Heavy Metal Toxicity in Parrots

Heavy metal toxicities are of major concern in wild and captive avian species. In wild birds it is impossible to fully control heavy metal toxicity, nevertheless it is our responsibility to prevent it in captive species. Of the heavy metals, lead and zinc are the most important in captive birds since they are common in their immediate environment. Clinical signs of lead and zinc toxicity (LZT) are very similar but are not specific since many disease conditions can show the same signs. Therefore a thorough history should be taken followed by a physical examination, radiographs, blood tests and blood and plasma levels of lead and zinc. Specific treatment is indicated with a good prognosis according to the severity of the poisoning.

Metal toxicosis is a major problem affecting both wild and captive avian populations. Historically, toxicities involving lead, zinc, iron, or copper appear to have the greatest clinical impact on birds. For example, lead and zinc toxicities are commonly recognized causes of illness in pet psittacine birds, birds in zoological collections, and waterfowl.

Parrots are known as very curious and active creatures who like to chew anything in their environment. Since there are many objects in their immediate environment which contain zinc and almost as many that contain lead they are prone to LZT.

Objects that contain zinc are galvanized cages, food and water dishes, toys, jewelry, chains etc. Objects that contain lead include batteries, curtain weights, PVC, toys etc. Clinical signs of LZT are regurgitation, diarrhea, anorexia polydipsia (increased thirst) and polyuria (increased urination) , dyspnea (difficulty breathing), depression, weakness, ataxia (poor movement coordination), seizures, weight loss and death. The final diagnosis is made by measuring the levels of lead and zinc in the blood. Normal blood lead levels are considered to be less than 0.2 ppm, and normal plasma zinc levels are less than 2 ppm. Radiography is a useful method for imaging metallic objects in the gastrointestinal tract. Endoscopy can aid in finding metallic objects in the ventriculus as well as for extracting them. Complete blood count (CBC) may show heterocytosis, and anemia. Blood chemistry can show dehydration and elevated uric-acid levels. Treatment includes supportive care, the use of specific chelating agents and bulking and cathartics. Chelating agents used are Ca-EDTA (calcium disodium ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid), DMSA (Dimercaptosuccinic acid) and D-Penicillamine.

Heavy metal toxicities are more common than it seems. Since the environment of the captive birds is full of material made from zinc and lead we must investigate for LZT in addition to other diseases. Clinical signs of LZT are common to many other conditions. Radiography, plasma zinc levels and blood lead levels can lead to a final diagnosis. Complete blood count (CBC) and blood chemistry might support the diagnosis. A correct diagnosis will lead to the appropriate treatment and will improve the prognosis. Misdiagnosis will probably lead to the death of the bird. An important part of the treatment is the prevention of reoccurring toxicities. Owners should be advised about the risk of hazardous materials in the birds' environment.

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