Petlluted: How to Protect Your Pet from Toxins

Toxic toys. Food contamination. Lawn pesticides.

We know we’re supposed to be worried about all this for our two-legged kids, but what about our four-legged family members?
A recent study by the Environmental Working Group showed that cats and dogs carry a much higher “body burden” — the amount of persistent toxic chemicals in the body — than their human caregivers.

The study measured mercury levels five times higher in cats than in humans, and levels of PBDEs — a flame retardant used in manufacturing everything from mattresses to TVs — 23.4 percent higher than in humans. Dogs are carrying levels of PFCs — the perfluorocarbons found in Teflon — at levels over twice as high as humans.

Paranoid pet-owners beware: the EWG report is full of scary phrases like “dancing cat fever” (the result of mercury poisoning) and “Teflon toxicosis” (pet birds poisoned by fumes from overheated non-stick pans). The study notes a rise in several types of cancers among pets, which could be linked to the toxic chemicals found in their — and our — daily surroundings. Cancer is now the second leading cause of death in dogs, and the rise of hyperthyroidism in cats directly corresponds with an increase in the use of PBDEs over the last 30 years.

Just why are our pets so susceptible? Their vulnerability is due in part to their diminutive size and lifespan, but a larger component probably has to do with the way pets live: close to the ground. Like human children, dogs and cats will eat food off the floor and spend a lot of time on toxin-laden carpets. Pets pick up outside dust, insecticides and herbicides, then ingest these chemicals through self-grooming. Plastic chew toys and water bowls also play a dangerous role, as do high mercury and PBDE levels in seafood.

This wouldn’t be the first study to link animal health to human health. Studies in the 1990s found high rates of testicular cancer in military dogs who served in Vietnam and later showed a correlating high risk of testicular cancer in their handlers, likely the result of exposure to chemical pesticides and defoliants. Throughout the last century, studies of cancer in domestic pets pointed to the health hazards of exposure to lead and asbestos.

Our pets are clearly trying to tell us something. It’s up to us to listen. To read the Environmental Working Group study and take action, visit petsfortheenvironment.org.

How Can I Protect My Pet?

  • Don’t use lawn herbicides and remove shoes inside to avoid tracking in chemicals.
  • Use plant-based kitty litter from wheat or recycled newspaper instead of clay-based litter, which is strip-mined (an eco-nightmare).
  • Vacuum frequently, and bag resulting dust to prevent reintroduction into the house.
  • Flea collars are ineffective and a source of constant toxic exposure to your pets and family. Choose natural pest repellants like garlic and clove oil instead.
  • Pick pet food free of chemical preservatives BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin, vary cats’ diets to limit seafood mercury-exposure and choose organic or free-range ingredients rather than “by-products.”
  • If you suspect your deck was made with arsenic-treated wood, don’t let pets underneath it. Regularly treat with sealant, wash with soap and water, and never power wash.
  • Choose toys free of colored dyes and fashioned from organic, natural fibers. Your pet can’t see color, so why should he chew on toys dipped in toxins?

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