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A Heavy (metal) Issue

by Jami Galindo

More and more often we see a distressed post about a sick bird, and after a few questions, many times it is suspected the issue is heavy metal toxicity. A “heavy metal” is any relatively dense metal such as chromium, cobalt, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, antimony, mercury, thallium, and lead. These are all well known as toxic and dangerous.  This concerns us as companion bird caretakers because Copper, Silver, Nickel, and Zinc are toxic heavy metals too, and many of the clasps, chains, and bells used in bird toys are zinc and nickel. 

Silver, is believed to be safe by some, it’s not. Pure silver or fine silver is relatively soft, malleable and easily damaged. To address this issue fine silver is often combined with other metals to produce a more durable product or an alloy. The most popular being sterling silver, which consists of 92.5 percent silver and 7.5 percent copper, both are heavy metals.  

Zinc and nickel are a popular coating for toys, bells, clasps and hardware because it's economical and the shiny appearance has merchandising appeal. Galvanized zinc is used for outside mesh enclosures and aviary materials for the same reason.

​​Suspected Heavy Metal Toxicity can be similar to other health problems, so it is not immediately recognized as a life-threatening. Symptoms include:

  • vomiting

  • excessive thirst

  • diarrhea (unexplained by diet change)

  • tremors

  • falling

  • seizure

  • lethargy

If you observe these symptoms PLEASE seek immediate care from a certified Avian Vet. This should include  X-rays and blood work. Metal toxicity doesn’t always show in the blood, but sometimes can be seen on an X-Ray. You should tell the vet that you suspect metal toxicity, so he/she can look specifically for it. (Thank you Currumbin Valley Birds Reptiles and exotics) See case study HERE.

Due to their chewing behavior, birds they can potentially be exposed to numerous sources of heavy metal. They are surrounded by metal … from cages to toys to food dishes, so a parrot has a high potential to ingest some type of heavy metal in its lifetime. Toxic heavy metals can bioaccumulate (since they are hard to metabolize). Bioaccumulation occurs when the substance is absorbed at a rate faster than it can be removed by catabolism and excretion. So, the longer the biological half-life of a toxic substance the greater the risk of chronic poisoning, even if levels of the toxin are not very high.

If you don't know the history of your bird, if it is a rescue, came from a pet shop, or even someone else’s home it's quite possible the bird has been exposed to heavy metal. Part of your 'wellness' Vet check should include getting an X-ray done to give you a starting point and rule out metal or check for illnesses of many types.

Supervision and knowledge is also key to preventing metal toxicity. Hardware, screws, wires, appliance cords, lead glass windows and tiffany lamps, antique hardware, and probably a million other things. Replace hardware, toy clasps, and bells with Stainless Steel equivalents and be aware and vigilant to keep your birds away from unsafe metals and be on the watch for visible signs of illness. Know the symptoms (above) of metal toxicity and Vet immediately if you suspect your bird has ingested metal.

Edited and adapted from the original effort of Sandra Witt 4/23/16


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