Wellness: Healthy Living
Our canine pals do plenty of great things — provide love, guard our homes, save Timmy from mine shafts — but they’re not too concerned about domestic tidiness. However, there are smart, easy ways to collar canine clutter and keep your dog safer.
1. Store everything you need for outings — leash, pick-up bags, paw wipes — near the door. Speaking of pick-up bags, reuse plastic shopping bags or the plastic bags your newspapers come in; store them in an empty tissue box for one-at-a-time dispensing.
2. Make it easier to hook up for walks by attaching a large carabiner to the clip on your dog’s leash.
3. Instead of wrestling with that humungous bag of dog food, divvy it up into smaller, sealable containers for storage. This keeps pests out, too.
4. Assign baskets or bins into which you can quickly toss those well-chewed balls, bones and other assorted playthings; for extra points, teach your dog to put them away herself.
5. To keep food and water bowls from sliding, place them on a rubber-backed mat or piece of rubberized mesh.
6. Use a self-refilling water bowl to cut down on your trips to the sink. Recirculating fountains are a nice option; many dogs like to drink running water, and the aeration and filter keep the water fresh. Find them at pet supply stores.
7. To neutralize the gamey aroma wafting from full pick-up bags in your garbage bin, toss in a few handfuls of cat litter.
8. Position the dog bed away from your home’s main traffic flow and cover it with an easily removable “doggy duvet” that you wash regularly.
9. Create a file folder or binder dedicated to your dog’s paperwork: vet visits, vaccination records, medication lists, insurance info, license receipts, microchip code number.
10. Scan all these important records — plus photos of your dog — and store them on your PDA or a small flash drive so you have this vital info at hand while traveling.
Wellness: Healthy Living
We talk to groomer extraordinaire Robyn Michaels
It seems so simple. A few passes with a brush, an occasional suds-up in the tub or back yard, and there you have it: a well-groomed dog. If only. But help is here. We asked professional groomer Robyn Michaels for insights into keeping our dogs looking and smelling good with a minimal amount of fuss — and without the kind of mishaps that lead to a starring role on America’s Funniest Home Videos!
Q: What’s the best way to help a dog enjoy being brushed?
A grooming table makes all the difference. The floor is the dog’s territory. Being even a foot off the floor puts your dog in a different dimension and a different place psychologically. You can buy a used portable dog-grooming table or make your own; in either event, be sure the table is absolutely steady. Fear of falling affects dogs even more than physical pain.
Without a table, grooming is often a two-person job: one person to hold the dog still and the other person to brush. The person holding should have the dog on a very short leash and keep one hand on the dog’s withers (shoulders). The dog will not be as apt to struggle if he’s not being strong-armed and wrestled with.
This is where I make my pitch for doing basic obedience exercises, which helps your dog understand that you really are in charge, really are a leader and won’t hurt him.
Q: No matter how often we brush our dogs, they still don’t look well groomed, and dog-hair tumbleweeds are still rolling across the floor. Why?
Q: What kind of brush should we be using?
Rakes come with various numbers of teeth in a row. You will have to experiment, but to begin with, I suggest that you get one with the widest separation/ fewest teeth. The blades on the underside of the curved teeth act like seam rippers. It is almost impossible to cut your dog with this type of rake, and you will pull out a lot of hair that a slicker brush won’t get. A metal comb is also handy to have, to tease out mats, get into small areas (under armpits, behind and under ears, between toes) and clean the brush.
Q: What’s the best way to brush? And how often should we do it?
Matting starts in a dog’s moving parts: around the tail, behind the ears, in the armpits, and on the hocks and pasterns (ankles), and spreads from there. Also, if your dog has a double coat (long guard hairs and a shorter, softer undercoat), you need to get down to the skin to remove that loose undercoat hair. As to how often: you may have to do this every other day if your dog has a dry, cottony coat (like a Coton de Tulear), but, for most dogs, if you brush too often, you will cause more static, which will cause more matting and also affect the coat’s shed cycle.
I recommend brushing at least the mat-prone areas every week, and a long-haired, double-coated dog usually needs to be brushed more often when he’s actively “blowing coat” — the big twice-a-year seasonal shed.
One more thing: dressing up your dog may be fun, but if you have a single-coated dog, every time you take off his coat or sweater, you create static and cause matting.
Q: Speaking of matting — a friend’s Golden Retriever had lots of mats and tangles, so she shaved him. Is this a good idea?
Q: How about bathing — what do we need to get our dogs clean?
There are many kinds of dog shampoo, so you should be able to find one that works well for your particular dog’s coat, but know this: suds do not clean the dog. The shampoo’s active ingredients agitated against your dog’s hair are what do the cleaning. If your dog’s skin is irritated by a shampoo, it’s usually sodium laureth sulfate (or chloride, the sudsing agent) that’s causing the problem; a few manufacturers make sodium-free shampoo.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t dilute the shampoo, you’ll never get it completely rinsed out. The industry-average dilution rate is 16 to one, but you can just eyeball it.
Dispense the diluted shampoo using an old dishwashing liquid or shampoo bottle. You want just enough suds to tell you when you’ve covered the whole dog. If you want to really get the dog clean, brush the shampoo through his coat. This covers every hair, gets out some of the smaller tangles you might have missed and removes the loose stuff. After the dog’s dry, brush him again, and then float a comb through his coat to finish up and clear out any remaining tangles (don’t forget: armpits, behind the ears, under the chin, and around the tail and ankles).
People often ask about conditioners. I rarely use them. A conditioner works by coating the dog’s hair with a humectant, which attracts moisture. This can be helpful for long-haired dogs in the winter, to counter static, but conditioner is difficult to rinse out, often leaves a film on the dog’s hair, will attract dirt and may even cause matting. I suggest avoiding conditioners unless you are using them for a specific reason.
Q. Finally, a little background. How did you get started, and what do you see as the most common grooming challenge?
It surprises me that people acquire dogs and don’t give grooming a second thought until the dog smells bad or is shedding to the point that it affects their quality of life. Why does this happen? It happens because a lot of people who work in the pet industry have more contact and credibility with customers than hobbyists and fanciers do. On the other hand, when it comes to the rare breeds, pet owners often return to the breeder to have their dogs groomed rather than take them to a school- or shop-trained groomer, who may not know the breed. If a person adopts from an animal shelter, the employees or volunteers are unlikely to know anything about grooming, and will probably not even mention it. All in all, it’s important that when you select a dog, you understand what his grooming needs are so you can address them rather than ignore them until the dog’s uncomfortable and you’re frustrated.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Be proactive in monitoring what goes in your dog’s mouth
Questions about the safety of pet toys continue to haunt Nancy Rogers. They’re questions the Illinois dog owner has tried to get answered since 2007, when she hired a laboratory to test the lead content in 24 of her Shelties’ chew toys. The tests revealed that one of her dogs’ tennis balls contained 335.7 parts per million (ppm) of lead, an amount that, at the time, fell far below the levels allowed in children’s toys. Today, however, that amount exceeds the 300 ppm federal standard for lead in children’s toys.
What amount of lead should be allowed in the toys dogs lick, chew, slobber on and even shred? Do toys with relatively high levels pose any harm to our best friends? These questions are at the heart of Rogers’ frustration. When she had her tests run three years ago, she learned there were no standards for lead or other toxins in pet toys. There still aren’t any today.
“We can test and measure all we want, but until we have standards, it’s hard to evaluate what those levels mean,” says Rogers, a nurse from Orland Park, Ill. “I want there to be a standard that says whether an amount is safe or not safe.”
Many in the pet industry agree there should be guidelines for lead and other worrisome chemicals in dog toys. They share Rogers’ safety concerns, which surfaced in the wake of the recall of melamine-tainted pet food and amid growing concerns about lead in children’s toys from China.
“All that made me think about what’s in my dogs’ toys,” recalls Rogers, who now has three Shelties. “It also didn’t seem right that I had lost two eightyear- old dogs and we didn’t know why. I was doing this [testing] personally for the safety of my dogs and only tested for lead because that’s what they were finding in the toys from China.”
But others in the pet industry downplay the need for chemical standards in these products, saying they aren’t aware of any studies linking lead in dog toys to canine-related health problems. They also say many companies that make pet toys now follow the federal standards for lead in children’s toys— or the European standards, which limit lead levels to 90 ppm.
“It may sound like standards make sense and they may make consumers more comfortable about buying a pet toy, but there are no indications that there is a real risk to pets [from lead and other toxins] in their toys,” says Ed Rod, vice president of government affairs for the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “We have 1,000 members and we’ve heard no reports of dogs or cats having any ill effects from playing with any pet toy because of the lead or the plastic in the toy.”
But recent tests of hundreds of pet toys, tennis balls, beds, collars and leashes reveal that many contain what researchers call “alarming levels” of lead and other harmful chemicals. The tests were run in September 2009 by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental organization that analyzes toxins in children’s toys and other consumer goods; results are posted on the Ecology Center’s research-based website, HealthyStuff.org. While the site explains that the project’s screening technology “cannot identify the presence and concentration of every chemical of concern” (Bisphenol A, for example), some key findings are worth noting:
• Of the tennis balls tested, 48 percent contained detectable levels of lead. Researchers discovered that tennis balls made specifically for pets were more likely to contain lead than “sports” tennis balls. The lettering on one “pet” tennis ball, for example, contained 2,696 ppm of lead and 262 ppm of arsenic, a known human carcinogen. None of the “sports” tennis balls tested contained any lead.
• While one-quarter of all the products had detectable levels of lead, 7 percent of all pet products had lead levels higher than the 300 ppm allowed in children’s toys. Nearly half of the pet collars tested had detectable levels of lead; 27 percent had lead levels that exceeded 300 ppm.
“Pets are involuntary canaries in the coal mine in terms of chemical exposure,” says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center. “Pets, like children, have higher exposure to chemical hazards, and our data show that pet products are far more likely to have hazardous chemicals than children’s toys.”
Not all the dog toys tested, however, contained harmful chemicals. Researchers discovered more than a dozen “chemical-free” toys—including the Air Kong Squeaker, the Hartz Flexa-Foam Round About Elephant and the Nylabone Double Action Chew. Despite these “green” findings, Gearhart says his organization’s tests illustrate why chemical safety standards are needed for chew toys and other pet products. The standards would not only protect pets, he says, but also young children who might put dog toys in their mouths. “For lead, the standard that applies for children’s toys is appropriate for pets,” Gearhart says. “I’d say the standard for children’s products should at least be a starting point for those levels.”
A veterinary toxicologist with the ASPCA supports similar guidelines. “Dogs are part of the family,” says Dr. Safdar Kahn, director of Toxicology Research at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. “They are as important as our kids or other family member. And if we feel that way about them, then we should give them things that won’t affect their health.
“So yes, there should be standards for [chemicals] in pet toys,” Kahn adds. “Just like there are guidelines for children’s toys, there should be guidelines for [toxins] in the toys being sold for pets.” Dr. Kahn isn’t aware of any confirmed cases of lead poisoning in dogs caused by a pet toy, but he warns that long-term, excessive exposure to the heavy metal could cause health problems in our four-legged friends.
“Dogs like to chew on things, lick things, carry toys in their mouths, and if there are excessive amounts of lead in a toy, then they can get overexposed to lead,” he says. “And lead can do a number of things to dogs, depending on how much they’re exposed to and for how long.” Some health problems associated with canine lead toxicity include vomiting, weight loss, anemia, seizures and permanent neurological damage.
“Depending on how much exposure there is, and the duration, it can affect multiple organ systems,” Kahn says, adding that dogs who chew or ingest such products as fishing sinkers, curtain weights and old paint can develop lead toxicity.
Remember the “pet” tennis ball that contained more than 2,000 ppm of lead and more than 200 ppm of arsenic? “They are considered higher than the maximum tolerable dietary levels in dogs,” says Kahn.
But the levels of other toxins found in the pet toys tested by the Ecology Center—including traces of chromium, antimony and up to 166 ppm of the flame-retardant bromine—do not alarm Kahn. “Those are not expected to be a concern at these levels,” he says.
Years before concerns of harmful chemicals in pet toys became a hot topic, the Maine company Planet Dog started making nontoxic toys and other products for dogs. Since it opened its doors 12 years ago, Planet Dog has embraced strict hazardous material standards. Many are self-imposed, including the company’s decision to follow the lower European standards for lead in children’s toys of 90 ppm.
“We want to make sure everything we are producing is completely safe,” says Jeff Cloutier, Planet Dog’s manager of sourcing, quality assistance and product development. “All our molded toys are 100 percent safe. We also do our own third-party testing to ensure all the products we make and sell meet our standards.” Cloutier would still like to see national standards for lead and other chemicals in chew toys and pet products. There’s just one caveat: Those standards must be fair.
“The problem is there are so many different standards and tests out there for kids’ toys and clothes, but there is nothing for pets,” Cloutier says. “There needs to be something. This is a huge industry, and who knows what some companies are making.”
PetSmart says dog owners don’t need to worry about the safety of the pet toys and other products on its store shelves. The nationwide retailer claims all its products meet strict federal and other regulatory guidelines. “We use the same standards established for human safety,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Ericsson, “and we continue to receive successful test results on our products, and believe there is no cause for concern related to the products we sell.”
The company routinely tests samples of its imported pet products, Ericsson says. “We also hire an independent company to conduct a variety of quality- assurance tests on representative batches of [pet] toys, including tests for arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium,” she says. “We take the safety of our products very seriously.”
The American Pet Products Association (APPA) says its members are just as vigilant about the safety of dog toys and other pet products. The trade group says many of its members have adopted their own chemical standards, using the European lead levels or the 300 ppm in the United States as baselines. “There is a kind of informal standard going on now,” says the association’s Ed Rod. “Some of our members have also found that large retailers impose their own standards. But some members have run into difficulties because those standards are not always the same. Retailers set their own standards. One company may have one standard and another retailer may have another one.”
Do APPA members agree that national standards for toxins in pet toys should be adopted? “There is discussion in the industry about whether some sort of voluntary standards are appropriate,” Rod says. “We’ve met with the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) about getting some standards. But the CPSC has no jurisdiction over pet toys, and they are underfunded and overworked. They have no interest or inclination unique to pet toys. They’re looking at children’s toys. So going to the CPSC and getting some standards for pet toys is not an option.”
Rod says members of his organization understand dog owners’ concerns and frustrations about toxins in their pets’ toys. “People saw Mattel recall toys for lead and heard about the lead problems with the Thomas the Tank Engine toys,” he says. “The next connection was, understandably, ‘What’s in my pet’s toy?’”
But there isn’t a consensus among APPA members that chemical safety standards are needed, Rod says. “I’m sure there are two points of view. It’s convenient to say that there are standards for children’s toys and if those are good enough for kids, they should be good enough for dogs.
“On the other hand, it’s hard to establish a baseline. And there is no science showing any ill effects from the lead or plastic content in a chew toy for animals. Therefore, we have no basis for evaluating any lead or plastic content standards unique to pet toys.”
At least one worried dog owner says she’d consider APPA members “heroes” if they’d spearhead a campaign to establish standards for toxins in pet toys. “We need standards and we need to know what levels are okay to expose our pets to,” Nancy Rogers says. “I still think the Pet Products Association should lead that effort. This issue matters because pets are part of our families.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
The downside of rawhide
“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: Food & Nutrition
What’s gotten into food safety?
We’re barely halfway into the year and already, there have been a flurry of pet food recalls. The sheer number of brands has been surprising, as have the names of the brands involved; we’ve seen recalls from some of the industry’s most respected companies. How and what we feed our dogs (and ourselves, for that matter) is such a fundamental issue that we’ve decided to do a series of articles on pet food safety, starting with a report on a few of the most recent recalls. We examine the reasons behind them, lessons learned and what we might expect in the future.
Until very recently, all recalls have been voluntary (a confusing term that can lead consumers to believe that a recall is optional), triggered for a variety of reasons: mislabeling, misbranding, the inclusion of potential allergens or adulterants, or contamination with a pathogen such as one of the varieties of salmonella. And some products are recalled simply because they were produced at the same factory during the same timeframe as the affected food.
So far, no pet food recall has been as widespread as the one in 2007, which involved the Menu melamine scandal. If Hurricane Katrina taught policymakers the importance of the human/ pet bond, the ’07 Menu Foods recall did the same for the focus on the safety of the food that we feed our pets. As William Hubbard, a former FDA official, notes, “I do think that this pet food thing has shown people … that something needs to be fixed. If this is not a wake-up call, then people are so asleep, they are catatonic.”
It took a while for Congress to fully awaken, but in 2010, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was given more power with the passage and then signing into law by President Obama of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The act marks the most sweeping food-safety reform since the Great Depression.
This new act will soon be putting broader issues into the spotlight. For the first time, the FDA will be empowered to more aggressively regulate and enforce preventive measures. Recalls will no longer just be voluntary, but rather, can be mandatory. In our opinion, given this new regulatory power and the plethora of places from which pet food manufacturers source their ingredients, the number of recalls will surely rise. Closer attention and accountability are good for consumers and the animals we feed, and definitely something we need to be informed about.
RECALL CLASS OF 2013
We have the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to thank for finding what might be the contributing factor: the department identified antibiotic residues not approved for poultry in the U.S. in the treats. This spurred Del Monte, the makers of Milo’s Kitchen Chicken Jerky Treats, and Nestle Purina, manufacturers of Waggin’ Train and Canyon Creek Ranch dog treats, as well as others, to finally initiate a nationwide removal of these products from store shelves.
Though the FDA continued to claim that “there is no evidence that raises health concerns, and that these results are highly unlikely to be related to the reports of illnesses,” the findings were enough to convince the slow-moving food industry that they needed to get the products out of circulation. The FDA, which still considers this to be an open investigation, notes that they “welcome additional information about New York’s testing methodology …” To date, the treats are thought to have contributed to the deaths of roughly 500 dogs and nine cats. If New York’s state inspectors had not found the illegal antibiotic residue, those treats would still be available. Chalk one up for the state team!
DOMESTIC PRODUCTS TAKE A HIT
In February of this year, Kasel had the dubious distinction of being the first pet food manufacturer to possibly face a first-ever FDA/FSMA mandatory recall notice, a threat based on inspections by an FDA team that found a number of infractions: “All of the finished pet treat product samples and 48 out of 87 environmental samples collected during the inspection tested positive for salmonella. More than 10 different species of salmonella were found in the firm’s products and manufacturing facility, indicating multiple sources of contamination.” The jerky treats were sold through a number of big-box retailers, including Target, Petco, Sam’s Club and Costco.
Other jerky products made in Kasel’s Denver plant were drawn into the recall as well. Bixbi, an up-and-coming independent brand from Boulder, had batches of their products swept up, and Nutri-Vet, a more established brand, was also named, although it was noted that none of these products had tested positive for bacteria. (I contacted the owners of Bixbi and Kasel, who responded to my questions; I also placed numerous calls to Nutri-Vet, who didn’t reply.)
Treats aren’t the only products in which salmonella has been found, however. Natura, a premium holistic brand now owned by Procter & Gamble, had its first recall experience this year after one of their dry-food products tested positive for salmonella by Michigan inspectors. When I spoke in late March to Jason Taylor, a P&G spokesperson, he said the company was still in the process of trying to recreate the production situation at the time the contamination happened; they were, however, sure that it had occurred during a post-extrusion step. “We have an extrusion [cooking] process that is scientifically proven to kill pathogens … So it probably happened either at the dryer or packaging line.” According to Taylor, the company has a complex manufacturing process in place to ensure that their products are contamination- free. Their microbial-mitigation process, which has more than 100 steps, addresses each step the food goes through, from raw material through packaging.
Taylor said that the company was fairly confident that the problem was limited to products manufactured during the two-week period beginning December 17, 2012, and ending January 2, 2013. Since then, we learned that they extended the recall for products manufactured up through March 24, 2013— making this a larger-scale recall.
RAW FOOD PRODUCTS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
While most of Honest Kitchen’s rawfood sources are in North America, they also get some produce from Europe and exotic fruits from Asia. Surprisingly, they get their parsley from Egypt. Yearround availability of organic and/or human-grade ingredients at a reasonable price is one of the challenges faced by smaller food manufacturers like Honest Kitchen, and is the reason for this wide-ranging sourcing.
Since this incident, Honest Kitchen has switched to another parsley supplier (also in Egypt) and added a new step to their processing of dried herbs and leafy greens, treating them with a gentle steam sterilization to protect against microbial pathogens.
More raw food companies were hit with recalls in March, when the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture found salmonella, first in Steve’s Real Food Turducken patties, and a week later in a two-pound tube of Bravo! Chicken Blend raw frozen food diet the agency had purchased from a local pet store.* I talked with veterinarian Heidi Kassenborg, director of Dairy and Food Inspections for Minnesota, to get a better idea about her state’s pathogen inspection process.
Many have observed that while salmonella is the most prevalent foodborne pathogen, few dogs actually become ill from it, and I asked her why the FDA and her agency have such a strong concern about its presence in pet food. She explained that they are charged with finding adulterants in food, and “in food items, salmonella is considered to be an adulterant.” As for the USDA’s salmonella-tolerance level for raw poultry (now at 7.5 percent, down from 20 percent in 1996), she confirmed that “in raw food, like poultry and beef, it is not considered to be an adulterant.” Basically, there is no tolerance for adulterants in finished food items, and even raw diet is considered a “food item.”
Kassenborg explained the high concern about pet food, saying that since pet food is handled by humans, they are exposed to any pathogens that may be in it; these pathogens can also be excreted in the pet’s stool. Given that salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, the frail or elderly, and those with weakened immune systems, this is indeed a compelling reason for concern.
She went on to say that there would be increased surveillance now that raw diet has tested positive for pathogens. “Once things are found in one food type, they start looking at it and testing more. We have an obligation to find out if it is a widespread problem. And if so, is there a way to produce it better without it becoming contaminated?”
Doug Lueders, supervisor of Minnesota’s Commercial Feed Regulatory Program and the person responsible for its product-sampling plan, concurs. “If we have a category that has had few [contaminants] or none, we may switch our emphasis to one where we have had a problem. I think we will raise the percentage [of resources] that we have devoted to raw in the past; that, however, will be at the expense of something else.”
Resource allocation is a real issue. Other states have registered positive hits on items like jerky and kibble, so even though there might not be direct interstate coordination of efforts, Lueders says, since “Michigan found salmonella in one brand of pet food, it probably doesn’t serve much practical purpose for us to look at the same brand ourselves. There is an old adage that says an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so we wouldn’t continue to test the same pet food for salmonella in hopes of finding more salmonella, or hoping to find that it is clean …”
THE PRICE OF SAFETY
Prior to processing a food in their facilities, suppliers must certify that the food is pathogen-free. Throughout the manufacturing process, pathogens are tested for and eradicated. A few NARPA members use what is known as highpressure processing or high-pressure pasteurization (HPP), which disrupts a pathogen’s cell walls. Miller says that this very expensive system is considered by the general food industry to be stateof- the-art in controlling pathogens.
Companies like Bravo! also batchtest and follow a test-and-hold system, meaning that finished products are not shipped from their plants until negative pathogen reports are in hand. A Bravo! spokesperson described the company’s process: “Most established companies in raw diet own their own facilities. We [at Bravo] come out of the meat business and our facility is a USDA facility for human food, so we have standards we have to keep up. We have a USDA inspector who checks the plant daily to make sure that [things are] being done by the books [and] we have a HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] plan in place. What consumers should be looking for are companies who use ‘test and release’ and batch testing, and have HACCP plans.” He also noted that the company’s website will soon have a function that will allow consumers to enter an item number and “best used by” date and receive test results for E. coli, Listeria and salmonella.
This type of high-level testing increases the cost of the final product; as Miller observes, “you can’t add a whole level of pathogen controls and not have a resulting increase in cost to consumers.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
But while smaller brands can be devastated by such events, companies who have worked hard and long to develop a loyal customer base can, most likely, recover from them, as can internationally distributed brands such as Natura.
I don’t believe that most of these pet food companies and manufacturers acted recklessly. But after a recall, it shouldn’t be business as usual. Measures need to be taken to identify where the contamination came into the system, and pathogen controls need to be improved. Changes need to be made—for some businesses, that may mean switching manufacturers, raw-material suppliers, warehouses or distributors, or even instructing pet stores on proper handling and storage techniques for their products.
It’s also critically important that they pay attention to how customers are notified (and receive compensation or refunds). For example, I commend Honest Kitchen for quickly alerting its customers via email, social media and website notices. Retaining the trust of customers requires companies to be transparent, forthcoming and ready to make production and sourcing modifications, as they and a few other companies have done.
Realistically speaking, it’s unlikely that the food system can be made 100 percent safe. Nonetheless, we need to know we can trust that those who make the food we feed our companion animals are held to the same standards as those who supply the food we eat ourselves.
Over the years, we’ve become well aware of the concept of food sourcing. In addition to knowing exactly what goes into the food we feed our dogs and cats, we also need to know where it comes from. How the finished products are processed, packaged and distributed is also vitally important. As P&G’s Taylor observed, pathogen elimination is challenging when working with large quantities of raw meat and poultry.
Do some food processors take shortcuts to save money? For some, that might be the case, as evidenced by the huge 2012 recall involving a Diamond co-processing plant in Gaston, S.C. , which ultimately affected 17 brands representing more than 30,000 tons of dry dog and cat food. Because a rare strain of Salmonella infantis was found in some product samples, all brands, ranging from high-end Wellness to Costco’s brand, Kirkland, were recalled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 49 people in 20 states and two in Canada who came in contact with pet food made at this facility are confirmed to have been affected. When the FDA inspected the plant, they found numerous problems with the contamination-containment processes, including the use of cardboard and duct tape on some of the equipment. How they got away with this—how they managed to fly under the radar of the companies for which they were making food—is anyone’s guess.
Yet another problem that cries out for better monitoring involves actually getting recalled products off store shelves. A reporter for a Colorado television station found bags of the tainted Chinese jerky in stores such as Safeway, K-Mart and Albertsons almost a month after it had been recalled. I learned about this from attorney Jennifer Reba Edwards of the Animal Law Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo. As Edwards points out, “The bigger problem is [that] once recalled, the products are still getting to the end user. Retailers are not pulling the products from the shelf and you can buy them online; that is almost a bigger problem than the recall itself—preventing it [from] being available to the end user.” Who is responsible for this step? Who should be held accountable? This is definitely a problem to track and one that consumers need to be aware of.
Within the dog community, the issue of salmonella is controversial; some question its potential to harm dogs. However, I don’t believe this is debatable. There are too many instances in which people have been damaged by cross-contamination or mishandling in the home of food intended for pets. The FDA considers it to be an adulterant in both human and animal foods, as well they should. More to the point, as Jennifer Edwards says, “I’m pregnant; I would really be upset if I were to be exposed to salmonella. It goes beyond protecting our animals—we have to protect our people as well.”
If ever there was a reason to look at the big picture, this is it. We have only one food supply, and it should be safe for both humans and animals. This is, and ought to be, the standard that foodsafety regulators, the food industry and we—the consumers—need to meet.
*A Bravo! company spokesperson told me that the product that tested positive had been tested by a third-party inspector before leaving the plant and had a negative-contamination finding. In an unusual step, the FDA allowed that point to be included in their recall statement.
Wellness: Health Care
DEA action might hinder in-home vet practices
Legislative Alert: We need your help! Please Support S. 950, the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act, to Allow Veterinarians to Continue to Transport Vital Medications for the Treatment of Animals!
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is seeking urgent modification to the current Controlled Substances Act (CSA) that was put forth by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1970. The CSA was designed to protect public health by preventing diversion and improper use of controlled substances, and was actually implemented with the human medical field in mind. Well, the DEA is now suddenly interpreting the wording in this 43-year old legislation and has recently deemed it illegal for veterinarians to transport controlled substances outside of the veterinarian's single registered location, typically their hospital or clinic.
What does this mean? It means that it is now illegal for veterinarians to carry and use vital medications for pain management, anesthesia and euthanasia in house calls, in veterinary mobile clinics, on farms, or in ambulatory response situations such as injured wildlife. It now prohibits mobile veterinarians, rural or farm veterinarians, and in-home euthanasia veterinarians from doing their job because of this sudden and literal interpretation of the law. As a provider of hospice care for pets, this hits especially close to home for me: I am no longer legally able to provide adequate pain relief for my terminal patients, nor am I legally allowed to provide the the gift of a peaceful passing in the comfort of a pet's home. The DEA has already notified veterinarians in some states (California being highly targeted) that they are in violation of this law and are being threatened with fines as well as provoking licensing.
The DEA has officially informed organized veterinary medicine that transporting these controlled substances is illegal per the CSA and thus would require a statutory change in the law to allow “us” to legally provide complete veterinary care to our patients.
We have met this need by introducing the Veterinary Medicine Mobility Act (S. 950), which was introduced by U.S. Senators Jerry Morgan and Angus King just this week (thank you!). This legislation would amend the current CSA and will allow us to continue to treat and meet the needs of our patients—your pets.
Can you help? It is imperative that veterinarians be able to legally transport controlled substances to the location of our patients, and we need your support. By clicking this link you can tell your U.S Senators that veterinarians must be able to properly care for their patients. It takes just seconds- look for the green-colored “TAKE ACTION NOW” at the bottom and with just 1 click, you can make a world of difference for our pet family members.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Tips on keeping your dogs safe
It’s the season, in California and in other states, when foxtails are starting to rear their “ugly” and dangerous seed-heads. These days after our morning walk, and before I load the dogs into the car, I do a complete check-up on them. I need to comb Lola, because she has a shaggy, wired coat, and her high-leaping, coursing style of recreation, attracts burrs, seeds, and unfortunately the worst of them all, foxtails. Checking each toe, paw pads, nose, ears, eyes—I also pat around the other two short hair dogs, attention that they really enjoy. Here are two wellness articles from our two vet bloggers, Shea Cox and Nancy Kay, that will tell you everything you might need to know about keeping your dog safe from these flora pests. There was also a good article in Gun Dog magazine back in 2010. What that piece shows is that foxtails are spreading to other areas of the country.
P.S. A couple days after posting this blog, Charlie, my little Terrier, got one up his nose. Poor guy, he sneezed like mad, and then stopped. Some people believe that the stopping means a dog has expelled the foxtail through sneezing, but unfortunately that is not usually the case. Only means that the darn thing has moved further up the nasal passage. It is always wise to have a vet check it out.
The American Heart Association issued a scientific statement yesterday that yes, owning a dog may protect us from heart disease. The statement was issued by an expert panel that was convened to look at alternative approaches to combat heart disease. They were prompted to look at the benefits of pet caring because of the growing number of medical studies linking pet ownership to better health.
Dr. Levine, a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine said, “there are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk.” Dog ownership, partially because it compels people to walk their dogs and thereby getting more exercise, proved more beneficial than owning a cat. Richard Krasuski, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, thought this statement as more of an indictment of societal attitudes toward exercise. “Very few people are meeting their exercise goals,” he said. “In an ideal society, where people are actually listening to physician recommendations, you wouldn’t need pets to drag people outside.” (Feeling that walking my dogs is one of the greatest daily pleasures in my life, I would not quite agree that many of us actually consider our dogs as “dragging” us outside.)
“Several studies showed that dogs decreased the body’s reaction to stress, with a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline-like hormone release when a pet is present as opposed to when a pet is not present,” Dr. Levine said. Pet owners also tended to report greater amounts of physical activity, and modestly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Some research showed that people who had pets of any kind were also more likely to survive heart attacks. All in all a definite win-win for us and our dogs.
The research also strongly suggested that there was a sharp contrast between those who walked their dogs themselves and those who did not.
Dr. Levine concludes by saying that they were not recommending that people adopt pets for any reason other than to give them a good home.
“If someone adopts a pet, but still sits on the couch and smokes and eats whatever they want and doesn’t control their blood pressure,” he said, “that’s not a prudent strategy to decrease their cardiovascular risk.”
Wellness: Healthy Living
Choose toys with more than fun in mind
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
Wellness: Healthy Living
When it comes to remedying diseases and disorders, dogs and people are in it together
Call it a movement, a philosophy, a revelation or a revolution.
Call it “one medicine,” “one health” or “zoobiquity.”
Call it something new, or—given that the “aha” moment on which the concept is based came in the 19th century—call it something old that’s been remembered and repackaged amidst the growing awareness that solving the mysteries of animal diseases and disorders, from injured spinal cords to cancer, can lead to possibly curing our own.
Over at least the past five years, there has been a rekindled recognition of the species-spanning nature of diseases, and of the value of species-spanning research. About 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases that affect humans have their origins in animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
On a theoretical level, the concept of “zoobiquity,” a term coined in the 2012 book of the same name, suggests that, no matter our species, we’re all in this together, subject to most of the same infirmities, capable of passing a lot of them back and forth, and more likely to find cures and treatments if we look at the big picture—at the earth and all its creatures —as opposed to focusing solely on humans.
On a practical level, species-spanning thinking—referred to by various monikers—has led in recent years to veterinary schools reinventing themselves; to a heightened spirit of cooperation between doctors and veterinarians; to new sources of funding for research; and to the realization that, when it comes to diseases shared by humans and animals, the latter may provide a quicker and less expensive route to a cure for all.
Where do dogs fit in? Right at the top. No other animal—if not physiologically, at least in terms of sharing our genetic markers and our home environment—is as close to us.
That’s why Texas A&M veterinarians and University of California, San Francisco, medical researchers have teamed up to study spinal problems in Dachshunds and other dwarf breeds and to test a new drug that blocks secondary infections. The research, which is funded by the Department of Defense, has potential application to battlefield injuries
That’s why, in New York, veterinarians with the Animal Medical Center have joined forces with physicians and researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to set up trials in which electrical impulses are used to treat tumors of the urinary tract in canines, with an eye toward possible human application.
That’s why the Mayo Clinic has partnered with two veterinary schools, a medical school and a private corporation to study the effectiveness of a device aimed at predicting and controlling epileptic seizures in both dogs and humans. While traditionally, research into canine epilepsy has been funded primarily by the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation and breed clubs, the Mayo Clinic collaboration received a $7.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
That’s why Tobi, a paralyzed Golden Retriever, is getting stem-cell treatments that may help him walk again as part of a clinical trial headed by Dr. Natasha Olby, veterinarian and neurologist at North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) College of Veterinary Medicine. The trial will involve as many as 30 dogs over three years.
And that’s why Peggy, a Chihuahua from Albuquerque who was born with three legs, is being outfitted with a “bionic” paw at NCSU. Implanting the prosthetic device, which will have electrodes that connect to her nerves, will allow her to run and scratch, and could add to the growing use of comparable technology in humans.
Similarities between dogs and humans, especially when it comes to genes, are also the basis for Dr. Matthew Breen’s research into the most common cancer in dogs, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Breen and fellow researchers have, with help from the canine genome map, developed a test that can accurately predict how long a dog treated with chemotherapy will remain in remission. In collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and others, they’re in the process of converting the canine test to a human one.
“If that happens, it will be big news,” says Breen, a geneticist and professor of genomics. Breen lost his first dog to cancer when he was 12 and, as an adult, played a role in the mapping of the canine genome—a game-changing achievement that helped place dogs front and center when it comes to health research.
“It’s likely that we will learn more about cancer by looking at what happens in our dogs over the next five to 10 years than we will in the next 20 to 30 of looking solely at cancer in people,” he predicts.
But the key, he emphasizes, is looking at both at the same time.
“If we consider dogs as dogs, we’ll be able to do so much. If we consider people as people, we’ll do so much. But if we consider them both as mammals, and look at what’s common between them, we will find some intriguing answers.”
The possibilities extend well beyond non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and well beyond cancer. Dogs, long our antidote for loneliness, may hold the most promise of all animals when it comes to solving medical mysteries and curing what ails us.
“The answer to some of nature’s puzzles about genetics and disease,” Breen says, “has been walking right beside us for the last few hundred years.”
In reality, we’ve been turning to dogs for thousands of years, sometimes quite cruelly, to try to solve our human ills: from the time of Aristotle, who conducted experiments on live animals, and the era of Galen, whose second-century experiments earned him the title “the father of vivisection,” to the period of Pavlov, whose 19th-century experiments included severing the esophagi of living dogs to better study their digestion and, as a sideline, bottling and selling their gastric juices to the public as a cure for dyspepsia.
Many of the medical treatments we now take for granted were either discovered through the use of dogs or tried on dogs first.
In England during the 1600s, the first administration of medication intravenously was accomplished in a dog, via tubes and a pouch made of an animal bladder. In the 1920s, experiments on dogs led to Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin. Banting and fellow researcher Charles Best surgically stopped the flow of nourishment to a dog’s pancreas and, after it degenerated, removed it, sliced it up, froze the pieces then ground them up. They named the extract “isletin.” When it was injected into another dog in which they’d induced diabetes, the dog’s blood glucose level dropped.
In the 1960s—long before they were ever slipped into clogged human arteries—stents were inserted into those of dogs. When a ballooning version was developed in the 1980s, it too was first tested on dogs.
Currently, as humans wait to take full advantage of its purported promise, stem-cell therapy is becoming more common—though expensive, at around $2,500 per treatment—in treating dogs with arthritis, hip dysplasia and spinal-cord injuries. Removing, treating and reinjecting stem cells (and even differentiated cells) have led to some miraculous recoveries.
Dogs may have access to novel cures and treatments yet to be made widely available to humans, but there’s a trade-off. They are still, in a way, being used as guinea pigs. The difference is—compared to Pavlov’s day, compared to some of the unsavory experimentation on dogs that still goes on—they’re not healthy dogs, or dogs in whom diseases have been induced. Most often, they’re patients, sick dogs who have run out of alternatives and whose owners have enrolled them in clinical trials in hopes of, if not curing their own pet, furthering research that might help other dogs.
The canine cancer samples from around the country that end up in Breen’s lab come from willing donors, or at least willing owners, many of whom see contributing to such research as a way their dogs can leave a lasting mark.
“By providing that data point, it’s almost a legacy for their own dog,” Breen says. “Every dog we recruit, we ask the owner for a picture to put on our wall of honor. We have hundreds and hundreds of pictures of dogs. It helps ground people in the lab, and makes them realize what they’re dealing with is not just a piece of tissue but somebody’s beloved companion that needs to be treated with the same kind of respect.”
Under microscopes, Breen studies chromosomal changes within cancer cells, changes that have been shown to duplicate those that occur in humans. “If we look at what overlaps, it’s those shared genes that highlight the major drivers in the cancer process,” he says.
The aberration of particular chromosomes allows Breen to identify which therapies will offer maximum survival chances. In lymphoma cases, up to 90 percent of dogs respond to chemotherapy and go into remission, but only about half live longer than nine months. By looking at the genetic differences between the dogs who survive for short times and those who survive longer, Breen’s team has developed a test that determines how long a dog will stay in remission; this test will, it is hoped, eventually be available for use with humans.
Experts estimate that one in four dogs will develop cancer in their lifetime. About 50 percent of those over age 10 will die from it. The types, incidence and outcomes aren’t always identical to those in humans, but even in those differences, other clues and opportunities may be found.
Bone cancer, or osteosarcoma, for example, affects a whopping 60,000 dogs a year. In humans, there are only about 900 cases a year and, as a result, its research has never received the kind of funding awarded to work being done on more widespread cancers.
By looking at the disease itself, as opposed to its effect on a singular species, some less high-profile diseases (in humans) can get more attention, and progress can be made more quickly, Breen says.
“We ignore whether it’s in dogs or people, focus on the cancer and get to the biology faster.”
Down the road, such research might keep someone else from hearing those five fateful words Breen remembers hearing as a child, when his own Border Collie cross was stricken with cancer: “There’s nothing we can do.”
Rudolph Virchow, though he wasn’t credited for it in his lifetime, is considered the father of “one medicine.” The 19th-century pathologist coined the term “zoonosis” and created the field of comparative pathology.
“Between animal and human medicine there is no dividing line—nor should there be,” he said. “The object is different but the experience obtained constitutes the basis of all medicine.”
Two centuries later, a variety of factors breathed new life into his old idea. Recently identified zoonotic diseases, like swine and avian flus and West Nile virus, became major public health concerns. At the same time, dissatisfaction was mounting with research studies involving mice, primarily because their findings often weren’t transferable to humans. There was a growing recognition that all animals, both wild and domestic, serve—like the canaries once used in British mines—as sentries for environmental hazards.
Dogs, while at the forefront of much modern research, also played a large role in reviving the species-spanning way of thinking. On top of the tremendous diagnostic and research value it held for dogs, the successful completion of the canine genome map in 2005 showed how similar dog genes are to our own. It also reinforced how much more quickly canine health research can progress. Mapping the sequence of the canine genome cost about $50 million and took one year, while mapping the humane genome cost more than $3 billion over 15 years.
It was one year after that benchmark, in 2006, that the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association issued a joint declaration encouraging more partnerships and information sharing between the two branches of medicine.
For far too long, doctors of human medicine and doctors of veterinary medicine—and researchers in the two fields—operated on separate planes. By coming together and sharing their findings, proponents of one medicine held, new opportunities could be realized and new cures, possibly, found.
To those involved with treating and researching animal diseases, the increased respect from those in the world of human medical research is palpable. Dr. Jorge A. Piedrahita, geneticist and professor in the Department of Molecular Biomedical Sciences at NCSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, remembers a time when overtures from the veterinary medical community to the human one would result in “blank stares, as if they were thinking, What would we want with you?”
“The human medicine field in the past has looked at us [veterinary schools] as technicians,” he says. “They came to us if they needed a pig or a dog, but they never saw us as partners. Now we sit with them really as equals.”
Piedrahita serves as director of the Center for Comparative Medicine and Translational Research, which was created seven years ago. Based at NCSU, one of the first vet schools in the country to fully jump on the one-medicine bandwagon, the center includes 116 researchers at five colleges. The thinking behind the center, he says, is “if we help one species, we’re helping all of them.”
Since then, Piedrahita says, the road between veterinary practitioners and doctors has become much more of a two-way street. “There have been an amazing number of new interactions, and we’re still a very young center. It’s really becoming almost like a partnership.”
Doctors and vets are not the only two cultures the movement has brought closer together, he notes. It has also led to “increased sharing between clinicians, or those working with patients, and researchers, who are confined to labs.” The result, he says, is faster and more efficient research, capable of reaching solutions sooner.
Breen’s cancer research is one example of that. Another is a project Piedrahita is involved with in conjunction with Wake Forest University’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, which is seeking a solution to urinary incontinence.
While it’s a significant issue for women, especially elderly ones, one might not think that dogs—generally a less-prone-to-embarrassment species—would rank it too high, even the spayed ones, in which it is most common. Piedrahita is quick to correct that thinking.
“It’s a very big deal,” he says. “It’s the reason many of them end up in shelters, or being returned to shelters. For the dog, it may not be that big of a deal, but for the owner, it is.”
Throw in its human applications, and it becomes even bigger.
Using cells from the patient—for now, canine patients—the treatment involves reinjecting cells, usually taken from a leg muscle, into the urethral sphincter itself, where they regenerate and build new muscle. The project has received funding from the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation, and clinical trials involving as many as 40 dogs were expected to begin in January.
Of all the microscopic matters detected in a typical veterinary research lab, irony is not usually among them. But here’s one that has surfaced.
Among purebreds, breeding for certain traits, and to get a certain look—most often accomplished by using dogs who are closely related—has led to recessive disorders, more than those found in any other animal except humans.
It’s believed to be why Boxers are prone to mast-cell cancer and brain tumors, Scottish Terriers to bladder cancer, and Bernese Mountain Dogs to histiocytic sarcoma. It’s why one in five Golden Retrievers is diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma.
But the limited genetic diversity that has led to cancer-causing mutations in many purebreds is also what has led to dogs becoming such a valuable tool in studying disease. Breen compares it to tuning in a radio station. With the dog genome, there’s none of the noise and static from competing frequencies—just a clear signal.
Pointing fingers is useless, Breen says. “I don’t blame anybody.” But he’s among the first to admit that limiting the gene pool has made purebred dogs “a very powerful tool for simplifying genetics.”
With their “less noisy” genetic make-up, purebred dogs offer a speedier research route. It takes thousands of human patients with cancer to identify risk factors, he notes, but the same can be accomplished with as few as 100 canine patients.
In the book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us about Health and the Science of Healing, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist who consults with the Los Angeles Zoo, delves into the many sicknesses we share with animals. (Editor’s note: For a review of Zoobiquity, see the October 2012 issue of Bark.)
Co-authored by Kathryn Bowers, the book points out that not only humans get breast cancer, but kangaroos, beluga whales, wallabies and sea lions—to name a few—do as well. Rhinos get skin cancer; gorillas get depressed; horses suffer from erectile dysfunction; and sexually transmitted diseases plague the non-human world as well, from syphilis in rabbits to chlamydia in koalas.
By looking at the big picture, we’re likely to further our understanding of species-spanning diseases, of the planet and of the environmental factors that contribute to ill health. Two annual conferences on zoobiquity have urged medical practitioners to do just that.
In terms of the latter, dogs, once again, serve as prime examples and perfect models. They sleep in our beds, share our food, lie on our flame-retardant-treated couches and frolic on our insecticide-treated lawns. When we go for a walk, it’s usually with them at our sides or pulling us along behind them.
They may soon lead the way in science as well, as rodents take a back seat when it comes to research examining the role environmental factors, such as secondhand smoke and household chemicals, play in causing disease. While much of it was going on years before the AMA-AVMA declaration was announced or the term “zoobiquity” was coined, research involving dogs (and cats) is increasingly looking at the link between pollutants and cancer.
On top of the fact that the canine genome is 80 to 90 percent similar to that of the human, dogs are constantly at our sides, making them perfect candidates for studying not just cures but also, causes.
Since dogs are such accessible and efficient, not to mention friendly, models, the question arises (or at least ought to): should one health/one medicine/zoobiquity—and more particularly, the view of dogs and other animals as sources of solution to our own diseases—raise animal welfare concerns?
Despite their all-inclusive, holistic and harmonious sounding names, none of the calls for a species-spanning approach to medicine state that all animals are our equals, or that their value parallels that of humans. Only that they get many of the same diseases we do.
As cures come closer and as dogs are increasingly seen as the road to such cures, could our zeal lead to what animal-welfare advocates might see as reckless driving?
The book Zoobiquity points out that in virtually all of the examples it uses, animals involved in the research were already sick. When, on ABC’s “Nightline,” Natterson-Horowitz was asked if the concept could lead to testing on healthy animals—if the Hippocratic Oath of “do no harm” should apply, for instance, to hippos—she replied, “I can’t give you a simple answer, because it’s a very complicated, nuanced question.”
Breen, for his part, doesn’t hesitate. “We don’t induce cancers in dogs. The key issue about cancers, and many genetic diseases in our dogs, is that these are all spontaneous conditions … All the dogs in our study are part of a family, sharing their homes and their lives. The path to discovery involving cancer and our dogs is one we walk along side-by-side with the owners.
“We have access to state-of-the-art technologies to ask key questions, but these are worthless without the willingness of the dog-owning community to collaborate by submitting cancer specimens from their dogs. By building a strong relationship with pet owners, and realizing that their pets are like family members, like a child … it actually means the chances of ever inducing disease are less. I just can’t see it happening; it wouldn’t happen in my lab, let’s put it that way.”
Breen’s bigger fear, when comes to biomedical research, “is that all this will raise people’s hopes too high and too soon.”
That applies to the owners of afflicted pets as well as those who are afflicted themselves, or have human loved ones suffering from a disease. We’re eager to find cures. Dogs, being such perfect models for study, provide what may be one of the quickest routes to them. While a resurgence in the use of otherwise healthy dogs in intrusive experiments isn’t likely, the future (which seems to be getting here faster and faster) isn’t crystal clear.
This much is, however: fairly early in their domestication—and in what was perhaps one key component leading to it—dogs exhibited their ability to stand sentry, to serve humans by warding off dangerous, life-threatening intruders.
In a way, thousands of years later, they’re doing it again.
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