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Zinc Toxicosis in Dogs and Cats

Pennies and Other Zinc-Containing Items Are Poisonous


Zinc in the Home Environment

Pennies1, metal board game pieces, nuts, bolts, staples, zippers, and jewelry may contain zinc, and may be deadly to your pet or child if eaten. Stomach acids break down metal, releasing the zinc from these objects, allowing it to be absorbed in the small intestine.

Zinc in the Body

The mechanism of action/toxicity is unknown at this time. After ingestion, high concentrations of zinc are found in the red blood cells, liver, kidney and pancreas. Zinc is primarily excreted via the feces.

Clinical Signs of Zinc Toxicity

The first clinical signs seen are vomiting and not eating (anorexia). Eventually, hours or days later, anemia from hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells), jaundice and red urine (hemoglobinurina) may be seen.

In later stages, depression and seizures may be seen. Death is usually due to hypovolemic shock from anemia or cardiovascular collapse and multiorgan failure.

Diagnosis of Zinc Toxicity

  • History or suspicion of eating (or vomiting up), coins or metallic objects.
  • More commonly seen in young animals.
  • Radiographs are helpful for identifying metallic densities in the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Laboratory findings: Hemolytic anemia and abnormalities in urine, kidney, and liver parameters.

Treatment of Zinc Toxicity

  • In early cases / healthy animals, induce vomiting to remove item from stomach.
  • Endoscopy or surgery is indicated to remove the metal items as soon as possible (once animal is stabilized) if items not removed by vomiting.
  • Supportive care.
  • For severely anemic cases, blood transfusions.

The good news is that once the zinc-containing items are removed, clinical signs typically resolve within 48-72 hours. Organ failure and death are still a possibility until blood and urine values return to normal, however. Prompt veterinary care and monitoring are essential for a good outcome on these cases.

Prevention of Zinc Toxicity

  • Keep small metal objects and zinc-containing creams out of reach of pets and children.
  • Be mindful of kennel nuts and bolts, as they may contain zinc.
  • Caution is advised when using ointments and creams on pets that may be licked off - consult with your veterinarian prior to use.

1Pennies: The most common cause of zinc toxicity is penny ingestion.
U.S. pennies minted after 1982 contain 97.5% zinc.
Canadian pennies minted 1997-2001 contain 96% Zinc.

Thanks to Justine A. Lee DVM DACVEC and Ahna Brutlag DVM of Pet Poison Helpline for their assistance with this article. Pet Poison Helpline: 1-800-213-6680

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