Sheila Pell is a journalist and contributor to The Bark.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Simple preventive steps can go a long way toward offsetting their threats
June 14 2014
A few months ago, the icy breath of the north that normally tucks itself over the Arctic during the winter blasted into the Northeast, prime tick country. This prompted climate scientists to look for links between a weakened polar vortex and a warming world. But those who study arachnids were interested in other signs … like fewer ticks.
In January, Thomas Mather, PhD, an entomologist known to many as the “tick guy,” trudged through thick snow in Kingston, R.I., looking for the spot where he’d buried vials of deer ticks the day before. The overnight temperature had fallen to a tick-numbing three degrees. Locating the vials, he sprinkled the tiny black specks on his palm. They sat there like pepper. Then they began to move.
For ticks, it seems, the ice age was a snowbird’s vacation. So don’t drop your guard, warns Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease and its outreach arm, the TickEncounter Resource Center (TERC). Mather has spent two decades studying the rise of the blacklegged tick—commonly called the deer tick—in Rhode Island.
“I’m pretty certain that we won’t really be able to credit winter’s serial polar vortices for whatever the ticks are or are not doing in the spring,” he says. It’s not about the weather, but cycles. In their two-year lifespan, ticks feed on the blood of hosts during three growth stages: larval, nymphal and adult. According to Mather, the deer tick problems we’re facing in 2014 were largely decided last August and September by the number of larval ticks that found infected rodent hosts. “That will determine both the summer nymph populations and fall’s adult tick abundance,” Mather says.
In recent years, those cycles have produced record numbers of nymphs at the sites his team sample each summer. So many, in fact, that he considers it a public health crisis in his state, which is part of the East Coast “tick-belt.”
Mather says that human and pet encounters with ticks are skyrocketing, and while ticks don’t always carry a disease, they may, and many of those diseases are dangerous.
Between 2006 and 2010, Veterinary Week reported a 30 percent increase in the rate of dogs exposed to tick-transmitted diseases. Among them: The aggressive lone star tick can transmit ehrlichiosis, one of the most common and dangerous tick-borne diseases in dogs. The brown dog tick and American dog tick also spread ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF).
Then there’s the deer tick. Although there are hundreds of species of ticks—all of which are relatives of spiders and mites, in the U.S. —the deer tick is number one on the most unwanted list. It spreads several dangerous infections, Mather says, and topping that list is Lyme disease.
Trail of Infection
The deer tick in the East and the related western blacklegged tick are the only known transmitters of Lyme disease in the United States. The trail of infection typically begins with rodents or, in the West, lizards, natural reservoirs of the Lyme bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi. Ticks need a blood meal to reproduce, and acquire the bacterium when they bite an infected host. The next time they bite, they inject the bacterium into their unlucky meal source.
Where Lyme is found, so are deer, but the “deer tick,” as it’s commonly called, is actually the blacklegged tick, and it feeds on many different mammals, birds and reptiles. This tick has been on a tear in the Northeast, its range expanding, its pathogens mutating, ever since the disease it spreads—long known in Europe—was recognized in 1975 in Lyme, Conn.
Lyme disease was first diagnosed in a dog about 25 years ago, and now it’s one of the most common tick-borne diseases in dogs in the U.S., notes Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health. In several of the most affected states, one out of 15 dogs tested positive for Lyme disease in 2011, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And where dogs test positive, so do humans. In 2012, 95 percent of human cases were reported from 13 states concentrated in the Northeast and upper Midwest.
In parts of the Northeast, up to half of the deer ticks are infected with Lyme disease. In California, where Lyme also exists, the infection rate is far lower, with the disease mainly occurring in four northwestern counties.
A dog’s risk in such areas goes up and down. As noted on the Baker Institute’s website, even within highly infected regions, there are “hotspots of tick infestation and Lyme disease risk,” which “mingle with non-infested areas with much lower risk.” Even so, far fewer infected dogs than people develop the disease. Studies suggest that more than 75 percent of dogs in hyperendemic areas may be exposed to infected ticks, yet only about 5 percent develop Lyme. However, Lyme is only one of the diseases deer ticks spread to dogs; among the others are ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and anaplasmosis (“dog tick fever”).
There’s also a growing list of new diseases involving deer ticks, including one caused by the bacterium Borrelia miyamotoi, which mimics Lyme disease, and the rare but increasing Powassan virus and its variant, deer-tick virus. Powassan hasn’t been found in dogs, but dogs with neurological issues aren’t commonly tested for this rare disease, and such tests aren’t readily available.
In fact, even with available tests, diagnosing Lyme disease in dogs is challenging. Unlike viral diseases such as Powassan, Lyme is a bacterial infection and can be treated with antibiotics. But its symptoms, if any, mimic many other diseases. One common sign, lameness, takes two to five months to appear, according to the Baker Institute, and, unlike people, dogs don’t develop the telltale bull’s-eye rash around the bite.
A CDC study found that people in areas with a higher-than-average number of dogs with Lyme disease are at greater risk of getting it themselves. There’s no evidence that dogs spread it directly, but they may bring infected ticks into homes and yards.
And since dogs have a way of getting people outside, down that trail and—bag in hand—under that bush, it’s easy to see why the CDC says that dog owners face an elevated risk for Lyme disease.
Know the Enemy
Going outdoors is not the problem. What increases the risk of being infected is entering tick habitats. Especially if you go in thinking that ticks fall off trees. Or that they pounce, or fly. Surveys find that most people don’t know enough about ticks and their habits to ward them off.
“When it comes to tick-bite protection and disease prevention, we’ve learned that people tend to only focus on it after the fact,” Mather says.
That’s why TERC, which Mather heads, came into existence. Its goal is to entice people to learn more than they ever wanted to know about Ixodes scapularis (blacklegged or deer ticks)—ticks that carry the Lyme disease pathogen—and other species as well.
The idea for TERC began around 2004, when Mather decided to start “an aggressive, grassroots, tick-bite prevention program.” The tally wasn’t nearly as appalling back then, but by 2013, CDC estimates of the number of Americans diagnosed with Lyme disease each year hovered around 300,000, a whopping 10 times higher than anyone thought.
Although Mather felt that scientists already had solutions, “the link between science and people’s lived experiences with ticks was largely missing.” To fill this gap, his team took their fieldwork in a new direction: into tick-afflicted neighborhoods and to meetings with stakeholder groups. “People kept asking if we had a brochure or website,” he says. “After hearing that, oh, like 50 times, we started brainstorming.” They knew that brochures usually end up in the trash, but could a website reach people? “TickEncounter is what we came up with,” he says. It launched in 2006.
Today, the Internet teems with tick-related websites and information, and Mather believes it’s more important than ever to promote “a common core message” so the facts are clear to people. TickEncounter aspires to be the place people turn to for reliable and up-to-date information. The site isn’t soft on the facts; many people are susceptible, even likely to fall victim to tick-borne disease, which can be devastating. But simple preventive behaviors work. Before people can take action, Mather says, they need to believe in their own ability to successfully use those practices.
TERC’s unique graphic interface empowers users to snitch on the tiny army, ratting on its whereabouts and force-strength by season and region. The TickSpotters program, which includes crowd-sourced surveillance, recently added veterinary clinic reporting. Every two weeks, participating clinics send in patients’ ticks for identification. “These data are informing our ‘Current Tick Activity’ databases,” he says. Posts are updated every two weeks for nine U.S. regions. They plan to add an online dashboard with a map of results to show tick trends across America.
In February 2014, the TickSpotters page reflected the effects of the frigid weather, showing low tick activity in New England. Things were heating up on the West Coast, however, home to the western blacklegged tick. In fact, it’s always tick season somewhere, and people and pets can get Lyme disease even in winter.
“Pet owners seem most [affected] by adult ticks because they can see them,” Mather says, but the nymphs “are potentially more dangerous.” Nymph season is May through August, months during which people and dogs tend to spend the most time outside. Nymphs lurk in moist leaf litter in or near the edge of wooded areas. Because they’re so tiny at this stage, nymphs attach to small mammals near ground level, such as mice, which often carry Lyme. According to the Baker Institute, only repeated exposure to nymphs causes infection in dogs.
Adults, being larger, tend to bump into their hosts at higher altitudes. They wait aboard grasses and bushes, closest to animals’ largest body surface. They’re mainly a threat to dogs in fall and early spring. In winter, they only seek hosts when temperatures rise above freezing. Adults also transmit Lyme, babesiosis and anaplasmosis.
Despite the threats ticks pose, it’s not easy designing public education programs that work for everyone, health officials say. The problem is different for places in which ticks are entrenched and those with an emerging infestation. The bad news is, the number of the latter is definitely growing.
More Ticks, More Diseases
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the temperate, humid, northeastern U.S. is a favorable place for ticks. More so all the time, it seems.
Ninety percent of canine Lyme cases now occur in the Northeast, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, whose website includes a “parasite prevalence” map by state, with confirmed canine cases by county. Lyme disease has also shown up in Northern California and on the Oregon coast, but there isn’t much evidence of spread.
The deer tick has even moved into Canada, where average temperatures have increased by 2.5º F over the past 60 years. One study suggests that tick-inhabitable regions in Eastern Canada will expand from 18 percent to more than 80 percent by 2020.
A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that in the U.S., Lyme disease is shifting northward; the study noted large increases in 21 states between 1992 and 2007. This may be due “at least in part to the effects of climate change,” wrote the researchers. A Yale study also found links between Lyme disease outbreaks and milder weather in the Northeast. The 2004–2007 survey found the greatest risk in southern Maine through Washington, D.C., Minnesota and Wisconsin. Newer hotspots appeared to be cropping up in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and North Dakota.
Warmer winters, which allow ticks to breed throughout the year, may be a factor, the researchers say. Warm, moist air may also extend their life cycle. They dismissed the Southeast as a location for Lyme disease, only acknowledging the lone star tick. But some say there’s growing evidence of a Lyme or Lyme-like infection there, too. In North Carolina, Lyme disease is up slightly, with a few cases diagnosed per year, but other diseases are being reported. RMSF cases rose 50 percent in 2012 compared to 2011. In June 2013, a child died from RMSF.
In 2009, the Ixodes affinis tick, native to South America and previously seen only in coastal Florida and Georgia, was found in North Carolina. Recently, the more southerly Gulf Coast tick, which transmits canine hepatozoonosis, was spotted there as well. This disease affects muscle cells and results in a debilitating and usually fatal condition. The aggressive lone star tick, historically found in southern and south-central states such as Texas and Florida, has been marching north and east for decades, scientists say. It has even worked its way into Maine and Ontario, Canada.
According to the CDC, cases of RMSF, mainly found in the Southeast, cropped up in an area of eastern Arizona where it had never before been seen—mostly in communities with many free-roaming dogs, who likely carried the brown dog tick. Newer deer tick pathogens are expanding their range, as well.
Many things are tipping the balance, scientists say, and they’re all wrapped together. They include the prevalence of deer, invasive plants, bird migration and traveling pets. Then there’s the sprawl of suburbs into woodlands, which exposes more people and pets to tick-borne diseases.
Some point to dwindling biodiversity, as animals that keep tick numbers down are increasingly shut out of their habitats by development and other human activities. Though ticks aren’t known to be any animal’s food source, opossums—rarely welcomed in the suburban landscape—groom themselves meticulously, and in the process, kill ticks by the thousands. As Rick Ostfeld, senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, remarked, “Many ticks try to feed on opossums, and few survive the experience.”
Warmer weather and drought may be causing oaks to overproduce acorns some years, creating a boom in the white-footed mouse population. More acorns, more mice; more mice, more ticks. When the acorn crop crashes, fewer mice reproduce, and ticks are driven to seek fresh blood.
Some scientists think ticks migrate, following animal hosts that may be moving with the shift of plants.
And they may find perfect habitat in a dog’s backyard.
Tools to Stem the Tide
Farmers who take a sustainable approach often use a technique known as integrated pest management (IPM) to control pests and avoid toxic chemicals. Pet owners can learn from these farmers’ practices, which combine a range of methods and as few synthetic chemicals as possible. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website describes IPM as “an effective and environmentally sensitive approach” that can be applied in homes and gardens.
In fact, surveys find that homeowners in suburban neighborhoods in the Northeast are reluctant to spray chemicals to kill ticks. And at any rate, ticks are adapting to traditional pesticides. A recent CDC study found that spraying bifenthrin in a suburban area failed to reduce tick bites. Homeowners do widely accept methods such as brush and leaf-litter control or landscape barriers, which experts say offer medium levels of control.
TERC doesn’t rule out pesticides to control deer ticks, but suggests careful targeting to limit their use. Their recommended approach combines host-specific “Tick Tubes” and habitat-specific perimeter sprays. They also discuss many other ways to keep ticks in check, including their web-based TickEncounter Risk Calculator. By answering questions about their landscaping and other factors, people can use it to help determine the risks their yards offer, and can receive customized action plans.
At a 2013 EPA conference on tick-borne disease and IPM, Mather discussed his work, including the top protective actions people can take. Among them are knowing the ticks in your area and how to identify their life stages and seasonal patterns; taking protective actions, such as daily tick checks; and, of course, including pets in the plan. Even when a tick finds a dog, it has to be embedded for 24 to 48 hours to spread infection; quick removal drastically reduces the risk. TERC is also working on a vaccine for people, pets and wildlife.
So, the key to successful tick control lies in your own back yard, where about 75 percent of tick bites are said to occur. Seeing one tick is not enough to launch weapons. Signs of deer near your home, though, may be an important clue. To discourage ticks and their hosts, mow regularly, remove weeds and leaves, and make sure garbage and composting containers are rodent-proof. Prevention might also mean removing exotic vegetation or other welcoming habitat. Invasive bush honeysuckle and Japanese barberry, for example, attract white-tailed deer and mice (and thus, their ticks), a study found. Managing the growth of these plants significantly reduced the abundance of infected ticks. Paving or laying down gravel in heavily used areas also helps limit tick turf.
There is no one perfect solution to what seems to be nature's new normal. Come heat or hail, ticks are on the march. As summer unfolds, they’re sure to be out in force, seeking the most inviting habitats and hosts. Dog owners just have to think more like farmers … and tick guys.
News: Guest Posts
The danger of foxtails grows
June 4 2014
The season of ripgut and painful vet bills is here. Foxtails, a longtime scourge in the West, can now be a problem in every state. And climate change may add a twist. Studies find that weeds grow faster under elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide; will migrate northward and are less sensitive to herbicides. A botanist who researched their effects on dogs also warns about a deadly disease.
Sporting dog owners may know it best since field dogs routinely charge into thick brush, where they easily inhale or swallow foxtails, and spend hours in grassy hotspots. But dogs playing in the park or yard, hiking, at a roadside stop; any dog, wherever foxtails live, can develop grass awn migration disease.
It begins with a jagged seed. Of the many kinds of foxtails, both native and non-native, only some have harmful barbs. Among them: foxtail barley, found nationwide except in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast states, according to the U.S. Forest Service; cheatgrass; giant foxtail, and ripgut brome, named for its effects on livestock. The spring through fall season often starts in May, when the green, bushy awns turn brown and seeds disperse. Their spikes help them burrow into soil or be spread by animals. They can also dig down in fur and puncture skin. The foxtail, which carries bacteria, may then keep tunneling into tissue, carving the dangerous path of infection that marks grass awn disease.
The disease is very difficult to diagnose, says University of Wyoming botanist William K. Lauenroth, who studied its occurrence in ten Midwestern states, where field dog owners believe there’s been a sharp rise in cases. One reason it’s hard to pinpoint is that the infection occurs behind the migrating seed.
Many infections show up as an acute illness, according to the findings of Wisconsin resident Cathy Lewis, whose website meanseeds.com provides case histories and information about foxtails and grass awn disease. In 2013, her Springer Spaniel “XL” developed a mysterious respiratory ailment that required draining fluid from his lungs. It began during an outing in January; not the time of year when foxtails come to mind. But the website of Atascadero Pet Hospital in California says they’ve seen pets with “a recurrent abscess that is ongoing for 2 years and once the foxtail is removed the abscess goes away.”
In fact, no plant material was found to confirm XL’s condition. But Lewis has had several other dogs with grass awn infections and recognized the signs, however vague. Today XL is “doing fine,” Lewis says. “He’s back to running field trials, and placing.” That may be due to how quickly she acted on his symptoms: labored breathing, high temperature and lethargy.
Vets say the dog’s body can’t break down the plant material. Sometimes, a foxtail lodges and causes a localized infection. But when it migrates, its barbs keep it moving on a one-way journey to almost anywhere, even the brain. Organs can be pierced, fungal infection can arise, and bacteria pack an extra punch deep inside the body. Head shaking or muscle movement propels it onward. Breathing can draw it further into nasal passages. Inhaled foxtails can travel from the nasal cavity to the lungs; a common site in working field dogs.
But what about the urban hound or beach bum pup? One study of grass awn migration found the most common site in all dogs was the external ear canal. Others were feet, eyes, nose, lumbar area, and thoracic cavity. Warning signs, if any, include extreme sneezing, head-shaking; coughing; excessive licking of a skin puncture, and a high temperature.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Horn’s veterinary blog, “foxtails are very hard to find due to their small size and because they’re covered with infection and scar tissue, and are completely invisible on X-Rays.”
Sporting dog owners hope to make it easier to diagnose and treat grass awn. Lauenroth, who trains retrievers, pursued the matter with a grant from the AKC and sporting dog groups. They suspect barbed grasses, especially Canada wild rye, planted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program have caused more cases. The grasses occur on lands where field dogs train and trial. The program pays farmers to let idle cropland provide ecological services, such as erosion control and wildlife habitat. The farmers plant approved native grasses and comply with mowing restrictions.
Lauenroth found that plenty of Canada wild rye has been planted in the Midwest, and its sharp awn makes it dangerous for dogs. Canada wild rye is also common along the east coast, he says. But the study dried up due to a dearth of definitive diagnoses to draw on. For vets, finding a foxtail seed in a dog is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Lauenroth says he was unable to extract numbers of cases over the past 20 years from the records of veterinary hospitals.
What he found were many “foreign body” cases without resolution. Many of those may have been grass awn disease. A study in 1983 found that grass awn migration in dogs and cats accounted for 61 percent of all foreign body-related cases. Most involved dogs.
To make foxtails more visible, vets often suggest giving dogs a close shave called a foxtail haircut. Others swear by headgear that is truly a pup tent: foxtail hoodies, designed to keep mean seeds out of eyes, ears and mouths.
Lauenroth’s advice is to thoroughly brush and comb after outings. The seeds don’t instantly disappear into the body. Also, get to know the few dangerous grass plants in your area.
In foxtail zones like California, it can also mean getting to know other dog owners: many outings at park and beach end with a festive foxtail-pulling party.
News: Guest Posts
January 22 2014
At her intake at a shelter in April 2012, Bean was a pup with a familiar profile: a Pit Bull whose family could no longer care for her. But it wasn’t long before someone at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley in Milpitas, California did notice something unusual about her.
It was her lack of “boing,” says staff member Finnegan Dowling. “No Pit Bull puppy should be that mellow.”
Bean also had a stiff walk. When she was excited, she hopped like a bunny. They took her for x-rays, but even sedation didn’t relax her joints enough to get pictures, Dowling says, and the vet referred her to UC Davis for an MRI scan.
There, Dr. Karen Vernau, chief of the Neurology and Neurosurgery Service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, discovered that her hip joints were improperly formed. Bean’s determined spirit wasn’t lost on Vernau, but her chances of adoption seemed slim.
The five month old pup was suffering from muscular dystrophy, a progressive and currently incurable disease that would affect many parts of her body.
According to notes in Bean’s file at the Humane Society, she was scheduled for a procedure at Davis on May 25. By the 29th, she was diagnosed with myopathy, a neurological condition. But somewhere in between those dates, Dowling says, Dr. Vernau’s relationship with her patient “went from obligation to affection.”
Vernau and her family decided to adopt Bean. As the vet told a reporter, “We didn’t intend to go down this path with her, but she just sucked us in.”
This happy ending was only the beginning of Bean’s harrowing medical story.
Gradually, things got worse. Surgery to correct her hips was followed by relief—then new problems. A massive hernia called for another surgery. Her swallowing improved, but the muscles in her esophagus were failing and there were bouts of vomiting so intense she would sometimes choke and pass out. Bean grew thinner as she struggled with aspiration (food getting into her respiratory tract when eating), which caused pneumonia.
Her vets sought help from colleagues in human medicine, a multidisciplinary approach the university encourages through its “One Health Initiative.” They included Dr. Stan Marks, a gastrointestinal specialist, and Dr. Peter Belafsky, an expert in human swallowing and airway disorders, and others.
With help from the biomedical engineering department, Bean had been fitted with a feeding tube that allowed her to eat several times per day. It worked beautifully, according to Dr. Marks.
But it didn’t stop the vomiting.
Since the vomiting put her life at risk, Belafsky concluded that they would have to stop it by removing her larynx.
Belafsky, who performed the second documented human larynx transplant, knew how profoundly such problems affect a person’s quality of life. And it was clearly true for Bean.
Her surgery, which lasted more than three hours, was the first ever canine laryngectomy. The procedure is typically used to treat human cancer. According to Belafsky, the separation of her breathing and swallowing tubes will prevent food from getting into her lungs when she eats or vomits.
The lessons learned in Bean’s treatment will impact human care, and vice versa, Belafsky said in a press conference after the surgery. Belafsky hopes she will inspire human patients who have also lost their voice and now breathe through a hole in their neck. She may just get a guest membership in the “Lost Cords Club” for people who have had a laryngectomy.
After all, Bean is only two years old, but has slept out more than 100 rounds of anesthesia and undergone eight surgeries and countless other procedures. Her “can’t do list” is long. Can’t bark, breathe or swallow normally. Forget gobbling down a treat, and she can’t swim without drowning due to the tracheostomy tube.
But the list of things she once endured, the choking and pneumonia, has been tossed.
Now when she accompanies Vernau to the hospital, she serves as ambassador and teacher, allowing students to experience canine tube feeding.
At home, Bean is learning new ways to enjoy life, which still holds plenty of the good old stuff – balls to chew, cushy beds, and a loving family that includes two other dogs.
Watch this video about Bean's surgery and recovery.
Dog's Life: Humane
Insurance companies’ breed-restriction lists take a bite out of housing options
August 27 2013
The term “foreclosure dogs,” which came into the lexicon sometime around 2007, is all too familiar to animal shelter and rescue workers. Canine victims of the housing collapse, many of these economic orphans face the added burden of being, say, a Chow Chow — or just looking like one. Why does that matter? Two words: breed restrictions. At least a dozen breeds and their mixes are commonly found on insurance companies’ “prohibited” lists, which affect those who rent as well as homeowners. How many dogs might have dodged the shelter had their foreclosed owners found rental housing that allowed them to keep their companion animals with them?
According to Adam Goldfarb, director of HSUS’s Pets at Risk program, so many pets are losing homes that it’s impossible to track specific breeds or breed mixes. However, other statistics don’t bode well for those on the restricted lists. The long-running mortgage meltdown has resulted in more than 4 million foreclosures as of 2009, and no clear end is in sight. Factor that against a 2009–2010 survey by the American Pet Products Association, which shows that 39 percent of U.S. households include at least one dog, with a national average of nearly two per household. And when it comes to size, seven of the 10 most popular breeds weigh more than 25 pounds, according to the American Kennel Club, and that’s not counting the mixed progeny of popular breeds, which, when restrictions exist, are also prohibited.
“It’s more of a problem for renters than for homeowners,” Goldfarb observes. “It’s harder for renters since they don’t control the insurance used by the rental property,” much of which is run by large companies with business- wide policies in place that they’re unlikely to change. Take, for example, Parkwood Rentals in Pierce County, Wash., which handles all types of rental housing, from single-family homes to apartments and townhouses. On its prohibited list are more than 14 breeds and their mixes.
“We did not compile this list,” says Katie Howard, associate broker with Parkwood Property Management, Inc. “This is the list of breed restrictions recommended by the insurance industry that we have adopted as part of our pet policy. If there is a question of breed, veterinarian certification may be required, along with pictures, references and a possible pet interview.”
Will the pet interview or a training certificate help if a potential renter’s dog is on the list or has a relative that is? Not according to Howard. “Unfortunately, we are not able to make exceptions to the breed restrictions.”
An explanation of the rationale behind the restrictions comes from a spokesperson for Allstate Insurance, who — in 2005, when a Washington state bill prohibiting insurance companies from banning breeds failed to pass — defended her company’s position by saying “We’re in the business of evaluating risk, and based on what we know, those dogs [on the list] pose a higher risk.” Two states — Michigan and Pennsylvania — restrict breed profiling by insurance companies.
In the U.S., breed bans began in the 1980s after a string of serious attacks, many said to involve Pit Bull–type dogs. In 1984, Tijeras, N.M., was the first to enact a ban, which targeted Pit Bulls. As other regions followed suit, the insurance industry took note. Goldfarb isn’t sure when the practice began in housing, but says that in his opinion, it has definitely increased in the last five years. Over time, at least 75 breeds — from Dalmatians to Karelian Bear Dogs — have made the lists, which vary by region and company. To make it even more confusing, breeds allowed in one place or by one insurer may be restricted in others, or by other companies.
Though not all insurance companies profile — Farmers and State Farm are among those that don’t — those that do base their restrictions on actuarial and claims data, dog-bite reports, and state or local breed-specific laws. According to an article found on Michigan State University College of Law’s Animal Legal & Historical Web Center (animallaw.info), the use of actuarial data has been blocked by courts in some situations. For example, when actuaries found correlations between poor minority neighborhoods and increased risk for homeowners’ claims, they stopped issuing policies in those neighborhoods, a practice known as “redlining.” In the same article, the writer states that breed discrimination is a different kettle of fish from redlining, because insurers “have been unable to demonstrate an actuarial justification for discriminating based on breed.”
In the 1990s, reports of dog attacks increased. Breed bans boomed, lawyers found a new specialty and insurance underwriters scrambled to adjust their policies. But those who actually worked with dogs scratched their heads.
“It didn’t jibe with my experience,” says Janis Bradley, formerly an instructor at the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers. Bradley, who had worked with dogs for years without incident, also talked to other trainers — “I didn’t know anyone who had been seriously bitten by a dog.” Her curiosity piqued, Bradley decided to find out what was actually going on, and started looking for facts related to this contentious subject.
In 2001, soon after she began her research, another sensational story gripped San Francisco and the nation: the mauling death of Diane Whipple by two Presa Canarios kept by Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel. Though the case hinged on owner negligence rather than the breed’s aggression, the dogs were huge and the details were terrifying, and it became a touchstone for breed-ban advocates; terms Bradley calls “fear words” made headlines. Of the many factors that lead to breed bans, she thinks reporting bias is the most influential. How — and how often — information is relayed, along with a focus on certain breeds, can distort the issue in people’s minds. Her research convinced her that perception is everything; the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true. No breed has been proven more likely than another to bite, Bradley says, but a log she keeps of Google hits and key phrases related to bites and breeds turns up an unsurprising fact: Pit Bull and Rottweiler are the most common search terms.
The study “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998” (J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000; 217: 836–40) is often cited as support for restricting these two breeds. This study, which was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), tried to link breeds with fatal bites to assess policy implications. “It has done tremendous damage [but] there is no putting the genie back in the bottle,” Bradley says of the report, which she feels continues to be misused today. The biggest problem, she says, was its focus on fatalities, “an extraordinarily rare event.”
In contrast to the study’s narrow approach, Bradley gathered all the research then available, pulling together numbers showing that the likelihood of being killed by a dog is about one in 18 million. Or that roughly 3.9 million of the annual 4.7 million reported bites require no medical attention. (Most bite victims are children, according to the CDC.)
Ironically, the authors of the study had hoped to prevent the discrimination they feared was taking root at the time, says co-author Dr. Gail C. Golab, director of the AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division. “The folks involved in the study had concerns that people were considering breed bans,” she recalls. Golab goes on to note that they also had concerns about the study itself, among them, that the breeds involved in fatal attacks change over time. The study didn’t address breed popularity, a factor that could cause breeds to appear more often in bite statistics simply because there are so many of them. Another concern was that the study authors were looking at fatalities rather than bites, which are impossible to track. This meant they were unable to definitively assess any specific breed’s inclination to bite.
Reliance on media accounts and questionable breed identification were also areas of concern. The ability to tell a bear from a deer may be a useful human survival tool, but newer studies show it hasn’t helped when it comes to breeds; people often can’t tell a Foxhound from a Doberman. Eyewitness reports were — and still are — “pretty spotty,” Golab says; in one instance, “a Boxer was identified as a Pit Bull–type dog.” Often, identification occurred after the dog had been euthanized, making it even more speculative.
Though the final report did not conclude that any breeds are more likely than others to bite, it did call out Pit Bull–types and Rottweilers as being involved in more than half of the fatal attacks. Golab and her colleagues warned against using the flawed data to enact bans; the alternative to breed laws, they wrote in the report, “is to regulate individual dogs and owners on the basis of their behavior.” At that point, the CDC abandoned its efforts to link breeds and aggression, acknowledging that it’s impossible to track the numbers.
Golab says that breed discrimination existed before the study, and has gradually become more prevalent over the years. “It certainly doesn’t help adoption rates when owners are penalized for choosing a dog of a particular breed, whether the penalty is a higher insurance rate or a flat-out refusal to insure. [Restricted breeds] can easily end up on the least-desirable list for adoption.” Or, if owners can’t obtain affordable — or any — insurance because of the breed they own, they often relinquish the dog; euthanasia is a common result. Foreclosure only adds to the problem, as people struggle to find alternative housing that will allow them to bring pets with them at all, let alone a dog of a “blacklisted” breed.
Bradley, whose research provided her with material for her first book, Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous, continues to track CDC bite statistics. The number of dog bites has held steady over 15 years, she says. Even so, she doubts such information will change people’s minds if they are already convinced there’s a dog-bite epidemic, or that certain breeds are more likely to bite.
“We are innately credulous if we don’t have prior knowledge of something,” she says. “The default response is to believe what we are told,” or have heard repeated time and again. Bradley feels that breed discrimination, like other forms of bias, won’t end without large societal changes.
As the recession wears on, pet policies will continue to restrict housing options for people and pets in crisis. In addition to planning ahead for a move, Goldfarb suggests homeowners do the legwork to find an insurance company that doesn’t profile, and renters look for an individual homeowner or smaller company, which may be open to changing their policy or making an exception. They are both ways “to encourage breed-neutral policies.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
The downside of rawhide
June 28 2013
“I never buy at Wal-Mart, I only buy organic and nothing from China, ever!”
This is how Danielle Devereux, whose German Shepherd Sammy is a ravenous consumer of snacks, describes her treat-buying strategy. Sammy prefers his rawhide toys soaked in warm chicken broth first. “As you can guess, he’s a little bit spoiled.”
In Devereux’s remarks, I hear echoes of my own long search for the right dog chew toys. From the time my Shepherd was a wee pup, we combed the pet aisles looking for enticing substitutes for couch and chair leg. She quickly sniffed out her favorite section among the knuckle and femur bones: the bins where the rawhide is cached.
Promoted as an “all natural” treat, rawhide does keep dogs entertained, perhaps even more so in its many basted, twisted, even brightly colored mutations. It’s the equivalent of that gummy-worm-fortified cereal made with real oats that children howl for all the way down the breakfast aisle. Those looking to improve on the bone are like the clever marketers who expertly tune a child’s whining pitch. Your dog would like to convince you that rawhide is primal therapy for his carnivorous soul!
But if rawhide manufacturers were held to the same standards as drug makers, they’d be forced to add an equally long list of warnings to their labels: May cause stomach torsion, choking, vomiting, diarrhea, salmonella poisoning and exposure to various chemical residues.
The closer you look at the rawhide gravy train—its tentacles in China, typically, at one point or another—the more you may want to wean your dog off this dubious by-product.
The Dose Makes the Poison
“The most potent compounds for stimulating the taste buds in dogs, and presumably wolves, are amino acids that taste sweet to humans”—so goes the discussion of canid diet in Wolves, edited by David Mech and Luigi Boitani. Judging by an explosion of patents for flavored rawhide, which include “tastes” such as bubble-gum and hickory, chew-chefs have apparently done their research. However, in creating treats dogs will chomp for hours, they’ve also produced potentially more toxic products. The more dogs lick, chew and swallow the material, the greater their exposure to any contaminants it contains.
In the case of bubble-gum flavoring alone, the Material Safety Data Sheet reveals a toxic confection containing the carcinogen FD&C Red 40, along with preservatives like sodium benzoate. But tracking the effects of chemical exposure is nearly impossible when it’s a matter of slow, low-dose poisoning. The FDA’s veterinary branch, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, checks into pet food additives only after numerous complaints about a particular chemical.
While chews made from rawhide, bone or other animal parts are consumable, and are therefore considered “food” under FDA law, as long as the label contains no reference to nutritional value (such as “high protein”), the agency advises that manufacturers “may not have to follow the AAFCO pet food regulations.”
Producing rawhide begins with the splitting of an animal hide, usually from cattle. The top grain is generally tanned and made into leather products, while the inner portion, in its “raw” state, goes to the dogs. Removing the hair from hides often involves a highly toxic recipe: sodium sulphide liming. A standard practice is to procure rawhide in the “split lime state” as by-products from tanneries, facilities that top the list of U.S. Superfund sites. In the post-tannery stage, hides are washed and whitened using a solution of hydrogen peroxide. And that’s just one step.
Other poisonous residues that may show up in rawhide include arsenic and formaldehyde. Even dog skin is a possibility. An ongoing investigation of the fur trade by Humane Society International, an arm of the HSUS, resulted in this information, as listed on their website: “In a particularly grisly twist, the skins of brutally slaughtered dogs in Thailand are mixed with other bits of skin to produce rawhide chew toys for pet dogs. Manufacturers told investigators that these chew toys are regularly exported to and sold in U.S. stores.”
Back to the Factory (Farm)
There’s no knowing where it’s been, and where it begins is also unsettling. Rawhide is a by-product of the CAFO—or concentrated animal feeding operation, the bucolic term for today’s industrial farm.
“Nasty, brutish and short” is how Ken Midkiff, author of The Meat You Eat, describes the life of the animals who give up their hides. He’s no expert on rawhide, but Midkiff says he knows far more than he cares to about CAFOs, where thousands of “sentient beings,” crammed together inside huge metal buildings, “never see the light of day until the truck comes to pick them up for slaughter.”
“There’s also a major problem with various drugs,” he adds, citing a CAFO cocktail of antibiotics, arsenicals and hormones used to boost production.“While the claim is made that these don’t remain in the meat of hogs or beef, that claim has not been tested by any federal agency.”
Pattie Boden, owner of The Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va., where organic toy enthusiasts shop, doesn’t carry rawhide. Instead, she stocks free-range chews, bully sticks, and organic raw bones, from shins to lamb necks. Her purchasing-protocol (and philosophy) is one owners might apply in their own search for healthful treats.
“I’m not going to be the most financially successful pet store,” Boden says, “but I feel confident in the products I select, and I can sleep at night.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
Choose toys with more than fun in mind
April 9 2013
They make the world go round. They make it bounce, roll and soar. They’re objects that inspire play, enrich training, ease boredom and curb problem behaviors. Toys, according to the experts (and every dog worth his molars), are a must-have.
Despite the constant media comments about how we pamper our pets, toys are no mere luxury. Experts say that dogs need them, and need more than one kind. That doesn’t mean more bells and whistles, just different types. Toys can take the edge off a bad day, like a stress ball you squeeze when you’re mad. Softer toys a dog can “baby” satisfy gentler instincts. Frisbees, balls and tugs are ways to share the fun, while squeaky playthings cry out for attack.
The question is, which toys? With a global pet economy, the options—and problems—keep growing. On the pet aisles, shoppers are greeted with all the persuasive power of an infomercial. Bright, funky objects, packaged to the nines, demand closer inspection—but not too close. The readable text is mostly advertising, not information. “The packaging for these products is incredible and totally deceiving,” says Pattie Boden, owner of the Animal Connection in Charlottesville, Va. Boden, who is picky about sourcing safe, natural toys to stock her shelves, says that a 25-year career in advertising has made her a skeptic.
Unfortunately for dogs and owners, manufacturing of pet toys relies on the honor system; for less scrupulous companies, it’s trial by error. In some cases, even errors (discovered through consumer complaints) are ignored. Choose carelessly and our dogs may pay the hidden cost. Among the most familiar hazards are choking and stomach obstruction. Pieces as well as particles may be ingested, and since our pups use their mouths to play, toxic materials and coatings also pose a risk. Yet the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate dog toys, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission only regulates pet toys that can be proven to put consumers (people, not dogs) at risk.
This reality hits hard when a beloved animal is injured at play. One such horror story became news after a dog’s tongue was trapped in a hole in a ball, requiring long and painful medical intervention and finally, amputation of the tongue. The owner was shocked to learn that this wasn’t the first such incident—other dogs had been harmed, even killed, by the same toy. The company, Four Paws, eventually recalled several of its toys, according to its website.
Denise Smalt, a trainer in upstate New York, issues a warning about the harmless- seeming tennis ball. Eight years ago, Smalt sold a Shepherd puppy to a couple. “Even though I tell all my puppy people, as well as all my obedience students, how dangerous tennis balls are for large breeds, they still let their Shepherd play with tennis balls because they had always let their dogs play with them, and had no problems. At two years old, the dog choked to death on a tennis ball in front of his owner. I use his story to help save others,” she says.
The concerns don’t end with injuries and choking hazards. While dyes, preservatives and chemical residue are nothing new, a string of toxic Chinese imports has sparked fresh worries. Tests conducted by ConsumerAffairs.com found a variety of mainstream toys tainted with toxic heavy metals, including cadmium, lead and chromium. From cancer agents to neurological poisons, these chemicals are released from affected toys when dogs lick and chew them, according to Dr. Ernest Lykissa, the toxicologist who assessed them. Another lead-laden plaything is made from latex—a material sometimes recommended in lieu of plastic, which may contain phthalates and BPA (hormone disruptors). Adding to the problem of contaminants is a dearth of toxicity data for dogs. What’s presumed safe for a 40-pound child may be deadly for a half-pint Chihuahua.
“Please don’t think because things are made in the U.S. that they are safe,” Ann Martin, author of Foods Pets Die For, an exposé of the pet food industry, advises. “The massive pet food recall is a good example. They did not bother testing any of the raw materials going into these foods; hence, numerous dogs and cats became ill or died.”
Still, the perception is that U.S.–made means safer. At an H.H. Backer pet trade show in Baltimore, Pattie Boden looked hard for new toys made in the U.S. She found just one. Ironically, the only certified organic toy she could find was made in China. But a few U.S. companies are indeed producing quality toys, and the shorter the production path, the better. Some companies use recycled materials (though that’s not synonymous with safer toys, it’s better for the planet). And a company focused on “earth-friendly” products is more likely to avoid problems with toxic materials.
What makes a toy special to a dog may escape human logic, but knowing your dog can help you make wiser choices.
Do you have a Type-A chomper? Technically, dogs don’t chew toys, but rather, tear and shear them as they would prey, using their premolars and molars. These teeth are situated farther back in the mouth, and any toy that finds its way into this set of grinders is a potential victim—so look for appropriately sized toys your dog can’t work to the back of his jaws. Martin relies on her dog Kodi’s play style to choose his toys. The 160-pound Newfoundland is a power chewer who “eats rather than plays with toys. He has some very good squeaky toys he has not destroyed,” she says. Most of his playthings “are the heavy-duty rubber kind.” Kodi’s style, not his large size determines Martin’s toy selection; a small dog can be a power chewer just as a giant breed can be gentle on toys.
From hyper puppyhood to senior moments, knowing your dog also means selecting toys based on his life stage. A dog who’s teething doesn’t play like an old soul whose teeth are worn. A rambunctious adolescent craves different toys than a placid adult dog.
Before buying, use your senses. Strong chemical smells indicate residual chemicals. Brightly dyed fabrics may contain toxic ingredients and leach dye when wet. (Fabric dyes aren’t tested for consumption.) Avoid toys treated with fire retardants or stain guard, as they may contain formaldehyde and other chemicals. Study labels and visit manufacturers’ websites for additional information. Conscientious companies are transparent about their processes.
Safe fun: two words that often collide in a dog’s world, where mysterious edges and flimsy seams can make the most alluring objects. As long as the toy industry is an unsupervised playground, it’s up to loving owners to keep their eyes on the ball …and ring and squeaker.
Nina Ottosson Zoo Active
West Paw Design
News: Guest Posts
March 11 2013
He didn't run like a puppy; he flopped like a seal. His back hunched when he moved as if he was stalking stray sheep. Lucas was born with his front legs curved inward, hobbling his every step. In February, he arrived at Glen Highland Farm's Sweet Border Collie Rescue in Morris, New York, run by Lillie Goodrich and John Andersen. His new caretakers were smitten with him. But what good was their 175 - acre wooded, stream-filled sanctuary to a badly handicapped pup?
Worse, Lucas didn't seem to know he had any limitations. He tried to run and play as hard as any three month old pup; even though all of the bones in his elbows were displaced and separated, leaving him with no range of motion. His rescuers struggled to find solutions when veterinarians offered little hope. A canine cart? The “wheelchair” option led them to consider euthanasia. With his energy and powerful herding drive, Lucas might as well be imprisoned.
The traditional way of reconstructing limbs is to cut bone and utilize biomechanical devices, such as pins and screws, to hold the bone in place as it heals. In Lucas's case, a traditional approach could help, Dr. Hayashi says, but his deformity was so severe that “there is no ideal treatment.”
The chosen procedure would focus on stretching and adjusting the position of the muscles in order to reposition the bones. The method, which is inspired by a few veterinarians, including one from Cornell, doesn't replace other techniques, Dr. Hayashi says. “It's not very different from any other surgical procedures in principle,” he says. “It is a modification” of existing techniques used in other types of deformity. “Each case is different. Each deformity is different.”
Lucas's defect is “very rare,” the surgeon says. While the cause is unknown, genetics probably play a role.
In early March, Lucas underwent the operation at Cornell, where he is now in the first phase of physical therapy. Everything went well, but it's still too soon to gauge its success. “Lucas is still recovering and is fighting this tough battle, and he will probably need to go through more procedures,” Dr. Hayashi says.
His rescuers anxiously monitor his progress. “The process will be a slow one since he has never stood upright on his front legs and has no muscle development” for such movement, Lillie Goodrich says. “His attitude is terrific and he is truly loved by all the team in the hospital. This first two weeks is a vulnerable time when the therapy is critical. Then he returns to the farm for continued therapy up until age one.” The costs are extreme and caretaking is only half the job. His rescuers must also raise the funds for his recovery.
However, the future is looking a lot brighter for the once-unlucky puppy, who still has plenty of time to grow into his limbs. “His prognosis for a normal joint is poor,” Dr. Hayashi says. “His prognosis for a happy life is good.”
News: Guest Posts
Should food that has been genetically modified be labeled?
March 9 2013
Last November, California became the first state to put the issue on the ballot. Proposition 37, the “Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act,” called for such disclosure on the labels of some raw and processed foods sold in stores. It also prohibited them from being advertised as “natural.” And it didn’t give dog chow a free pass.
Although the measure targeted human consumers, the California Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law applies to both human and animal foods. So any pet food with a detectable level of genetically engineered content would also have to note on its label, “Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering” or “May be Partially Produced with Genetic Engineering.”
That would mean a lot of new label text in the dog food aisle. Over 90 percent of the nation’s soybeans and 85 percent of its corn is genetically modified, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These crops, modified to resist pests or withstand high doses of weed killer, are common in processed foods such as cereals and dog food.
But even with strong consumer support, the label law failed to pass. The organic industry and other advocates were outspent by biotech companies led by Monsanto—the world’s largest supplier of genetically modified seeds—and the food industry, including Big Dog Food. Nestle, owner of Purina PetCare Company and Mars, the maker of Nutro and Pedigree dog food, donated funds to help defeat it.
The Pet Food Institute and Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council argued that the label requirements would increase costs for farmers, manufacturers and consumers alike. Heated editorials appeared on Petfoodindustry.com.
“Putting scary sounding labels on pet food packaging will likely mislead consumers and impact their purchasing choices,” states a “No on 37” Campaign flyer.
In one ad by the campaign, a befuddled-looking man held up a slab of meat and a pet food canister. The line read, “So dog food would need a label but my steak wouldn’t?” The ad aimed at exemptions in the law that might confuse consumers; in this case, that processed beef dog food would be labeled but beef from animals fed genetically engineered crops wouldn’t.
Label supporters say that, given the prevalence of genetically modified ingredients and the scale of the industrial supply chain, a label that covers many of these foods is a good start (for example, dog food with beef which may contain bioengineered ingredients, such as vegetable oils).
Some dog owners already consider mainstream pet food, with its uniform nubs of dry kibble or wet mush, mere canine junk food; fast, convenient, and nutritionally questionable. But are those genetically modified morsels unhealthy in other ways?
The science is inconclusive. A genetically engineered food is a plant or meat product that has had its DNA altered by the insertion of genes from other plants, animals, viruses, or bacteria. The traditional means—plant breeding—allows desired traits to be cultivated, or unwanted effects to be eliminated, over time. Gene-splicing also shortcuts the long process of adaptation and evolution that occurs between food and consumers,
The FDA has ruled that these foods are “substantially equivalent to conventionally produced foods,” and does not safety test them. Unless they contain a known allergen, there is only a voluntary consultation process with developers, who conduct their own testing. But scientists say that the potential for creating new allergens and toxicants in bioengineered foods is there. At the same time, corporate patent rights over seeds limit independent researchers’ ability to study them.
California’s failed initiative calls labels “a critical method for tracking the potential health effects of eating genetically engineered foods.” Dog owners may agree. How would anyone know if genetically altered foods are triggering disease in dogs? Shouldn’t vets know what the pets they attend to are eating?
One thing is clear: it isn’t over. Several states are now working on proposals for their own label laws.
Editor's note: Starting in 2018 Whole Foods will be labeling GMO foods. And even Wal-Mart has been looking at labeling as well.
News: Guest Posts
Beagles being used by food industry
January 11 2013
What happens when a 15-year-old vegetarian learns that a controversial food additive, one that is patented as a flame retardant, is allowed to be added to her sports drink?
Sarah Kavanagh, of Hattiesburg, Miss., started a petition on change.org, asking the manufacturer to remove it. Brominated vegetable oil is allowed by the Food and Drug Administration as an additive “generally regarded as safe.” It has, however, been linked to health problems in some studies, so why put it in a sports drink, her petition argues?
Dog lovers, too, are posting petitions about practices involving food additives that make no sense to them—like testing such ingredients on animals. The requisite safety tests performed on BVO included animals; even dogs.
While rodents are the usual subjects in toxicity tests, dogs are also an important test tool for food additives such as olestra (of gastrointestinal fame); cyclamate (a banned sugar substitute); and countless other compounds, which are administered at high doses in studies.
Supporters of the practice view dogs as “whole, living systems” vital for testing the effects of additives in products sold to humans. Opponents see a cultural disconnect in using dogs to study products to be sold to…well, them.
Surveys show that nearly half of U.S. households have a dog. Another subset have Beagles; the most common laboratory breed. Yet the long-domesticated dog—subject of endless stories of devotion and cultural indulgence in the form of goods and services aimed at their comfort—is, in another context, a disposable species.
Petitioners say that dogs have limited protections in a research setting. Cages restrict their movement, puppies may be weaned early and caged individually, and procedures may hurt, particularly in vivo toxicity tests.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 “is the only Federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers.”
The Act was prompted by media reports on the theft of pets by dealers who sold them for research. Now most research dogs are “purpose bred,” but they can still be supplied by Class B dealers and legally sourced from shelters, auctions, and ads. As of June 2012, the Humane Society of the U.S. estimates that there were 3,303 USDA Class A breeders and Class B licensed brokers!
The animal welfare law is enforced “primarily through inspections of every licensed or registered facility in the country.” It regulates cage size, cleanliness, and food and water, but not the tests performed or their duration. The BVO feeding study spanned two years (in dog-years, how long is that, owners may wonder?)
Even when dogs emerge from a study in good health, there is still the “frequently asked question” of what happens when an experiment ends?
According to the website of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, “The majority of animals under study must be euthanized in order to obtain tissue for pathological evaluation and for use in in vitro tests.”
The association is a membership group of professionals from academia, government, and private industry that promotes “responsible laboratory animal care and use to benefit people and animals.”
In one petition on whitehouse.gov, the Dogington Post “internet newspaper” offers this appeal to the Obama administration: “Beagles aren’t reliable test subjects.”
In fact, many food additives such as BVO remain controversial long after tests in dogs were used to determine what a safe dose might be in human foods.
Like olestra, a substitute for fat. A 20-month olestra feeding study in dogs states that the objective “was to assess the potential chronic toxicity of olestra in a non-rodent species.” The study found that “olestra was not toxic when fed to dogs at up to 10 percent of the diet for 20 months.”
The dogs, 4-6 month old Beagles divided into groups of 10 for testing, were euthanized when it was over and the study was published in 1991. Yet olestra garners plenty of consumer complaints.
The sweetener Sucralose aka Splenda was also tested in Beagles. Sourcewatch.org describes one test that involved 32 Beagles caged for 52 weeks at the McNeil Specialty Products laboratories in New Jersey. At the end of the study they were anaesthetized and bled to death, which made the examination of organs easier.
An alternative to BVO in beverages, the Eastman product Sustane SAIB (sucrose acetate isobutyrate)—though not a source of consumer complaints—was tested in Beagles, too.
The list of additives is long, and some say, getting longer. Consumer interest in health keeps the food industry experimenting with flavors, plant extracts, supplements, stabilizers and more. As they strive to churn out the substitutes, animal petitioners hope to see new substitutes for dogs in their toxicity tests.
Also promoting humane alternatives is the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is pulling for a robot to the rescue. Like the promising “Tox21,” a collaboration of federal agencies to test chemicals—including food additives—with a machine, at blazing speed. The evolution of technology, they say, will minimize the use of animals.
News: Guest Posts
Study finds Hormone-disrupting Chemicals Leach from Some Plastic Toys
December 7 2012
The toy aisle is meant to be all about fun, but recalls, toxic imports and a dearth of regulations have left dog owners facing tough choices. Many toys are made of plastic and may contain chemicals that interfere with hormones.
A new study by researchers at the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University shows that BPA and phthalates, chemicals that disrupt hormones, “readily leach” from plastic or vinyl bumper toys used to train retrievers.
Philip Smith, a toxicologist and co-author of the as-yet unpublished study, uses plastic bumpers to train his Labrador Retrievers, Bindi, age 11, and Huck, age 5. He wondered if the bumpers might expose them to hazardous chemicals.
In fact, the compounds are hard to avoid. BPA, the building block of polycarbonate plastic, is found in most food and drink cans; phthalates are common in food packaging, personal care items and vinyl plastics.
“BPA and phthalates come from many, many sources” besides pet toys, Smith says. So a dog’s “cumulative exposure may be significant.”
The study, conducted by graduate student, Kim Wooten, is one of the first to examine these chemicals in pet toys. In children’s toys, some phthalates have been banned in the U.S. and the European Union. In July 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned BPA in baby bottles and children’s drinking cups.
Although their health effects in dogs are unknown, the hormones they interfere with regulate many biological functions.
Studies done mostly with rodents have linked BPA and phthalates to impaired development of reproductive organs, decreased fertility, diabetes and obesity, cancers, and behavioral and attention problems.
No, dogs are not mice. There are “species sensitivity differences” in regard to toxics, Smith says. For example, dogs are at greater risk than humans from eating chocolate. But while their sensitivity to synthetic chemicals may also differ, “we are unaware of specific reasons why they might respond in a significantly different manner.”
Available data suggests that the most vulnerable pets may be pregnant females “and perhaps young animals like puppies.”
According to a 2012 pet health report by Banfield Pet Hospital, some cancers and other diseases in dogs are increasing. “The rate of overweight and obese pets has reached epidemic levels in the U.S., affecting approximately one in five dogs and cats.”
The causes are unknown, but Smith says it’s possible that endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including phthalates and BPA, play a role.
Certain aspects of canine cancer suggest that dogs are sensitive to them, he says. For instance, exposure to estrogens raises the risk for mammary cancers. For metabolic disorders such as obesity and diabetes, researchers are finding that some hormone-disrupting chemicals appear to “affect metabolic endpoints, in addition to reproduction and behavior.”
For the toy study, the researchers tested orange and white bumpers from two unidentified makers, using artificial saliva to simulate a dog chewing a bumper. The amount of toxics released in a dog’s mouth couldn’t be determined due to the use of simulated saliva,
But what is a high exposure in dogs?
“We are not aware of any exposure guidelines pertaining to these particular chemicals and dogs,” Smith says.
They suspect the levels released from the bumpers would be very high, though, compared with children’s toys.
The study also examined BPA and phthalates from ordinary plastic pet toys sold in stores. The bumpers leached more, but the results suggest that the other toys might have released other hormonally-active chemicals.
Smith highlights the uncertainty that shoppers face, saying the bumpers might have been made from different materials, or perhaps the packaging limited the release of some chemicals before the experiment.
Or, the less affected toys may have involved “materials that are also used in the manufacture of children’s toys.”
“We’re not really sure, but intend to pursue the question further.”
Good thing for pet owners.
“Given the extent of plastics in the human-canine environment,” Smith says, avoiding the chemicals entirely may not be possible.
But not all plastics are the same. When it comes to leaching of chemicals “each type is very different.”
“That is why studies on individual products are important.” Pet owners need the information “to make thoughtful decisions.”
Some pet toy makers say they use BPA-free plastics.
But owners may wonder why it’s even a question. Why should they have to worry about chemicals in toys or migrating from cans, even into “organic” food, to add to their dog’s exposure?
At least—at last—it is being studied.
Smith’s team plans to continue studying the exposure of pets to chemicals. “We think there is a great deal to be learned about potential pet and human health impacts from chemicals in the environment,” he says.
And as they learn, Smith says they hope to yield the data needed “to inform decisions about how we manufacture pet products, which ones we buy, and what we allow our pets to chew.”
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