Lead Poisoning in Dogs

When most people think of lead poisoning, they think of children eating old flakes of lead based paint.  However, our canine friends can also get lead poisoning.  While it is not common, it can cause a host of chronic problems or even kill your dog. The University of Michigan’s College of Veterinary Medicine screened 300 dogs in the worst hit homes in Flint.  Only one dog was affected to the point of having to receive treatment, but many showed high lead levels.

As the lead poisoning problem in Flint, Michigan illustrates, lead can come from many unexpected sources.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that any house older than 1978 probably has some lead paint in it.  When lead based paints flake off with age, dogs may eat the flakes.  This can rapidly cause lead poisoning in them, especially if the dogs are young or small.

Lead poisoning can also come from eating fishing sinkers, inhaling the dust of lead based paint when a house is being remodeled, or, as is the case in Flint, from drinking water that has been contaminated by passing through lead pipe.  It has also been found in dogs that chew on or swallow batteries, bullets, or golf balls.

The symptoms of lead poisoning can vary, depending on whether the dog has just been exposed to it in large quantities or is exposed to it chronically.  A dog that swallows lead paint by chewing on the woodwork of an old house can experience severe stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting.  Pets that are exposed to lead for longer periods of time may start to experience neurological symptoms such as seizures or a wobbly gait.  They may also suffer from fatigues, poor appetite, extreme anxiety, blindness, crying and changes in behavior.

Fortunately, there is an easy blood test to see if the dog has elevated levels of lead in his body.  The veterinarian may also take x-rays to see if there is evidence of paint chips or other lead containing objects in the stomach.  If so, the doctor can perform an endoscopy and fish them out.  If the objects have passed to the intestines, the dog will probably have to have surgery to retrieve the items.  The faster the exposure to lead is diagnosed, the better the chance of a successful treatment.

Chronic exposure to lead may lead to the need for chelation treatment.  Chelaters are medicines that remove lead from pets by binding to it in the blood or bone.  The lead is then excreted through the kidneys.

Chelation may be performed at home by giving the dog a pill, or in the veterinary hospital with an injection.  Dogs that have a lot of lead in their system will have to stay in the hospital.  There, they will receive IV fluids to help flush the lead from their system and protect the kidneys.  These medications have been used in dogs for a long time and are quite effective.

More advanced cases of lead poisoning require chelation treatment. Approved for use in humans, chelaters are medicines that veterinarians prescribe off-label to remove lead from pets.

Most dogs recover from lead poisoning, especially if it is discovered immediately.  However, lead can cause persistent seizures that require the dog to be euthanized.  Fortunately, that is not very common.