By Jill A. Richardson, DVM, Associate Director
Consumer Relations and Technical Services/The Hartz Mountain Corporation
Birds are curious in nature and certain dangerous objects may be attractive to them. As most pet birds have clipped wings, remain caged, or have limited activity outside their cages, poisonings are not common. However, birds with free household access or free ranging birds are at most risk of becoming exposed to poisonous items.
ZINC: Sources of zinc include hardware such as wire, screws, bolts, and nuts and US pennies. Pennies minted since 1983 contain 99.2% zinc and 0.8% copper and one penny contains approximately 2,440-mg of elemental zinc. The process of galvanization involves the coating of wire or other material with a zinc based compound to prevent rust. Owners are often not aware of galvanization on the wire used for making cages. Food and water dishes may also be galvanized and sufficient zinc may leak into the water or food to create toxicity. Although the exact toxicologic mechanisms of zinc in birds or other animals are not known, zinc poisoning can affect the kidneys, liver, and red blood cells. Clinical signs of zinc poisoning in birds may include increased urination, increased thirst, diarrhea, weight loss, weakness, anemia, and seizures.
LEAD: Sources of lead include paint, toys, drapery weights, linoleum, batteries, plumbing materials, galvanized wire, solder, stained glass, fishing sinkers, lead shot, foil from champagne bottles, and improperly glazed bowls. Lead is considered to be one of the most commonly reported avian poisoning. Lead affects multiple tissues, especially the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, and nervous system. Clinical signs seen in psittascine birds are often vague and may include lethargy, weakness, inappetence, regurgitation, increased urination, incoordination, circling, and convulsions. In some species such as Amazons, bloody urine may also be noted.
NICOTINE PRODUCTS: Tobacco products contain varying amounts of nicotine with cigarettes containing 13-30 mg and cigars containing 15-40 mg. Butts contain about 25% of the total nicotine content. Nicotine is also found as a natural form of insecticide. Signs develop quickly in most species, usually within 15-45 minutes and include excitation, panting, salivation, and vomiting. Muscle weakness, twitching, depression, increased heart rate, breathing difficulty, collapse, coma, and cardiac arrest may follow. Death from nicotine toxicoses may occur secondary to respiratory paralysis. A less serious but a more common condition resulting from cigarette smoke deposition on the feathers is feather destructive behavior.
INHALANTS: The avian respiratory tract is extremely sensitive to inhalants. Any strong odor or smoke could be potentially toxic. Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) coated cookware or cooking utensils can emit toxic fumes when overheated (> 280 degree F). Clinical signs may include sudden death, breathing difficulty, incoordination, depression, and restless behavior. Hemorrhage and fluid build up in the lungs leads to respiratory failure and death.
Examples of Potentially Dangerous Inhalants for Pet Birds
Gasoline or other volatile gas fumes* Any source of smoke*Automobile exhaust* Carbon Monoxide*New Carpet*Aerosol Sprays
Cleaning Products, such as ammonia or bleach*Paint fumes*Fumigants
Avocado (Persea americana)
The toxic principle in avocado is persin and leaves, fruit, bark, and seeds of the avocado have been reported to be toxic to birds and various other species. Several varieties of avocado are available, but not all varieties appear to be equally toxic. In birds, clinical effects seen with avocado poisoning include respiratory distress, generalized congestion, and death. Onset of clinical signs usually occurs after 12 hours of ingestion with death occurring within 1-2 days of the time of exposure. Small birds such as canaries and budgies are considered to be more susceptible, however, clinical signs have been observed in other species.
The following is a partial list of plants that have been shown to cause toxicity in small animals. The severity of signs or toxicity of these plants in birds has not been thoroughly studied.
Cardiotoxic (affecting the heart rate and or blood pressure) plants:
Lily of the Valley- Convallaria majalis, Oleander- Nerium oleander, Rhododendron species
Japanese, American, English, and Western Yew- Taxus species
Foxglove- Digitalis purpurea, Kalanchoe species, Kalmia species
Plants that could cause kidney failure:
Rhubarb (Rheum species)- leaves only
Plants that could cause liver failure:
Cycad, Sago, Zamia Palm (Cycad species), Amanita mushrooms
Plants that can cause multi-system effects
Autumn Crocus (Colchicum species), Castor Bean (Ricinus species)
Plants containing Calcium Oxalate Crystals
Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum sp) Calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopiea) Philodendron (Philodendron sp)
Dumb Cane ( Dieffenbachia sp) Mother in Law plant (Monstera sp)Pothos (Epipremnum sp)
Peace lilies, Calla lilies, Philodendrons, Dumb Cane, Mother in Law, Pothos, and a few other types of plants, contain insoluble calcium oxalate crystals. These crystals can cause mechanical irritation of the oral cavity and tongue of birds when plant material is ingested. Clinical signs that are usually include regurgitation, oral pain, swallowing difficulty, and inappetence. The signs are rarely severe and usually respond to supportive care.
Richardson JA, et al: Managing Pet Bird Toxicoses. Exotic DVM, Volume 3.1; March 2001.