Preventing Hardware Disease (Heavy Metal Poisoning) in Backyard Chickens and Ducks

Chickens and ducks are attracted to shiny things they find on the ground like spare change, nails, screws, hooks, aluminum foil, earrings, bits of wire, pieces of glass, staples and the like. This is extremely dangerous and can lead to serious health problems and even death as the heavy metals break down, enter the blood stream and slowly poison the bird - or sharp edges perforate the intestine, leading to infection. It can take days or weeks for symptoms to emerge, and by that time it's generally too late. Ducks, especially, are prone to Hardware Disease (or Heavy Metal Poisoning), which is very hard to treat, but easily preventable. 

The photo above contains the actual things that I have found unearthed in our run just in the last few weeks. I check our run and the entire area around the barn where our chickens and ducks often free range religiously for sharp things and foreign objects, but they seem to dig things up faster than I can remove them. Construction materials and supplies left over and buried in the dirt from previous owners always seem to be resurfacing, despite my best efforts. I think the chickens scratch up the objects and then the ducks risk ingesting them. I am lumping pieces of glass into this article, even though its not technically considered a cause of 'hardware disease', glass can cause internal lacerations and injury from being swallowed accidentally.

Ducks even more than chickens seem love to eat shiny things and can easily suffer copper, zinc or lead poisoning, lacerations or worse if they ingest things like spare change, pieces of metal, wire or glass. I fact, Heavy Metal Disease is the number one killer of pet ducks, but chickens can sometimes swallow things they shouldn't as well. So do your flock and yourself a favor and 'sweep' their area regularly. If you DO suspect your duck or chicken has swallowed something, get her to a vet ASAP for x-rays, a blood test and check for internal lacerations.  

Symptoms of Hardware Disease

Early symptoms of hardware disease include a decreased appetite and spending time alone. More advanced symptoms may include:

Loss of appetite (although possibly increased fluid intake)
Weight loss
Weakness and lethargy
Watery bright greenish or bloody droppings
Drooping wings
Unsteadiness, difficulty walking
Loss of vision

If a chicken or duck displays any of these symptoms or you even suspect they have swallowed something toxic, get them to the vet immediately for an x-ray and blood test to check for traces of metal.

As with many things, prevention is far easier than trying to treat this affliction, so it's important to be aware of these simple ways to prevent ingestion of foreign objects.

Preventing Hardware Disease

-Avoid using galvanized metal feeders, waterers and fencing. 
-Don't use glass in our around the run or coop.
-Make weekly inspections of your run, pen, coop area and any free range area for small metal objects.
-Sweep the area with a metal detector after construction or building projects have been completed.
-Be mindful of wearing earrings or other jewelry that could fall off, become entangled and break, or get lost in the area.
-Don't use weed whackers, lawn mowers, chainsaws or other types of equipment near your coop area. They can send small metal pieces flying everywhere.
-Check bales of hay, straw and shavings for debris before using them as bedding.
-Have your soil and water tested for heavy metals and take steps to treat any excess or limit your flock's exposure to the contaminated soil or water - i.e. locate coop in a different area or use filtered or bottled water.

Potential Sources of Lead Toxins

Fishing weights, sinkers and lures
Lead gunshot
Lead-based paint and paint chips (especially in older structures)
Christmas ornaments
Toys and toy parts imported from China
Costume jewelry

Potential sources of Zinc Toxins (also known as New Wire Disease)

Galvanized aviary wire (the more shiny the wire, the higher the zinc content)
Galvanized nails
Galvanized metal feeders and waterers
Fertilizers, soil
Some paints

Potential sources of Iron Toxins

Water (or water pipes)
Scrap metal
Machine parts
Multi-vitamins (especially a concern if you have house chickens or ducks)

Treatments for Hardware Disease

Zinc poisoning is different from lead poisoning in that zinc is able to work its way out of your bird’s system provided the source of contamination is successfully and completely removed, so offering plenty of fluids and some molasses helps flush the toxins and cleanse the blood, although won't help her pass glass, coins, screws or other hardware which sometimes will pass naturally or otherwise require surgery.

(Galvanized wire fencing that is sunk into the ground can leach zinc into the soil, so be aware that treatment might also require removing the offending fencing. A safer option is coated wire.)

Regardless of the cause of the toxic reaction, fluids can be beneficial, as can separating the ailing bird and setting her in a quiet, calm location to allow her to recover. Some herbs have detoxifying qualities and could be helpful in the treatment as well fed fresh free-choice. These include bay leaves, borage, cilantro, dill, lovage, marigold, mint, rose petals, sage, tarragon and thyme.

-a selection of fresh herbs with antioxidant properties that can help flush toxins-
However, hardware disease is extremely serious, needs to be treated quickly and shouldn't be taken lightly. I highly recommend a visit to the vet if you suspect any type of poisoning. Treatment by your vet may include:

-A chelating agent which works by binding with and filtering the heavy metal out of the body. 
-Vitamin B complex (thiamine in particular) to prevent further poisoning and allow the body tissues to recover.
-Anti-convulsants to prevent seizures.
-Bulking agents can be fed to assist in removing small particles from the intestine.
-Surgery under anesthesia to remove large piece of metal.
-Antibiotics to prevent infection while the body is recovering.
-Euthanasia if surgery isn't an option.

But again, an ounce of prevention IS worth a pound of cure, so be super vigilant about keeping your chicken and duck area free of metal debris and you shouldn't have any troubles.

Storey's Guide to Raising Ducks, 2nd Edition by Dave Holderread (2011)

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  1. Where I live has had two families in it. Neither believed in cleaning the yard. I have found bullet shells, gas, tin foil, wire and so on.
    After EVERY rain I walk the yard (my birds free range) and pick up stuff. It's much better but I still find all sorts of things. My chickens seem ti ignore it. For which I am grateful. Please include hair ties. One got a chick, thankfully it hooked over the lower beak and after an exhaustive chase I was able to pull it out. But no doubt I'd have lost that little one from it. Now even paper I pick up. Get some blow-in being near the top of a ridge.

  2. Great info, Lisa. We did a waterproofing project in the chicken pen over the weekend (installed some metal roofing on the underside of our deck, which is over the chicken pen) and I was very careful to pick up any screws or staples that got dropped. But I do have one question. What is the issue with galvanized metal feeders and water founts? Do they leach zinc? I always thought it would be safer to use galvanized metal because of the toxins that are leached from plastic over time. What are other safer options? Thanks!

  3. I use glass waterers for my small ones and rubber tubs for the older ones - although I have started switching over to stoneware casserole dishes I buy at thrift shops for feed and water. And yes, the metal waterers and feeders can leach zinc. Also apple cider vinegar rusts them anyway, so I haven't used metal in years.

  4. OH yes, good point. Hair ties, rubber bands....strings from bales of hay.

  5. Thanks for the reply. I like the idea of repurposing stoneware for the chickens. My friend has an estate sale business and I always see that kind of stuff at her sales. I will have to pick up a few.

  6. We live in a house built back in the late 30s so there is plenty of trash buried in the yard. I use a large shop magnet to sweep the chickens' run during the rains. The girls hate being outside in the weather so I can get it done faster without them following me. Broken glass seems to be centralized along one fence closest to our messy neighbors so I am not too worried about that.