A closer look: Lead Poisoning in Cats
Lead is a heavy metal which used to be much more ubiquitous in general society. Exposure to lead can cause acute or chronic lead poisoning in any living creature. Lead interferes on a cellular level with a number of crucial processes in the body and is able to enter the brain, causing further degradation of the body.
Lead poisoning is rare in cats as many sources of lead, especially lead paint, have been banned since the late 1970s. In addition, cats are not likely to consume non-food items which also reduces their chances of contracting lead poisoning. However, when it does occur, lead poisoning is life-threatening, and can be fatal without treatment. Treatment is generally successful. Any cat showing symptoms consistent with lead poisoning needs immediate veterinary attention. Lead poisoning in a pet may be a sentinel for exposure of humans in the household, or vice-versa.
Symptoms of lead poisoning vary based on whether exposure is acute (toxic dose reached after one exposure) or chronic (toxic dose reached through minor exposure over longer periods of time). Symptoms of acute toxicity tend to be more pronounced, while chronic symptoms are milder, more vague, and intermittent.
Lead poisoning results from ingestion of a toxic dose of lead. Since cats do not typically eat metal objects, exposure is more likely through self-grooming of lead-containing particles in paint chips or soil. Rarely, cats may inadvertently ingest small lead objects from prey animals with tissue-embedded lead shots. In most cases, there is no known exposure.
Potential sources of lead include:
- Lead-containing paint chips
- Lead-contaminated dust or soil
- Lead pipes in older homes
- Fishing sinkers
- Curtain weights
- Lead shot in prey animals
Testing and diagnosis
Lead poisoning may be difficult to diagnose due to the following: similarity of symptoms to those of other diseases, relative rarity, and the fact that in most cases there is no known exposure. Therefore, a diagnosis is most often reached by confirming the symptoms with blood work (specific test for lead). Radiographs may show ingested lead objects.
Steps to Recovery
Treatment is first to stabilize the patient, remove the source of lead (via surgery, emetics to induce vomiting, and/or enemas), and initiate chelation treatment (lead binds with the chelating agent so it can be eliminated through the gastrointestinal system). Monitoring over the following weeks is required to ensure response to treatment is positive.
Note: Induction of vomiting or administration of activated charcoal should only be performed by a veterinarian. There is no safe way to induce vomiting or administer activated charcoal at home.
Prognosis depends on the severity of symptoms and length of time symptoms were present before treatment. Expected outcome is generally favorable with early diagnosis, as long as the source of lead has been removed. In some cases, there may be lasting neurological issues, but full recovery is more common.
Lead poisoning is not contagious. Prevention is by avoiding sources of lead. Older homes and outbuildings (built before 1978) may be more likely to have lead-based paint and/or lead pipes, so steering clear of these places is important. Keeping cats from eating prey that may contain a source of lead shot is advised, as is eliminating access to any lead-containing toys or small objects.
Is Lead Poisoning in Cats common?
Lead poisoning is rare in cats.
- IV fluids
- Anti-seizure medications
- Decontaminate (remove lead by surgery, gastric lavage, emetics, enemas)
- Chelation therapy