Iron Overload Disease

From Dr. Lee

There are two basic types of IOD (Genetic Hemochromatosis and Aquired IOD). Many animal species have exhibited a genetic type of IOD, however what we are most concerned with in aviculture is Aquired IOD which is a constant bombarding of the parrot with iron in the form of the additive FERROUS SULFATE and its enhancer Vit C. It has been stated on the Hemochromatosis list that “Vit C will double the amount of iron absorbtion if it is ingested at the same time.” It is for this reason that I give my lories oranges first in the a.m. before they are given any other foodstuff, particularly any powdwer or food with added ferrous sulfate.

The symptoms of IOD can be almost anything from failure to breed to sudden death. The actual symptoms depend on what the primary target organ is!! It can also be multiple organs simultaneously. Some primary targets are: liver, kidney, heart, joints, brain, pancreas (diabetes can follow this one of course!!!) etc etc.

If your parrot is diagnosed with an enlarged liver or spleen and the CBC is normal then you may want to see a serum iron or ferritin test run. No one knows why some organs are affected sooner in some individuals than in others?

However we must bear in mind that in the non-genetic form of IOD (acquired) it can take several years on the bad diet for it to show up and then it is only at necropsy.

When we have been able to persuade vets to run serum ferritins or serum iron on sick lories (which is not an easy task) we have found a large number of IOD positive birds but it is still largely found on necropsy.

I personally believe that lories acquire IOD at an earlier age than other parrots because of the tremendous quantity of food/gram body wt ingested. The ratio is much greater than a macaw for example. So the more food ingested per gram of body wt the more iron they will be exposed to. This does not mean that the excess iron is not harmful to the other parrots just that it will take longer to show up.

Also a point to remember is that iron will be deposited in the organs all during the overload process and so when the iron shows up in the blood serum at any level it may be that the organs already have a large amount deposited.

Two therapies exist for IOD and the chelation of iron is time consuming and expensive and not practical for avian species. The phlebotomy is the the primary method of treating larger critters such as humans and works very well but will have to be continue on a bi monthly basis for life. Drawing off of Red blood cells forces the production of new ones which uses the iron and causes the body to draw on iron already in the body. If this is done weekly in the beginning the iron can be depleted fairly quickly.


I have a couple of questions I was hoping you could answer. First you mentioned spirulina inhibits the absorption of fat. I was on Noah’s Knigdom web site and they have a formula that contains spirulina. I was considering purchasing this to feed my blue and gold when he comes in. He will be arriving in 4 weeks and will be 8 weeks old. Is this not a good formula for him?

I add spirulina to the formula of all my babies, and they do well on it, so it shouldn’t be a problem unless the proportion of spirulina to the rest of the formula is too high.

Can you recommend another one?

I use Kaytee but the downside of Kaytee is it contains ethoxyquin. I used Pretty Bird before Kaytee, but I did weight-gain research on my own babies from same parents/different clutches, and Pretty Bird did poorly compared to Kaytee. I prefer Pretty Bird’s texture, but it didn’t grow birds as well. I’ve heard nice things about Rival I have not heard of anyone using Noah’s Kingdom handfeeding formula, but people love their seed mixes.

Second, it has a lot of minerals in it including iron. You mentioned this is not good for birds that are prone IOD. I thought all birds are prone to this. Can you please tell me what birds are prone to this disease?

Not all birds are prone to hemachromatosis. Softbills, particularly toucans, barbets, and lories are prone to iron storage disease. Other birds can get it as can humans, but they aren’t ‘prone’ to it per se.

I have 5 birds not including the B&G that will be coming home. I am new to this web site. I want to provide the best care possible for my birds. I owe them that. Thank you, Lisa

There are quite a few natural foods high in iron. If you avoid everything with iron in it, your bird wouldn’t have much to eat.

Foods that aren’t high in iron themselves, are *awful* too because they enhance the absorption of iron. So that eliminates more foods. Along with the foods, you are eliminating essential nutrients they contain.

Almost all dark leafy greens contain substantial amounts of iron. Foods containing vitamin C enhance the absorption of iron. All these foods contain a variety of nutrients that are tools your bird needs to maintain good health.

With all the foods containing iron, and all the iron that is added to processed foods, it makes a person wonder why there are so many anemic people wandering around. Maybe it is because iron comes in a couple of different forms and not all of those forms are well absorbed by the body.

The average 150 pound person carries about 4 grams (iron is heavy, so that is about 1/10 teaspoon). 60%-70% of the body’s iron is contained in the hemoglobin molecule of the blood. (That is the molecule responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body) The less iron the less oxygen, and that is why anemic people are tired all the time. 5% of the iron is in myoglobin (the muscle oxygenating protein) and the rest is part of iron cofactors, enzymes, and iron being transferred from one part of the body to another.

1% of red cells are recycled each day as their life cycle ends, they die, and the hemoglobin is released to produce new red cells.

Iron deficiency is most common during growth, but it can also occur to females producing young because the iron in their bodies goes to the offspring. In the case of birds, it goes into the eggs. Another reason for iron deficiency is poor absorption of iron from the intestinal tract. Just because you consume it, doesn’t mean it will be absorbed. In a normally functioning body, when the body needs more iron, absorption improves through the iron transferrin process. Normal iron absorption is about 8-10% of intake. That means if you consume 100 grams of iron, only about 10 grams will be absorbed by the body. The rest passes out as waste.

Most plant foods contain the nonheme form of iron which is not absorbed well. In addition to the iron in vegetation being poorly absorbed, some plants contain phytates (found in grains) and oxylates (found in spinach, tomatoes, and dozens of other vegetabels) which bind to the iron and further prevent absorption. Vitamin E binds to iron and prevents absorption. High calcium intake reduces absorption because it make digestive tract more alkaline. Tannins from from plants (tea is one) also prevent absorption.

The best sources for absorbable iron is red meat and liver. Consuming meat and vegetables and the same time will make the iron more absorbable. Ferrous iron is absorbed better than feric iron. Vitamin C, if present in the gut at the same time as ferric iron, will change ferric iron to ferrous iron, improving its absorption.

IOD (Iron overload disease) involves iron deposits in the organs (liver, pancreas, spleen , skin, and heart) The deposits can cause cirrhosis, fibrosis, diabetes, and heart disease. It is a genetic metabolic disease that affects the regulation of iron absorption. The body retains iron well after it absorbs it, so the only way to get rid of excess iron is by bleeding. (or child-bearing or laying lots of eggs)

The upshot of all of this is to feed your bird many different foods in moderation so it will have the benefit of a wide variety of nutrients. If spirulina concerns you, then you might prefer to use wheat-grass as a supplement. I have used and like the results of both.


Iron Absorption and Tannins

The Brookfield Zoo in now in the process of doing clinical trials with their toucans and also a study with European Starlings. It is about half way through and so far the results are promising. A breeder has used tannins for well over 5 years with no loses, in a high risk group of birds. I have been working with vets for around a year and a half on antidotal trials. We have had no deaths due to hemo. or the use of tannins for that matter.

It has been proved that it works in humans with hemo., testing needs to be completed to know if it does so in birds.

This is an URL you may want to check on tannin use in humans.

The water in South American countries and Eastern countries have heavy concentrations of tannin, tannin is a natural chelator or heavy metals, and calcium as well. I have worked on this in regard to mynahs and toucans, therefore never checked the tannin in waters from any other countries so don’t know if lorries have access to tannin in the wild as well. Be interesting to know. I wonder if Mike Owen would be willing to look into it.

Tannins are found in things besides acorns. Pomegranates, cherries, figs, grapes, green tea, etc.

Do you feed those birds a normal diet and just use tannins to chelate the unused iron or is the project being approached from more than one direction? If you wouldn’t mind sharing some of that information, I’d love to hear about it.

Yes, I do feed my birds anything without regard to iron content. The reason is due to the fact that I knew from doing wildlife, that the wild insectivorous birds did not do well on the commercial softbill pellets. I felt that they needed more animal protein than the pellets provided.

It is being approached from two different ways. At the Brookfield Zoo, they are giving the birds only tannin acid water for one month then switching to plain water for one month. They feel that by alternating this way the bird will not become deficient in the other heavy metals such as zinc and copper as well as calcium.

What we are doing is offering both plain water and a bowl of tannin water on a daily basis. Both ways appear to work. The interesting thing is the people who have done it the latter way, remark on how much tannin water they drink initially, as if their life depended on it (who knows maybe it did), after a few weeks they didn’t seem to prefer one over the other. I think that they regulate iron much the way we drink a lot of water, after eating salty foods.

The only thing I can say for sure is that it is safe, and that it may work. The project was run past a biology professor who is an expert on tannins, and a vet who also has a Ph.D. in animal toxicology. The birds who have been on it for over five years are doing just fine.

Now, another question: What is tannin water composed of? Would a decoction of green tea be considered tannin water adequate for chelation needs?

I used the word green tea because that is what they use for treating it in human medicine, perhaps because they have it in capsule form and can regulate the dose. Dr. Cheery, our tannin expert, says that tannin is tannin no mater what is in.

A tea bag soaked in warm water to make a very weak colored tea, is what most use.


Iron Absorption and Citrus

It has been my impression from studying this phenomenon for years, that iron that is non-heme iron is not that well absorbed from plant sources and thus the Spirulina is basically non problematical in this regard.

With regards to citrus and other acids causing rapid absorption. This totally correct but what is often failed to state is that it also allows the body to utilize the iron in a way that its passed out readily. This is not some wild theory its actually been tested by myself as well as other major bird collections with great results. I have been over this time and time again and don’t want to beat anyone up or jam it down their throats as most will believe what they want anyway! In any event its my belief as well as others that daily additions of citrus to the diet in good amounts will help considerably alleviate iron from the body.

I have taken Lories and barbets with horrible swollen livers from IOD and reduced in size, over a year, those livers back to normal with just the addition of citrus juice and fruit!

Don Wells

Iron Absorption and Vitamins Vitamin C aids in the absorption of Iron. Vitamin E : reduces iron absorption

Okay…from some quick reading last night I had learned that excess iron can produce free radicals. So the purpose of vit. E, which is also an antioxidant, is to counterbalance the damage of free radicals (?)…I’m guessing here….any thoughts?

My understanding is that Vitamin E and iron are antagonistic to each other and that a high intake of Vitamin E can reduce absorption of iron in the first place, rather than mopping up the damage afterwards (although it may play this role also).

Carole Bryant

Here is another good article on iron storage disease in birds. Regards, Linda

I heard a very interesting theory on IOD at the AFA convention in LA. Strangely it was from an English vet I rarely agree with. His theory went like this:

1. Birds absorb iron only when they need it 2. They need iron to make hemoglobin in red blood cells 3. They also need copper to make hemoglobin 4. If they are copper deficient they still absorb the iron but can’t use it so it gets pushed into the liver 5. Hey presto a dead bird

I have no idea whether this is a valid arguement but it seems far more rational and elegant that the great debate over how many ppm of iron should be included in bird foods. We have both iron and copper in our supplements and have never, to my knowledge, had a case of IOD reported.

I have e-mailed someone at The University of Bristol where they are doing some work on this but, of course, they are on holiday.

I would be interested in any comments from you guys though.

Malcolm Green

Tannins has been used in a large collection of Mynahs for over 8  years now with no deaths from Hemo or problems associated with the  use of tannin. I and others have used tannin for over three years,  again with no problems. The birds have free choice of plain water or  the tannin water in all of these cases.

Tannin is everywhere in the wild diet of these birds from the figs  they eat to the water they drink. It is interesting to note that  tannin is also largely missing from the captive diet, and there is no  Hemo in wild populations.

Something that Mr. Poole is ignoring is that it has been proven that  starlings (mynahs are in that category) have developed the ability to  not only taste tannin but can also judge its strength. For a bird to  develop that ability has to mean something. As I only have starlings  and mynahs I can’t speak for Toucans, but suspect that some of the  birds that normally eat things such as acorns in the wild also have  this ability.

The zoo project (Riverbanks) using tannin I had great hopes for, but a  recent post from Mr. Vince (who is conducting the research) has left  me with the feeling that nothing will come of it. They have decided  to try to induce Hemo with large amounts of iron and to stop giving  the birds free choice of tannin water. The are, as I understand it,  now just adding tea leaves to the birds diet. I see no way for the  birds to be able to use their abilities to regulate the amount of  tannin they receive or how Mr. Vince can know how much tea will  counteract the amount of iron he is feeding.