Flint water crisis threatens residents and their pets
Thousands of children were exposed to lead after the city of Flint, Michigan, began using treated water from the Flint River in April 2014. The river water was corrosive, and lead leached from the city’s pipes into the drinking water. It is estimated that in parts of Flint—where nearly half of residents live in poverty—the percentage of children with high levels of lead in their blood doubled.
Further, residents are asking what that means for their pets and animals.
Few confirmed cases
To date, Michigan State Veterinarian James Averill, DVM, and his staff have confirmed only two cases of lead toxicity. The first was a family pet whose veterinarian tested for lead in October 2015 after the animal’s owners became concerned. A veterinarian who randomly tested a number of stray animals reported the second case in January. Only one dog out of the group tested positive.
Averill says there is no good answer for why they haven’t seen more cases. He does offer a couple of theories. One reason may be the impact of tainted water in low-income areas. “Veterinary care is the last thing they’re worried about,” he told dvm360. Averill says there could be more pet issues than he and his staff members realize, but it’s not being reported.
Lin Holmes, adoption manager at the Humane Society of Genesee County, agrees. She says many pet owners in Flint live below the poverty line, have no established relationship with a veterinarian and are waiting to see if there will be a financial aid program to help pay for veterinary evaluations for their animals.
Another reason may be that the relatively small amount of lead in the water introduced to an animal over time doesn’t present the more acute clinical signs Averill says he usually sees when, for example, a cow comes in contact with a battery thrown out in a pasture. He says that in the case of companion animals in Flint, the exposure is likely more chronic, with signs developing over time. “Once you remove them from the source they’ll probably do fine,” Averill says, with lead levels returning to normal.
However, the effects of cognitive damage—seen in developing children with lead poisoning—are hard to qualify in animals. “We don’t have the cognitive test we have in humans,” Averill says.
Clinical signs for lead toxicity are nonspecific, such as vomiting, diarrhea and changes in behavior. Those signs could be evidence of a number of conditions. Averill advises that with so much concern and attention given to the water crisis in Flint, veterinarians should advise clients that more common maladies must be ruled out first. “Lead toxicity has such broad signs and symptoms we have to think about more common issues before we jump to lead toxicity,” Averill says.
He adds that if common things are ruled out and veterinarians are still thinking lead toxicity is likely, they should contact his office. A staff member will go through the case history and if there is reason to believe it is a legitimate case of lead toxicity, the state will pay for a whole blood test.
Prevention and protection
In the meantime, Averill says, pet owners should give pets and animals bottled or filtered water to drink, use bottled or filtered water when making pets’ food, keep the toilet seat down and not allow animals to drink out of any unfiltered water source. Homeowner assistance in Flint provides free water testing and filters and the Humane Society of Genesee County currently has more bottled water than it has room to store.
Holmes says the humane society is handing out a week’s supply of water to anyone who needs it. “We want to make sure they feel welcome to come in here—we’ll fill their trunk up,” she says, noting that there has been an outpouring of donations from animal organizations and veterinarians out of state.
Averill’s best advice for pet owners is to “take steps to protect themselves and do the same for pets and they’ll be ok.”