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Protecting Our Animal Companions
by Deborah Straw

Like many of us, our pets are living longer. And as they do, they develop more cancers. According to an October 1997 Morris Animal Foundation survey, cancer is the number one killer of dogs and cats, and the number one concern of pet owners. In the Morris study, which surveyed 2,003 pet owners, the leading cause of non-accidental death in dogs was cancer (at 47 percent) and one of three leading non-accidental causes of death in cats at 32 percent. That survey also identified cancer as the leading cause of disease-related deaths in ferrets (33 percent), rabbits (28 percent), and birds (18 percent). Some seventy types of cancer have been identified in domestic animals.

As with humans, there is no one cause for this virulent disease, but there are plenty of things we can do to prevent many cancers from occurring. Prevention can start inside our homes. We generally think of cleaners, paints and human medicines as the most dangerous for our pets. But not all commercial pet products are animal-friendly, either, even if your dog or cat likes them.

One of the biggest culprits is commercial pet food. Perhaps the largest moral reason not to feed your animal these foods is that much of it contains rendered, euthanized pets. Pets have been mixed with other materials including those condemned for human foods, including "rotten meat from supermarket shelves, restaurant grease... '4-D' (dead, diseased, dying, and disabled) animals, roadkill..." according to Ann Martin, author of Food to Die For. In both the U.S. and in Canada, this rendering of pets is not illegal.

Martin, a Canadian writer who lives with several animal companions, went a bit farther in her investigations and discovered that some pets are euthanized with sodium pentobarbital (s.p.) and then rendered. This process does not break down the s.p., and this rendered food goes into commercial pet food and into feed for cows, pigs, and horses.

According to the Animal Protection Institute (API) of Sacramento, California, commercial pet foods -- those sold in convenience and grocery stores -- contain mostly grains and meat by-products. The latter may be those euthanized shelter animals mentioned above or even "cancer-ridden livestock."

Two-thirds of the pet food manufactured in the U.S. contains preservatives, according to API. A few additives in these processed foods include coloring agents; emulsifiers; lubricants; flavoring agents; pH control agents; synergists; solvents; and a dozen or so more. API notes that cancer-causing agents may be permitted "if they are used at low enough levels."

For example, three common preservatives in pet foods, BHA, BHT, and EQ (ethoxyquin), have been shown to lead to development of certain cancers. BHA and BHT are the most common antioxidants in processed food for humans, and EQ is the most common antioxidant preservative in pet foods. ( Proplylene glycol, a cousin of antifreeze, is also found in some semi-moist dog foods.) The API lists an example of EQ found in some dogs' livers and tissues months after the dogs had ingested it. As of July 31, 1997, the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine requested that pet food manufacturers cut in half the maximum level for EQ.

The other important piece regarding commercial pet food is that strict regulations do not exist regarding pet food in either the United States or in Canada. "What is needed, in both the Untied States and Canada, are government-enforced regulations of this industry. Until then, Buyer Beware," Martin warns. Many veterinarians who practice both conventional and holistic medicine recommend either a home-made diet or a high-quality commercial diet combined with homemade supplements. In our own case, our dog, Wanda, is much healthier, in general, since she has been on an entirely home-made diet.

Animals need toys, of course. All is not rosy here, either. Rawhide chews, treated with chemicals, have been known to cause choking and intestinal blockage. Some of the residues found in poorly processed animal hides are lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium salts, and formaldehyde. If you do give your pup rawhide chews, choose high-grade ones made in this country.

Smoked products, which smell barbecued, can also be dangerous. Wood smoke contains approximately two hundred compounds, some of which are carcinogenic. Plastic chew toys are made of petrochemical polymers like polyurethane and nylon. Pig's ears and noses are processed with chemicals and are dyed. But, of course, most dogs need to chew. Try commercial chews from environment-friendly companies like Doctors Foster and Smith, Pet Factory, and Ecology Rawhide Treats, or occasionally give your dog large raw or lightly cooked bones, carefully monitored.

If your cat or rabbit uses litter, be aware of what's in many of these products. Two major problems with many clay-based and clumping litters are sodium bentonite and quartz silica (sand). Both have led to disease and to death. Sodium bentonite can be used as grouting, sealing, and plugging materials. It acts like an expandable cement, swelling to fifteen to eighteen times its dry size. This is not a pretty picture if we consider our animals' internal plumbing. As cats often lick themselves after using their litter, they may ingest pieces of litter. Or they may sleep in their litter box and then lick their bodies. A breeder of Japanese bobtail cats and writer, Marina Michaels, has lost kittens who passed clay stools until the day they died. In the U.K., since the late 1980s, several rabbit deaths have been reported due to clumping, scoopable litters.

Quartz silica is what makes the litters so dusty when poured and emptied. According to The International Agency for Research on Cancer, crystalline silica in the form of quartz or cristobalite from occupational sources should be classified as carcinogenic to humans. The U.S. National Toxicology Program describes crystalline silica (in respirable size) as a substance that "may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen." Many safer, easily disposable litters are now available, such as those made of pulverized cedar; a mixture of corncobs and pulverized cedar; recycled newspapers; cedar and pine shavings; or biodegradable litters made of multiporous crystals.

We should also be more vigilant about the pesticides in flea products (some natural options do exist and a home made diet should cut down on flea infestations) and about multiple vaccinations.

These changes will take a shift in thinking and shopping habits. Some will require spending more money. But they will increase the lifespan of our cats, dogs, and other companion animals. We can also improve the lives of our animals by spending more time with them. Like us, without stimulation and company, they become bored or depressed. If we add more playtime and more loving attention, we will all be healthier. These creatures do so much for us; we need to repay the favor.

© Copyright 2001 Deborah Straw.  All Rights Reserved. 

Deborah Straw of Burlington, Vermont, has been a published writer for 25 years. Her first book, Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys, an ecotourism book, was published by Country Roads Press/NTC Contemporary Publishing Group in August 1999. Why is Cancer Killing Our Pets? How You Can Protect and Treat Your Animal Companion was published by Healing Arts Press (an imprint of Inner Traditions International) in November 2000. became the first Straw is also a widely published essayist and fiction writer, with work in several anthologies. Besides being a writer, she teaches writing and literature classes at Community College of Vermont, Burlington.




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