Also known as plumbism, lead poisoning occurs when a cat ingests or inhales products that contain lead, resulting in toxic levels building up in the blood. There are many possible ways for this to occur however the most common is from lead-based paint. Since 1978, paints in the United States can no longer contain lead, but poisoning can occur during house renovations when old paint is removed by sanding or scraping. Paint dust and chips environment are both inhaled and ingested during grooming.
Other sources of lead include lead bullets, linoleum, fish tackle, plumbing supplies, car batteries, lead-contaminated soil, toys, food contaminated with lead. There have been reports of pet quality game (such as rabbit or kangaroo) occasionally containing lead pellets. I have always avoided feeding pet quality raw food for pets, preferring human-grade meat due to tighter regulations.
Poisoning can be acute or chronic. In acute cases, the cat ingests a larger amount in a short period, chronic occurs when smaller doses are ingested over a prolonged period. It affects both the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system.
Kittens are particularly vulnerable as they absorb more lead than adult cats; adults typically absorb 5-10% and kittens 40-50%. Plus kittens are more likely to chew on objects such as furniture containing lead paint and old toys or swallow objects such as batteries. When ingested, lead is primarily distributed to the brain, kidney, liver and especially the bone, where it is stored.
Thankfully the incidence of lead poisoning in cats seems to be decreasing over recent years.
Symptoms of lead poisoning usually refer to gastrointestinal and nervous system symptoms and may run concurrently or individually.
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Nervous system symptoms:
- Muscle tremors
- Behavioural changes such as clamping of the jaws and aggression
The veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination and obtain a medical history from you, including possible exposure to toxins such as lead. A cat displaying both gastrointestinal and nervous system symptoms will raise a red flag for lead poisoning.
- Complete blood count which may reveal anemia and changes to the red blood cells.
- Biochemical profile to evaluate the overall health of your cat, especially the kidneys.
- Blood tests to detect lead concentrations.
- X-rays to check for lead objects lodged in the body.
- Remove exposure to the lead source.
- Gastric decontamination to remove lead from the gastrointestinal tract by inducing vomiting, enema or surgery to remove lead objects.
- Chelation therapy. This is a medication that is given either by injection or tablet. It binds to lead in the blood and is excreted out in the urine.
- Fluid therapy to correct dehydration and assist in flushing the lead from the system.
- Anti-emetics to treat vomiting.
- Medications to control seizures.
Repeat blood tests will need to be carried out to ensure levels of lead are decreasing.
Avoid keeping old furniture and toys which may contain lead paint (typically those made before 1978).
Dispose of old batteries properly, in an outside bin.
Don’t leave batteries lying around, store them in a cupboard your cat can’t access.
Don’t use old bowls to feed or water your cat. Lead can be found in the glazing, leeching into the food and water.
Be careful when renovating older homes as this is a common source of lead poisoning. If you are stripping old paint, remove cats from the environment while this is underway. Also, be aware that humans are at risk of lead poisoning too, so take proper precautions such as wearing a facial mask and decontaminating any clothing, showering after carrying out work to remove old lead paint.