Pamper Your Pet the Healthy Way

We all think our pets are worth their weight in gold, but we can love and indulge
them to death...literally. The idea is to shower our furry companions with the right
sort of affection—proper nutrition, enough exercise and holistic health care.

By Susan Weiner

November 2006

At a recent natural products trade show, the owner of a company that makes a nutritional supplement for dogs is telling a retailer what he’s learned about the lengths to which people will go to care for their pets. “Some people will spend more money on the health of their pets than they will on their own children,” the owner says. “They’ll run their dog or cat to the vet at any indication of an illness but they won’t see a doctor themselves for years. It’s really amazing, and I see and hear about it all the time.”

Statistics seem to confirm that company owner’s observations. According to a recent survey of Veterinary Pet Insurance policyholders and other pet owners who visited the VPI website, 70% of the 5,200 respondents said they would pay any amount to save their pet’s life. At least 17% said they would pay up to $5,000. And in a 2003 Pet Owner Survey of the American Animal Hospital Association, 73% of pet owners said they would go into debt to extend their pet’s life. Between 1994 and 2003, aggregate US household spending on veterinary services rose a whopping 76% from $4.8 to $8.5 billion, which may not be so surprising considering Americans are currently housing 90.5 million cats and 73.9 million dogs.

What is surprising is that as much as we love our pets and provide them with what we consider the very best—ready-to-eat meals, flea remedies, packaged snacks, chewy toys and regular vaccinations—we are also causing the kind of illnesses that force us to spend so much money on pet health care. Many of us seem not to realize that most commercial pet foods and snacks contain byproducts rejected for human consumption, fillers that impart no nutritional value and dubious chemicals such as BHT, BHA and ethoxyquin. Countless veterinarians contend that a variety of vaccinations are unnecessary and may be linked to arthritis, autoimmune diseases and malignancies. Flea medications have been associated with seizures and death, and even rawhide—a choking hazard—may contain unsavory ingredients such as antibiotics, lead or insecticides. And of course Father Time has his way with our animal companions, just as he does with us.

Is it possible that, in our eagerness to pamper our pets, we’re causing them more harm than good?

Like Human, Like Pet

It’s not that we shouldn’t be vigilant in watching for signs that our pets might be sick and then do everything to care for them. It’s just that we may not know that some of the illnesses most likely to afflict a pet are the same diseases humans commonly suffer from—cancer, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, allergies and obesity—and that the causes of those diseases may also mirror the causes in humans: poor diets, contaminated drinking water and exposure to pesticides, second-hand cigarette smoke and other environmental agents. What’s more, these hazards accumulate over our pets’ lifespans.

“Both humans and animals suffer from the same metabolic and degenerative diseases,” says Dan Duberman, DVM, of Blue Cross Animal Hospital in Southampton, New York. “Many of them are due to natural aging. It’s the general result of being alive.” As with human disease, prevention is crucial to keeping your pet healthy. Changes in care—including providing healthier foods and pure water, getting them regular exercise, seeking homeopathic approaches to illness and keeping immunizations to a minimum—can make it seem that all your pets have nine lives.

“By understanding how the body, mind and spirit work synergistically, you can begin to understand how to help your dog and cat be healthy all the time,” says Jill Elliot, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in New York City and co-author of Whole Health for Happy Dogs (Quarry Books) with Kim Bloomer. “This is a much healthier approach than simply waiting for illness to set in and attempting to treat it.”

Shots in the Dark?

For years, pet owners have been told that vaccinations are vital to the health of their animals. Numerous studies, however, indicate that yearly vaccinations may be the culprit behind some widespread dog and cat ailments. The illnesses that result in the overuse of vaccines prompted the coining of the term vaccinosis, or chronic disease brought on by vaccinations. A hot topic in veterinary circles, some believe that vaccines suppress immunity and precipitate disease; others contend that vaccinations prevent life-threatening ailments. By simply reducing vaccinations, however, you can minimize your pet’s exposure to chemical preservatives—called adjubents—that may result in illness.

Vaccine adjubents such as formaldehyde, ethylene glycol (what we know as antifreeze) and high levels of health-compromising ethyl mercury—preservatives also evident in human vaccinations—have been linked to increased aggression, arthritis, diabetes and seizures, as well as dermatitis and skin infections in dogs and cats. At her Manhattan practice, Dr. Elliot has witnessed healthy animals suddenly incapacitated with ailments including irritable bowel syndrome, tumors, urinary tract infections and asthma following vaccinations.

To prevent such afflictions, Dr. Elliot follows strict vaccination protocols for all her holistically treated clients: No injections for indoor cats other than rabies, a limited series for puppies starting at 10 weeks and ending at 16 weeks, and kitten vaccinations at 13 weeks and 16 weeks. Outdoor cats receive a yearly feline leukemia shot in addition to rabies, while dogs receive rabies vaccinations and titers for distemper and PARVO every few years. All other vaccinations are determined on a “lifestyle” basis.

“Fewer vaccines result in a lower chance of health risks for your pets, so I really cut back as much as possible on the vaccinations typically recommended by conventional vets,” says Dr. Elliot. “Additionally, if you start vaccinating when a dog or cat is older, there is more of an immune system to fight the negative effects.” Until pets are fully vaccinated, reminds Dr. Elliot, they should not be exposed to other animals.

Cutting Cancer Risk

Cancer is the number-one killer of dogs and cats, accounting for nearly 50% of deaths each year according to the Animal Cancer Center at Colorado State University. Like humans, dogs and cats can suffer from mammary tumors (breast cancer), lymphoma, prostate cancer, lung cancer, bladder cancer and cancer of the oral cavity. Unlike human cancers, which can be slow-moving, pet cancers can develop quite rapidly and show aggressive growth.

Do environmental factors cause pet cancer? Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine reports that cats living with smokers are three times more likely to develop lymphoma than cats living with nonsmokers. Dogs diagnosed with lung cancer are also likely to live with cigarette smokers. Meanwhile, veterinarians at Purdue University report that over half of Scottish terriers with bladder cancer—a pet disease six times more common now than in the 1970s—slept or played on lawns treated with herbicides.

We may have a long way to go before human cancers are cured, but we do know many ways that this deadly disease can be avoided. The American Cancer Society reports that at least one-third of all malignancies can be prevented through proper nutrition, not smoking, avoiding chemical exposure, and exercising and maintaining a healthy weight. Why can’t the same hold true for your pet?

Excise Body Fat

Dogs and cats that suffer from diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and joint problems share two common denominators: they’re overweight and they get insufficient exercise. (Sound like any other species you know?) A study published in The Journal of Nutrition reveals that more than 24% of dogs and 25% of cats are obese, defined as being 30% above optimal weight. Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between excess weight in pet owners and their pets, with middle-aged and older pets at greater risk.

When it comes to cats, diet and body weight greatly influence insulin usage, with carbohydrate-rich dry foods playing a major role in diabetes development. Unable to effectively break down and digest high-carb foods, a cat’s pancreas continually churns out excessive insulin. “Ideally, cats should only eat wet food,” explains Dr. Elliot. “It’s rare that you’ll see a thin cat with diabetes.”
Heart disease in pets can result from genetic, infectious and environmental causes, but lifestyle may play a role. Limiting food intake and providing a human-grade, low-sodium diet can help.

“Exercising your pet and maintaining his or her weight can prevent heart problems and, to some extent, lung problems,” says Dr. Duberman. “Dogs and cats can and do have weak hearts and can get heart attacks and arteriolosclerosis. This can be prevented by exercise and not feeding your pets too much.”

Jumping Joints

Joint difficulties in dogs run the gamut from minor aches to more serious conditions like arthritis, which involves the degeneration of cartilage and bone. Less frequently, an autoimmune response with no known cause instigates the body to attack its own joints. In addition to whimpering and discomfort sitting or standing, arthritic symptoms in dogs are identical to those in people: stiffness, difficulty walking and swelling in the limb or joint, as well as shying away from being touched.

Dogs treated with conventional drugs often suffer from side effects including kidney and liver problems, vomiting, ulcers and excessive urination. Conversely, dietary changes, regular physical activity and natural anti-inflammatories can be as effective as prescription meds—minus the potential side effects and high cost.

“Most orthopedic problems in pets are caused by excessive weight,” says Dr. Elliot. “Often, just getting your pet’s weight to normal or below normal will get these problems under control. I highly recommend working with holistic veterinarians to treat arthritic conditions.” Even if your dog belongs to a breed that’s likely to develop arthritis or other hip and joint problems, a healthy diet and normal weight can forestall such ills. Limiting snacks and foods that can aggravate inflammation—such as grains, starches and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant)—and making sure your dog gets proper exercise will effect noticeable changes. Supplements including glucosamine and chondroitin, and vitamins C and E, along with herbs such as willow bark are also helpful.

Changing your pet’s routine isn’t a guarantee that your companion will never fall ill, but a healthier lifestyle ensures less exposure to the factors commonly known to cause disease in dogs and cats.

By simply understanding the risks of over-vaccination and household toxins—and by attending to proper nutrition and weight management—you can increase the likelihood that your furry friend will continue romping by your side for a long time to come.

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