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Lead in toys a peril to pets

And unlike in toys for children, it's a situation that no agency regulates.

By Leonora LaPeter Anton and Ilyce Meckler, Times Staff Writers
Published February 10, 2008

Roberto Romero and his girlfriend Christine Roberts feed their sun conures, Merlot, left, and Tiki, right, at Romero's Port Charlotte home. Merlot, who is still a baby and must be fed by hand, replaced Roberts' bird Paulie, who died from lead poisoning.
[Brendan Watson | Times]
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  • Pet owners sound warning about lead
    Christine Roberts and Roberto Romero lost their bird, Paulie, to lead poisoning. The culprit: a toy that killed the bird in less than 24 hours. Vet's say this problem is on the rise.

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ST. PETERSBURG - Christine Roberts spoiled her birds, Paulie and Tiki.

Roberts and her boyfriend fed the sun conures by hand, watched TV with the birds perched on their shoulders and bought countless new toys for their bird cages.

But in November, a day after putting in a fresh set of toys, Roberts noticed Paulie was listless. She took the bright orange and green bird to a vet, who found more than 20 pieces of lead in his stomach. He'd chewed it off one of his toys, a miniature clawfoot tub.

Within hours, Paulie was dead.

"I never in a million years thought my bird would get lead poisoning from a toy we got them," said Roberts, 53, who got the toy at a bird fair in Port Charlotte, where she lives.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has pulled more than 8.8-million children's toys and other products off the market in the last year because of lead. But no one regulates pet toys, many of them made in China, raising questions among pet owners.

"The extent of the problem is not known," said Safdar Khan, director of toxicology research at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Pets are part of the family now, so people want to make sure their pets are safe."

The vacuum of information has led some animal owners to try to figure it out for themselves.

Dog owners are asking labs to test toys. Bird owners are submitting cage samples to labs. And consumer groups are randomly testing pet toys and putting the results on the Internet.

Two of the largest retailers of pet supplies say they believe their pet products are safe, but acknowledge the concern.

Don Cowan, a Petco spokesman, said the company relies on its manufacturers to ensure their products meet U.S. requirements, but is setting up an office in China to "monitor the source."

"Historically speaking we haven't had any problems," Cowan said. But the "heightened awareness" about lead prompted the company to act, he said.

Jennifer Ericsson, a spokeswoman for PetSmart in Phoenix, said the company has tested its products and found them to be safe.

"I think the question is what's the acceptable level, and I believe 600 parts per million is a number used in the children's toy industry, and we're always well below that," she said.

In the last few months, Peter Jowett, a toxicologist at the Louisiana Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Louisiana State University, has tested paint from more than 50 bird cages, samples sent by bird owners around the country.

Some were well below 600 parts per million of lead. But as many as half were above the level, including one that had 23,000 parts per million and another with 18,900 parts per million, he said.

Despite such results, Jowett, 55, cautioned animal owners not to panic.

"By the same token, they should be mindful of what's in their pets' environment," he said.

Larry Houston, 63, a business consultant from Summerfield, sent paint scrapings from his bird's China-made cage to Jowett's lab. The results came back high in lead, so Houston had his umbrella cockatoo, Baby, tested. The bird was fine but she now has a new cage made in the Czech Republic.

"I just want these people to stop poisoning our birds," Houston said.

Dr. Teresa Lightfoot, the vet at Florida Veterinary Specialists in Tampa who tried to save Paulie, said it's common for birds to get sick from metals like zinc and lead. But this past year, she has noticed more birds with lead poisoning. Symptoms include listlessness and bloody diarrhea.

Lightfoot recently treated a lead-poisoned bird that chewed some pieces off its owner's Chanel knockoff earring, which was 19 percent lead. She saved it with the same treatment doctors use to remove lead from people.

Still, Lightfoot said, it is more common for birds to get lead poisoning from common household items, such as the foil on wine bottles or a fishing sinker.

Peter Hellmer, a Pinellas Park vet, said he recently had one bird who got lead poisoning from a stained glass window and another had chewed on a lead-filled toy soldier. "It seems to me that birds are roaming around the house and finding other things to chew on," he said.

Dr. Miryam Reems, a vet at Florida Veterinary Specialists who treats dogs and cats, said they recently treated several dogs for lead poisoning. One chewed on its crate, which had lead. Another swallowed a lead sinker. A third had 18 cents - three nickels and three pennies - in its stomach.

Dogs appear to be more susceptible to lead exposure than cats, possibly because they are more energetic and are more likely to chew items around the house. Of the 31 calls last year to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Poison Control Center about lead exposure up from 19 calls five years ago, all but one involved a dog, Khan said.

Tiki, Roberts' other bird, swallowed only about seven pieces of lead from the same toy clawfoot tub that poisoned Paulie.

Lightfoot treated Tiki, who recovered, but Roberts thinks something needs to be done to protect animals.

After Paulie died, she tried to find the people who sold her the toy at the bird fair but was unsuccessful.

"I just want them to take these toys off the market," Roberts said, "'cause if my birds die from it, all birds will."

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at or (727) 893-8640.

Symptoms of lead poisoning in pets

- Upset stomach and stomach pain, lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, blood in urine or feces, inability to sleep, abnormal behavior, weakness, convulsions and death (if not treated).

-The blood lead test for pets is the same as the one for humans. Vets also treat dogs for lead poisoning the same way doctors treat humans, with several drugs. Known as chelation therapy, the drugs remove the lead from the animal.


For more on lead poisoning and pet toys, go online to: ASPCA's Web site: about consumer issues, including product recalls and pet products.

[Last modified February 10, 2008, 01:59:34]

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