Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 February 2018

Farm vet: A distressing case of lead poisoning

If land borders a road, it's worth checking for possible lead poisoning risks.
If land borders a road, it's worth checking for possible lead poisoning risks.

Niall McDonald

Two weeks ago I spoke to a client who found a bullock that had died suddenly in the field.

No other animals were showing any symptoms, and 'common things being common', we decided to vaccinate the remaining lot for Clostridial disease in case Blackleg had struck.

But three days later I was called to the farm to treat an animal for suspect meningitis.

The animal was feverish and hyper-reactive.

These signs, along with head pressing and teeth grinding, raised the suspicion of lead poisoning. It turned out that the field the bullocks were grazing had a recently filled-in quarry in the corner.

I treated the bullock with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to cover meningitis and gave a IV infusion of calcium EDTA, which ties up free lead in the blood, but it died soon after.

We walked the quarry area and found an old car battery in recently deposited soil.

Despite a diagnosis, the immediate shifting of the stock and some aggressive treatment, we lost six animals in the following week.

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Unfortunately, once clinical signs become pronounced the survival rate is very low.

To compound matters, while getting a bullock in for treatment, the farmer got mowed over by the bullock and ended up in hospital with a nasty back injury.


Lead poisoning is the most common form of poisoning reported in cattle in Ireland.

It is a very distressing condition for the animal and a few of the affected animals were literally climbing walls in the shed.

Care is needed when handling animals with lead poisoning, and likewise with meningitis, as they are highly unpredictable. In the case I have mentioned, the animal was blind from the poisoning and didn't even see the poor farmer.

If you take new land for grazing, check it carefully - especially if land borders a road - for any potential risks for lead poisoning.

Apart from the classic car battery, other possible causes are discarded sump oil and rubbish or fire ash.

With soaring bin charges the dangers may increase as burning rubbish is bound to become fashionable.


We have had a lot of cases of coccidiosis over the last few weeks.

If a significant number of calves in the batch are affected and showing signs of straining or bloody faeces I recommend treating the whole batch.

The clinically apparent cases are only the tip of the iceberg.

Chances are the other animals in the group are either going to become infected or will be losing thrive because of the bug circulating among the calves.

Treatment is relatively simple with once off oral dosing, but severely affected animals will need ancillary treatment with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.

Bloody faeces could also be a sign of salmonella and if in doubt you should consult your vet. Moving troughs in the field once weekly may also help as it is where the stock regularly congregate that the infection will build up in faeces and soil.

Although most animals will recover fully, it will take a long time for the gut to fully heal and this will affect thrive for up to two months.

Hence it really pays to be on the ball with spotting it early and treating aggressively if it becomes a problem.

Niall McDonald is a vet based in Co Meath

Indo Farming