Testing for Zinc in Parrot Toys, Play Gyms and Cages
Originally Published in Companion Parrot Quarterly, Issue #53, Summer 2001
Last fall, I became concerned that our new baby Timneh African Grey parrot Scooter might have come down with zinc poising. His symptoms were consistent with this diagnosis – lethargy, loss of appetite, excessive urination, and diarrhea. And his favorite thing to chew on is the metal parts of toys or the quick link connectors that fasten the toys to his cage or play gym. It turned out that he was fine, but I started to wonder how prevalent zinc was in parrot toys and play gyms. Before I talk about how to test for zinc in parrot toys and play gyms, it is worth briefly talking about the problem of zinc toxicity (also called zinc toxicosis) in pet birds. (It should also be noted that dogs are also quite susceptible to zinc poisoning, usually from swallowing metal parts that are coated with zinc.)
Zinc is a heavy metal that is used to coat iron or steel in a process called galvanization to prevent rust. Galvanized wire and toy parts are common sources of zinc. Unfortunately, parrots are often drawn to shiny objects. They also have a lot of spare time to play with, suck on, chew, and destroy anything within reach.
Signs and symptoms of zinc toxicity can be very similar to other illnesses. The bird just feels bad and may regurgitate, have diarrhea, excess urination, reduced appetite, and lose weight. The birds can become anemic and develop a bluish coloration due to lack of oxygen. In severe cases, the bird can become week and develop seizures. Feather picking can also result. Feather color changes can also occur.
Diagnosis of zinc toxicity is done by a combination of x-rays and blood tests for zinc levels. In some cases the x-rays may show metal present in the bird’s digestive tract. Most laboratory values are normal with zinc toxicity, which may lead to an incorrect diagnosis of a “mild infection”. Treatment is often with injections, followed later by an oral drug to bind and remove the zinc. This is known as chelation therapy. A laxative may also be used to help remove the metal by flushing the digestive tract. If caught early, treatment is usually successful.
The issue of zinc toxicity is very controversial within the avian community. Some vets feel that the problem is under-diagnosed and there are a significant number of cases of zinc toxicity that are diagnosed as other problems, especially by non-avian vets. On the other hand, other vets feel that there is little evidence that the problem occurs with any significant frequency. This article does not take a stand on this important issue and I feel that this is an appropriate topic for discussion with your avian vet. The focus of this article is to provide information on how to test for zinc in parrot toys if you are concerned with this issue and what to do if you do find zinc coated metal parts on your parrot’s toys, play gyms, or cages.
The first question you need to ask yourself is whether or not you even want to deal with the potential problem of zinc coated metal parts. If your bird does not chew on the metal parts of toys, then you don’t have a problem even if the toy parts are zinc coated. I am not a fanatic on this issue – my budgie, Billy, does not chew on metal toy parts and I have chosen to leave his play toys and play gyms unchanged, even though I know that many of his toys contain zinc plated parts.
There are many great parrot toys on the market that are either constructed of wood, plastic, and leather parts only or are made entirely with stainless steel. There is a partial list of companies that sell only parrot safe toys at the end of this article, as well as some companies that sell stainless steel components you can use to reduce or eliminate the potential problem. For example, if you have a play gym that has screw eyes to fasten toys, it is very likely that the screw eyes themselves are zinc coated. Rather than go through the potentially dangerous process of testing the screw eyes for zinc, it probably makes much more sense to simply replace the screw eyes with stainless steel screw eyes from one of the companies listed at the end of this article. Another easy to deal with problem is quick links. If you are unsure whether or not the quick links used to fasten the toys to the cage or play gym are safe, you can replace the quick links with stainless steel quick links. This can get fairly pricey however if you have a lot of quick links to replace. Another very easy and very cheap alternative to quick links is to buy inexpensive cable ties from a hardware store. These typically come in bags of 10 to 100 ties and are very inexpensive. The disadvantage is that the ties are not reusable: if you need to move a toy, you will need to cut the tie and replace it with a new one.
One cautionary note on cable ties: many of the larger parrots can easily chew through nylon cable ties and potentially swallow the resulting small pieces. If your bird is a chewer, you should avoid the use of cable ties and stay with stainless steel quick links. In any case, if you do choose to use nylon cable ties, be sure to make sure that the resulting loop is small enough so that it doesn’t become a hazard to your bird.
Parrot cages are available in a wide variety of finishes. The most common finishes are chrome, brass, painted metal, powder coated metal, and stainless steel. Stainless steel cages are completely safe, but are substantially more expensive than other options. Many powder coated cages come from major manufacturers and are fairly expensive. It is my understanding that the powder coating used in these cages is zinc free and even if your bird chews the powder coating off the metal, the steel underneath is not zinc plated. That makes powder coated cages a good choice.
When you get a small parrot cage from a pet store, you are much more likely to find cages that are either painted metal, or brass, or chrome plated. Unfortunately, the methods described below cannot be used to test for zinc in either painted or powder coat cages. I am looking into ways to test paint for zinc, but have not yet determined a simple way to do this. It is worth noting, however, that even if there is a small amount of zinc in the paint; this is not as bad as zinc plated metals which are essentially pure zinc.
Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Cages that are brass plated will tarnish over time and since the plating is not too strong, it can easily be chewed off by an aggressive parrot. While the zinc content is lower in a brass plated cage than a zinc plated cage, brass plated cages should be avoided.
Chrome plated cages can either be nickel or zinc plated. As described later in this article, it can be difficult to tell by looking at the plating. If you have a chrome plated cage, I recommend testing it for zinc using the methods described below. I would be especially concerned if the cage is “home made” by a small shop since they are much less likely to be aware of the zinc problem than a large, reputable manufacturer.
Depending on whom you purchased your toys or play gyms from, you may already have safe toys. Testing for stainless steel is very easy. Take a magnet and see if the quick link, screw eye, chain, metal wire, etc. is attracted to the magnet. Stainless steel is not magnetic, so if the metal part does not stick to magnet, the odds are very good that the part is stainless steel and is completely safe for your bird. Note, however, that some lower grades of stainless steel are slightly magnetic. They will be attracted to a magnet but not at all like a regular steel part. So far the only parts I have seen which have this property are some metal o-rings I purchased to fix some toys.
One cautionary note however: while I haven’t yet seen any toys made with aluminum parts, it is possible that some toys are made with aluminum wire or rings. Aluminum is also not magnetic. I am not aware of any safety problems with aluminum and birds, but since I am not qualified to address this issue, I would suggest either discussing this issue with your avian vet or avoiding aluminum if possible. Stainless steel and aluminum look very different. Typically stainless steel has a fairly bright finish (although not as shiny as some chrome plated metals), while aluminum is usually a dull color. Also, aluminum is very soft. You can easily scratch aluminum with a knife while stainless steel will be very scratch resistant.
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