by Lynne Miller
The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has called attention to lead poisoning in pets, a medical condition that veterinarians rarely see.
In Flint, a number of dogs tested positive in 2016 for lead exposure. Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine led a volunteer effort that involved screening 300 dogs for lead in the areas hardest hit by the water crisis. One of the more seriously affected dogs required treatment. Many others were found to have higher than normal levels of lead in their blood.
How Common is Lead Poisoning in Pets?
Though it is concerning, the situation in Flint is an anomaly, veterinarians say. Lead poisoning in dogs and cats is extremely uncommon, particularly when it’s caused by water.
In 2015, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center saw just 65 cases of lead poisoning out of a total of 181,000 cases of animal poisonings, said Dr. Tina Wismer, a veterinary toxicologist and the center’s medical director.
“The incidence of lead poisoning is relatively low in pets, especially cats and dogs,” Wismer says. “The most common situation where we see pets exposed to lead occurs when people are remodeling their house.”
Where Does Toxic Lead Come From?
While lead-based paints have been banned for use in American homes for decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that all houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint.
Old lead paint does not become dangerous until it’s disturbed. Sanding painted surfaces can release paint dust that’s toxic to animals and humans.
“Not only do the animals inhale it but they walk across it and lick it off their paws and fur,” Wismer says.
In addition to water and paint, animals can come into contact with lead if they chew on or swallow a fishing sinker, battery, golf ball, bullet, or other object containing lead, says Dr. Justine Lee, who specializes in emergency critical care and toxicology in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“It’s more common in dogs than cats,” Lee says. Cats “won’t lick a painted wall. They’re more fastidious than dogs.”
What Are the Signs of Lead Poisoning in Pets?
Recognizing lead poisoning can be tricky since the symptoms can vary. A pup that ingests lead paint by chewing on the woodwork in an old house can experience extreme stomach pain, diarrhea, and vomiting, Wismer says. Pets that are exposed to lead for a longer period of time may exhibit neurological symptoms such as seizures or a wobbly gait. Other signs of lead poisoning can include fatigue, poor appetite, extreme anxiety, blindness, crying, and changes in behavior.
While the symptoms are similar for both species, the incidence of seizures tends to be higher in cats, Wismer says.
How is Lead Poisoning Diagnosed?
Lead poisoning is a serious condition that cannot be treated at home. If you think your pet may have it, take her to a veterinarian immediately, Lee says. The key to recovery is early treatment.
“It is treatable but it must be identified right away,” Lee says. “Thankfully, it’s super easy to test for.”
A blood test is used to confirm the presence of lead, she says. X-rays can reveal paint chips or other lead objects in your pet’s body.
An endoscopy may be performed to eliminate a leaded object. The doctor would anesthetize your pet and remove the object by sliding a camera into the animal’s stomach, Lee says.
If the object has passed out of the stomach, surgery may be required.
How is Lead Poisoning Treated in Pets?
More advanced cases of lead poisoning require chelation treatment. Approved for use in humans, chelaters are medicines that veterinarians prescribe off-label to remove lead from pets.
“Chelation pulls the lead out of the blood or bone and it’s excreted through the kidneys,” Wismer explains.
Your veterinarian may prescribe an oral medication for you to give your pet at home, or recommend treatment in a hospital. Pets who receive chelation injections in the hospital get intravenous fluids at the same time to mitigate the risk of kidney damage that can occur with this type of treatment, Wismer says.
“They are quite effective,” she says. “We’ve used these medicines for years.”
How Long Does it Take to Recover from Lead Poisoning?
Recovery depends on how much lead the animal has ingested. Your veterinarian will recheck your pet’s blood after one to two weeks of treatment.
“If the blood lead levels are dropping and the pet is no longer having any problems, the treatment can be stopped,” Wismer says. “If the lead levels are still high, or the animal is having problems, then the treatment is continued.”
In extreme cases, dogs experiencing persistent seizures have been euthanized. “It can happen, but, fortunately, it’s not very common,” Wismer says, adding that many pets recover from lead poisoning.
Of course preventing lead poisoning is easier and less costly than treating it.
How to Protect Your Pet from Lead Poisoning
The best thing you can do is make sure your pets are not exposed to lead. Wismer recommends lead tests, available at hardware stores. These inexpensive test kits include swabs, which you can use on painted surfaces and other areas you think may contain lead. Test results are usually delivered in seconds.
Home renovations can be toxic, so keep your pets away when construction work is being done to your home, Wismer says.
Give your animals bottled water to drink if you think the water from your tap may be contaminated, Lee says. And don’t offer your pets food or water in ceramic bowls that may contain lead.
“Pet proof your home,” says Lee. “Make sure your dog doesn’t eat fishing lures or lead fishing sinkers.”
In 20 years of practicing veterinary medicine, Lee has treated fewer than a half dozen cases of lead poisoning in pets. The condition is more common in birds of prey and waterfowl. Birds come into contact with lead through buckshot found at the bottom of lakes and ponds.
“It’s super rare in dogs and cats,” Lee says.
Lead poisoning is so uncommon that many veterinarians have no experience treating it. For that reason, Lee advises veterinarians and pet parents to contact the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 for advice on treatment.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM