Two dogs have now tested positive for lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, where a water crisis is still raging full force. The discovery of these newest four-legged victims highlights a hidden danger Service Dogs may face.
Although the dogs who have so far been identified as suffering from the effects of lead poisoning were not working dogs (one was a stray and the other was a pet) the same threat faces every living being. Even though it is something we rarely think about, lead poisoning is a very real risk Service Dogs face every time they take a drink of water.
According to Dr. James Averill, state veterinarian and Animal Industry Division Director for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, spotting the signs of lead poisoning in dogs can be difficult because the symptoms vary widely.
“The thing with lead toxicity in animals, their clinical signs, they’re so similar to so many other diseases,” he said.
Dr. Lawrence Ehrman, another Flint veterinarian with decades of experience, said that lead poisoning can also be difficult to diagnose, particularly when tainted water is the source, because the poisoning happens slowly, over a long period of time.
“What we’re dealing with here is not like an acute poisoning. It’s more a chronic sort of thing,” he said. “It can cause brain and mental issues, blood issues and even some digestive and kidney issues, though they’re much less common.”
Ehrman added that signs of weakness and a change in attitude can also indicate lead toxic.
Symptoms of lead poisoning in dogs can include:
- A painful abdomen
- Head pressing
- Walking drunk
- Acting blind
Of course, the best indicator that something is wrong with your partner is if they just aren’t acting like themselves. You know your dog best and if something seems off to you a trip to the veterinarian is in order.
“My dog, when I get up in the morning, the first thing he wants to do is get up and go to the bathroom,” Averill said. “(Pet owners) know their animals. And when they’re not their normal selves, tell them to seek veterinary care.”
To test for lead poisoning, your vet will perform a simple blood test to measure the amount of the toxic heavy metal in their blood. Treatment, depending on the severity, can include IV fluids, antacids, anti-vomiting medication, and anti-seizure medications. However, the single most important part of treatment is removing the source of the lead so the poisoning doesn’t continue.
When the safety of the water is in question, using bottled water for your Service Dog is the safest option. Unfortunately, as Flint has shown, even the tap water in our own homes is not necessarily guaranteed to be completely safe and free from lead contamination. Water filters are another good way to make sure the water is not tainted, and in light of current events using one at home on a regular basis can be a good way to safeguard the health of your partner, and the humans in your life as well.
The Flint water crisis stems from the city’s decision to change their water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River as a cost-cutting measure in spring of the 2014. The river water was more corrosive than the lake water, and because it was not properly treated, the pipes were corroded, causing high levels of lead to leech into the water.
Although residents began complaining soon after the switch that the water smelled bad, tasted bad, and was a ruddy orange color, public officials insisted the water was safe to drink. Only more than a year later, in January of 2016, was the public finally told that the water contained high amounts of lead.
An unknown number of children now face a lifetime of learning disabilities, and residents of all ages are suffering from the effects of lead poisoning as well. In addition, nine people have died from Legionnaires’ disease which has been connected to bacteria in the water.
Under these circumstances, the focus has naturally been on the humans impacted by this devastating man-made disaster. Animals have become the unseen victims, with the lead-poisoning of pets just now being brought to the forefront of the discussion thanks to these two dogs that have now tested positive.
Service Dogs, Emotional Support Animals and other Working Animals in Flint need to be of special concern. The effects of lead poisoning would be especially damaging to a Service Dog’s ability to work. A Service Dog becoming too sick to do his/her job also means that the human partner loses their independence and well-being as well, a devastating prospect for anyone who depends on a Service Dog.
Hopefully, now that the risk to the animals of Flint has been brought to light, steps will now be taken to protect pets, and Service Dogs. Veterinarians in the Flint area are offering testing for any pet who is exhibiting symptoms of lead-poisoning.
For those outside the area, especially Service Dog partners, this should be a wake-up call as to how dangerous tainted water can be, reminding us to stay ever vigilant of water our dogs drink.