Environmental Toxins: Hidden Dangers for your Dog's Health

Many well-intentioned pet parents are unaware of the hazardous effects of environmental toxins. Our furry friends walk on, roll in, lick, and sniff everything from chemical household cleaners and pesticides to perfumes and room deodorizers. These irritants are either ingested or absorbed into their skin, ears, and nasal cavities, resulting in a variety of health risks, including:

  • Poisoning
  • Cancer (bladder, spleen, liver, bone marrow, brain and skin)
  • Immune system impairment (immune deficiency, autoimmune diseases)
  • Allergic reactions (inhalant, skin, bowel, eye, ears, nose and feet)
  • Organ damage (liver, GI tract, kidneys)

The good news is that you can help protect your pet from many common health hazards. Follow these tips to protect your furry friend from environmental toxins.

Learn how to identify environmental toxins.

"Many people think of environmental toxins as the 'skull-and-crossbones' products like rat poisoning or antifreeze," Dodds says. "However, the list includes many items we use everyday and consider generally safe. Certain molds, fungus, and plants are also environmental toxins for our pets, as they pose potential short and long-term risks."

Follow product directions carefully.

According to Justine Lee, DVM, a board-certified emergency critical care veterinary specialist and associate director of veterinary services for Pet Poison Helpline, one of the most dangerous mistakes people make when using potentially hazardous products is failing to follow the directions. "Most 'ready to use' lawn and garden products, for example, are generally safe," Lee says. "Toxicity is seen when large amounts are ingested or pets get into the concentrated product."

Steer clear of the most dangerous environmental toxins.

Some products should never be used around pets, such as rose and flower food containing disulfoton (a systemic organophosphate pesticide) and rodent bait. Melanie Monteiro, an authorized pet first aid instructor for the Emergency Care and Safety institute and author of The Safe Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out also warns against snail and slug baits containing metaldehyde. "These are one of the most common causes of serious poisoning in dogs," Monteiro says.

Use flea and tick preventives wisely.

Reported side effects from spot-on flea and tick treatments range from mild skin irritations to seizures and even death.Dodds cautions to only use these treatments under the guidance of a veterinarian and to completely avoid products containing organophosphates (such as malathion) and carbamates.

Another huge mistake with spot-on treatments is 'overdosing' pets. "People apply them based on their pet's total weight, rather than their optimal weight," Lee says. "Since about 40-70% of pets are overweight, this can result in dosing that far exceeds the appropriate amount!" She also warns to read the instructions carefully. "Some of these products should never be used on cats, and we often find pet owners applying 'small dog' product to their 'large cat,' which can be deadly!"

Detoxify your environment.

Implement these tips to immediately reduce environmental toxins:

Switch from chemical household cleaners to non-toxic products. Safe alternatives to chemical cleaners are widely available, and work surprisingly well. Lee also suggests trying, "good old-fashioned baking soda, vinegar, and alcohol-based products, which are generally very safe."

Eliminate pests with cedar oil.

Cedar oil is derived from cedar wood, which has been used for thousands of years as a natural insect repellent. Unlike toxic pesticides, cedar oil is safe for pets and children. Since it kills fleas as well as their eggs and larvae, it can also be used in place of chemical spot-on products.

Keep in mind that, according to Dr. Lee, not all "oils" are safe. Essential oils can be very dangerous to pets, particularly cats, when used in concentrated form.

Give your pet filtered or bottled water instead of tap water.

Studies have identified numerous environmental toxins in tap water, ranging from lawn chemicals and cleaning products to prescription drugs. Filling your pet's bowl with filtered or bottled water could help eliminate these toxins.

Choose pet foods with natural preservatives.

Preservatives are necessary to protect against harmful mold, bacteria, and fungus.

Although synthetic pet food preservatives are widely believed to pose long-term health risks, Dodds points out that, "Chemical antioxidants, such as ethoxyquin, BHA and BHT, have been linked to inducing or promoting a wide variety of cancers." She suggests opting for foods that contain naturally occurring antioxidants, such as vitamins E and C.

Dog-proof your environment.

Since it's impossible to eliminate every potential hazard from your environment, dog-proof your home (inside and out) to prevent exposure and serious accidents.

Lee's and Monteiro's dog-proofing checklist includes:

  • Hang up purses. "That's the most common way dogs get into prescription bottles, ibuprofen, and sugar-free xylitol gum – all of which are poisonous!" Lee says.
  • Store vitamins and medications in closed cabinets or drawers, and avoid storing your pets' meds near your own medications. "Pet owners often inadvertently administer their own human medications to their pets," Lee says. "Pet Poison Helpline gets inundated with phone calls of accidental overdosing this way everyday."
  • Keep cleaning supplies on high shelves or behind cabinet doors.
  • Store dangerous garage items such as chemicals, paints, and automotive supplies on high shelves or in closed cabinets. Make sure to clean up any oil or antifreeze spills immediately by flushing them away. Just 1-2 tsp. can kill a dog!
  • Remove toxic plants and flowers from your yard or house.

Some dogs have compromised immune systems or chronic allergies, making them especially susceptible to environmental irritants. Julie Wade of Orange, CA discovered this when her dog, Yogi Bear, experienced sores that resembled tiny rupturing blood blisters all over the left side of his face. After carefully monitoring his actions to determine the cause, Wade realized the sores were the result of a new carpet on which Yogi Bear had been sleeping (he liked to sleep on his left side!).

"Yogi Bear suffers from allergies, and the chemicals in the rug were causing a reaction," Wade says. "Now, I place a clean cotton sheet over the rug for Yogi Bear to sleep on. This provides a barrier that protects him from any chemicals or contaminants."

Wade's story shows that no matter how hard we try, it is unlikely that we will be able to completely rid our dogs' lives of environmental toxins. However, by becoming more aware of potential hazards and taking steps to reduce or eliminate them, just like Wade did, we can help protect our canine companions from both the short and long-term health risks of living in a toxic environment.

Home and garden toxin checklist

Lawn and garden products (fertilizers, weed killers, lawn care, swimming pool products, blood meal, bone meal, rose and plant food, compost, cocoa mulch, etc.);

Pesticides (fungicides, herbicides, snail and slug bait, rat poisoning, etc.);

Household cleaners (chemical cleaning products, bleach, air fresheners, carpet cleaners, laundry detergent, etc.);

Construction materials (paints, varnishes, adhesives, etc.);

Automotive products (antifreeze, break fluid, lubricants, sealants, etc.)

Batteries (especially battery fluids);

Personal care products (antiperspirants, personal care prescription bottles, hair sprays, etc.).

Pet care products (insect repellent, flea and tick medications, prescription pet medications, shampoos, cat litter, etc.);

Airborne pathogens (dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, viruses, etc.);

Water-borne pathogens (bacteria, viruses, blue-green algae, parasites, chemicals, etc.);

Land pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, poisonous insects, toads, mushrooms, snakes, chemicals, etc.).

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