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Beware the humble lead battery…

Nik Cronin, District Veterinarian

Lead poisoning has been a common finding in the Central West Local Land Services region lately, and in each case the humble lead battery has been the source. Battery cases become brittle with time and cattle with their generally inquisitive nature, especially younger cattle, can easily disturb an old battery to access the lead that they contain. They develop a taste for the salts in the lead and can go back repeatedly to lick and chew at the source. The incidence of lead poisoning tends to increase during dry spells when hungry stock are more likely to try eating unusual items, particularly if they are also suffering from trace element deficiencies. 

Other than batteries, sources of lead that may be readily found on farms include lead-based paint on farm buildings or other structures, ash from fires left after burning these products, automotive grease, oil filters, sump oil and linoleum. 

It is important to remember that these lead products also pose a risk to people, especially young children whose growth and development can be affected by exposure. 

Lead poisoning in livestock can express itself in several ways. Animals that consume large amounts of lead may simply be found dead in the paddock or if a smaller amount is consumed they may show neurologic signs with inappetence and depression, aimless wandering or circling, incoordination and blindness or 'star gazing'. However even animals with no obvious signs can have unacceptable levels of lead in their system, so when lead poisoning is diagnosed it is important to consider all animals that may have been exposed. 

Treatment of animals that are clinically affected by lead is rarely successful and stock that have been exposed and found to have lead present in their system will need to have slaughter restrictions placed in order to avoid contamination of our food chain. For these reasons prevention is by far the best cure. Old batteries in particular should be removed off farm to an approved recycling facility for safe disposal. Clean up old rubbish sites around the farm or at least fence these areas off from livestock access. Avoid running stock around farm and machinery sheds and even old houses. Beware when grazing new country, especially with younger cattle and particularly when there is rubbish lying about.

If you have any further questions about lead poisoning in livestock, please contact your local District Veterinarian.