Lead poisoning is a serious sometimes fatal condition in chickens, caused by ingestion of small lead objects or lead-contaminated soil, while scratching outside. Since lead poisoning affects multiple body systems it often results in variable, non-specific clinical signs. Lead concentrations up to 300 ppm are considered "safe", however natural non-toxic levels are between 10-50 ppm.
Lead is a very dense metal and a strong neurotoxin. If ingested, since the metal is so dense and not easily oxidized, it will remain in the chicken's gastrointestinal tract, and slowly get absorbed and released into the bloodsteam. Once in the bloodstream, lead will:
- Damage red blood cells, interfering with the ability to transport oxygen to other parts of the body (causing anemia).
- Interfere with the chicken's ability to absorb calcium, leading to hypocalcemia.
Lead poisoning can present in chickens as acute or chronic form, depending on the extent of exposure or quantity of lead ingested. When chickens ingest high amounts of lead in a short period of time it is called acute lead toxicity. Exposure or ingestion to small amounts of lead over a long period of time is called chronic toxicity.
- Acute toxicity: Chickens that develop acute lead toxicity or poisoning will often present with sudden onset of muscle weakness, loss of appetite, marked weight loss, ataxia, drop in egg production and severe anemia.
- Chronic toxicity: Chronic lead toxicity may eventually result in degeneration of motor nerves in the chicken's spinal cord and axonal loss in the peripheral nerves. Muscle atrophy and myodegeneration are often also present.
Common Sources of Lead
Common sources of lead exposure for chickens include:
- Contaminated soil: There are many ways that soil can become contaminated with lead. Soil located on the side of the road of busy streets is frequently contaminated with lead, since lead was an ingredient in gasoline until the late 1970s. Soil that surrounds older painted structures, as lead-based paint may still be in the soil adjacent the building. The land could also contain lead contaminated waste (batteries, asphalt products, leaded gasoline, lead shot, putty, and spent oil) which may be above or buried within the soil. Any vegetation that grows on the soil will be contaminated with lead, making the vegetation hazardous to chickens who frequently seek out forage to eat when free ranging in grass.
- Contaminated water: Water can become contaminated with lead if it flows through old lead pipes or faucets--which was common during pre-1978 days.
- Contaminated food: Food that is stored or left for long periods of time in ceramic glazed bowls or glass (especially for red and yellow shades), or imported from countries that use lead to seal canned food.
- Curtain weights
- Golf balls
- Foil from champagne bottles
- Stained glass
- Shotgun pellets
- Fishing weights, including jig heads
- Improperly glazed ceramic
- Antique or imported metal cages
- Building materials: Lead is used as architectural metals in roofing material, cladding, flashing, gutters and gutter joints, and on roof parapets.
- Sound dampening materials: Sheet-lead is used as a sound deadening layer in the walls, floors, and ceilings of sound studios.
Additional Concerns for Humans
Lead poisoning also posses a threat to humans, especially young children, since lead is also deposited into the hen's eggs. Consumption of lead can cause brain damage, high blood pressure, miscarriages, and behavioral problems in children.
How Lead Poisoning is Diagnosed
Lead poisoning is diagnosed by blood testing for the presence of lead. Amounts of 11 u/dL and above are indicative of toxicity. In some cases, lead particles may be seen in radiographs, however not in all cases.
Documented Lead Poisoning Cases in Poultry
|Affected||History||Clinical signs||Diagnostic Findings||Tests used||Ref|
|Adult backyard chicken||Unknown||Inability to stand, neck twisting, not eating or drinking, and death.||Brain and gizzard koilin lesions.||Necropsy; histopathology||CAHFS Connection, July 2013|
|Four 18-month-old chickens on a small farm in Auckland, New Zealand||Unknown||Loss of appetite and death||Gastrointestinal stasis; Lead levels in the blood in one of the chickens was 0.24 mg/L (abnormal exposure level is greater than 0.2)||Necropsy; Blood test||New Zealand Veterinary Journal, Quarterly review of diagnostic cases, April-June 2015|
|An adult chicken kept as part of a backyard flock||The owner of the flock was conducting renovations on the old structures on the property, which caused flakes of lead paint to scatter throughout the same yard that the chickens were grazing in.||Swelling of crop and loss of appetite, followed by death.||Blood lead levels were greater than 0.60 mg/L (normal is less than 0.4 mg/L)||Blood test||New Zealand Veterinary Journal, Quarterly review of diagnostic cases, January to March 2016|