Lead Toxicity in Cats

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Lead toxicity refers to poisoning due to ingestion or inhalation of products containing the element lead.

Cats may be exposed to lead from several different sources including:

  • Lead paint, paint chips and/or paint dust from homes that are being renovated or remodeled. Paints produced prior to 1977 contain high lead levels. This is a common source of lead to cats.
  • Lead weights used as sinkers on fishing poles.
  • Lead pellets and shot for use in guns.
  • Household items such as drapery weights, linoleum, rug padding, and foil from the tops of wine bottles.
  • Automotive parts such as batteries, wheel weights, leaded gasoline and discarded oil from cars using leaded gasoline.
  • Construction materials such as solder, putty and caulking.
  • Plumbing and roofing materials.

    Kittens are more likely to ingest materials containing lead because of their normal chewing and play activities. Younger animals also seem to absorb larger amounts of lead from their gastrointestinal tract than do older animals. Cats from established urban environments are at higher risk for lead poisoning due to the presence of older buildings. Cats are at high risk due to their grooming behavior. When inhabiting a contaminated environment, cats may groom lead-based paint dust off their fur.

    Lead toxicity can cause anemia (low red blood cell count), gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea) and nervous system problems (seizures). Lead crosses the placenta from pregnant mother to babies and is also excreted in her milk. Thus, the developing fetus and nursing young can be affected.

    What to Watch For

    If you notice any of the following symptoms, call your veterinarian.

  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anxiety
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Muscle tremors
  • Incoordination
  • Seizures
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Behavior changes
  • Increased thirst and urinations
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Intolerance for exercise

    Diagnosis

    Diagnostic tests are needed to recognize lead poisoning and confirm the diagnosis. Your veterinarian will take a complete medical history and perform a thorough physical examination. He may also recommend the following diagnostic tests:

  • A complete blood count (CBC or hemogram) to detect anemia, nucleated red blood cells, and other red blood cell abnormalities that often accompany lead poisoning ("basophilic stippling" of red blood cells).
  • Serum biochemistry tests to evaluate the general health of the dog, obtain baseline information about liver and kidney function before treatment, and assess the extent of systemic injury from lead poisoning.
  • Blood lead concentration gives the definitive diagnosis. Blood lead concentrations greater than 0.5 parts per million (abbreviated "ppm") are considered diagnostic of lead poisoning.
  • X-rays of the abdomen and chest are taken to check for lead objects in the intestinal tract and to evaluate the patient for evidence of an enlarged esophagus (which can be seen in lead poisoning) or pneumonia. Lead objects are dense and appear white or gray on the X-rays.
  • Lead concentrations in the feces can be used in place of blood lead concentrations to diagnose lead toxicity.

    Treatment

  • Gastric lavage (pumping the stomach) and enemas are performed to remove any remaining lead from the stomach and intestinal tract. Surgery can also be performed if necessary to remove lead objects from the intestinal tract.
  • Administration of chelating agents (drugs that bind lead in the bloodstream and facilitate its excretion from the body via the kidneys). These include calcium ethylene diamine tetra-acetic acid (Ca-EDTA), penicillamine, and succimer.
  • Fluids are administered intravenously to correct dehydration and facilitate urinary excretion of lead.
  • Anticonvulsant drugs such as diazepam (Valium®), phenobarbital or pentobarbital can be administered to control seizures.

    Home Care and Prevention

    There is no home care for lead poisoning. Seek veterinary care promptly if you suspect your pet has ingested lead-containing materials.

    Administer as directed any medications prescribed by your veterinarian. Observe your pet's general condition. Note any symptoms that worsen and bring any changes to the attention of your veterinarian.

    The most important part of preventing lead poisoning is to evaluate the dog's environment for potential sources of lead and remove them. If a source of lead has been identified and young children in the household have been exposed they should be evaluated by a pediatrician.

    Keep cats away from areas in an older house (pre-1977) undergoing renovation or remodeling. Also keep cats away from discarded materials during re-roofing of homes. Prevent pet access to garages that may store lead-containing objects.

    Lead toxicity may be acute, due to ingestion of a lead object, or it may be chronic due to repeated chewing of lead paint or grooming the dust of lead paint from the skin and fur. The most common route of exposure is ingestion but lead paint dust may also be inhaled.

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