Vets prove their mettle in bird care

Heavy metal — it’s not to everyone’s taste. At Robson and Prescott we have had evidence that, even if you do find it appealing, it can be decidedly dangerous for you.

I’m not referring to Iron Maiden, Metallica or AC/DC, but rather lead, zinc and iron. Heavy-metal poisoning can present a real risk to livestock and pets.

All farm vets of a certain generation would recognise the symptoms of the blind and colicking bullock as lead poisoning and question the farmer as to where they disposed of tractor batteries, or if the cattle might have access to gates covered with lead-based paints.

More recently, it has been patients of the feathered variety that have presented with symptoms.

First was a harris hawk called Boomer. He was bright and alert, but with an inability to stand on apparently paralysed legs. A clinical workup confirmed lead poisoning and suspicion of the source lay with the feeding of rabbit, which had been shot with lead pellets.

Next, was a very poorly scarlet macaw named Trevor (confusing for a girl).

Trevor had stopped talking and eating, was incredibly weak and was producing luminous green faeces. A tentative diagnosis of heavy-metal poisoning was made and later supported by blood tests indicating grossly elevated blood levels of zinc.

The source was more difficult to establish, but suspicion fell on the galvanised zipper of the owner’s old work coat with which Trevor appeared fixated.

The most unusual case was a depressed toucan, famed by the old Guinness advert. Never has an advertising campaign been less appropriate. The slogan ‘Guinness is good for you’ because it is a fabled source of iron is ironic as the toucan is prone to dropping down dead if exposed to any foodstuff containing even a trace of iron.

Thankfully, we were able to intervene before the liver poisoning became irreversible. We offered advice regarding suitable feeding.

Two swans and a heron were presented with lead poisoning by the RSPCA, each had swallowed lead weights discarded by anglers. In the case of the heron and one of the swans, the weights were visible on X-ray and were removed endoscopically. X-rays of the other swan failed to identify a source, but lead poisoning was confirmed by blood tests.

In all but one of the cases, the patient made an excellent recovery, albeit with a much stricter diet in the case of the toucan.

The heron, unfortunately, died. It had collapsed, was unresponsive and despite removal of the lead source, a drip and injections to help rid its bloodstream of toxins, it didn’t pull through. A sad but salient reminder that a taste for heavy metal is sometimes bad for your health.

Sam Prescott, Director and Senior Vet