Lead Toxicity in Cats
Lead poisoning in cats is a medical condition caused by increased levels of metal lead in the blood. Lead has the ability to disrupt and damage normal cell functions and may affect multiple systems throughout the body. One of the ways in which lead can adversely affect the body is by displacing and substituting calcium and zinc in the body, both of which are important for normal cell metabolism. Lead toxicity can lead to death if the cat is not treated in time.
A large number of lead sources has been described, and the type of these sources may vary by different geographical locations. Older homes and buildings are frequently potential sources of lead, as lead dust or chips from older lead paints increase the chance of exposure. Fortunately, lead toxicity is not commonly seen in cats, especially as compared to dogs.
Symptoms and Types
The symptoms for lead poisoning mostly relate with the gastrointestinal (GI) and central nervous system (CNS). GI systems, for example, are seen with chronic and low-level exposure, whereas CNS symptoms are more common in acute exposure in young animals. Some of the more common symptoms include:
- Poor appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Regurgitation (due to megaesophagus)
- Hysteria (panicky and anxious)
- Vestibular abnormalities, including nystagmus (rolling eyes) and ataxia, as if the cat is dizzy
- Ingestion of lead – sources can include paint chips, car batteries, solder, plumbing material, lubricating material, lead foil, golf balls, or any other material containing lead
- Use of improperly glazed ceramic food or water dish
- Lead paint and lead-contaminated dust or soil are the most common sources
- Lead-contaminated water
You will need to give a thorough history of your cat’s health leading up to the onset of symptoms, including a history of any contact with material containing lead, if possible. After recording your cat’s history, your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination. Laboratory tests will include complete blood count, biochemistry profile, and urinalysis -- the results of which may reveal valuable information for initial diagnosis.
Blood testing may reveal red blood cells of unequal size (anisocytosis), abnormally shaped red blood cells (poikilocytosis), variations in red blood cell coloring (polychromasia, hypochromasia), and increased number of neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) may be seen. Urinalysis results are often non-specific; in some patients abnormal concentrations of glucose may be found in the urine.
If your cat is showing all of the appearances of lead poisoning, your doctor will use more specific tests available which will help your veterinarian to determine the levels of lead in both blood and body tissues.