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It Still Happens: Lead Poisoning in Pets

Incredibly, lead poisoning poses a threat to people and pets even today.

Lead poisoning may be a result of old water pipes or microscopic lead dust. By: MatanVizel

Here’s a conundrum: If a condition is rare and not normally tested for, how would you know if it became more common?

Not so long ago, up until the middle of the 20th century, in fact, lead poisoning was common, due to the material’s use in making tough water pipes and paint. With lead common in the home, this meant both people and pets were at risk of poisoning.

Once the connection between lead and strange neurological symptoms was made, the use of lead was reduced and the risk of poisoning declined. This makes lead toxicity largely a tragic curiosity from the past. Or is it?

Surprising Stats on Lead in U.S. Homes

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at the number of American homes where traces of lead were found. The results are surprising: Around 24 million U.S. homes are contaminated with dust containing flakes of lead-based paint.

  • Homes built before 1940: 87% had traces of lead-based paints.
  • Homes built before 1959: 69%.
  • Homes built before 1977: 24%.

Suddenly, lead poisoning doesn’t seem such a distant curiosity.

Sources of Lead in the Home

In the modern day, how a pet could be exposed to lead? There are a number of places lead is commonly found. These include:

Then there’s dust contaminated with microscopic chips of lead paint. This is especially relevant for pets because they are on floor level and lead dust is heavy. With a curious dog sniffing around their territory, it’s not hard to imagine the potential for poisoning.

Lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea are all symptoms of lead poisoning in pets. By: Engin_Akyurt

Puppies at Greater Risk

When it comes to being inquisitive, puppies take the biscuit — literally. They’ll eat anything and everything, and they don’t let a little thing like whether it’s edible or not get in the way.

But puppies are at greater risk of lead poisoning for other reasons as well. Their metabolism is geared to gobble up calcium and transport it to the bones. Unfortunately, that same mechanism can’t distinguish between lead and calcium. This means if a puppy eats some lead, then it becomes concentrated in their bones to act as a long-term reservoir.

Worse even than this risk is that the protective barrier around the brain isn’t fully formed in puppies. Therefore lead more easily passes into the brain and causes neurological disease such as staggering, seizures and blindness.

Signs of Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning, like so many conditions, has vague symptoms in the early stages. The presentation varies depending on how much lead the pet ate and over what period of time.

A dog who eats a small amount of lead over a long time will probably develop sickness and diarrhea as the initial signs, but over time this progresses to lethargy, weakness and collapse. On the other hand, a puppy who eats curtain weights takes in a high dose quickly and develops dramatic neurological signs.

The general symptoms of lead poisoning include:

  • Sickness and diarrhea
  • Lack of coordination
  • Seizures
  • Blindness
  • Character change
  • Extreme tiredness
  • A weakened immune system
  • Severe anemia

Treatment of Lead Poisoning

Treatment for lead poisoning is intensive, and recovery takes a while.

First, the source of lead must be removed from the gut. Then begins the slow process of displacing lead out of the body’s tissues and then binding the lead to a chemical agent so that it can be excreted from the body. In addition, the dog may need a blood transfusion to deal with other side effects of lead such as severe anemia.

Not Looking for Lead Poisoning

Of course, we’ll only know if a pet has lead poisoning if we test for it. That isn’t to say toxicity is a common problem — because it isn’t. Happily, confirmed cases of lead poisoning have been falling year on year since the late 1970s, so the chances are indeed low.

However, it is food for thought. If you live in an older property and your dog starts showing strange symptoms, then it might be worth considering. Alert your vet to any possible exposure to lead so they can run a simple blood test and cross the problem off the list or confirm lead poisoning as a diagnosis and treat the dog.

Both humans and pets have been recently affected by lead in the water of Flint, Michigan:

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Roman Trivia

And finally, to end, here’s some trivia for you: It’s argued lead poisoning hastened the decline and fall of the ancient Roman Empire.

The argument goes that the sophistication of Roman plumbing contributed to their downfall. The Roman elite had water piped into their houses (in lead pipes) and drank hot beverages heated in leaden vessels.

As a result, the elite ruling class drank contaminated water. Historical accounts tell us of the erratic behavior and poor decision making of some of the senators, which could well have been manifestation of the neurological side effects of lead. And it’s difficult to run an empire when you’ve become barking mad.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 8, 2017.