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Did you know that when the Environmental Working Group tested 20 dogs and 40 cats in 2008 for chemical contaminants, these pets tested positive for 48 out of 70 industrial chemicals?
Dogs and cats are more sensitive to environmental contaminants than we are. This study showed that average levels of chemical contaminants were much higher in dogs and cats than in humans, with dogs testing 2.4 times higher in perfluorochemicals and cats testing 5 times higher in mercury and 23 times higher in fire retardants (PBDEs).
Scientists believe that some of these high levels may be due to pets’ frequent contact with toxins found in lawn products, carpeting, pesticides, and second-hand tobacco smoke. Exposure to these toxins is believed to cause higher rates of cancer in dogs, as well as hyperthyroidism and respiratory problems in cats.
Unfortunately, our pets spend most of their time on the ground where many of these contaminants are found. Cats in particular may be even more susceptible to toxins, since they spend so much time grooming.
Here are 8 common toxic substances that could be harming your pets.
1. Lawn Fertilizer
A study conducted in 2012 by Biki Takashima-Uebelhoer of the University of Massachusetts showed that dogs exposed to professionally applied lawn care products, especially those containing an herbicide called 2, 4-D (commonly used in “weed and feed” products), had a 70 percent greater risk of developing malignant lymphoma. Chemicals in lawn care products have also been linked to bladder cancer in dogs.
If you want to avoid the use of chemical herbicides for your lawn, consider using corn gluten meal on weed-prone areas in the early spring and fall. Corn gluten meal seems to prevent weed seeds from germinating, and it’s high in nitrogen, so it fertilizes your lawn at the same time.
Pesticides are substances used to kill insects, rodents, and garden pests such as snails and slugs. Chemical pesticides that are toxic to pets include Avermectin (it can cause tremors), Allethrin (linked to liver cancer in dogs), and Diazinon (causes diarrhea, convulsions, and difficulty breathing).
Many household pests can be controlled or eliminated without the use of toxic chemicals. Try sealing off entry points for ants or rodents, keep food particles off the floor, and vacuum regularly.
3. Cleaning Supplies
Certain types of chemical cleaning products can put our pets at risk for developing allergies, anemia, organ damage, and cancer. Even after the use of chemical cleaners, residual vapors can linger behind, posing a danger to both pets and humans.
Ammonia, found in oven and window cleaners, can irritate mucous membranes. Chlorine, found in bleach, all-purpose cleaners, tile scrubs, mildew removers, and disinfecting wipes, is a toxic respiratory irritant that can damage pets’ skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Toilet bowl cleaners may also accidentally be ingested by pets who like to drink from the toilet bowl.
Try switching to natural, non-toxic household cleaning products like white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide (the 3% household concentration only, NOT “food grade” peroxide, which is a much higher concentration), lemon juice and salt, or a “green” cleaner made from plant extracts. Baking soda is also a safe alternative cleanser, but keep in mind that if your cat ingests a large amount of it, it can cause a chemical imbalance in his body….so be sure to keep boxes of baking soda out of kitty’s reach.
4. New Carpeting
New carpets are made with very harsh chemicals including formaldehyde, acetone, toluene, benzene, styrene, and a slew of other volatile organic compounds. Some of these chemicals are labeled “extremely hazardous” by the EPA and are considered to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
According to a 1995 study published in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, new carpeting releases organic compounds into the air, causing eye, nose and throat irritation, neurological problems, and in some cases, death in animals. Other compounds in carpeting that can affect the health of both people and pets are adhesives, stain protectors, and flame retardants.
If you have new carpeting installed, there are several things you can do to protect yourself and your pets. Leave windows open after installation for at least 72 hours, and use a fan to expose the carpet to fresh, moving air. You can also use a nontoxic carpet cleaner followed by application of a specialized sealant that blocks the release of harmful outgasses in new carpet.
5. Tobacco Smoke
Like humans, dogs and cats are also susceptible to the negative effects of second-hand smoke. In dogs, breeds with long noses (such as Collies or Afghan Hounds) are at higher risk of developing nasal tumors due to cancer-causing particles in tobacco smoke collecting in their nasal passages. Breeds with short or medium noses have higher rates of lung cancer, since their shorter noses allow the inhaled smoke to travel directly to their lungs.
Second-hand smoke is particularly deadly to cats. Need an incentive to quit? Breathing in second-hand smoke puts cats at greater risk for developing asthma, lung disease, eye irritation, depression, and cancer of the lymph nodes and mouth.
I can personally attest to the tragedy of this scenario in the case of a wonderful pet owner whose dogs were patients at the clinic where I worked. This man deeply loved his dogs, but he was a smoker and had smoked around them for years. On the day he had to bring in one of his beloved dogs to be put to sleep because she had lung cancer, he kept repeating “I didn’t know”, while he sobbed until I thought my own heart would break.
Please don’t let this happen to your pet. If you must smoke, don’t do it indoors, or anywhere in the vicinity of your pets.
6. Unsafe Pet Toys
This is a topic that has received a lot of attention over the past few years due to the discovery of high levels of toxins in pet toys, particularly those manufactured in China.
In 2009, the Michigan-based Ecology Center conducted tests of more than 400 pet products. They found that 45 percent had detectable levels of arsenic, bromine, and chlorine, which have been linked to cancer and liver toxicity. Of the pet tennis balls tested, 48 percent had detectable levels of lead.
Additionally, many commercially available rawhide chews on the market today are manufactured with harmful chemicals, including lye, lime, bleach, arsenic, and formaldehyde. (Bully Sticks are a much safer alternative.)
Unfortunately, although stringent testing exists in the U.S. for children’s toys, there are currently no standards for lead or other toxins in pet toys. That’s why it’s so important to carefully research any toys that you purchase for your pets.
Companies such as Kong and Nylabone create chemical-free chew toys for dogs, and alternatives such as free-range chews, bully sticks, and organic raw bones are much better choices than rawhide.
7. Chemical Flea Repellents
Would you spray a can of bug spray directly on your dog or cat? Of course you wouldn’t! Yet dogs and cats are consistently exposed to potentially hazardous pesticides through the direct application of low quality flea repellents, shampoos, collars, and other chemical products marketed to protect them from fleas and ticks.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, hundreds (and possibly thousands) of pets have become sick or died from pesticide exposure in flea and tick products. Hartz flea products alone were blamed for at least 200 pet deaths in 1988 and thousands more in 2002.
And a 2003 study by the University of Massachusetts found that cats who wear flea collars have a 5 times higher risk of mouth cancer.
Some people treat their pets for fleas and ticks without the use of potentially dangerous chemicals by practicing the following:
- Using a flea comb on their dog or cat regularly and drowning any fleas that are combed out in soapy water.
- Washing their pets’ bedding in hot water once a week.
- Vacuuming regularly, and throwing out the bag after vacuuming.
- Using Diatomaceous Earth, a nontoxic substance that is used to control flea populations in the home and yard and also kills other insect pests such as ants and roaches.
Flea and tick prevention is not a “one size fits all.” Treatment can vary based on species, breed, age of the pet, severity of the infestation, and a host of other factors. If you are experiencing a flea or tick infestation, always ask your veterinarian for the safest products to use on your animal companion.
8. Teflon-coated Pans
When heated to high temperatures, Teflon-coated pans produce polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) fumes, which are extremely dangerous to birds. When birds breathe in the fumes, they can develop a condition called “Teflon toxicosis”, which causes their lungs to hemorrhage and fill with fluid, leading to suffocation and death.
There are some newer non-stick products on the market that don’t contain PTFE… be sure to read the product label. When in doubt, other safer cookware options are cast iron, porcelain enamelled cast iron, or stainless steel.
Knowledge is Power
We can reduce the risk to our pets from environmental toxins by reading labels, being diligent, and being informed. Humans have made great strides over the past 10 years in our awareness of the chemical dangers in our own environment…now it’s time to make sure we are doing the same for our pets.
Do you have any suggestions for “Green” alternatives to traditional products that you’d like to share? Tell us about it in the comments below!