LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 11 Number 2, December 2010, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times (ISSN 1440-4966) & Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Guest Editor, Dr Chrissie Pickin. Editor-in-Chief: Anne Roberts

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Are our pets safe?

By Bronwyn Hill

(This article was written with the collaboration of Dr Mary Lou Conway, Deputy Chief Vet, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment; and local vet, Dr Ron Harris)

The debate over the effects of heavy metal waste now extends to domestic animals in Rosebery and the West Coast region.

Some former residents have expressed grave concerns about the untimely and agonising deaths of their cats and dogs, attributing this to toxic heavy metal poisoning.

However, the experience of most residents tells a different story.

Local vet, Dr Ron Harris, has been practicing on the West Coast since 1997, with clinics operating during this time at Rosebery, Zeehan, Strahan and Queenstown.

At present, Dr Harris operates a clinic at Queenstown only, but continues to see animals from all centres on the West Coast. It is now a stand-alone veterinary practice, after operating as a branch practice of the Scottsdale Veterinary Service until January, 2010.

Dr Harris said veterinarians attending animals on the West Coast have kept patient records for all animals seen in the region over the past 12 years.

He said he can’t speculate about the cause of death for those animals about which concerns have been raised, because he didn’t examine them, but he said these concerns prompted him to review the clinical records of animals from the area.

Sparta & Duke
Sparta and Duke, Jo Powell’s dogs

“These records and my own anecdotal evidence do not indicate that animals from this area have any substantially greater incidence of overt poisoning or unexplained deaths compared with either animals from other parts of the West Coast or to animals from our main practice in the north-east of Tasmania”, Dr Harris said.

The Deputy Chief Vet with the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and the Environment, Dr Mary Lou Conway, is also unable to comment on specific cases, for reasons of confidentiality.

  But she said the symptoms identified in some dogs and cats are consistent with stomach cancer or other illnesses which can be genetic.

 She also said the environmental test data which has been made available to the Animal Health and Welfare Branch to date does not appear to indicate a particularly toxic environment.

“To date, based on inquiries of the veterinarian servicing the West Coast and interrogations of the Mt Pleasant Animal Health Laboratory database for the past 11 years, no evidence of a Rosebery-wide cluster of ill health in animals has been found”, she said.

Dr Conway said animal data for valid comparison is limited, and comprehensive clinical data is also necessary to fully explore the potential risks to animals of the wider Rosebery community as well as individual residences.

Dr Conway said many factors can contribute to toxicity in animals.

These factors include:

  • Type of substances (inherent toxicity), and their state (gaseous, solid, liquid) at the time of exposure;
  • Solubility of the substance;
  • Type of exposure (skin, inhaled, eaten);
  • Size of the dose/s;
  • Time over which exposure occurred;
  • Species and age related susceptibilities;
  • Pre-existing or concurrent health issues in the animal; and
  • Mitigating or exacerbating factors in the immediate environment.

Dr Conway said as long as the toxin dose is not overwhelming, there are detoxifying or at least ‘quarantining’ processes within the body that reduce the risk or effects of toxicity.

She said cases of toxicity presented to veterinarians are usually very acute and the result of a single or closely grouped multiple exposure event.

She said the signs of toxicity are often non-specific and require generic treatment to promote survival while a definitive diagnosis is reached.

“There are many non-toxic conditions that look like acute poisoning”, she said.

“Therefore a full patient history and clinical examination is vital to investigating and treating suspect toxicities”.

The West Coast veterinarian practice run by Dr Harris has offered to carry out tests on any animals about which residents have concerns.

However, he pointed that at this stage, the types of testing available and the reference ranges for normal/toxic values of various heavy metals are quite limited.

He said there are no “screening” tests available for metals poisoning, meaning the client and the attending veterinarian must request for which elements tests are required.

He also said that, because samples are tested by various commercial laboratories, the costs of sampling and testing are the responsibility of the animals’ owners.

In the meantime, animal health authorities have urged residents to take sensible precautions to ensure their pets are not exposed to dangerous levels of heavy metals, and to seek urgent veterinary assistance if their pet is, or has been, acutely ill.

Dr Conway says there are some simple measures which residents can take to minimise any risk to their pets:

  • Pets should not be encouraged to roll in dirt.
  • Dogs and cats should be bathed and pet bedding cleaned regularly.
  • Lawns can be very effective in minimising pet and human exposure to soil
  • Always ensure pets have access to clean drinking water, and that the water container is clean and refilled regularly.

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