Pets and Environmental Toxins: What You Need To Know
Ask any pet owner if their cat or dog has ever consumed something harmful or poisonous, and most likely an epic story will follow, usually with a happy ending. There are countless common products that we use every day that can poison our pets. Many of these are obvious – bleach, certain houseplants, prescription medications, some human foods – and we try not to expose our pets to them. But what about the potential dangers that are not so obvious? What if we didn’t personally bring the hazard into the home in the first place? What if we don’t even know it’s there?
About ten years ago, I drove my best friend, Natalie, to the Humane Society to adopt her first cat. We left with a petite tortoiseshell with white paws, and she purred from the backseat the whole way home. Natalie is the kind of cat mom that makes me want to be a cat. Sasha was not only loved abundantly, but she was up to date on her shots and vet visits. She ate the right food, and lived indoors in a clean environment. Or so it seemed.
Three years ago, Sasha had to be euthanized. The vet discovered masses inside her lungs. She developed a chronic cough that would break your heart to hear. In her last weeks, she was struggling to breath. Her lungs filled with fluid that needed to be drained daily by the vet. Not only was this painful for Sasha, but it was strenuous. I saw my friend try everything possible until she had to weigh the depleted options against Sasha’s quality of life. You can cry on a thousand shoulders, but you can’t explain to your animal what is happening and why. And nothing makes it harder than not actually having that answer.
We later found that it was due to environmental toxins, and possibly mold, in the apartment. Many animals have health issues that impact them later in life or even suddenly and without warning. While we can’t control all things, we can increase our awareness and minimize potential unknown dangers to our pets. We have historically used poisonous products and materials to clean, build our homes, and control pests. Common household products that are known to be poisonous to dogs and cats include detergents, fabric softeners, enzymatic cleaners, deodorizers and sprays, toothpaste and mouthwash, Firestarter logs, hand sanitizer (ethanol), liquid potpourri, essential oils, and more. For many of these, we can now source nontoxic and pet friendly options. Consider how much closer our pets’ noses and mouths are to the residual chemicals of these products.
Recently, RTK tested a multi-million dollar home in Westchester County, New York. The owners had moved in, and three months later, their Golden Retriever puppy got very sick, and developed cancer. When the test results came back, there were elevated levels of a pesticide in the soil called chlordane, that was outlawed in 1988, and known to cause cancer and a host of other ailments. The puppy passed away just after she turned 6-months-old.
In older homes, the risk of lead and asbestos exposure to animals is as relevant as it is to humans. We don’t always know if we have lead-based paint on our walls, both inside and outside, and we may not be aware of how many building materials contain asbestos. Symptoms from lead exposure include changes in behavior, gastrointestinal or neurologic problems, and anemia. Inhaling asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma in dogs and cats and the disease develops much more quickly than in people. Pesticides and insecticides are the cause of thousands of reported poisonings each year, and although the EPA monitors all pesticide ingredients before they are produced, pesticides will remain in soil around homes for years. The half-life of chlordane, for example, is more than 30-years. So even if you don’t personally utilize pesticides around your home, your animals and children are not necessarily safe. If you move into a home, whether it’s old, new, or just new to you, these environmental hazards are important to be familiar with.
Natalie and the vet who treated Sasha discussed mold, asbestos and other possible reasons for her condition. One major question mark was that like many of us, Natalie and Sasha lived in three different apartments during her short life. That her death was ultimately a result of exposure to a toxic substance is something Natalie regrets, and wishes she knew which apartment was the culprit, so that she can warn the current tenants. The most sobering piece of this sad puzzle is that Sasha’s symptoms were not remarkable until it was past the point of a treatment option. For that reason alone, we owe our unknowing pets the most discerning awareness about their surroundings. Consider it fair trade for the endless, unwavering love they give us.
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center published an article about potential hazards animals face during home renovations and the website for Mesothelioma Treatment Centers has information about asbestos exposure signs and treatment options for mesothelioma. The Nation Pesticide Information Center has information on individual pesticides and resources if animals or people are exposed.