Protect Your Ducks From Poisoning By Metal Toxins

Poisoning from metal toxins is a surprisingly common issue in backyard duck flocks, so learn more about common toxins as well as prevention measures.

by Erin Snyder
PHOTO: images by Erin Snyder

Often referred to as hardware disease, metal poisoning, heavy metal poisoning, zinc poisoning and lead poisoning, metal toxicity is a common occurrence in backyard duck flocks. This condition is caused by lead or zinc entering a duck’s body and bloodstream from ingesting contaminated water, dirt or feed, or when a duck eats bits of metal such as wire or screws.

When a duck ingests a screw or other metal object, the metal piece usually works its way through a duck’s body until arriving at the gizzard. A duck’s gizzard works like a hammer, crushing the food before it moves through the lower intestine and pancreas. When a metal object is in the duck’s gizzard, the gizzard will try to destroy it. This crushing releases zinc or lead into the duck’s bloodstream, sending toxins throughout the body.

Treating Metal Toxins In Ducks

Lead and zinc are the two kinds of metal poisoning ducks can suffer from. Symptoms, treatments and risks can vary between these metals, so take your duck to the vet to ensure proper treatment.


Lead is the more deadly and understandably most feared metal toxin found in ducks. Lead is challenging to remove from the bloodstream and can cause severe health concerns, including seizures, ataxia and reproductive problems. Lead can also decrease your duck’s ability to fight infection or disease.


Seizures, loss of appetite, weakness, weight loss, reproductive problems, drooping wings, bright green diarrhea, ataxia, body tremors, convulsions, blindness, depression, head tilt and lameness


Only an experienced veterinarian can accurately diagnose with a blood test.

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Once your vet has diagnosed your duck with lead poisoning, they will determine the best course of action for your duck’s needs, depending on the amount of lead in the bloodwork. If lead levels are high, most veterinarians will suggest euthanasia to reduce any suffering the duck will encounter further down the road. Do not hesitate to make this decision for your duck, as deaths occurring from lead toxicity are not pretty.

However, if the duck’s lead levels are relatively low, your vet may treat it with laxatives and prescribe Edetate Calcium Disodium (Calcium EDTA). Calcium EDTA  is a heavy metal chelating agent that binds with heavy metals to remove lead from the bloodstream through the urinary tract. It is administered to a duck through a round of shots or IV treatments performed by a member of your veterinarian staff.

Important Fact

After a duck has been administered Calcium EDTA, remove all calcium sources (oyster shell, crushed egg shells, ect.) for two hours. If calcium sources aren’t removed, the medication will bind with the calcium versus the lead. Not only will this prevent the medicines from drawing lead out of the duck’s bloodstream, but decreased calcium in a laying duck’s body could cause life-threatening conditions such as egg binding or an oviduct prolapse.

ducks metal toxicity poisoning


Zinc poisoning is the most common of these two heavy metal poisonings. While zinc poisoning can turn deadly, this condition is usually curable with proper veterinary care. Even better, zinc poisoning/hardware disease can often be prevented with diligence and good care (more on that later).

Even though zinc poisoning is not as life-threatening as lead, this toxin can still inflict severe damage to your duck’s body and organs, so treatment should begin immediately.


Lethargy, weakness, loss of appetite, green to yellow droppings, diarrhea, weight loss, dehydration, excessive drinking, rubber legs, anemia, drooping wings, seizures, and paralysis


If zinc poisoning seems likely, your vet will perform a blood test to check the duck’s zinc and lead levels to narrow down what heavy metal may be poisoning your duck. Most veterinarians will also perform several X-rays to look for foreign metal bodies throughout the duck’s digestive system.


Cuprimimine, non-brand name Penicillamine, or Calcium EDTA will be prescribed by a veterinarian to draw zinc out of the duck’s body. These three medications are heavy metal chelating agents binding with heavy metals to remove zinc from the bloodstream through the urinary tract. As with treating lead poisoning, remove calcium supplements for two hours after administering medication.

If zinc levels are high due to foreign metal objects in the duck’s body, your vet may suggest operating to remove any foreign bodies from your duck. Before the procedure, talk to the surgeon about the risks and costs.

ducks metal toxicity poisoning

Preventing Metal Poisoning

Preventing metal poisoning is much easier than treating it. To protect your ducks from metal toxins, follow the checklist below.

  • Avoid using lead paint anywhere your ducks may come in contact with
  • Test soil for lead and zinc before choosing a site to build a duck run
  • Test water for zinc and lead before acquiring ducks
  • Do not allow ducks to swim in creeks or ponds
  • Whenever possible, use vinyl-coated galvanized wire when constructing the coop and run
  • Avoid metal water founts and feeders
  • Pick up any dropped metal objects, including screws, nails, bolts, washers, bits of wire, staples, coins, zippers, paper clips, keys, etc.
  • Avoid wearing all jewelry when visiting your ducks
  • Check the coop and run weekly for any metal or loose wire

Prevention is the easiest way to treat metal toxins in ducks, but recovery from this condition is possible with experienced veterinarian care. With vigilance, our ducks can avoid ingesting metals and recover from this deadly condition.

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