While it is widely know that pregnant women and children are at risk for lead poisoning, the danger faced by pets is less recognized. Of household pets, rabbits at an elevated risk due to their nibbling nature--from ingesting, in addition to inhaling, paint particles when they lick or chew on the walls.
Lead poisoning is a relevant danger in areas with older buildings, especially in New York and Massachusetts. Unfortunately, in these areas, virtually all apartments built before 1978 used lead-based paints. In greater Boston, where homes are often 100 or more years old, the incidence of lead poisoning in rabbits is alarmingly high; yet, there is little literature or verbal warning available to owners. Lead poisoning is all too often lethal in rabbits, with excruciating belly pain and possible neurological affects, but the good news is that it is preventable.
Some preventative measures:
-Talk to potential landlords before moving in to get an accurate history of the place and know your tenant rights.
-Look into the possibility of deleading your apartment. This can be quite pricey but in some instances the landlord is legally obligated to take care of it.
-Paint. The more layers there are over the lead-based paint, the less of a chance of inhalation or ingestion.
-When remodeling, follow specific guidelines to avoid exposing lead-laced dust particles. Look into the EPA's report on dos and don'ts.
-Put up adhesive contact paper around the baseboards and lower walls that the rabbit can access.
-Supervise your rabbit. A house with lead can never be 100% rabbit-proof. You should always be aware of where your rabbit is and what she is doing.
Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning:
Signs and symptoms of a lead poisoned rabbit include loss of appetite, decrease or cessation of fecal droppings, diarrhea, listlessness, depression, sudden change of litterbox habbits, and even some neurological changes. If you notice any of these symptoms, especially the diet and behavioral changes, get your rabbit to an experienced veterinarian immediately, where a simple blood test can determine the presence of lead.
Treament of lead poisoning:
Treatment for lead poisoning is chelation therapy. Your vet will also administer fluids and pain medication and may need to syringe feed your rabbit to overcome ileus (arrested stomach contractions).Sometimes right after syringe feeding, your rabbit will be willing to eat a few bites of fresh food. Offer her favorite foods, anything to get the stomach going again. Fresh, aromatic herbs such as cilantro, basil, parsley are good, along with dark leafy greens like romaine. (Though nothing conclusive has been proved, various sources claim that cilantro suppresses lead deposition. Since this herb is otherwise delicious and healthy for rabbits, it's an excellent treat at this time.) The point is to keep your rabbit alive while the chelation removes the lead from the body.
One thing to note is that the chelation therapy can lead to calcium build-up in the bladder, often creating a painful to excrete sludge-like matter. If your rabbit is dribbling, place down Puppy Pads over the carpet and also the cage floor so the rabbit does not have to jump in and out of the litter box.
The bottom line:
Lead poisoning can be serious and devastating, but it is treatable and most importantly, highly preventable if the proper precautions are observed. Spread the news about lead poisoning to all your rabbit-owning friends and acquaintances. You may be saving a life!
*This article is dedicated to Dr. Mickley and Dr. Orcutt at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, who treated my rabbit, Graysie, and to my former roommate, M. Offit, who was of life-saving assistance, during Graysie's battle with lead poisoning in November of 2006.