Domestic cats as environmental lead sentinels in low-income populations: a One Health pilot study sampling the fur of animals presented to a high-volume spay/neuter clinic published in Environmental Science and Pollution Research

Abstract: Non-human animals serve as sentinels for numerous issues affecting humans, including exposure to toxic heavy metals like lead. Lead plays a role in perpetuating cycles of poverty in low-income communities due to the inequitable distributions of indoor health risks from lower-quality housing and outdoor health risks from industry and polluters, compounded by inequitable distributions of heath care and education. In this pilot study, we explore the potential for studying lead in low-income populations by partnering with nonprofit veterinary outreach programs. We investigate the lead concentration in fur samples of 85 domestic cats (Felis catus) presented to a high-volume spay/neuter clinic and report a mean of 0.723 μg of lead per gram of fur. This study reveals new information about lead exposure in cats in the USA, including that females had greater lead exposure than males, lead exposure increased with increasing amount of access to the outdoors, and lead exposure increased in cats with decreased body condition. We propose that pet, feral, and free-roaming cats presented to high-volume spay/neuter clinics could serve as a source of data about lead exposure in disadvantaged communities where these clinics already operate. Such a non-invasive surveillance system using inert, unobtrusively obtained samples could be deployed to detect highly exposed cats, prompting to follow up contact to a cat’s caretakers to recommend seeking lead testing for themselves, their families, and their neighbors.

This was the capstone project for my Graduate Certificate in One Health, an offering from the Center for One Health Research at the University of Washington.