings contain around 99.9 % levels of zinc; scrubbing new wire with a vinegar solution which causes oxidation resulting in making the zinc nontoxic is advisable (this is why new bird cages should be left to weather for two to three months before you introduce your birds to the aviary)
  • Zinc is used to prevent rusting on many new cages - the zinc hasn’t had a chance to oxidise, and it is very toxic at this stage

Diagnosis of Zinc Poisoning in Birds

If you suspect that your bird has ingested zinc or has is exhibiting any of the symptoms of zinc poisoning, then a trip to your veterinarian specialist is required. The sooner treatment can begin the better. Your veterinarian will make a diagnosis based on your bird’s history, and question about your cage, toys and equipment will provide a history of his environment. If you have seen your bird break off a piece of metal and swallow it, your specialist needs to know about this matter, so he knows what to treat. 

Because metals show up in radiographs (x-rays) these seem to be the ideal test for heavy metal toxicity or larger metal objects. But if the metal has been in your bird’s system for some time, it may be completely dissolved and deposited in other tissues where it is hard to locate. Your specialist may do a complete blood count, plasma chemistry analysis and blood tests specifically for zinc. The blood tests are only useful for larger birds as the volume of blood needed for the tests may be prohibitive for smaller birds - only a small volume of blood can be safely drawn without causing problems.

Treatment of Zinc Poisoning in Birds

Sometimes the laboratory work takes a few days to come back to the specialist, and if the blood work or your bird’s history supports a heavy metal toxic result, then it is imperative to begin treatment as soon as possible to minimise any damages to vital organs. Your veterinarian may begin treatment immediately rather than wait for all tests results. Chelation therapy is used to remove the zinc circulating within the bloodstream. These chelating agents are injected into the pectoral muscles; it is usually done twice daily for up to ten days. The least amount of time this treatment is done is preferable, as it can produce kidney damage and GI problems. 

Also, oral cathartics can be useful for removing particles of zinc from the GI tract. These oral substances can be mineral oil, peanut butter, barium sulphate, or corn oil – usually mixed into a slurry that can be gavage fed into the crop. This treatment will cause diarrhea in your bird. The use of a magnetic instrument can help remove metals from the digestive tract whereas surgery or an endoscope can assist with the removal of zinc pieces that are visible by the x-ray. Antibiotics or antifungals may be necessary depending on the results of the tests. Your bird will remain in care until he can eat and drink without help, then he can be released to go home.

Recovery of Zinc Poisoning in Birds

Ongoing support will be needed at home to help your bird return to health. Make sure your bird is eating and drinking, if he is not he will need to be returned to the veterinarian clinic for force feeding until he gets his appetite back. A calm, quiet environment at home will help your bird recover. Prevention for the future requires some careful searching of the environment and removal of all heavy metal objects to avoid future problems. Removing any metal bits that can be chewed, bitten or licked is advisable, and ensuring your bird's toys, food bowls and cage are free from zinc is the best practice for healthy bird care.