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Lead Poisoning in Dogs and Cats

Posted February 11, 2014 in Dog Toxins & Poisons

Nowadays — thanks to U.S. government regulations to remove lead from house paint in 1978 — we veterinarians see less and less lead poisoning. However, dogs and cats can still be exposed to lead by way of other sources, which results in lead poisoning when eaten. Sources of lead include the following:

  • Old paint chips (exposed during construction or home remodeling)
  • Fishing sinkers
  • Golf balls
  • Certain plumbing or construction materials (e.g., putty, lead pipes, solder, etc.)
  • Shotgun pellets
  • Batteries
  • Children’s toys

Symptoms of lead poisoning
When accidentally ingested, lead causes chronic signs — primarily of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) and central nervous system (CNS). Clinical signs include the following:

  • Inappetance
  • Anorexia
  • Vomiting
  • A painful abdomen
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Head pressing
  • Walking drunk
  • Tremors
  • Acting blind
  • Lethargy

If your dog or cat shows any of these signs, an immediate trip to the veterinarian is warranted. If you suspect your pet may have ingested something metallic or potentially poisonous, notify your veterinarian immediately. When in doubt, a simple blood test and x-ray can be done at your veterinarian's clinic. A lead level will measure how much lead is in the blood. Anything above 0.25 ppm (or 25 mcg/dl) is considered to be consistent with lead poisoning. Likewise, an x-ray can reveal the presence of a metallic foreign body somewhere in the body (e.g., in the stomach after being swallowed, etc.). A complete blood count (often called a CBC) can be done to look at the presence of white and red blood cells. With lead poisoning, an anemia may be seen, along with the presence of abnormal red blood cells (called nucleated red blood cells). There may also be white blood cell changes called basophilic stippling, which is classic for lead poisoning. 

Treatment of lead poisoning
Treatment includes removing the source of lead, if possible. If recently ingested and still in the stomach, vomiting can be induced. Your veterinarian does not need to administer any activated charcoal (e.g., a black powder that normally binds to poisons), as it doesn’t work or bind to metals. If the lead is stuck in the intestines, surgery may be warranted to remove the source of lead poisoning. Additional treatment also includes the following:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids
  • Anti-vomiting medication
  • Antacids (e.g., milk of magnesia or aluminum hydroxide both of which bind up the metal to a degree)
  • Anti-seizure medication (e.g., drugs like phenobarbital, keppra, or diazepam to stop

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Justine has more than 18 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a board-certified emergency critical care veterinary specialist and toxicologist as well as the CEO and founder of Vetgirl. She is also a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.