Lead Toxicity in Rabbits
Exposure to high concentrations of lead and its compounds can lead to a toxic condition called heavy metal poisoning. Almost all of the rabit’s body systems can be affected as a result of this type of poisoning, including the destruction of enzymes resposible for creating red blood cells, which can be fatal. In vast quantities, lead can also damage a rabbit’s nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
Because rabbits have a tendency to lick and chew lead-containing household substances — especially painted surfaces and occasionally metallic objects — they are often susceptible to lead toxicity.
Symptoms and Types
Nonspecific signs such as weight loss, anorexia, depression, and lethargy are commonly associated with lead toxicity. Other signs include:
- Decreased appetite or complete loss of appetite (anorexia)
- Gastrointestinal hypomotility or stasis (slowing or inactivity of the intestinal contents)
- Weakness, lethargy, ataxia (loss of muscle coordination)
- Anemia and low blood cell count
- Diarrhea (rare)
There are numerous household materials that may expose your rabbit to toxic levels of lead, including:
- Cages lined with solder or lead paint
- Lead-based house paint residues or paint chips
- Plumbing materials and supplies
- Lubricating compounds
- Tar paper
- Lead foil
- Improperly glazed ceramic dishes (food or water bowl)
Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam on your rabbit, including a complete blood profile, chemical blood profile, complete blood count, and a urinalysis. Rabbits suffering from lead toxicity will generally show abnormally high concentrations of lead in the bloodstream. Additional diagnostic testing may include X-ray imaging, which may detect lead containing contents in the stomach or intestines.
Your rabbit will need inpatient hospitalization, especially if it is having seizures or is severely weak and requires supportive care. If it is a mild toxicity and your rabbit is stable and eating on its own, outpatient treatment for may be sufficient. In either case, electrolyte fluid will be provided to balance your rabbit’s body fluids, and drugs will be administered to relieve slow motility of the digestive system, speed up the excretion of lead, and to neutralize the effects of the lead before they can do severe damage to the system.
If there are actual lead based contents present in the body, surgery may be necessary for the removal of the objects from the gastrointestinal tract. Drugs can also be used to manage seizures, if they are present. Your veterinarian will advise you on whether you will need to administer any treatments at home, such as injections.
Living and Management
It is important to determine the source of the lead. If the lead has been traced to something in the home, and especially if it is found in the home materials, you may need to notify your city or state public health officials. In addition, make sure your rabbit continues to eat during and following treatment. Encourage oral fluid intake by offering fresh water, wetting leafy vegetables, or flavoring water with vegetable juice, and offer a large selection of fresh, moistened greens such as cilantro, romaine lettuce, parsley, carrot tops, dandelion greens, spinach, collard greens, and good-quality grass hay.
If your rabbit refuses these foods, you will need to syringe feed a gruel mixture until it can eat again on its own. Unless your veterinarian has specifically advised it, do not feed your rabbit high-carbohydrate, high-fat nutritional supplements.
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