More and more often we see the distressed posting about a unwell bird. After a few questions, it is usually suspected heavy metal toxicity.
Heavy metals are naturally occurring in the ground. 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. Many of the clasps, chains, and bells used in bird toys are zinc and nickel.
Silver, 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 Nickle are a popular coating for toys, bells , clasps and hardware. The reasoning for this popularity being that is economically pleasing and 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 they’re not immediately recognized as a life-threatening. Symptoms include:
If you suspect or witness 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 can be seen on an X-Ray. You should tell the vet that you suspect metal toxicity, so he can look specifically for it. (Thank you Currumbin Valley Birds Reptiles and exotics) See case study HERE
Human evolution has caused metal to concentrate in our environment, entering plant, animal, and human tissues through inhalation, diet, and manual handling. Then, they bind to and interfere with the functions of vital cellular components.
Airborne contamination comes from emissions from human activities like exhaust and industry.
Water source contamination comes from heavy metals leaching into the water supply from industrial and consumer waste. Acid rain can exacerbate this process by releasing heavy metals trapped in soils. Then, plants are exposed to heavy metals through the uptake of water and animals/humans eat those plants.
Ingestion is another potential source of heavy metal in your bird. Due to the chewing behavior of Psittacine birds they can potentially be exposed to numerous toxins. They are surrounded by metal … from cages to toys to food dishes, the parrot has a very high potential to ingest some type of heavy metal in its lifetime.
Toxic heavy metals can bio accumulate (because 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.
So if you do not know the history of your bird, or it a rescue, a pet shop, or even someone else’s home this is a possibility. Please get an X-ray done. This will give you a starting point and rule out metal or confirm illness. Either way treatment of healing can start.
Supervision and knowledge is also key to preventing metal toxicity. hardware, screws, wires, appliance cords, lead glass windows EVEN tiffany lamps, antique hardware and probably a million other things. Replace hardware, toy clasps, and bells with Stainless Steel equivalents. (right is an example of safe stainless toy bells)
Be aware and vigilant in watching for behavioral and 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