Lead Poisoning

Kristin Claricoates, DVM

Animals sometimes eat inappropriate items that may have high levels of lead.  Things found around the house that may be high in lead include paint, linoleum, grease, lead weights, and lead shot.  Sometimes owners may also unintentionally feed plants that are contaminated by growing near smelters or if along roadsides.

If lead is ingested, it enters the body and eventually redistributes to the bones.  Depending on the calcium and iron levels, more or less lead may distribute to the bone.  Lead has a significant effect on antioxidant defenses, can cause immunosuppression, can cause defects in babies, toxic to the kidneys, and also toxic to the blood-making organs (mainly the bone marrow and lymph nodes).  Lastly, there can be bleeding in a part of the brain called the cerebellum which is associated with capillary damage caused by the lead.

How can you know if your pet has ingested lead?  Clinical signs can vary and can be pretty nonspecific, so if you are unsure if your pet has ingested lead, please bring your pet in to the hospital immediately.  Signs can sometimes appear as nervous system signs such as blindness, salivation, eyelid twitches, muscle tremors, and convulsions.  In low levels of lead poisoning, you can see constipation followed by diarrhea, incoordination, colic, and increases in sensitivity to stimuli.  In birds specifically, anorexia, wing and leg weakness, and anemia are the biggest signs.

How does the doctor know if my pet has ingested lead; how is that diagnosis made?  Typically, we will take radiographs (x-rays) of your pet.  Bright objects in the intestinal tract are suspicious for lead toxicity but not conclusive.  We will also recommend taking bloodwork, doing a heavy metal panel to see what possible material was ingested (as many metals can look alike and present similarly, but require different treatments), and getting urine.  These tests will tell us if this is a toxicity, how extensive the damage from this toxicity is, and if it is lead or another type of toxic material your pet has ingested.  Because the severity of the toxicity depends on how quickly you bring your pet in and how strong your pet’s chances are from recovering from this.​

Once my pet comes in what will we recommend?  In addition to the above mentioned tests, we will want to keep your pet in the hospital to try to stabilize your animal by managing the symptoms medically with fluids and medication to help slow the absorption of the lead if it is indicated.   Unfortunately, if tissue damage is extensive, especially to the nervous system, treatment may not be successful and quality of life should be assessed.  If the source of lead is still present, we will remove the source of lead surgically.  Also, a chelator to help remove lead from the body is important, and thiamine will be given to reduce the depositing of lead in the body.  Eliminating the exposure to lead is also important to prevent this from occurring in the future.  If your pet is having seizures, we may also administer tranquilizers to help control the convulsions.

Blakley, Barry. “Overview of Lead Poisoning.” The Merck Veterinary Manual. Sept. 2013. Web.

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