I had just been to a conference on avian medicine and was excited about all the new information I had learned. By chance, I got to examine a sick blue-fronted Amazon parrot a few days after my return from the conference. 'Bobby' was showing abnormalities of his nervous system. He was not eating well, and was depressed and lethargic. He had trouble walking, and also had a watery green diarrhea. Understandably, the owner was very concerned.
There were many possible causes of the parrot's symptoms. The owner and I talked about the possibilities and discussed the environment in which the bird lived. The bird lived in a pet store and was exposed to a lot of other animals and people from whom he could have acquired an infection. No other birds in the store, however, were showing any signs of illness. He could have developed a tumor in his brain or spinal cord, but he was a young bird and this would have been quite unusual. He could have flown into a window, or otherwise caused injury to his brain, although the owner was not aware of any trauma. He could have eaten something toxic, but the owner was very careful about keeping any toxic cleaners or chemicals stored in tight containers and away from the animals in the store. What was causing the symptoms?
The parrot had the symptoms of lead poisoning, but since I had just listened to a lecture on lead poisoning at the conference, I thought that would be too much of a coincidence. Still, the possibility of lead poisoning kept nagging me. The owner and I discussed the possibility of lead poisoning, but she said she knew all the paint on the walls and woodwork of the store did not contain lead. She could think of no other possible source. I suggested to the owner that we should take an x-ray of the bird anyway, just to make sure. Lead would be very obvious on a x-ray and show up as white against a black or grey background.
We took the bird to the x-ray room, and took the x-ray. Lo and behold; after we developed the x-ray we saw small bright white irregular shapes in the bird's gizzard. It certainly looked like lead poisoning was the answer, but how did the bird end up swallowing pieces of lead? The owner didn't have a clue, but said she'd check her store thoroughly to try to find the answer. It was extremely important to find the source because I wanted to make sure this bird, the other animals in the store, and the owner were not going to be further exposed to lead.
We started treating the bird for lead poisoning, which includes several types of therapies. Over the following days we needed to give the bird multiple injections of a chemical called 'calcium disodium versonate' which helps bind the lead, makes it less toxic, and helps the bird's kidneys eliminate it from the body. Surprisingly, another therapy for lead poisoning in a bird is peanut butter! The peanut butter coats the lead and helps it move through the digestive system and be deposited in the feces. We also needed to give supportive care to the bird.
After several days the bird was responding well to the treatment, but we still didn't know where he had found the lead. Then, a week later I got a call from the extremely excited owner. She had found the source of the lead! In some of her aquariums she had weighted some of the plants down with small pieces of lead to keep them in position. The parrot loved to pull the plants out of the aquariums. After pulling the plants out, the bird evidently played with the small lead pieces and swallowed some of them.
Happily the bird fully recovered, the source of the lead was removed, and the peanut butter saved the day!!