I have two beautiful fur babies; Diggs, my proud, empathetic and cautious boxer, and Mo, my silly, sleepy Staffordshire terrier. I take my role as their guardian very seriously. When my pet Diggs was two years old, he was diagnosed with mast cell tumors, a form of cancer prevalent among boxers. I was devastated. I went through all the stages of grief. Denial; “Excuse me Mrs. Veterinarian, my dog has a small ‘bump’ on his side. Bump. Not lump. Lumps are scary. This is simply a ‘bump’.” Anger… directed more at God than anyone in particular. I lost Diggs’ brother much too early in life and found it cruel to be faced with another premature goodbye. Bargaining. Depression; full on who-needs-food and why-would-I-get-out-of-my-pajamas-or-leave-the-house-when-I-could-sit here-and-stare-at-my-beautiful-dog kind of depression. And finally Acceptance, and by acceptance I mean he’s alive today and he’ll be alive tomorrow SO THERE. Maybe the anger and denial are still sprinkled on top of the acceptance. I am far from alone in the sadness that accompanies a cancer diagnosis in a beloved pet. A shocking 20-25% of our furry four legged pets end up dying prematurely due to Cancer. (Perdue University Department of Veterinarian). Twenty to twenty-five percent! This isn’t normal and it certainly isn’t right. What are we doing wrong and what on God’s greenish earth can we do about it?
As I learned from years of Saturday morning cartoons, knowledge is power and knowing is half the battle, so we need to start with the facts. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), in the first study of its kind, found American pets are polluted with even higher levels of many of the same synthetic industrial chemicals that researchers have found in humans. In fact, this same study found that when tested for a panel of 70 chemicals, 11 being known carcinogens, 48 different types were found in the dogs and cats tested. An astounding 43 were found at levels anywhere from 2-23 times higher than those typically found in humans. Our pets and their unique, adorable behaviors make them especially susceptible to ingesting toxins. They live close to the ground. They chew on domestic objects (much to our dismay). Licking and self-grooming are daily rituals. Combined with their condensed life spans and shortened latency periods for the development of life-threatening diseases, such as cancer, our guardians, companions and best friends are left uniquely vulnerable.
Unfortunately, it gets worse from there. In addition to the pollutants our pets are exposed to daily which we have little control over, their toys contain plastic softening agents; known toxins. The beds we purchase for them to curl up on at night are covered in flame retardants; known carcinogens. The flea and tick baths we give our pets in attempt to offer our itchy buddies a little relief contain propoxur, a pesticide highly toxic to animals and humans. And who could forget the massive pet food recall in 2007 due to chemical contamination of over 5300 pet food products? That particular slip up caused as many as 3,600 pets to die prematurely of renal failure.
Who the heck is in charge around here? The answer, I’m sorry to say… is a bit scary. For starters, there is no requirement that pet food products have pre-market approval by the FDA. However, as stated on their official website, “the FDA ensures that the ingredients used in pet food are safe and have an appropriate function in the pet food.” Umm… ok. Thanks? Luckily, there are healthy alternatives out there that we can safely feed our pets. Better Pet Food, Healthier Pets, written by Jazmin Clark, details a variety of organic, grain-free, and holistic options.
What about all of the toys, beds, and balls that our pets enjoy on a daily basis? The Toxic Substance Control Act is the cornerstone in our system of health protections for industrial chemical exposures. Passed in 1976, it is the only major public health and environmental law in the U.S. that has never been updated and unfortunately, there are HUGE gaps in this system. These gaps allow most industrial chemicals to be sold at a store near you with NO mandatory safety testing. Please read that sentence again. Chemical companies do not have to prove products are safe before they are sold, or understand how much of their chemicals end up in people, let alone pets. Only one word comes to mind; Seriously? No really, seriously? The result of this weak law is a burden of industrial chemicals found in every member of every household in this country, pets and people alike. It’s no wonder the rate of cancer is so high. These factors, among others, leave our pets to play the involuntary role of sentinel of widespread chemical contamination affecting us all. Aging seven times faster than humans, is it possible that a look at our pet’s health now could foreshadow our own health in the future? It has to be considered.
So a call to arms…. or paws rather! I for one refuse to let my animal companions be sentinels of my health. Since it appears no one else has their back, it’s up to us to protect them from that which they cannot protect themselves. We must not only regulate what toys they play with, but the food they eat as well. When I jog at night, my dogs are my bodyguards. While I sleep, they’re my watchmen. When I make a quick run to the supermarket, they’re my car alarm. They would do anything for us, including putting themselves in harm’s way to protect us. We are solely responsible for their wellbeing. We do the best with the information we have available at the time. And now we have this. And we can do better.