Most pet owners know their pets are not human. They're better than humans -- the best of friends, unwavering companions, and devoted life mates.
Though by one measure, pets are more like humans than we'd like to admit -- they share our vulnerability to environmental pollutants. In fact, pets are very much like young children. Their lives are spent playing on lawns and sleeping on floors and as a consequence often have higher exposures to lawn and garden pesticides and to harmful chemicals in household products that can accumulate in dust.
With these common exposures come shared risk. As reported in Environmental Health News, dogs whose owners reported using professionally applied lawn pesticides were 70 percent more likely to have lymphoma, in a form that closely resembles non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The sixth most common cancer among Americans, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has also been linked to people with high levels of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides in their bodies.
In another study , veterinarians at Purdue University found that Scottish terriers exposed to 2,4-D and other common weed killers, were four times more likely to develop bladder cancer than those whose owners didn't use lawn chemicals.
=Moving indoors, there lies the cat. Given their fastidious grooming habits, it should come as no surprise that cats might ingest a lot of dust. But while dust by itself might not be so bad, it can be contaminated with brominated flame retardants that are added to foam upholstery and electronics but are released over time. Flame retardants have been linked to a rise in hyperthyroidism in cats, which can cause weight loss, increased appetite, hyperactivity and death.
A child's world is not all that different from a cat's, and house dust contaminated with flame retardants is as much a problem for people as for animals. In fact, researchers at Duke University found that house dust can be particularly problematic if you have infants, toddlers, and young children who spend much of their time crawling on floors and putting their hands in their mouths.
Studies have shown that toddlers with high exposure to flame retardants have lower IQs. And fetal exposure to flame retardants appears to be connected with attention deficits, hyperactivity, difficulty with learning and memory, and low sperm count in adulthood.
It's not new news that physiologically, pets respond similarly to environmental toxins as their owners. In the 1950s, as thousands of people in Japan died or suffered serious effects from eating mercury-poisoned fish from Minamata Bay, cats also demonstrated strange neurological behavior -- they were described as "dancing in the streets" -- before collapsing and dying.
But the new research should remind us that not only our children but our pets depend on us to keep them safe from harmful chemicals and that until these chemicals are better regulated, it is up to us to reduce or eliminate exposures around the home. The best ways to do so are:
1. Avoid toxic pesticides and herbicides in and around the home. Use Green Shield Certified products and services to ensure more effective pest control without unnecessary pesticide use.
2. Keep dust in the house to a minimum by vacuuming carpets with a vacuum that contains a HEPA filter, damp mopping floors and damp dust furniture, curtains and blinds on a regular basis.
3. Choose sofas and chairs made with naturally flame resistant fabrics such as wool, cotton or jute.
4. Purchase computers and other electronic devices from manufacturers that pledge not to use flame retardants, such as those listed in "Electronics Without Brominated Flame Retardants and PVC - a Market Overview" produced by the International Chemical Secretariat.
5. Pick your pet food products wisely. For a lighthearted take on the matter see Norman, Eco-Warrior, a video about a cat that is delighted with the news that by the end of 2013, Loblaw, the Canadian grocery chain, will sell only seafood -- including in its cat food -- that comes from sustainable sources. How sweet is that?