Lead Poisoning in Birds

By Renee Schmid, DVM, DABVT, DABT; Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT; Rick Axelson, DVM

Lead is a common household hazard for birds. Due to their curious, explorative nature, companion birds can be exposed to lead around the house. Lead has a sweet smell and taste which increases the temptation of ingestion. There are also bird toys that are marketed as “safe for birds” but may contain lead. 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?

Clinical signs include weakness (which can be profound), altered mental activity, lack of appetite, paralysis of the legs, circling, tremors of the body and head, droopy posture, seizures, blindness, excessive thirst, regurgitation, weight loss, pale color of mucous membranes due to anemia, and red to brown discoloring of droppings or excessively wet droppings. A veterinarian familiar with birds will start with a complete history, weight, and physical examination.

The clinical signs and history of exposure will often form a tentative diagnosis. Since the typical clinical signs are descriptive of many different diseases, diagnostic tests are necessary.

What tests can be done?

X-ray (radiographs) images may show the presence of lead pieces in the digestive system. X-rays may also reveal a dilated proventriculus and/or esophagus, which may be seen with lead poisoning in birds. Blood lead levels will give a definitive diagnosis but may take a few days for results to be available. 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).

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 you suspect your bird has been exposed to lead, please call your veterinarian or Pet Poison Helpline, a 24/7 animal poison control center, at 1-800-213-6680 right away to help determine the risk and potential treatment needs.

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

Therapy will often be started on a presumptive diagnosis and consists of an antidote, a chelator, to bind the lead and allow it to be excreted in the urine. Supportive care is also essential for the hospitalized bird. Three different types of chelators can be used, including calcium EDTA, DMSA (succimer), and d-penicillamine.

Certain foods or oral preparations (e.g., high fiber) may be given to help quicken the passage of lead pieces out of the digestive tract. Treatment continues until the bird is free of clinical signs and the blood lead levels have decreased. Occasionally, surgery is required if there are large pieces of lead present.

How can lead poisoning be prevented?

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

  • bells with lead clappers
  • bird toys weighted with lead or containing lead pieces/solder
  • stained glass
  • lead solder
  • venetian blinds
  • jewelry - costume hardware
  • cloth
  • lead shot (shotgun shells)
  • lead sinkers/weights (used for fishing)
  • linoleum
  • mirror backing (older)
  • paints (old lead based, prior to 1978)

Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control center based out of Minneapolis, MN is available 24/7 for pet owners and veterinary professionals that require assistance treating a potentially poisoned pet. The staff provides treatment advice for poisoning cases of all species, including dogs, cats, birds, small mammals, large animals and exotic species. As the most cost-effective option for animal poison control care, Pet Poison Helpline’s per incident fee includes follow-up consultations for the duration of the poison case. Pet Poison Helpline is available in North America by calling 800-213-6680. Additional information can be found online at www.petpoisonhelpline.com

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