Is Your Dog At Risk for Lead Poisoning?

Many dog owners think of lead poisoning as a thing of the past. After all, lead-based paint was outlawed decades ago and most of us have updated our homes since then. But, you may be surprised at all the places your dog could still be getting lead poisoning, including his own toys.

Dr. John Tegzes, VMD is a board certified toxicologist for JustFoodForDogs and specializes in safe food for pets. He has seen quite a bit of lead poisoning in his day, from many sources. He shared with us some of his more shocking stories, so that other dog owners can be aware of the risks of this hidden killer.

In The House

Lead paint can be hiding under our "renovated" house, waiting to kill. Photo Credit: @BartEverson via Flickr
Lead paint can be hiding under our “renovated” house, waiting to kill. Photo Credit: @BartEverson via Flickr

Misty is a 2 year-old Yorkshire terrier who her owners affectionately refer to as “dust bunny.” They call her dust bunny because she is forever running around their little apartment collecting dust! Her haircoat just seems to attract any bit of dust or dirt on the floor. They live in a vintage building built in 1889 in New York City. Lately they have noticed that her energy level is very low. She seems listless and depressed, and has lost her appetite. They took her to their veterinarian who diagnosed lead poisoning. Lead-based paint was used up until 1978 in both commercial and residential buildings in the US. Therefore, any home built prior to 1978 can still be a potential source of lead exposure in dogs. The usual exposure is through the inhalation of paint dust. When a home owner renovates their home, they may scrape paint from walls and other surfaces. The paint dust that settles on the floor is the source of exposure. Dogs, through their very curious sense of smell, can inhale significant amounts of the paint dust, and swallow it. But the homeowner does not necessarily need to renovate to liberate the paint dust. Windowsills can liberate paint dust every time a window is opened and closed. That dust settles on the floor under the window just waiting for a dog to come by and smell it, inhale it, and then swallow it. While that amount of dust is not enough to cause acute lead poisoning, it is enough if to cause chronic exposure if it happens regularly.

In the Ground

Tyler is a 4 year-old Scottish terrier who lives with his family in a suburban home along a busy freeway bypass. Because he’s a terrier, he loves nothing more than digging around in the dirt. He buries things, unburies them, chews on them, and then buries them again. Leaded gasoline started to be phased out in 1973, and by 1996 was banned completely. Unfortunately lead from car exhausts has significantly contaminated the soils surrounding roadways over the years. Dogs can be exposed to the lead in soil simply by digging up sticks and other objects that are in the dirt. The front yards of many American households are along busy roads that have been heavily contaminated during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.

In the Hunt

Sophie is an 8 year-old Golden Retriever who has worked as a hunting dog her whole life. Her owner is an avid duck hunter and takes Sophie along on hunting trips to retrieve for him out in ponds. On one trip however, she gets in the way of shotgun and is accidentally shot. Lead shot is still a common source of lead exposure in animals. California was the first state to ban lead ammunition for hunters, but its use has contaminated the environment for many decades to come. It is estimated that popular hunting grounds in California may contain up to 400,000 pieces of lead shot per acre! Dogs can become poisoned by lead shot either by eating it directly, or by being shot by it. A dog may eat a carcass that was shot by lead ammunition and absorb the lead through its intestinal tract. Occasionally hunting dogs may be accidentally shot. When the ammunition enters a joint space (i.e., knee, shoulder, hip) the lead is more likely to be absorbed into the blood stream causing toxicity.

In the Roof

Buddy is a 5-year old Jack Russell terrier who lives with his family in South Florida. Hurricanes are a regular occurrence for this family. During a recent very windy storm, the family’s roof was blown off, and roofing materials were strewn across their back yard where Buddy spends most of his time. Roofing felt is another unusual source of lead exposure. Now, dogs don’t typically climb onto a roof and start chewing on the shingles. However, after natural disasters and storms, roofing felt (the lining on a roof under the shingles) may be blown off and can litter the area surrounding the building. If a curious dog finds the debris and decides to chew on it, it can ingest enough lead to cause toxicity.

In the Weights

Jake is a Labrador retriever puppy on his first fishing trip with his owner. Jake, always eager to “help” his owner, decides to remove a freshly caught fish from his owner’s fishing line as he reels it in. But Jake removes the fish by eating it off the line, and swallows not only the better part of the fish, but also the hook and sinker. Lead sinkers used in fishing, and drapery weights, the heavy metal objects often found within the hems of drapes in order to keep them hanging neatly, can contain lead. Dogs sometimes eat fishing sinkers, or find the hard objects in the curtains and decide to chew on them or eat them, causing lead poisoning.

Aside from these dogs’ tragic tales, Dr. Tegzes warns that lead can also be found in:

  • Inexpensive children’s jewelry and toys – especially those sold in vending machines or given away at carnivals.
  • Food – some imported candies can actually contain lead in the candy itself, or in the wrappers; meat from an animal that had lead in it’s body – while diseased and dying cattle are not allowed to be used in human foods, they do sometimes end up in dog food
  • Minerals – used as micro-nutrients, they can actually contain lead as a contaminant. While several minerals are essential nutrients, others are only toxins. Lead has no known physiological function. It is always a toxin. The zinc hydroxychloride that is permitted by AAFCO for use in dog food can also contain lead and mercury, both of which are toxic! Be sure to check the ingredients list on your dog’s food for zinc hydroxychloride, and if it’s listed, consider changing to another brand to prevent exposure to lead and mercury.
  • Food bowls – we can even unintentionally poison our own dogs by feeding them in imported or decorative bowls. Lead glazes are commonly used in some ceramics and pottery. If these are used as the dog’s bowl, the lead can leach out of the pottery and into the food. It’s important to use food-grade bowls when feeding dogs.
  • Old automobile and tractor batteries – improperly disposed of in a field, they contain a significant amount of lead. While dogs do not typically chew on old batteries, it is one of the most common sources of exposure in cattle.

Lead can also be found in golf balls, cheap tennis balls, lubricating material, water, etc.

“Cheap soft rubber dog toys are often made in China with plastics that contain lead and mercury,” says Jme Thomas, executive director of the Motely Zoo.

Anything made in another country could have lead in it, it’s really hard to know for certain, which is why it’s scary. In those cases, its better to be “safe than sorry” and just by USA-made products.

About the Author

Based in Wilsonville, Ore., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She is the founder of, A Fairytail House, a unique all-positive all-sport dog training facility that helps rescue dogs in her area and provides free seminars and training classes for the community. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.

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