What is toxic to pet birds?

What is toxic to pet birds? Including parrots, budgies, parakeets, finches, cockatiels, lovebirds, amazons, macaws, cockatoos, and conures. – By Dr. Nemetz from the Bird Clinic

There are many common toxins found in our homes. These will include:

Acute – fast-acting fatal toxins.

Chronic – long-term but deadly toxins.

Birds do not know what is safe. They eat things based on familiarity, not taste.

A fatty diet of pet birds:

When fats are consumed in excess over many years, they can be very toxic to birds. Birds do need more “calories” than mammals based on body weight, but 30-50% should be high-quality carbohydrates. Any excess fat the body cannot utilize is either stored in the millions of liver cells or recirculated in the bloodstream.

Liver problems:

Chronic over-ingestion of fats overloads the liver and the liver gradually degenerates and becomes unable to perform its many important body functions. Symptoms of eventual liver failure can be sudden with the only symptoms being death or severe weakness, paralysis, or seizures. “Hepatic Lipidosis”, meaning Fatty Liver, is one of the most common presentations in birds as young as three years of age. In chronic conditions, one might notice a more rapidly growing beak/nails or even necrosis (death) of the beak tissue. If a bird needs its beak trimmed there is most likely a liver problem!

Fatty tumors:

Excess circulating fat can also create fatty tumors which carry a high blood volume, taxing the circulatory system and which, if traumatized, can bleed profusely. This condition is common in budgies, cockatiels, amazons, macaws, and some species of cockatoos.

Blocking of vessels:

Atherosclerosis (blocking of vessels) also exists in birds with the associated heart maladies and circulatory problems that affect almost any organ in the body and the related symptoms. The BIRD Clinic has confirmed these conditions in several species upon necropsy. Research by Dr. Nemetz using blood triglycerides/cholesterol in combination with Ultrasound examination can help diagnose these problems much earlier than in the past as well as treated/managed to extend the bird’s life in a quality way.

ALCOHOL is toxic to pet birds

This includes hard liquor, wine, and beer. Alcohol is very destructive to the liver. With a bird’s high metabolic rate and the ability to ingest a much higher volume compared to its body weight, liver failure occurs in a VERY short period of time. Yes, birds like the taste of beer, but the outcome is not a good one.

TOBACCO PRODUCTS is toxic to pet birds

This includes cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, marijuana, CBD oil, etc. Both the products themselves and the smoke can be deadly to birds. Chronic sinusitis, lung disease, allergic dermatitis (feather picking), heart disease, and acute liver pathology have all been confirmed in birds housed with smokers. Tobacco residues on one’s hands can even be transferred to the bird’s feathers during petting and later be ingested during the normal daily preening behaviors. The BIRD Clinic has seen cases where toxicity has occurred in less than one year from exposure. Birds are migratory animals with a very efficient respiratory system.

In any given breath a bird can extract 70% MORE air particulate than a human. This fact, in addition to a bird’s increased respiratory rate, makes birds very susceptible to any airborne toxin. Remember the story of the: “Canary in the coal mine”? The miners did not smell the toxic fumes as the canary died.

AVOCADOS is toxic to pet birds

In 1989, a research group performed a study to define avocado’s toxic role in birds. The findings demonstrated that this fruit is DEFINITELY TOXIC. Budgerigars were most susceptible with 6 out of 8 birds dying within 47 hours after the ingestion of one drop from a 1:10 dilution mixture. Avocados had already been shown to be toxic to cattle, goats, horses, rabbits, and mice. The BIRD Clinic’s recommendation is to NEVER feed any part of the fruit (meat, skin, pit, oil) or tree to your animals. The toxicity is unpredictable.

Death is caused by kidney failure and there is no antidote except intravenous fluid dilution and supportive care. The BIRD Clinic has only saved two birds from ingestion of this fruit in thirty-three years.

CAFFEINE AND DERIVATIVES

Chocolate, soda pop, cocoa, coffee, and tea containing caffeine and/or its structurally similar compounds tend to affect the body muscles, including the heart, with signs such as restlessness, vomiting, or hyperactivity with more severe signs of a drunken-like appearance, muscle tremors, cyanosis, seizures and possibly death from cardiac or respiratory collapse. This toxic group is dose-related, so just because your animal ingested one of these products and did not appear to show any of the above symptoms, does not mean it could not be more serious the next time. Again, the only treatment is supportive with a questionable prognosis.

LEAD or “PLUMBISM”

The toxicity of lead is well documented. Sources include lead-based paints, drywall joint compound (2021), lead shot, solder, bird toys (containing lead weights), linoleum, costume jewelry, beads, ceramics, curtain weights, stained glass windows, Tiffany lamps, glitter from trendy clothes, Christmas ornaments, and foil from the top of wine bottles. Very small amounts (< 1mm) are sufficient to create toxicity. Lead adversely affects all body systems. South American species, particularly amazons and macaws, are acutely sensitive to lead poisoning. Signs usually show up only 1-2 days after ingestion, but proceed rapidly and can lead to death within 48 hours. Symptoms can be vague but usually have a sudden onset, with one day the bird acting fine and the next day demonstrating weakness, anorexia (not eating), or other neurological symptoms. If a bird suddenly regurgitates and becomes lethargic, one should seek veterinary attention immediately and request a radiographic evaluation. Time is critical once symptoms manifest themselves.

Antidotes are available to control the symptoms, and then further medical or surgical therapy can be undertaken. A very serious problem has arisen in the last several years of the ingestion of lead-based Swarovski-like crystals. These small crystals (and the like) that are attached to shirts, fingernails, cell phones, and to “bling” up many products are extremely toxic and a rapid diagnosis, therapy, and removal are critical to the survival of these patients. These crystals do not release lead into the bloodstream so blood lead tests will not indicate a toxic condition. Only radiographs (x-rays) can find these very characteristically shaped crystals. Birds can die very quickly from internal hemorrhaging. Surgical intervention in most cases, once the crystals are identified, is the bird’s only chance for survival.

ZINC is toxic to pet birds

Zinc poisoning has become the most common toxicity in pet bird medicine and is very often underdiagnosed. The symptoms can occur within a few days after ingestion or there have been documented cases at the clinic where the symptoms occurred over ten years after ingestion of the zinc-containing product. Because so many products contain zinc as a component, clinical symptoms are quite variable and dependent on the quantity ingested, the concentration of zinc, and the species of bird. In 2020 The BIRD Clinic diagnosed over 80 cases of zinc poisoning with symptoms ranging from feather picking, regurgitation, lameness, mental aberrations, marked depression, and sometimes death. If your bird is a heavy chewer, replace all galvanized hardware with stainless steel as a precaution. A little prevention could save your bird’s life. Cockatoo species seem most capable of chipping off metal objects and ingesting them.

Common sources of zinc:

  • Paint primers on powder-coated cages, especially cages produced pre-1995
  • The bronze coating on metals
  • Hardware to manufacturer shoes and boots (nails, clasps, key chains)
  • Galvanized products (the brighter the metal, the higher the zinc level)
  • Anodized aluminum windows or any anodized surface
  • Costume jewelry and sequins
  • All portions of metal zippers (the zipper “keys” are one of the most commonly ingested items)
  • Many hardware products, metal washers, bolts, screws, etc.
  • Post-1982 pennies (96-98% zinc with a copper coating)
  • “Hot spots” in colored food pellets (The BIRD Clinic recommends natural colored products)
  • Many forms of rubber products (white ink erasers)
  • Concrete and tile grouting
  • Stucco (especially in our poultry/duck patients)
  • Rusted steel bars from any cage along with Iron toxicity

OTHER HEAVY METALS

Various other metals are also toxic to birds. CADMIUM: Recently has been seen in some toys produced in China. Cadmium is extremely toxic with very minute quantities capable of causing death. TIN: Found in aluminum foil, gum wrappers, and cans. There is no antidote. Death can occur in under 72hrs without surgical removal. COPPER: Certain toys, old pennies, designer furniture, and home electrical cords. Symptoms are similar to zinc toxicosis. There is a blood test for this toxin. IRON: Found in rusted steel products, especially from old cages that have rusted and degraded.

In recent years we have seen more of this and often it triggers neurologic signs, and vision loss, but blood testing for heavy metals is negative, there is a test for iron now but expensive. Medical therapies only help temporarily, so surgery is usually required to remedy these cases. This is why radiographs are so important. One must be very careful what a bird has access to in your house. Birds should never be allowed to “free-range” in a home. It takes a bird less than 6 seconds to fly down and ingest an object from the floor. There are so many toxic metal-containing objects including just rocks. REMEMBER: All rocks come from the earth and all metal toxins are contained in rocks.

TEFLON® VAPORS are toxic to pet birds

When “non-stick” cookery (Teflon®, Silverstone®, etc.) is heated above a critical temperature (530 degrees F) an invisible, odorless vapor is emitted. The irritating vapors accumulate in the lungs causing fluid production and subsequent anoxia (lack of oxygen) with the only sign often being acute death sometimes within 1-5 minutes. Birds seem to be highly sensitive to this toxin compared to other animals or humans.

The critical temperature is usually not obtained during the “normal” cooking processes but is often reached when pans are used for searing meat or when using Teflon®-coated Chinese woks or electric skillets (cookware that has thermostats). Oven liners have also been the cause of death in some of our patients. To be safe, never keep your bird in/near the kitchen and be aware of which products contain Teflon®. Also, bathrooms are not safe locations as some curling irons have Teflon coatings as well as fumes from hair sprays, colognes, and perfumes can be deadly (see household chemicals).

SIMPLE SUGARS

Foods like sweet rolls, danish, candy, glazed products, and even oversized portions of sweet fruits, or fruit cocktails have caused acute toxicity or even death in some patients presented to The BIRD Clinic. Dr.Nemetz sees at least one case every month. The cause stems from the simple sugars causing a fermenting process in the lower bowel and a change from an aerobic (with oxygen) environment to an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment. A bacteria (Clostridium perfringens) already existing in the small intestines proliferates under anaerobic conditions and then creates a toxin that can cause quick illness (<24hrs), shock, and/or even death if selective antibiotic and fluid therapy is not rapidly administered. Apples, grapes, and melons are often given to birds for no dietary reason other than “they like it” and birds, unfortunately, have an affinity for these sweet types of foods so BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL as these could be the cause of a life-threatening condition.

ACIDIC FOODS

Another observed cause of toxicity in avian species is foods with a relatively low pH (acidity). Examples are oranges (citrus), raspberries, blackberries, granny smith tart apples, pineapple, or tomatoes. Small birds are again more susceptible since this is dose related. The symptoms are similar to sugar toxicity; however, in one case of an umbrella cockatoo that ingested tomatoes, it literally vomited fresh blood from the stomach ulcers caused by the acidity. This happened several times, but luckily the cause was found and the bird is symptom-free today. When ingested, acidic foods lower the pH in the crop and slow or stop the crop’s normal function as a passageway to the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract. This leads to the absorption of “normal” toxic food by-products, causing dehydration, depression, regurgitation, shock, and sometimes death.

PLANTS

Some SAFE plants if dried include eucalyptus, pine, oak, Manzanita, and fir. Plants TOXIC to birds include Japanese Yew, Philodendron, Oleander, Poinsettia, Dumb Cane, Redwood, Bird of Paradise, Mistletoe, Nightshade, and Ground-cherry. People do not think the seeds/pits of fruits such as apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, or papayas are toxic but are in fact quite dangerous.

CHEESE is toxic to pet birds

There has been much debate and discussion about whether cheese is good or bad for birds. There is even controversy in the veterinary community. However, because of the numerous cases of extremely ill birds (or death) due to the ingestion of cheese or dairy products seen at The BIRD Clinic, we STRONGLY recommend NEVER feeding cheese/dairy products to any pet bird. The facts are:

1. Birds are lactose intolerant, not nursing animals, and are agreed upon by all of the veterinary community.

2. Most cheese is made with various gums that give it shape and texture and is non-digestible.

3. Symptoms can be mild or unnoticed because of the small quantity ingested, but still impairs the health of the bird by causing a varying degree of gastrointestinal inflammation.

The reason we believe there is still a debate is that there is a poor history of the foods being fed, the overlap of symptoms with other toxic agents, the fact birds have eaten cheese and “seem” healthy, and the confusion in the literature. Very few clinics in the world see as many pet birds as The BIRD Clinic sees each year or has the capacity to diagnose and manage these cases. PLEASE DO NOT FEED CHEESE/DAIRY PRODUCTS and PLEASE TELL OTHERS.

HOUSEHOLD CHEMICALS that are toxic to pet birds

As mentioned earlier, birds are highly sensitive to airborne products and many still remember miners taking a canary into the coal mines. The canary (known as a “sentinel bird”), which is highly sensitive to toxic gases, would expire before any workers could notice the odor, and thus would alarm the miners of impending danger in time to escape the mine. Today’s birds are in danger from many household cleaners, especially those with any phenol derivatives (Pine-Sol®, Lysol®, etc.), which are extremely toxic. Also be aware of toxicity from bleach (chlorine gas), ammonia, perfumes, and ingestion of rubbing alcohol.

Construction fumes (for example, the “breathing” of treated wood or new carpet glue) and especially the fumes from painting (even one room on the other end of the house) have led to many emergencies at The BIRD Clinic. Oil-based paints are worse than water-based paints, with the danger lasting a longer time, but again, toxicity is based on the quantity of toxin, species of bird, and duration of exposure. Fragrances found in candles and many hand lotions have also caused death in birds as well as plug-in fresheners and frebreze®. When in doubt, call our clinic for specific recommendations or remove the bird from the premises and ventilate well with fans that exhaust the fumes from the house.

VENTILATION

This is not a toxin, but a lack of good ventilation in a home can cause immunosuppression in a bird and make it more susceptible to illness. With the goal of more efficient homes, newer homes are better insulated, but are also better “sealed”. This is good for overall energy conservation BUT increases the risk to pet birds if airborne toxins exist. There are always fungal spores in our air and environment, so if a bird becomes immunosuppressed (through poor diet and poor ventilation) these spores can invade a bird’s respiratory tract and cause severe disease. The number of cases seen at The BIRD Clinic has increased dramatically since 2007 and in 2020 we see a case every week. We believe the better building codes are one contributory factor to this situation. Cures were very rare until 2008 when a new antifungal drug was discovered for humans. A professor at the North Carolina Veterinary College analyzed the drug to establish therapeutic levels in birds and then Dr. Nemetz worked with him to establish a treatment protocol.

The success rate is now very high, but still very long in duration (6+ months) and very expensive. It is a good idea to well ventilate a house at least once a week, use HEPA air filters around the birds, along with feeding an excellent balanced diet.

CONCLUSION

This has been an overview of the many toxic compounds that a bird might be exposed to when it lives in our homes. If your bird ingests any of these products or suddenly does not seem right, contact your avian veterinarian immediately as only a one-day delay may make the difference between life and death!

You can visit The Bird Clinic at:

https://www.thebirdclinic.com/

Here is a list of food items that is toxic to dogs:

https://www.worldwidepets.online/blog/food-that-can-kill-your-dog/

If you found this blog post, What is toxic to pet birds? helpful, you might also like:

https://www.wwbirds.co.za/dir/parrot-medication/

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