Zinc Toxicity

Kristin Claricoates, DVM 

Zinc is required in small amounts for an animal to function well.  However animals sometimes eat inappropriate items that may have high levels of Zinc.  Things found around the house that may be high in zinc include: batteries, automotive parts, paint, pennies from 1983 or later, vitamin and mineral supplements, board game pieces, zippers, the screws in an animal carrier, certain pipes and cookware, and zinc oxide creams.

If zinc is ingested, the acid in the stomach causes the release of the zinc.  The zinc is then absorbed in the intestines and sent to the liver, kidneys, muscle, bones, pancreas, and prostate.  There, they act as a corrosive substance, change the metabolism of some ions, and prevent red blood cells from being made and from working.  This can lead to organ failure and death.

How can you know if your pet has ingested zinc?  Clinical signs can vary and can be pretty nonspecific, so if you are unsure if your pet has ingested zinc, please bring your pet in to the hospital immediately.  Signs can sometimes appear as anorexia and vomiting, progressing to diarrhea, lethargy, irregular heart beats, and seizures.

How does the doctor know if my pet has ingested zinc; how is that diagnosis made?  Typically, we will take radiographs (x-rays) of your pet.  Bright objects in the intestinal tract are suspicious for zinc 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), getting urine, and possibly checking to see how the blood is clotting (called a coagulation profile).  These tests will tell us if this is a toxicity, how extensive the damage from this toxicity is, and if it is zinc 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 protect the gut and slow the absorption of the zinc if it is indicated.   If the source of zinc is still present, we will remove the source of zinc surgically.  If this is caught early and treated quickly, the outcome is often favorable.  If this is detected after a long period of time, however, the outcome may be poor.  Eliminating the exposure to zinc is also important to prevent this from occurring in the future.

Cahill-Morasco, Raymond. “Overview of Zinc Toxicosis.” The Merck Veterinary Manual. Aug. 2014. Web.

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