Occurrences of heavy-metal toxicity in pet birds may be rare, but pet owners should still know how to prevent it and what to do if it happens.
Parrots’ curious nature and powerful beaks put them at a high risk of being poisoned by toxic substances in their environment. Prevention is key to keeping them healthy, thus bird owners must ensure that their surroundings are as safe as can be.
Parrots use their beak as a way to check out, grasp, play, chew and move objects. This means that anything within reach must be safe for birds to gnaw on and possibly destroy. Parrots have a desire to chew, as it keeps their bill in top shape. Toys that are made for birds are generally very safe, and parrots can benefit from toys made of destructible materials such as wood, which need to be replaced as necessary. Parrots, like puppies, should be given different toys to play with and chomp on, which will help keep them from chewing on other household items or their cages.
When birds chew on things they should not, there is a danger that they will be poisoned. Heavy-metal toxicity—with zinc and lead being the most prevalent poisons in pet birds’ environments—can cause sickness and death in parrots. Although this type of poisoning can come from bird toys or cages, it is extremely rare, as these items are usually safe, as long as they are undamaged and fairly new. However, birds should not be kept in antique cages, for example, as they can have lead-based paint or be made of a toxic metal.
A stainless-steel cage is the safest option for a parrot that loves to chew on its enclosure. It is the most expensive type of cage, but it is also the most durable and very safe to use. Stainless-steel cages are also ideal for larger parrots, which can live for decades and have the most powerful beaks. These cages last a long time without the worry of coatings breaking down or peeling off.
On the other hand, galvanized steel is never safe to use around parrots, as it is coated with zinc to cut down on corrosion.
Undamaged, nickel-plated metals are usually safe to use around parrots. Steel and wrought iron rust easily, making them risky metals to use around parrots. Chrome can contain zinc, making it potentially poisonous—it is also best to avoid brass and copper.
Powder-coated bird cages are usually safe, as long as the coating has no chips or damage that exposes the underlying galvanized wire, which contains zinc. It is very hard for a parrot to get the powder coating off, but stainless steel is still the safest option for a large bird that loves to chew on the cage. Smaller parrot species are usually fine with powder-coated cages, as their beaks are just not as strong. It’s important to remember that the bars on any cage should be strong enough for the species being kept. The cage should also be designed so that the bird cannot get its head through the bars. The same is true of toys—they should be the right size and strength for the type of parrot using them.
If the metal in a bird cage or toy is damaged in the sense that the outside coating is peeling off, chipped or shows any rust, it is best to either get it repaired or throw it out. Note that any items showing white rust—which is caused by zinc—should be tossed out. If you find you need to replace a piece, such as a washer or wingnut for a toy, make sure to buy only stainless steel parts.
Also note that bird owners should never use galvanized dishes for their parrots. Always use plastic, undecorated ceramic or stainless-steel dishes. Be very careful about using padlocks on large parrot cages, as these can be made of toxic metals. If the bird can get to the lock, be sure it is made of stainless steel.
It’s very rare to have any toxicity problems with any parrot cage or toy unless the bird is an overachiever when it comes to chewing. Usually, the poisoning comes from an object that the bird has gotten a hold of in the environment. There are many household items that have a lot of zinc, lead or other toxic metals, even some that are unexpected. These items can include: toothbrushes, keys, weights in curtains, stained glass, PVC, caulk around bathrooms, flooring, costume jewelry, kitchen items, wine/champagne foil and wire, electric and telephone wires and cables, pennies, twist ties, metal clips, fishing weights, rifle bullets and pellets, hangers, non-stainless steel quick links and so on. Thus, it’s best to stick with items made for birds exclusively.
Other things that can lead to heavy-metal poisoning in birds are paints and adhesives, such as those used in duct tape, paper-towel rolls, hardware and flooring, and other strong glue agents. Varnishes and stains can have toxic metals in them, so birds should not be allowed to chew on any wood that is not in a bird toy.
Symptoms of heavy-metal toxicosis in birds include weakness, instability, lethargy, extreme thirst leading to an abnormal amount of liquid urine in feces, diarrhea, loss of appetite, seizures or death. If you catch a bird chewing on a toxic metal substance or suspect that a bird has been poisoned by heavy metals, get it to the bird veterinarian immediately. There are ways to treat poisoning, but the bird must be treated as soon as possible to survive.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.