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Lead Poisoning in Birds

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Pet Services

Lead is a common household hazard for birds. Due to the curious, explorative nature, house birds can be exposed to lead around the house (compared to wild birds which are frequently poisoned by lead sinkers or by being shot with lead bullets). Lead causes heavy metal toxicity, affecting the blood, nervous system and gastrointestinal system. Lead poisoning can be fatal if not treated.

How do I know if my bird has lead poisoning?

The clinical signs include weakness (which can be profound), altered mentation, lack of appetite, paralysis of the legs, circling, tremors of the body and head, droopy posture, seizures, blindness, excessive thirst or droppings, regurgitation, weight loss, blood in the droppings, pale color of mucous membranes due to anemia and dark coloring to the droppings or excessively wet droppings. A veterinarian familiar with birds will start with a complete history, weight and a physical examination, and may evaluate the bird for crop stasis, which can be seen with lead poisoning.

The clinical presentation of the bird and an accurate history will often lead to a tentative diagnosis. Since the typical clinical signs are descriptive of many different diseases, diagnostic tests are necessary.

What tests can be done?


X-rays will screen for the presence of lead pieces in the digestive system. The lack of radiographic evidence for lead does NOT rule out lead toxicity. X-rays may also reveal a dilated proventriculus and/or esophagus, which is suggestive of lead poisoning in birds. Blood tests for lead levels will give a definitive diagnosis but it may take a few days for results to be available. Lead levels of 20 mg/dL (1.1 mmol/L) are suggestive of lead poisoning in birds, while lead levels > 50 mg/dL (2.8 mmol/L) are typically confirmatory. A Complete Blood Count (CBC) gives important information about red and white blood cells, including the presence of an anemia (e.g., low red blood cell count). Blood chemistry tests may show some minor changes such as increased metabolic values (creatinine, liver enzymes).

Is lead poisoning treatable?

Often by the time a bird is presented with lead poisoning, it is very sick or is near death. If diagnosed and caught early, treatment is usually successful.

"If diagnosed and caught early, treatment is usually successful."

Therapy will often be started on a presumptive diagnosis, and consists of an antidote to bind the lead from the body along with supportive care for the hospitalized bird. Three different types of antidotes can be used, including calcium EDTA, DMSA, and d-penicillamine.

Certain foods or oral preparations (e.g., high fiber) will be given to hasten the passage of lead pieces out of the digestive tract. Treatment continues at least until the bird is free of symptoms. After the clinical signs have resolved, the veterinarian may recommend that treatment be continued in an individual bird, depending on the results of repeated blood tests and x-rays. Occasionally, surgery is indicated if there are large pieces of lead present.

How can lead poisoning be prevented?lead_poisoning_in_birds-2

Preventing lead poisoning consists of removing all potential sources of lead from your pet's environment. In addition, birds should only be out under supervision. Some items containing lead that are commonly found in the home environment are listed below:


bells with lead clappers

bird toys weighted with lead

ceramics (improperly glazed)

food (contaminated)

galvanized wire

jewelry - costume

hardware cloth

lead shot (shotgun shells)

lead sinkers/weights (fishing, curtains)

fumes from leaded gas


mirror backing

paints (old lead based)

plaster permeated with lead paint

putty/caulking compounds

solder (around plumbing etc.)

stained glass windows

tiffany lamps

welds (on some wrought iron)

wine bottle tops (foil)

If you think your bird has been poisoned by lead, contact your veterinarian immediately for assistance.

Consult a veterinarian familiar with birds if you have any questions.

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