Lead Poisoning: A Weighty Issue

Old homes and buildings, especially those undergoing renovation, can release lead into the surrounding environment. Many house paints used before 1970, and particularly before 1945, contain high levels of lead. If the paint is eaten or inhaled, including paint residue or dust from sanding, it can cause serious health risks.

Also, be aware that lead poisoning can be a danger not only to your pets, but to your family as well. Lead accumulates in your body and can affect people of any age, but it is especially harmful to children, pregnant or nursing women and unborn babies.

What is lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning is intoxication due to the acute (sudden and severe) or chronic (occurring over time) ingestion of some form of lead. Lead adversely affects the red blood cells (RBCs or erythrocytes) and can damage the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys.

What causes lead poisoning?

Lead poisoning occurs when a dog or cat ingests something containing lead. Common sources of lead include:

  • Paint, including paint flakes and chips as well as paint residue or paint dust from sanding
  • Car batteries
  • Linoleum
  • Solder
  • Pewter or lead foil
  • Improperly glazed ceramic food or water bowls
  • Lead objects, such as shot, fishing sinkers or curtain weights
  • Stained glass and lead light materials and supplies
  • Older building and plumbing materials and supplies including tar paper, putty and lubricating compound

Old homes and buildings, especially those undergoing renovation, are a particular source of lead-related health risks. If old paint is not handled correctly, paint residue and dust can remain in the home and garden for several years after renovations are completed.

What are the signs of lead poisoning?

Signs of lead poisoning vary depending on which of your pet’s organ systems is affected.

Gastrointestinal signs include vomiting, diarrhoea, lack of appetite and abdominal pain. Signs indicating that the nervous system has been affected are lethargy, seizures, hysteria (extreme fright and agitation) and blindness.

How is lead poisoning diagnosed?

Lead poisoning is diagnosed with a combination of a good history of your pet’s environment and eating habits, physical examination and laboratory analysis.

Complete blood counts will indicate changes in the RBCs. Blood chemistries and urinalysis will show damage to the kidneys. Specialised tests analysing urine collected over 24 hours may be carried out by your vet.

X-rays (radiography) can reveal lead objects or paint chips in the pet’s stomach, but the presence or absence of these objects does not confirm or eliminate the possibility of lead poisoning.

What is the treatment for lead poisoning?

Animals with lead poisoning are treated with a medication that combines with lead so that it can be excreted; this process is known as chelation. Pets usually are hospitalised for the first course of medication. If indicated, the veterinarian will empty the stomach by inserting a tube down the nose or throat into the stomach and flushing it with fluid. Fluids are administered intravenously (through a vein) and medications by injection or intravenously.

The medication can relieve symptoms such as seizures while reducing the amount of lead in the body. Medication can be given orally (by mouth) according to your vet’s instructions when the animal goes home. Your pet may need multiple treatments with medication and surgery may be indicated to remove lead from the stomach or intestines. After 10 to 14 days of treatment, the animal’s blood should be analysed again for lead.

Your local public health and environment officials should be notified of the source of lead because it can also cause lead poisoning in people. The source of lead should be removed from the animal’s environment to prevent further poisoning.

What is the prognosis for animals with lead poisoning?

Fortunately, the prognosis (outcome) is often favourable in animals that receive prompt treatment. Your pet should improve dramatically within 24 to 48 hours of initiating medication. However, if seizures are present and uncontrolled, your pet may not survive or may have permanent damage such as blindness.

Dr Julia Adams BVSc

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