Lead poisoning is a common household hazard for birds. Birds love to chew and lead is very soft and fun to chew. Lead causes a 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), paralysis of the legs, circling, tremors of the body and head, droopy posture, seizures, blindness, anorexia, regurgitation, weight loss, blood in the droppings, pale color of mucous membranes due to anemia and dark green, black or wet droppings. A veterinarian familiar with birds will start with a complete history, weight and a physical examination.
The clinical presentation of the bird and a accurate history will often lead to a tentative diagnosis. Since many of the clinical signs are descriptive of a lot of 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. Blood tests for lead levels will give a definitive diagnosis but it may take a few days for results to be available. A complete blood count gives important information about red and white blood cells, including the presence of anemia. Blood chemistry tests may show some minor changes.
Is lead poisoning treatable?
Most often by the time a bird is presented with lead poisoning, it is very sick or is dying. If diagnosed and caught early, treatment is usually successful.
Therapy will often be started on a presumptive diagnosis, and consists of injectable medication (calcium EDTA binds the lead) and supportive care for hospitalized birds. Certain foods or oral preparations 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 blood tests and x-rays. Occasionally, surgery is indicated 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 under supervision. Some items containing lead found in the environment are found listed below:
bells with lead clappers
bird toys weighted with lead
ceramics (improperly glazed)
jewelry – costume
lead shot (shotgun shells)
lead weights (fishing, curtains)
fumes from leaded gas
paints (old lead based)
plaster permeated with lead paint
solder (around plumbing etc..)
stained glass windows
welds (on some wrought iron)
wine bottle tops (foil)
Consult a veterinarian familiar with birds if you have any questions.