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This information is provided by Provet for educational purposes only.

You should seek the advice of your veterinarian if your pet is ill as only he or she can correctly advise on the diagnosis and recommend the treatment that is most appropriate for your pet.

Lead poisoning is still seen in animals despite increasing awareness and attempts to reduce human exposure

Increasing awareness about the dangers of lead to human health has resulted in a decrease in the number of lead products in the environment. However, lead is still common and it is found in :

  • Artists paint
  • Batteries
  • Ceramic dishes (if incorrectly glazed)
  • Contaminated food - farm fodder that has been  in contact with industrial pollutants, crops grown in soil near old lead mines
  • Fishing weights
  • Golf balls
  • Gun shot
  • Linoleum
  • Lead roofing tiles
  • Lead smelters
  • Motor oil from lead-based petrol cars
  • Old paint - poisoning can occur by licking old paint
  • Old lead toys (eg toy soldiers)
  • Plumbing equipment - repairs to lead water pipes in old houses disturbs a protective layer of lead carbonate that usually coats the inside of the pipes releasing lead into the water - this was a common source of poisoning when lead pipes were still used.
  • Solder
  • Tops off wine bottles

Usually animals get poisoned by ingesting lead, but it can also be absorbed across the skin or inhaled - a common source in the past was vehicle exhaust fumes from lead-based petrol engines.

Lead is a heavy metal which can accumulate in the body over a very long period of time. It interferes with the production of haemoglobin the the bodies red blood cells which reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood. High concentrations of lead damage the central nervous system (brain) and other nerves in the body.

Animals most often affected by lead poisoning include :

  • Birds (eg swans ingesting lead fishing weights) 
  • Cattle 
  • Dogs
  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Sheep

Signs of lead poisoning include the following :

  • Nervous signs
    • Fits (seizures)
    • Behavioural changes - excitation, walking in circles, head pressing, vocalisation, aimless running or pacing around, aggression, muscle spasms, weakness, paralysis, loss of reflexes, staggering
  • Ocular signs
    • Blindness
    • Dilated pupils
  • Alimentary tract signs
    • Salivation
    • Vomiting
    • Constipation or diarrhoea
    • Abdominal pain
    • Inappetance
  • Death - can take several days

Birds get similar signs :

  • Inappetance
  • Ruffled feathers
  • Weight loss
  • Neurological signs - fits, staggering etc
  • Death - can be rapid

These signs may occur with a variety of different disorders so the diagnosis has to be confirmed by measuring the amount of lead in body tissues. In dogs the following concentrations of lead are significant ::

  • Blood - concentrations over 0.6 ppm in whole blood (the lead is bound to the red blood cells) 
  • Faeces - over 35 ppm
  • Tissues - over 10 ppm
  • Urine - concentrations over 0.75 ppm 

(ppm = parts per million)

Treatment is not always successful and depends upon the dose of lead that has been taken. It includes :

  • Drugs that bind the lead (called chelators)
  • Intensive care to 
    • maintain an oxygen supply by tube
    • intravenous fluids
    • treatment to reduce brain swelling
    • treatment to stop fits
    • removal of any lead foreign body (eg a lead toy) that might have been swallowed


Updated October 2013