Birds can be like toddlers: They are both very oral and like to check things out by putting them in their mouths. Just like children, when pet birds are out unsupervised, this habit of tasting things can get them into trouble. As an avian veterinarian, I treat birds every week for getting into toxic substances. Though some foods and objects are clearly potentially toxic to birds, there are others that might not be so obvious. Also, what may be toxic to one bird species may not be to another. Despite some variability in species susceptibility to certain toxins, as well as a lack of scientific studies proving the toxicity of certain substances in birds that are definitely toxic to mammals, there are some items to which birds should never have access. Here are perhaps the top 10 toxins for which I treat bird patients in my veterinary practice.
1. Heavy Metals, Especially Lead, Zinc and Copper
Metals are everywhere in our environments and are an often overlooked source of toxicity in pet birds. Metals can be found in paint, linoleum, soldering, wire, zippers, twist ties and many other objects on which birds love to chew. Even some older bird toys, especially the clappers on metal bells, have been found to contain lead. Birds who may chip away over time at a lead-painted windowsill, lick a metal bell toy, nibble on the soldering of a stained glass Tiffany lamp or chew on a metal zipper are constantly ingesting heavy metals and can potentially become intoxicated. When ingested in large enough quantities, these metals can damage nerves and cause vomiting, maldigestion, neurologic signs, such as imbalance and clenched toes and even seizures. Most cases of heavy metal toxicity in birds are treatable if they are diagnosed early enough before permanent nerve damage has occurred. However, these metals are not routinely tested for in birds unless the owner indicates that his or her bird has been exposed. So, if you think your bird may have ingested any of these substances, speak up to your veterinarian immediately, as it could be the difference between life and death.
Several parts of the avocado plant, but especially the leaves, contain a fatty acid derivative called persin, which has been reported to cause heart failure, respiratory distress and sudden death in a variety of bird species. It is possible that some varieties of avocado are safe for some bird species, such as Lories, who have been fed avocado without problems. However, no one is sure what types of avocado are okay for which species, so it’s better to be safe and not offer your bird the guacamole.
Caffeine may be a pick-me-up for you but a definite downer for your bird. Caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea and soda are tempting to share with your bird, but even a few sips of these beverages can be extremely hazardous to your feathered pal. Caffeine may cause increased heart rate, arrhythmias, hyperactivity and even cardiac arrest in birds. So stick to water and occasional sips of safe fruit drinks, such as apple or cranberry juice, and keep him heart healthy.