Lucy, Chico and Bandit had always been active, energetic Chihuahuas but had become lethargic a few months after drinking Flint, Michigan water. Their owner Nelda Martinez couldn’t figure out why until news broke about the city’s water crisis; she began to wonder if her pups might have been exposed to lead as well.
The worry was prompted after the city started using untreated water from the Flint River, which caused lead from old pipes to leach into the water. A state of emergency has since been declared in Flint and several government officials are facing criminal charges in connection with the lead contamination.
Figuring that the city’s four-legged residents might also be affected, Michigan veterinarian Dr. Daniel Langlois enlisted a team of fellow veterinarians, technicians, vet students and other volunteers to host pet health clinics in Flint, allowing owners to bring in their dogs for free blood tests to determine their levels of lead, copper and other contaminants, he tells PEOPLE.
“Rightfully so the major focus was on human health,” says Langlois, an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “But we thought not only is this going to affect humans, it’s going to affect pets as well.”
Of more than 300 dogs tested so far — some cats have been examined separately but the logistics of offering widespread testing for cats proved challenging — seven had very high lead levels and an additional 15 showed elevated levels, Langlois says, and “there’s probably quite a few more that we don’t even know about.”
According to the Langlois, affected canines can experience vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, seizures and bone abnormalities.
“Once it’s in the blood stream, it can spread to the bones and the brain,” he says. “It might stay for months to years.”
Mr. Chompers, an 86-pound, 5-year-old mixed breed, was one of the dogs with high lead levels even though owner Sheri Mamero had switched him to bottled water more than a year ago, after seeing how dirty the Flint River was, she tells PEOPLE.
“I couldn’t see how that could be safe,” says Mamero, who herself has tested negative for lead. “If you can’t see the bottom of a stream, I wouldn’t think you should probably be ingesting that.”
Though Mr. Chompers didn’t seem to be feeling ill, she says, “I was totally devastated” that he had lead poisoning. “I’m angry.”
She’s now feeding him a home-made diet with lots of calcium, Vitamin C and extra protein though she remains worried about any possible long-term consequences not only for Mr. Chompers but Flint citizens as well. “I’m upset about the animals,” she says. “I’m more upset about all the little children who are going to suffer the effects.”
Langlois says that aside from a healthy diet to combat the toxicity, dogs can be treated with lead-binding agents if necessary.
As for Martinez, she was relieved to learn her Chihuahuas had normal results, and says they perked up after she switched them (and herself) to bottled water. “I thought my dogs…those are my babies,” she says. “I’ve had them almost 10 years and I hope to have them another 10 years.”