By Dr. Jeanne Smith, DVM Avian Health Services
There are many items, which can be found in or around the home, which can be hazardous to birds, especially the hookbills with their tendency to chew. This article will focus on the more commonly encountered toxic substances.
Carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur from exposure to exhaust from cars, in garages, trunks of cars, or from airplanes if birds are left out on a platform or baggage cart near running planes. Signs include labored breathing, bright red mucus membranes and sudden death. Treatment consists of fresh air and supplemental oxygen.
Polytetrafluoroethylene. Most bird owners are aware of this hazard that occurs when surfaces coated with fluoropolymer are overheated. Non-stick cookware, some heat lamp bulbs (those manufactured for use in the food industry), some self-cleaning ovens, and some irons are coated with fluoropolymer. I think it's safest to not operate the self-cleaning mode on an oven with birds in the house, as you sometimes don't know if your oven has fluoropolymer coating or not. Signs of polytetrafluoroethylene toxicity include labored breathing, neurological signs, and sudden death. Most exposures are deadly before action can be taken, but if possible, get the bird into fresh air and get on supplemental oxygen as soon as possible.
Chlorine. Exposure to chlorine fumes can come from spilled or poorly diluted chlorine, especially pool chemicals. Clinical signs include sneezing and eye irritation. Treatment is fresh air and eyewash.
Ammonia. Exposure can be from spilled or poorly diluted household ammonia. The signs include labored breathing and sudden death. Sub lethal exposure to ammonia fumes can damage the lining of the trachea, making the bird more susceptible to respiratory infections. This damage generally takes about 2-3 weeks to repair itself once exposure to ammonia is eliminated.
Aerosol Sprays. Propellant gasses in many aerosols are toxic to birds. Birds should be removed from any area where aerosols will be used and not returned to the area for at least a couple of hours.
Silicates. Silicates are fine crystalline particles that may be found in such things as peat moss or agricultural dust. Signs consist of labored breathing. Beware of dusty nest box materials. Agricultural dust may be a problem in some areas at certain times of the year. Enclosing aviaries and filtering the incoming air may provide a solution in those areas.
Smoke. Acute smoke inhalation such as occurs during a fire causes severe difficulty breathing. It must be treated immediately with fresh air and supplemental oxygen and anti-inflammatory drugs as soon as possible. Chronic smoke inhalation as occurs with very smoky environments where owners smoke tobacco products causes a more chronic respiratory condition. Birds may develop open-mouthed breathing, increased depth and rate of respiration, wheezing. Severe cases need to be treated as for smoke inhalation. Less severe cases just need to be kept in a smoke-free environment.
Lead. Lead can be found in fishing weights, some toys with weights, curtain weights, stained glass framing, solder, poorly galvanized wire, poorly dipped wrought iron, foils on champagne bottles, linoleum, old paint and grout, light bulb bases, and in an odd assortment of decorations or ornaments. Signs of lead toxicity can include vomiting, depression, anorexia, diarrhea, increased thirst and urination, seizures and other neurologic signs. Treatment for lead poisoning consists of chelating the lead with injectable or oral medications, supportive care, and surgical removal of larger foreign objects from the gastrointestinal tract (usually the gizzard).
Zinc. Zinc occurs in a lot more household items than lead because it doesn't have the human hazards that lead does. It is still used in outdoor paints, especially white ones, it is used as one of the metals in many alloys used to manufacture hardware. Galvanized wire is coated with zinc. Galvanized wire used to make bird cages should be acid washed prior to use (zinc toxicosis is also referred to as "New Wire Disease"). Cages that have lumps and bumps in the galvanized coating or that are showing "white rust" (consisting of zinc oxide, a very readily absorbed form of zinc) should not be used for birds. Zinc also occurs in the metal wire in twist ties and other wires that are very flexible and cheap. Signs of toxicosis can range from the same signs as seen with lead poisoning or can manifest as weight loss, crop stasis, undigested food in the feces, and even certain types of feather picking. It can mimic Macaw Wasting Syndrome (PDD). Treatment is the same as for lead toxicosis, although many case of zinc toxicosis resolve just from eliminating exposure.
Cigarettes. Nicotine in tobacco can cause labored breathing, depression, and death when ingested by birds. If the ingestion just happened, treatment to move things through the gastrointestinal tract and activated charcoal are given. Nitrates. Nitrates are found in fertilizers. Clinical signs are similar to lead poisoning. The treatment regime is the same as for lead.
Alcohol. Alcoholic beverages can cause depression and regurgitation in birds.
Mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are produced by certain kinds of fungi. Moldy feeds, especially peanuts, corn, walnuts, bread, cheese, beans and meats can carry mycotoxins. Nuts and grains which meet human food grad requirements are much less of a threat than animal food grade or field grade products. Nesting materials such as corn cob, walnut shell, or almond hulls are also at risk, especially if they are allowed to become moist. Signs of mycotoxicosis include depression, anorexia, increased thirst and urination, yellowish urine and urates. Some mycotoxins attack the liver, some attack the kidneys. Supportive care for whatever tissue damage that is occurring should also be given.
Organophosphates and carbamates. Many household pesticides contain some form of these. Toxicity can occur from inhalation, ingestion, or even topical contact. Clinical signs include difficulty breathing, uncoordinated movements, weakness, anorexia, diarrhea, tremors, and/or seizures. Passerines seem more susceptible than psittacines. Treatment consists of supportive care, activated charcoal if ingested, and emergency symptomatic treatment in severe cases (treatments to stop seizures or to support respiration).
Rodenticides. The most commonly used rodenticides are anti-coagulants. Clinical signs of toxicosis may be bleeding from the mouth, nose, or vent, bruising. Treatment consists of treatments of vitamin K1.
There are a multitude of other household products that are potentially hazardous to birds which have not been reported or that birds rarely come in contact with. The best rule of thumb is to prevent your birds from coming in contact (inhaled, ingested, or topical) with anything you do not know to be safe. Before using unknown product, remove the birds from the area and do not return them to the area of several hours. Always be mindful of what a bird could get into and either do not leave them out of their cage unattended or have the cage in a bird-proofed room.