My little fingers have been aflyin'. aritin' away. So many projects, so little time. Here's yet another. . . .
Ask the Vet
Drury R., DVM
February 3, 1992
Q: If fed properly, will Toucans and Toucanettes (birds known for iron-storage problems) accumulate excess iron in their system?
A: Iron-storage disease or hemochromatosis is a disease of excessive iron deposited in the liver and other organs of the body. It affects not only several bird species but also man. At this time there is no evidence that a low-iron diet will reverse the disease and in birds, the diet has not even been conclusively linked to the start of the disease!
Hemochromatosis is reported in Toucans, Toucanettes, Aracaris, Flamingos, Starlings, Mynahs, Tanagers, Birds of Paradise, and Quetzals. The disease is serious and life-threatening in these birds. The excess iron accumulates in the liver, heart, kidney, spleen, and pancreas. Many times there are no warning signs and the birds are found dead. Late in the disease, birds may have difficulty breathing, swollen abdomens, depression, weight loss, coughing and are not eating.
In man, there are two types of hemochromatosis. One type is caused by eating excessive amounts of iron or from repeated blood transfusions. The other type is caused by a defect in the cells of the intestine that absorb the iron from the diet. This defect causes the cells to absorb too much iron. The cause for hemochromatosis in birds has not been found. Birds on low-iron diets can get the disease and birds on high-iron diets may never have it. It is important, however, to restrict iron in the diets of susceptible species. Even if the cause is from a defect in the intestines, low-iron foods will contribute less to the disease compared with high-iron foods.
Iron is widely distributed in foodstuffs. It is found in green leafy vegetables, most leguminous (bean-type) plants, animal tissues, and seed coats. Foods low in iron are yogurt, cooked egg whites, boiled potato cubes, corn or wheat starch (NOT flour), apple, banana, grapes, pears, pineapple, plums, oranges, figs, and watermelons. Low iron pellets include Science Diet Maintenance Dog kibble and Marion Zoological's Scenic Low Iron ration
There are several tests to diagnose the disease in living birds. One recently described test measures the amount of iron in the blood. The California Avian Lab offers this new test. The other test is a biopsy of the bird's liver. A pathologist looks at the sample for iron and for the amount of damage it has done. This is a good test, but the procedure requires anesthesia and may be risky in some severely compromised birds.
Current treatment includes a low-iron diet and periodic phlebotomies (bloodletting). One of the largest storage places of iron is the hemoglobin in the blood. Bloodletting removes this iron. At the last Association of Avian Veterinarians meeting, a paper described this technique and one bird was still alive a year later.