Article © 1996 Darlene Arden. First published in Catsumer
Report, February 1996.
Is your cat UNLEADED? Here's what you need to know about Lead
Claudia Arrau. Photograph courtesy Diane Smith.
Ted Kreiter, Executive Editor of The Saturday Evening Post
noticed something wrong with his award-winning American Silver
Tabby. Catamus lost about half of his body weight over a period
of "a month or two, at least." When Catamus would
finish eating, he'd throw up. The last thing for which the
veterinarian tested turned out to be the cause: lead poisoning.
Kreiter's other cat, Bratamus, a Burmese was unaffected.
After three weeks in the veterinary hospital, Catamus returned
home and went on a special diet. The culprit? Kreiter isn't
sure, but suspects either the crockery bowl from which only
Catamus would drink, or possibly lead paint from the old house
he's been restoring. (When lead paint is stripped off the
walls, it goes airborne. When people or animals inhale the
paint dust, it accumulates in the body.)
For insight into lead poisoning in cats, we consulted Paul
C. Gambardella, VMD, MS, Diplomate ACVS, Chief of Staff at
Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, MA. According to
Dr. Gambardella, older city homes with old chipped paint have
been primary causes of lead poisoning in the past. Said Gambardella,
"Even if it's not chipping, pets may chew on woodwork
or other objects painted with lead paint, and at times the
owner won't even know until it's too late." Other major
sources of lead are linoleum, old putty around windows; and
even drapery weights and newspaper ink.
Terzo minds his P's and Q's. Photo: Bobbi Florio Graham
Gambardella said that a lead pellet shot under a cat's skin with a gun isn't a hazard. "The lead that's in those, to our knowledge, is not a serious threat -- it doesn't leach out. It's what gets into the digestive tract -- the lead that gets absorbed into the system -- which can cause the toxicity."
Dr. Gambardella says that lead poisoning in pets was a major problem some years ago in Boston. Cases of lead poisoning appeared in his hospital regularly. The animals came in with GI (gastrointestinal) symptoms, and/or neurological signs. Lead poisoning was immediately suspected -- until proven otherwise -- so a blood sample was always submitted for testing for lead.
In some obvious cases, veterinarians would automatically
start the lead poisoning treatment after drawing the blood
sample, but before getting the results. If the results proved
positive, which it did in most of the cases, they would continue
treatment. Otherwise, a further work-up was done. At that
time, lead was even found in the water, leaching out of lead
The most common source of lead today is still the older
house with lead paint and linoleum, and those inner city
areas that have junk piles. What's the leading source from
which a cat can get lead poisoning? Household items. "They're
not getting this from the soil," Gambardella states.
No one knows how much lead must be ingested before a cat
gets sick. Gambardella says the amount ingested before a
cat dies varies. "That's because if they ingest a small
amount over a long period of time, they can take in a lot
more before it will reach a lethal level than ingesting
a large amount all at once."
How soon the cat will get sick or die if it's not treated
depends upon when the poisoning is discovered. "We
don't see them until they're ill. Once it reaches a certain
level in the blood, it will affect the nervous system and
the gastrointestinal tract. Then they get sick," said
The good news is that lead poisoning's not always
fatal. "We can give chelating agents to get rid of
the lead and take it out of the system -- if you get them
in time," said Gambardella.
If a cat ingests a small enough amount of lead that
his body can handle, he will not necessarily get sick and
die. According to Gambardella, "The difference between
a cat and a person is the the person may be affected mentally
over a long period of time." A child who has ingested
lead for years and who is not developing properly will not
do well in school. Sometimes the child doesn't feel well,
but can't explain the problem.
Gambardella says, "A chronic problem is hard to measure
in an animal. It is very possible that there are cats and
dogs that have ingested toxic levels of lead and have lived
a fairly normal life, from the owner's standpoint. The lead
level may not have been high enough to cause them to have
overt signs of illness. Yo have to have a certain level of
it before it causes overt signs."
The amount of lead ingested determines how long it will take
for signs to appear, "If they eat small amounts, it's
going to take perhaps several months; if the cat ingests a
large amount quickly it's going to happen right away,"
reports Dr. Gambardella.
The signs to watch for include: diarrhea, vomiting, seizures,
anorexia, hysteria, and non-specific gastrointestinal signs.
There is also a range of various neurological signs: convulsions,
head pressing and central nervous system signs. (Head pressing
is just what it sounds like: the cat goes up to a wall and
presses his head against it. It's not known why cats do this.)
The brain is affected by lead and so coordination and thinking
is affected. There's a weight loss over the long haul, and
blindness can occur.
The gastrointestinal symptoms of lead poisoning (vomiting
and diarrhea) mimic other diseases, so it's an illness which
is often mistaken for other illnesses, such as parasites,
viruses, ingestion of foreign material or a change in diet.
Twenty years ago, when many urban homes were being renovated
and lead paint was very common, inner city veterinarians automatically
suspected lead poisoning where gastrointestinal symptoms were
Today, we don't think of lead, however, unless the veterinarian
gets a good history. This would include such information as
what neighborhood the cat lives in, and if the house is old.
The astute clinician might suspect lead poisoning sooner rather
than later and immediately take blood for testing. The unsuspecting
veterinarian will just treat the GI signs. If there's no response
in a day or two, then he may do a blood analysis.
While the main organs affected by lead poisoning are the
central nervous system and GI tract, Gambardella notes "It's
going to get into every organ in the body and cause a problem
for every tissue." Eventually the kidneys will be affected,
The medication used is "pretty much off-label, which means
it's not legally approved for use in animals," according
to Dr. Gambardella. There's an alternative treatment in the
works, though. The Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston
is participating in the trial of a new oral medication. This
new drug is much less expensive and doesn't require hospitalization
of the cat. And, a bill going before Congress again this year
would allow medication approved for human use to be used legally
to treat animals. That would make the current treatment legal.
The Birman Kittens. Photograph courtesy
Paula and James Watson
There are no home remedies for lead poisoning. After
the diagnosis made by a blood test, the cat must receive
chelating agents from a veterinarian. Calcium EDTA is
one such agent. Since lead is a heavy metal, Gambardella
says, "You have to give them a substance that attaches
to it or chelates it. This allows the lead to come out
of solution in the blood and be excreted. Treatment
can be expensive (five or six hundred dollars) and usually
takes about five days in the hospital. The cat receives
several injections of the Calcium EDTA a day.
Blood levels are repeated once the therapy is completed.
Since the chelating agents are fairly effective, usually
only one course of therapy is needed.
If your cat is exhibiting the symptoms we've
described, you can suggest that your veterinarian check for
lead poisoning. Said Gambardella, "Making a diagnosis
is very much dependent not only on the clinical signs but
also on the history, which leads one to suspect ingestion
of lead. Once we suspect lead poisoning, then we can get into
Remember that veterinarians serving recently-developed areas
may not suspect lead poisoning. Today's construction and the
environmental regulations have nearly eliminated the problems
from newly-built areas. So it's possible for a veterinarian
to treat a cat with G.I. signs for several days or more, and
suspect lead poisoning only when that cat doesn't respond.
Fortunately, if this occurs, the treatment is still effective
in most cases.
As in Kreiter's case, where one cat got sick and not the
other, only one cat in the household may be chewing something.
Gambardella said, "Sometimes it has to do with dominance
-- one animal doesn't let the other one do that," Of
course, the crockery water bowl used by only one of the cats
may have been the culprit. Crockery food dishes were a problem
at one time because lead from the glaze was leaching out into
the food and water. Lead-based glazes aren't used on pottery
for people anymore.
To safeguard against lead poisoning, Dr. Gambardella recommends
de-leading the house and not allowing pets to have materials
that contain lead. Virtually all dishes and toys today are
lead-free. "Bedding and scratching posts, cat litter,
all of the things that you would buy for your pet don't have
lead in them," said Gambardella. But it doesn't hurt
to read labels and double-check everything.
If you live in a house built before 1960, check into the
sources of lead to which you and your animals may be exposed.
Lead was used in paints, wallpaper paste, and plumbing joints
through the 1960s -- and in some cases, even later.
There's a lot of information available on lead poisoning
and children. Awareness is keen now and your four-legged child
can benefit from this information, too. Check with your local
Building Inspector's office, health department, or library.
Remember, it will take less of that lead to cause toxicity
in your cat than in a child. Go unleaded and you'll keep your
entire family healthy.