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Symptoms of Lead Poisoning in Pets

The spotlight on lead poisoning in pets has intensified due to the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a situation that veterinarians seldom encounter.

In 2016, a group of dogs in Flint tested positive for lead exposure. Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine spearheaded a volunteer initiative to screen 300 dogs for lead in the most affected areas of the water crisis. Treatment was necessary for one severely impacted dog, while many others exhibited elevated levels of lead in their blood.

How Common is Lead Poisoning in Pets?

Lead poisoning in pets, particularly due to water sources, is an exceedingly rare occurrence, veterinarians emphasize, despite the alarming situation in Flint.

According to Dr. Tina Wismer, the medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, out of 181,000 cases of animal poisonings reported in 2015, only 65 cases were attributed to lead poisoning. “The incidence of lead poisoning is relatively low in pets, especially cats and dogs,” Wismer notes. She adds that the most typical scenario for pet lead exposure arises during home remodeling projects.

Where Does Toxic Lead Come From?

Toxic lead originates from various sources, with lead-based paints being a significant contributor. Despite the ban on lead-based paints in American homes for many years, houses constructed before 1978 are likely to harbor such paints, as highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The danger of old lead paint arises when it’s disturbed, such as through sanding, which can release toxic paint dust harmful to both animals and humans. Dr. Wismer explains that animals not only inhale the dust but also ingest it by walking across contaminated surfaces and licking it off their paws and fur.

In addition to paint and water, animals may encounter lead by chewing on or swallowing objects like fishing sinkers, batteries, golf balls, bullets, or other items containing lead, according to Dr. Justine Lee, a specialist in emergency critical care and toxicology in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Lee notes that lead poisoning is more common in dogs than in cats, as cats are generally more fastidious and less likely to lick painted surfaces.

What Are the Signs of Lead Poisoning in Pets?

Identifying lead poisoning in pets poses challenges as the symptoms can vary. Dr. Wismer explains that a dog that ingests lead paint from chewing on woodwork in an older home may suffer from severe stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Pets with prolonged exposure to lead may display neurological symptoms like seizures or an unsteady gait. Other indicators of lead poisoning include fatigue, loss of appetite, heightened anxiety, vision impairment, vocalization, and behavioral changes.

Although the symptoms are similar across both species, cats tend to experience a higher incidence of seizures, according to Dr. Wismer.

How is Lead Poisoning Diagnosed?

Diagnosing lead poisoning requires prompt attention from a veterinarian as it is a serious condition that cannot be managed at home, advises Dr. Lee. Early detection is crucial for successful treatment.

Dr. Lee emphasizes the importance of immediate identification, stating that lead poisoning is fortunately easily detectable. A blood test is typically employed to confirm the presence of lead in the pet’s system. X-rays can help identify paint chips or other lead-containing objects within the pet’s body.

In cases where a leaded object needs removal, an endoscopy might be recommended. This procedure involves administering anesthesia to the pet and utilizing a camera inserted into the stomach to extract the object, as explained by Dr. Lee. If the object has already exited the stomach, surgical intervention may be necessary.

How is Lead Poisoning Treated in Pets?

In more severe instances of lead poisoning, treatment often involves chelation therapy. Although primarily approved for human use, veterinarians may prescribe chelating agents off-label to eliminate lead from pets.

Dr. Wismer explains that chelation works by extracting lead from the bloodstream or bones, which is then excreted through the kidneys. Treatment may involve administering oral medications for home use or hospitalization for chelation injections. Pets receiving chelation injections in the hospital typically receive intravenous fluids simultaneously to minimize the risk of kidney damage associated with this treatment method, according to Dr. Wismer.

“These medications have been quite effective, and we have been using them for years,” Dr. Wismer affirms.

How Long Does it Take to Recover from Lead Poisoning?

The duration of recovery from lead poisoning varies depending on the amount of lead ingested by the animal. Your veterinarian will conduct a follow-up blood test on your pet after one to two weeks of treatment.

Dr. Wismer explains that if the blood lead levels decrease and the pet’s symptoms resolve, treatment may be discontinued. However, if the lead levels remain elevated or if the pet continues to exhibit symptoms, treatment will be continued.

In severe cases, dogs experiencing persistent seizures may need to be euthanized, though Dr. Wismer assures that such occurrences are rare. She adds that many pets do recover from lead poisoning.

Preventing lead poisoning is emphasized as it is easier and less costly than treating it.

How to Protect Your Pet from Lead Poisoning

To safeguard your pets from lead poisoning, taking proactive measures is essential. Dr. Wismer advises conducting lead tests using kits available at hardware stores. These kits, which are affordable, come with swabs that can be applied to painted surfaces and other areas suspected of containing lead. Results from these tests are typically available within seconds.

During home renovations, it’s crucial to keep pets away from potentially hazardous areas where construction work is being carried out, Dr. Wismer emphasizes.

Dr. Lee suggests offering bottled water to your pets if there are concerns about the tap water being contaminated. Additionally, avoid using ceramic bowls that may contain lead for pet food or water.

“Pet-proof your home,” Dr. Lee urges. Ensure that your dog cannot access fishing lures or lead fishing sinkers, which pose risks of lead exposure.

In her 20 years of veterinary practice, Dr. Lee has encountered fewer than half a dozen cases of lead poisoning in pets. However, the condition is more prevalent in birds of prey and waterfowl, which often come into contact with lead through buckshot found in lake and pond bottoms.

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