Wellness: Food & Nutrition
A vet speaks out on genetically modified pet food.
Most dogs now dine on some type of genetically modified (GM) food, often in the form of corn and soy in their kibble. As these ingredients increasingly enter the food supply, we have one more reason to wonder if our shopping choices might be harming our pets.
More animal feeding studies are needed, experts say, and a recent long-term, peer-reviewed report points out why. It found that a diet of GM corn and soy led to higher rates of severe stomach inflammation in pigs, which are physiologically similar to dogs.
Robert Silver, DVM, a Boulder, Colo., holistic vet, tackled the issue earlier this year when he presented his paper, “Genetically Modified Food and Its Impact on Pet Health” at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association conference in Kansas City, Mo. Why did he choose this controversial topic, one that few vets even acknowledge?
Silver—a pioneer in the field of holistic veterinary medical practice—says he was inspired by a seminar he attended in Boulder on GM foods and human health. The speakers included Don Huber, a Purdue University professor, and activist Jeffrey Smith, who discussed problems, including reproductive difficulties, that have occurred in livestock fed GM crops.
“I found this seminar mind-opening,” says Silver, the lone vet in attendance. “I had always believed the PR about GM foods—that they are going to feed the world and are a good outcome of our genetic technology.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the safety of GM crops consumed by humans and animals, considers most GM plants “substantially equivalent” to traditional plants and “generally recognized as safe.” Their regulation involves a voluntary consultation process with the developer before products are brought to market.
Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, disagrees. On its website (responsibletechnology.org), he warns that “nearly all GM crops are described as ‘pesticide plants.’ They either tolerate doses of weed killer, such as Roundup, or produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. In both cases, the added toxin—weed killer or bug killer—is found inside the corn or soybeans we consume.”
Silver says that while “allergies, GI problems, increased risk of cancer, neurodegenerative conditions” and other ills could all be, in part, related to GM foods, “there is no objective evidence of this yet” in dogs. “However, all vets will agree that there has been an uptick in [these diseases] in the past 10 to 20 years.” The advent of GM foods in the 1990s “fits into this timing of disease increases,” he says.
His presentation referred to studies that raise doubt about the safety of biotech crops, such as one reported in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that genes inserted into crops can carry with them allergenic properties.
Silver says that genetic modification introduces foreign proteins that may encourage allergies, and the widely planted Bt corn, which makes its own insecticide, “could possibly cause leaky gut, the gateway to chronic disease.” Corn is a major component of most commercial pet foods. “The big problem with commercial foods is that they are manufactured at high temperatures and pressures,” which alters them and makes them “potentially more allergenic.” And commercial foods contain industrial ingredients that are “more likely to contain GM and herbicide contaminants.”
A study published last year found that GM crops engineered to withstand the toxic herbicide Roundup must now be doused with even more herbicide, since weeds have also developed resistance to it. Residues of these chemicals on crops can find their way into pet food.
A 2013 study published in the science journal Entropy reports that the heavy use of Roundup could be linked to Parkinson’s, autism, infertility and cancers. It goes on to report that residues of Roundup in food can interact with, and enhance, the damaging effects of other environmental toxins. “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study’s researchers say.
According to Silver, heightened sensitivity to dietary ingredients “is probably what we are seeing with GM foods. It is of concern that this may be driving the increase in GI problems in pets.” Although gluten probably does account for some problems with grain consumption, “I think that grain-free diets, if they are also soy free and contain protein from animals not fed GM crops, can help many dogs, due to being GM free—and not due to some allergy or gluten issue.”
To a holistic doctor, food is medicine, and Silver strongly recommends home meal preparation from individually sourced ingredients to avoid feeding GM ingredients, especially to pets who have other health problems. “I am truly a holistic practitioner in that I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Benbrook, C.M. 2012. Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S.—the first 16 years. Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 24.
Ordlee, J., et al. 1996. Identification of a Brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. The New England Journal of Medicine 334: 688–692.
Samsel, A., and S. Seneff. 2013. Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy 15 (4): 1416–1463.
For the past couple of decades researchers have been looking at the role that pets, especially dogs, have to play in rates of allergies in children. Many have found that, what is being termed the hygiene hypothesis, is indeed correct, meaning that a little dirt early in life helps to stave allergic diseases, including obesity.
A new study by Anita Kozyrskyj a pediatric epidemiologist of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, found further evidence of this dog-human linkage and how this lessens the development of everything from obesity to asthma.
Starting in 2013 she wondered if she could pinpoint what and how this might be happening. Her team collected fecal samples from 4-month-old infants in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) pilot study. Of the 24 respondent infants, 15 lived in house with at least a dog or cat.
What they found was that within the households with pets, the children had a higher diversity of microbes in their guts. Microbes, as we now know, can be a good thing for our gut microbiome and immune systems actually develop alongside our gut’s “germs.” Meaning that if babies grow in a more “sterile” pet-free environment, they would be more unprepared to “fight” germs as they grow up.
Kozyrskyj noted, "The abundance of these two bacteria (Firmicutes microbes) were increased twofold when there was a pet in the house," and added that the pet exposure was shown to affect the gut microbiome indirectly—from dog to mother to unborn baby—during pregnancy as well as during the first three months of the baby's life.
Also interestingly, this study suggested that the presence of pets in the house reduced the likelihood of the transmission of vaginal GBS (group B Strep) during birth, which causes pneumonia in newborns and is prevented by giving mothers antibiotics during delivery.
Kozyrskyj’s study confirms and expands on the work that many other researchers have shown that some “dirt” can be beneficial and help to ward off disease. Including one, conducted at Kuopio University Hospital in Finland in 2012, that concentrated on infants during their first year, and investigated the effect of contact with dogs on the “frequency of respiratory symptoms and infections.” Information about the length of time a dog spent indoors was also gathered, and turned out to be one of the key indicators.
The results were eye-opening. Children with dogs at home were healthier overall, had fewer infectious respiratory problems, fewer ear infections and were less likely to require antibiotics. Researchers considered these results supportive of the theory that children who live with dogs during their early years have better resistance throughout childhood. They also found that the effect was greater if the dog spent fewer than six hours inside, possibly because the longer dogs are outdoors, the more dirt they bring inside with them. The more dirt, the more “bacterial diversity.” This diversity is thought to have a protective influence by helping the child’s immune system to mature — that is, respond more effectively to infectious agents.
Then a 2013 study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that living with dogs may prevent children from developing asthma. Mice fed a solution containing dust from homes with dogs developed a resistance to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a childhood airway infectious agent. RSV, which is common in infants, is linked to a higher risk of childhood asthma. According to Dr. Susan Lynch of the study team, “Exposing the gastrointestinal tract to pet dust and other microbes early in life prepares it to respond appropriately to a variety of invaders. But since our modern lifestyles involve living in immaculate houses, our immune systems often overreact instead.” Early childhood is a critical period for developing protection against allergies and asthma, and exposure to pets can help.
The idea that our microorganisms may to some extent be collectively beneficial is intriguing. People and dogs have been exchanging microbes for at least 30,000 years, since the first little cave girl kissed the first proto-dog puppy smack on the muzzle. That’s a long history of sharing. It’s possible that our microorganisms are at least symbiotic, and perhaps even played a role in the dramatic domestication of the dog.
As was reported in Nature: Researchers suspect that our long association with canines means that human and dog microbiomes may have developed in tandem. The microbiome of a baby growing up without a dog (and of a puppy growing up without a human) is, in a sense, incomplete. “All of the people alive today probably had ancestors who lived in tribes that hunted with dogs,” says Jack Gilbert, director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago in Illinois.”
Since 2013, Canadian researcher, Kozyrskyj has expanded her pilot study from 24 to 746 infants, around half of whom were living in households with pets. Her team then compared the babies' microbial communities.
The results were basically the same, microbial life flourished in the infants living with pets. And not only that but the “team was now able to show that babies from families with pets (70% of which were dogs) had higher levels of two types of Firmicutes microbes — Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, which have been associated with a lower risk of allergic disease and leanness, respectively.
“Pet exposure can reduce allergic disease and obesity” later in life, added Hein Min Tun, a veterinarian and microbial epidemiologist and a member of Kozyrskyj’s research team.
And while it might be too soon to predict how this finding will play out in the future, they don’t rule out the concept of a “dog in a pill” as a preventive tool for allergies and obesity. Or, as we much rather see, “dog as the pill.”
News: Guest Posts
Guardian objects to its unauthorized use
The last time Luke picked his dog Mya up from day care in Chicago, he found a collar he did not recognize underneath her regular collar. It was a black collar with a box on it, and the number “6” written on it in pen. He photographed the collar and did a little research, discovering that the collar is marketed to control barking with increasing intensities of tones and of shock.
Luke had been taking his dog Mya to this day care a couple of times a week for six months. He hoped the social time with other dogs and people would help her deal with her anxiety. Sadly, the experience may have done her far more harm than good. She vocalizes when she is distressed, and the day care’s response to that distress was to punish her with a shock collar. Luke was upset to realize that if this collar is the “number 6” collar, there are probably at least five more of them. (Another guardian responded to a post on a neighborhood Facebook page about what happened to Mya by posting a picture he had taken of the “number 7” collar his dog had on one day at pick up time.)
The response by the day care did nothing to alleviate Luke’s concerns about what was happening to his dog while at day care. He found it disturbing that when he walked into the day care and held it up, the initial response of the employee was to say, “Uh oh.” Employees, along with the day care’s ownership, have variously claimed that the collar is only designed to vibrate in response to a dog barking, that they don’t use the collar at all and that there was a mix-up during which Mya was accidentally given a collar belonging to another dog. When Luke asked why his dog was wearing the collar, he was originally told that it was obviously because his dog was barking too much. He never authorized, nor would he ever authorize, the use of such a collar. He is currently looking for a new place for his dog to spend time.
Mya and Luke’s story is another cautionary tale about the importance knowing what goes on when your dog is in someone else’s care, which is especially challenging if a business is not forthcoming about their methods.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Citizens fight for off-leash recreation in Golden Gate National Recreational Area
A contentious fight for off-leash recreation has raged for decades in Golden Gate National Recreational Area, with the National Park Service threatening to severely reduce access to dogs. New evidence proves that the battle has been fraught with bias, faulty studies and collusion.
San Francisco has a reputation for being dog friendly. More dogs than children live within its city limits, and many companies, especially tech start-ups, encourage employees to bring their dogs to work.
But San Francisco, surrounded on three sides by water, is also the second densest city in the country. As a result, recreational open space is at a premium, and that has led to squabbles in San Francisco’s urban parks, especially over where dogs can and cannot be walked.
Dog advocates have been fighting for years to preserve gains in recreational access made in the ’70s and ’80s. We have always felt the deck was stacked against us, but recent revelations have shown us that the situation was even worse than we thought. These revelations also forced a federal agency to delay implementation of the severe dog-walking restrictions it wanted to impose.
An Urban National Park
In 1972, Congress created Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), initially a hodgepodge of land in San Francisco and Marin Counties, to “concentrate on serving the outdoor recreation needs of the people of the metropolitan area.” It was part of a Nixon administration’s campaign to “bring parks to the people” and increase outdoor recreation in urban areas.
San Francisco transferred all public oceanfront land within city limits to the National Park Service (NPS) for inclusion in GGNRA. In return, the NPS promised to protect and preserve the land’s traditional recreational uses, which included off-leash dog walking.
In 1979, as part of this promise, GGNRA developed a “pet policy,” which allowed people to walk dogs, including off-leash dogs, at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Fort Funston, Marin’s Muir and Rodeo Beaches, and on miles of trails in the Marin Headlands—somewhat less than 1 percent of the total holdings. For decades, people hiked these parklands with their dogs, played with them in the surf, and enjoyed the sense of community that arises in areas where people and dogs have fun together.
But, by the 1990s, the NPS management mindset at GGNRA began to move away from the original focus on recreational access. Senior staff argued that they needed to manage this highly modif ied, urban recreation area the same way that remote, pristine wilderness is managed. Since dogs are not allowed in places like Yellowstone or Crater Lake, the NPS claimed, they should never have been allowed in GGNRA. In their view, earlier promises no longer applied.
In 1995, the NPS began fencing off areas at Fort Funston to all visitors (not just people with dogs). Then, in 2001, it rescinded the pet policy by administrative fiat. In neither case did GGNRA staff bother to seek public input before making their decisions, despite being required by law to do so. In both cases, dog advocates went to federal court to force the agency to follow the law. In both cases, we won.
The Fort Funston case, in particular, embarrassed the NPS. Internal emails, uncovered in the lawsuit, showed that GGNRA staff had knowingly lied to the public about their plans, repeatedly telling people no more closures were coming while actively planning more fenced-off areas.
A New Plan
In the nearly 20 years since, the NPS has single-mindedly pushed forward with a plan to ban entirely or reduce significantly where we can walk with our dogs in GGNRA, partially as payback for dog-walkers daring to take them to court— and win.
In the final version of its “Proposed Rule for Dog Management in the GGNRA” released last year, the NPS called for drastic cuts of up to 90 percent in the few places where people could now walk with their dogs. It put even tighter restrictions on those who walk more than three dogs, prohibiting them from doing so on evenings or weekends anywhere in GGNRA. While targeting professional dog walkers, this provision would also have a huge negative impact on rescue groups and fosters, whose volunteers often walk larger groups of dogs.
According to this plan, if the NPS decides that there hasn’t been enough compliance with the new restrictions, GGNRA’s superintendent can change access status from off-leash to on-leash, or no dogs at all. The superintendent doesn’t have to show that dogs have caused any problems, just that too many people are walking dogs in areas where the NPS doesn’t want them. Within a few years, under this plan, all GGNRA dog walking could be prohibited with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen.
And, as GGNRA continues to rack up tens of millions of dollars in deferred routine maintenance— deferred because of a lack of funding— the NPS was willing to spend $2.6 million each year to hire more rangers to enforce the new restrictions on people with dogs.
It would be an understatement to say that the proposed plan did not go over well with those who have enjoyed walking their dogs in GGNRA for generations. We organized protests and marches. We attended public meetings and reached out to local elected officials for support. At every stage of the process, public comment—including comments from nearly every local elected official—was overwhelmingly opposed to the proposed restrictions.
We pointed out that there was no evidence of significant negative impacts by dogs at any GGNRA site, and that there were serious errors and mistakes in the dog plan’s environmental analysis. We showed that the NPS did not analyze the impact on surrounding communities if the thousands and thousands of people who walked their dogs on parklands moved into the much smaller city parks. That analysis was the only thing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors had asked of the NPS, yet the agency did little more than compile a list of nearby parks.
Despite everything, the NPS made only a few, mostly cosmetic, changes to the dog plan it first officially proposed in 2011. None of those changes benefited people with dogs.
In July 2015, hearing that a draft rule was coming soon, a coalition of dog and recreation groups, including Save Our Recreation, San Francisco DOG, Marin County DOG and Coastside DOG of San Mateo County, submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the NPS, seeking documents related to the development of the dog plan.
When nearly a year passed with few documents released, Chris Carr, head of the Environment and Energy Practice Group at the prominent law firm Morrison & Foerster, sued the NPS for violating FOIA.
As a result of the lawsuit being filed, the agency finally began handing over the requested documents. They were damning. You can see them at WoofieLeaks.com. The website’s name may be cute, but the contents raise serious legal and ethical questions about how the NPS developed its plan. What clearly comes across is the agency’s complete and utter contempt for people and for public input. In their emails, NPS staff routinely mocked dog walkers, calling them “rattlesnakes,” and derided anyone—even elected officials— who dared question their plans. A staff biologist suggested leaving scientific information that supported fewer restrictions on dogs out of the plan’s environmental impact statement. A senior GGNRA official directed staff to delete emails about the dog plan, saying, “These conversations are best done by phone.”
But perhaps most troubling was the revelation that more than one GGNRA official used a private email account to conduct official business on the dog plan, apparently thinking the private emails would be hidden from any FOIA request. (They’re not, and you can read those on WoofieLeaks.com, as well.)
One senior staffer (who, ironically, served as GGNRA’s FOIA officer and director of communications and partnerships) used his private email account to collude and coordinate with special-interest groups opposed to dog walking. He did this in an effort to drum up public comments and support for GGNRA’s proposal at a time when the agency was supposed to be impartially analyzing alternatives. That same staffer may also have engaged in unlawful grassroots lobbying by advising those same groups on how to communicate with a member of Congress.
Shine a Light on Bias
The emails and other FOIA documents clearly proved that, as we always suspected, the NPS staff members who developed the dog plan were unfairly biased against dog walking and people with dogs. The surprise, however, was their level of active engagement with only one side in the debate: those opposed to dog walking.
Similar collusion is likely happening in other places where dog walking is under attack, and dog advocates should be on the lookout for it. Don’t be afraid to use whatever open-government laws exist in your jurisdiction, from FOIA to local “sunshine” laws, to ferret out bias and impropriety. Look what FOIA did for us.
The day before the NPS planned to sign the rule and put it into effect, the agency announced that the rule was being postponed indefinitely while it conducted an investigation of the private emails and their impact on the development of the dog plan.
Given the NPS’s long history of bias in this matter, there is serious doubt about the agency’s capacity to fairly and impartially investigate the actions of its own staff. To prevent a whitewash of GGNRA misdeeds, many people, including Congresswoman Jackie Speier (whose district includes GGNRA land in San Mateo and San Francisco Counties), have called for an independent inquiry by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General, not by NPS staff, as the agency has proposed.
The decades-long process to create a new dog management plan for GGNRA has been so seriously flawed by outright bias, collusion, omission of data and intentional subverting of the public process that any plan that comes out of it is similarly tainted. The NPS’s proposed plan can never be lawfully adopted and implemented.
Had it not been for our FOIA request and lawsuit, however, we might never have been able to prove our suspicions about the NPS’s unfair and predetermined process.
The fight is by no means over, however. The NPS could decide next week, next month, or anytime in the future to try to move forward with the same restrictive plan that it’s been pushing for nearly 20 years. But if they do, dog advocates— and our lawyers—will be waiting, ready to continue the fight for our right to walk with our dogs in places enjoyed by many generations of people and their pups.
News: Guest Posts
Playing in a Brooklyn park turned to heartbreak when Laura Stephen’s dog Ziggy was shot twice, and killed by NYPD officers. Ziggy a rescued mixed breed was playing off leash in the Saratoga Park in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn on Sunday as they did every evening. Two officers entered the park, Stephen explained to news outlets that one asked her to leash her dog, and when she called Ziggy he turned towards her and an NYPD officer pulled out his gun and fired two shots. The officer claims that Ziggy lunged at him, and so feeling threatened, he shot the dog. Stephen says Ziggy never lunged, and was more than 10 feet away from the officer on his way back to her when shot. Neighbors told news outlets that Ziggy was very friendly and never aggressive.
Stephen didn’t have her wallet or phone so borrowed another parkgoers phone to call her son. When her son arrived with her belongings he rushed to his mother and her dog but was thrown against a tree, and arrested by NYPD officers for disorderly conduct. Meanwhile Ziggy was bleeding surrounded by 30-40 police officers who arrived on the scene. Stephen used snow and her coat to try and stop the bleeding from the gunshot wounds.
Police on the scene Sunday night (via gothamist.com)
An hour after being shot NYPD transported Stephen and Ziggy to an emergency veterinary hospital. Despite receiving a blood transfusion Ziggy died. NYPD officials arrived at the veterinary clinic and issued a criminal summons to Stephen for having her dog off leash.
Read more at the Observer, a group of neighbors also started a GoFundMe to help Stephen cover Ziggy’s funeral expenses.
We heard about an intriguing (and alarming) Bloomberg story over the weekend on NPR’s Marketplace Money program. When asked about predictions for what the guests are “long or short" on, reporter Gillian White said that she was “long” on the financial sector behind “dog leasing.” She was reporting on a piece from Bloomberg about dubious loan scheme operations, such as leasing a dog. In the Bloomberg piece, “I’m Renting a Dog?” Patrick Clark reports about Wags Lending LLC, a California-based firm, that provides leasing options for people who want to buy expensive pet store dogs.
In one of the examples he cites a couple in San Diego purchased a Golden Retriever pup for $2,400, agreeing to pay for the dog with 34 monthly payments of $165.06, bringing the true cost to be $5,800. As White noted that this kind of “leasing operation, taps into the growing trend of consumers who want things but who don’t necessary want to own things.” Added to that is the wish for instant gratification and the fact that most people don’t take the time to read the fine print on things especially when making emotional purchases, like “buying” a dog. Simple fact, many people just want what they want when they want it. And because these leasing companies aren’t subject to the same kind of regulations as loans or even credit cards are, they are able to charge really high interest rates, which range from about 36 percent to 170 percent on an annualized basis! And if you renege of the payment schedule, they are repossess the dog, that's right, they can take the rental dog back. Bristlecone Holding LLC, the company behind this Wags Lending scheme, leases things like furniture, wedding dresses and hearing aids, and the list is growing—but it all started with the dogs. The mission statement from the aptly named, Dusty Wunderlich the CEO behind these companies notes that he is “living in a Postmodern culture while maintaining my old American West roots and Christian values.” Heavens, we need Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s attention on this one fast. Amazing that they can get away with this. Wunderlich also adds that, “We like niches where we’re dealing with emotional borrowers.” Such as those who are staring into the eyes of a pet shop puppy, obviously.
The idea behind Wags Lending came about in 2013, and as the Bloomberg article notes, when Wunderlich “recruited a former hedge fund salesman named Kyle Ferguson as co-founder and launched Wags Lending, thinking dog leases would mark just the first step in a vertically integrated pet-financing company that would eventually include food deliveries, chew-toy subscriptions, and veterinary loans. Then their point-of-sale lease financing became a hit, and they decided to double down on it.” So beware if you happen to stumble upon any of their other “too good to be true” plans! We are seeing more and more of these “point-of-sale” options in the pet sector, especially at vet offices.
So the lesson behind this is a simple one, first of all, do NOT ever ever buy dogs at pet stores, there are many reasons, besides shady lending schemes to not buy a pet shop dog, including that most of those dogs are supplied to pet stores come from puppy mills and buying such dogs only supports those horrible businesses. But even more importantly, there are many wonderful dogs at shelters or with rescue groups and every dog that is purchased at a pet store means another dog just might be euthanized to make room for another dog. That constant intake flow has to stop. Again, read the small print and know what you are getting yourself into before signing up for any of these leasing products. See the Bloomberg piece for the whole story.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
BrewDog offers a week off—fully paid
A beer company based in the UK wants to be the best company to work for, ever, and a new policy gives them a legitimate claim to success. BrewDog just announced that all 1000 of their employees are eligible for a full week of paid leave when a new dog joins the family. They recognize the importance for everyone in the family of spending time with a new dog to adjust to the change. They want to make the transition easier for everyone.
With a name like BrewDog, their new Paw-ternity and Mutt-ernity benefit (officially called Puppy Parental Leave) should come as no surprise. The company has been dog friendly since it began 10 years ago, when their official mascot, Labrador Retriever Bracken, watched the two human founders begin their first batch of beer. Now, employees’ dogs are welcomed at all of their offices and in their 50 breweries and bars worldwide. (Their headquarters in Aberdeen, Scotland regularly has 50 dogs at the office.) Customers’ dogs are also always welcome.
Most people have to take vacation time in order to spend sufficient time with a new dog, which means that many are not able to manage it. For years, I’ve advised people to bring home a new dog over the weekend and to take Friday or Monday off to make it a long weekend if possible. Now, I can just advise them to get a job at BrewDog!
I’m sure many people would love to work for this company because of their generous treatment of employees by the management. Treating the people who work for you well is a good investment that pays dividends in loyalty, and also expands the pool of potential hires. Giving people the freedom to adjust to a new dog also lessens the likelihood of future problems that result in missed work days and low morale.
The company founders say that they understand that their employees care about two things above all else—their beer and their dogs. That might be an oversimplification, but then, again, it might not be.
Is the Mars acquisition of VCA cause for concern?
An explosive, must-read article in Bloomberg Business Week looks at what happens when big business monopolizes the pet health business and how this corporatization might not be in the best interests for our dogs.
Ever wonder why many veterinarians do not heed the 2003 American Animal Hospital Association’s recommendation for core vaccines to be administered every three years? Instead a number of vets still prescribe annual vaccinations—with boosters for distemper, parvovirus and adenovirus. According to the Bloomberg article the immunologist, Ronald Schultz, from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, was one of those researchers who recommended this three-year protocol in the 1970s. He recalls that the AAHA Canine Vaccination Task Force, facing a revolt from vets about the decrease in their future vaccine incomes, struck a compromise at three years instead of the once-in-a-lifetime approach that he and others recommended. But yet you can find that annual vaccines are still being recommended by the 1,000 Banfield Vet Clinics in this country. Another surprising fact is that pet vaccines seem to be the only vaccines where one size, seemingly, fits all—the doses are the same regardless of weight or size of the animal, so the same 1 milliliter is given to a Chihuahua or an Irish Wolfhound—very little research has ever justified that approach. Bloomberg points to an example from Banfield's software program "Pet Ware," used to instruct the veterinarians in diagnosing and prescription advice:
“the book shows a checklist of therapies for a dog with atopic dermatitis, or itchy skin. Doctors are encouraged to recommend a biopsy, analgesics, topical medications, antibiotics, a therapeutic dietary supplement, an allergy diet, and a flea control package. They’re required to recommend antihistamines, shampoos, serum allergy testing, lab work, a skin diagnostic package, and anti-inflammatories. It’s a treatment course that might run $900 for symptoms that, in a best-case scenario, indicate something as prosaic as fleas. The manual reminds doctors: You cannot change items that were initially marked Required. They must remain required.
No wonder the pet health industry is booming and going through a period of rapid consolidations, Banfield, located in many PetSmart stores, was purchased in 2007 by Mars, the candymaker and pet food giant (the largest in the world with over $17 billion in sales from brands like Pedigree, Cesar, Eukanuba, Iams, Natura brands, Royal Canin, Sheba, Nutro). Then in 2015 the Mars Petcare portfolio of vet clinics grew when they acquired BluePearl Veterinary Services, with an additional 55 locations.
Mars, seemingly, facing a slowdown in consumer purchases of prepared/package foods and sugary products, is acquiring even more veterinarian companies and it was announced that their newest acquistion that they are paying $7.7 billion is VCA, Inc., the veterinary and doggie day-care business based in Los Angeles. VCA owns 750 hospitals and employs 3000 vets and 23,000 people, and had a 2015 revenue of $2.1 billion. The Los Angeles Times noted that “VCA has used acquisitions to combine hospitals, diagnostic labs and veterinarians into its network. In 2014, the company even acquired a dog day-care chain called Camp Bow Wow.”
And similar to Banfield’s approach, the Times notes that “VCA has been criticized at times by some customers for requiring tests that can be costly, but VCA maintains that it’s against its policy to sell unnecessary tests or treatments.” But 41 percent of VCA’s operating profits comes from their company’s Antech Diagnostics that also does bloodwork and other tests for more than half of the country’s hospitals, including their own of course. As Bloomberg reported, Tom Fuller, VCA’s chief financial officer, puts it this way when he speaks to investors: “Diagnostics is what grows the industry.” And the company’s business strategy has been “to leverage our existing customer base by increasing the number and intensity of the services received during each visit” (as found in their annual financial reports by Bloomberg reporting.)
Pushing tests unto clients is “good” for business, if not always for their clients’ pets,
"according to Wendy Beers, a veterinarian who resigned in 2014 from a VCA hospital in Albany, Calif. 'Every month they would print out things to say how many packages you sold, how many procedures you did,' she says. 'And if they came out and said, ‘This month we want everyone to do 20 heartworm tests,’ and you only did eight, well, next month you have to do better. I don’t feel when they’re lecturing us that their chief interest is to make sure animals get the best care.'”
According to Ken Shea, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, who says that with Mars’ expanding presence in animal hospitals, the company will have an opportunity to use the facilities to sell even more of its pet foods. Is this troubling news for pet parents? A recent class action suit brought on behalf of consumers by a San Francisco law firm thickens the plot further when you consider that this suit contends that pet food manufacturers (including Mars) and retailers (such as PetSmart) are using "prescriptions" to justify overcharging consumers for food that contains no restricted ingredients. Neither the FDA nor any other government agency mandates such prescriptions.
Bloomberg clearly makes the case why all these things, like over vaccinations, unnecessary testing, false prescriptions for pet food matters is that veterinary medicine is largely unregulated. And one of the reasons why businesses like Mars find the pet industry a good investment strategy is that
“...pet owners pay cash: Vets don’t deal with insurers haggling for better prices or questioning whether that vaccine or ultrasound or blood panel is really necessary. (A small percentage of pet owners carry insurance, but they pay vets upfront, like anyone else, and then take on their insurers for reimbursement.) What’s more, when veterinarians make fatal mistakes, they face no real financial consequences. The law hasn’t changed to reflect the attitudes of the average pet owner; courts still treat pets as property. Damages paid to owners whose pets have been killed or injured are so low that a typical medical malpractice insurance policy for a veterinarian costs less than $20 a month. Damages are so low, in fact, that few pet owners can find a lawyer willing to take even the most egregious case of veterinary malpractice.”
So, yes, it should matter, and as always, it is good to understand what you are up against, what to expect if you use any of these services, to double check before you agree to over vaccinations, or receive a “prescription” for pet food, you are after all the only advocate your dog has and the better informed you are, the better decisions you will make. Nancy Kay, DVM, author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, added that she “feels truly disheartened for my profession” about this expansion of Mars’ vet monopoly. Be sure to read the Bloomberg story and get the word out.
News: Guest Posts
Endocrine-disrupting chemical raises red flags
A study by researchers at the University of Missouri finds that eating canned dog food may increase a pet’s exposure to the endocrine-disrupting chemical, Bisphenol A (BPA).
While the study was short-term, the results were “very revealing,” says investigator Dr. Cheryl Rosenfeld, an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. Fourteen healthy pets were switched from their usual diet of kibble to canned food. Could a two-week menu change raise the dogs’ BPA levels?
It did, three-fold, and that could really be an issue for dogs that eat the same diet every day.
Over 300 studies have linked BPA to health problems from reproductive disorders to cancer, and now research is shedding light on how people and animals are exposed to the plastic-hardening chemical. While the FDA has reviewed the studies, they still consider BPA “safe at the current levels occurring in foods.”
By measuring BPA’s escape from packaging, scientists are narrowing the focus. One study settled the debate over whether BPA—banned in baby bottles but used in many other items—seeps from metal can linings and taints human foods. (It does).
And in August, a long-term study in the UK found a sharp decline in canine fertility associated with exposure to other endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The researchers considered food packaging a possible source, finding the chemicals in a range of dry and wet foods.
Some plastic dog toys have also been found to leach the chemical. A study at Texas Tech by environmental toxicologists Phil Smith and Kimberly Wooten found that BPA and phthalates leached from plastic bumpers into dishes filled with artificial dog saliva.
Wooten, who wasn’t involved in the present study, says that while it isn’t clear if dog health is being harmed long-term, “it’s still important information to have since there’s so little data on canine exposure to these types of chemicals.” She knows of no other studies that have looked at the effects of a specific BPA source on the concentrations in the blood.
“I’d say a 3-fold increase suggests that for dogs that eat canned food, their diet is the most important contributor to their total BPA levels.”
The current study highlights another concern; with the pet food industry being held by about five companies, it seems commercial foods aren’t as diverse as packaging suggests. Of the two (unnamed) brands in the study, one was declared “BPA-free” by the manufacturer.
So, skip the can and spare your dog? It turned out, the dogs already had a small amount of BPA circulating in their blood, shown by initial baseline samples. The researchers then analyzed both the cans and the food for BPA. They also checked for any disturbances in gut bacteria and metabolic changes.
Although one of the diets was presumed to be BPA-free, feeding either brand for two weeks resulted in a three-fold increase of BPA levels in the animals. At the same time, the dogs showed gut microbiome and metabolic changes, with potential health consequences. Increased BPA may also reduce one bacterium known to metabolize BPA and related environmental chemicals, according to the study.
Bagged kibble might also contain BPA, since the dogs had some BPA in their blood before the study, possibly from their dry diets.
“This is the point that it is not clear,” Rosenfeld says. “It could be that the food already contains BPA. However, we saw minimal levels when the dogs were on kibble.” In some cases, very low amounts can lead to equally if not greater harmful effects as high doses, she says. The greatest concerns may be at the low and high doses.
“The doses we found in the dogs after being on canned food though were comparable to what has been linked to health problems in humans and rodents,” a list that includes diabetes and obesity, among others.
If the dogs continued to eat the canned food, would BPA keep building up in their bodies?
“We did not see what would happen if we took the dogs off the canned food or kept them on it longer,” Rosenfeld says. “These are definite follow-up studies.” Ideally, based on the results of this one, she says they would pursue long term studies to test BPA concentrations after long term feeding of canned food, examining the dogs for metabolic disorders—such as obesity and diabetes—and neurological ones, using MRI and behavioral testing.
In a previous rodent study, they did find that the longer mice were on a diet containing BPA, even though it was being metabolized, it would start accumulating in their system so that greater amounts would persist over time, she says.
In humans and primates, BPA is excreted through urine. “It is not clear how it is cleared in dogs.”
While BPA affects the reproductive system, Rosenfeld says they did not find any gender differences in this initial study—“but we would need to test more dogs to confirm.”
The main concern about the gut microbiome changes is that they have been linked with various diseases, including neurological, metabolic, immunological, gastrointestinal, and possibly even cancer, she says. “Thus, by affecting the gut microbiome, BPA could induce such secondary effects.”
Unfortunately, a supposedly safe substitute for BPA, BPS, didn’t fulfill its goal. Rosenfeld says that in rodents and fish, BPS has already been shown to lead to similar health concerns as BPA. Their study didn’t test BPS in the cans. “It is not clear if some dog foods are using this substitute,” she says.
“By feeding fresh food, dry food, and minimizing canned food, it will reduce exposure to BPA and BPS.”
News: Guest Posts
The more I read about how dogs have been very helpful for answering all sorts of questions in the field of conservation biology, the more interested I got in learning more about this exciting and growing field. Thus, I was extremely happy that Pete Coppolillio, the Executive Director of Working Dogs for Conservation, was able to take the time to answer a few questions about just what these amazing beings—the dogs and the humans—do. Their banner reads: We train the world's best conservation detection dogs & put them to work protecting wildlife and wild places. We do it to save the world. They do it for the love of a ball.
They also note:
Our work with canine programs in Africa prevents poaching and reduces illegal trafficking in ivory and rhino horn.
Partnerships with 50 conservation groups have taken us to
Thousands of high-energy dogs are stuck
How and why did you get interested in this project?
I was doing “traditional” or what you might call mainstream conservation, and we wanted to use dogs to learn about African wild dogs, because at that time, handling them was not allowed in Tanzania. As I continued working, I kept running into species that were either too difficult to capture, or situations where we were unwilling to capture them because it was too dangerous or too expensive. After being in the field a few times with dogs I got very enthusiastic about the possibilities they offer, and started pestering the founders of the organization with questions like, “Have you ever thought about using dogs to track or stop aquatic invasive species?” or, “What about disease? You think they could tell the scats of a diseased animal from a healthy one?” All those questions and a little bit of enthusiasm earned me a spot on the Board of Directors, and then when the organization got big enough to have someone direct traffic and chase money full-time, so I said I would love to be the Executive Director… and here I am. The photo above is of Ngaio Richards and Lily taking a break from Cross River Gorilla surveys to meet with school children in Cameroon.
What are the benefits for conservation?
There are so many really significant ways that dogs can push conservation forward. One of the earliest benefits we saw, and one of the most obvious, is simply how sensitive and effective they are at finding rare species. Some nice work was done in the northeastern US and they demonstrated that, at very low densities—in that case just one individual animal in particular a landscape—dogs were 39 times more efficient detecting that animal than camera traps or hair snares.
We have also demonstrated that dogs can do things that simply weren’t possible before. For example, they can detect the microscopic larvae of zebra and quagga mussels. No matter how hard we look visually, we can't see them so that's a game changer for stopping the spread of those two invasive species, which cost us billions and billions of dollars every year. Another surprising benefit of having the dogs working on stopping invasive species was how quickly they work. It can take a human inspector over an hour to do a thorough job looking for mussels hitchhiking on a boat from contaminated waters, but a dog can inspect that same boat in about three and a half minutes. That's a big deal because many states’ check stations are voluntary, and if there's more than one or two boats in line people will simply keep driving by, or the officers themselves will wave them on so that they don't delay them. The photo above is Alice Whitelaw, during Diesel's training in Montana. Diesel now works with the Alberta Ministry of Environment to keep exotic zebra and quagga mussels out of Alberta's lakes and streams.
Source: With permission of Pete Coppolillio
The final thing I'll mention is our dogs’ impacts for anti-poaching and anti-trafficking. In some areas, Africa has lost around 60 percent of its elephants in the last 10 years. Our dogs not only make it virtually impossible to smuggle significant quantities ivory in a vehicle or container, but they can also intervene and prevent elephants from being killed in the first place. One of our dogs, Ruger, who is a lab shepherd mix rescued from the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana, detected and his handlers seized 13 guns in his first two months in the field. On the face of it, that's an enormous impact, but when you take into consideration that a single gun is often shared by seven, eight, or even more than 10 different poachers, Ruger becomes a one dog force for conservation in Zambia.
Are there any downsides?
I think one of the most important things we've learned—and that's the collective “we” of the organization and the whole conservation detection dog field—is that there are times and places where dogs are the best option, and there are others where the traditional methods still make a lot more sense. Collecting scat and detecting species non-invasively is really valuable and important, but it's very difficult to get mortality data, and by that I mean to figure out what's killing a species, without being able to follow individual animals, and that generally means having to capture and collar them. It's also a little bit uncomfortable when we consider that these dogs are in the middle of very serious and high-level law enforcement. Unfortunately, the people who traffic wildlife are also the same nasty characters who traffic in narcotics, guns and even humans, so this work is not without risks to the people who do it and the dogs to help them. Africa in particular, is also a hard place to be a dog. Trypanosomiasis, or sleeping sickness, can be really serious for dogs and we have had to figure out ways to protect them from it.
What do you say to people who feel that you're using dogs against their will? Do you think this is so?
When I watch a working dog in the field, I wish that for just a few seconds I could lose myself in my work or my passions as completely as a dog does. I think anybody who sees that happen recognizes that these are very lucky dogs who truly love what they're doing. The days of coercive and dominance-based “training” are really over for serious dog trainers. Positive or reward based training is simply much more effective, and of course it's more ethical, so I can say without a doubt that all of our dogs not only want to work; they love to work. Our dogs also live with their handlers. That’s preferable from a technical standpoint because they really know each other well, so the handler can see when a dog struggles or is even just having a bad day, but it’s also nice because the dogs and handlers are partners for their whole lives, not just for their work.
Are there any other organizations that are doing similar work?
Yes, a little over 20 years, ago Megan Parker, one of our founders, started a collaboration with a woman named Barb Davenport, who is the lead trainer for the Washington Department of Corrections, and Sam Wasser, who is a conservation biologist at the University of Washington. Meg and three other women who are all biologists started our organization, Working Dogs for Conservation, and Sam and Barb have started their own organizations as well, and these three are the oldest and most established organizations in the country and the world. We have each grown to occupy slightly different niches now, but we all do similar work. Nowadays, there are lots of conservation detection dogs working in this country, and Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly in Asia and Africa. In 10 years time I believe that every university, every state wildlife agency, and just about anyone doing serious wildlife work will have or use dog teams. They will be as common as camera traps and radio collars for wildlife research, management, and conservation.
Why do you think it took so long for people to recognize how dogs can help us along and not suffer by doing it?
It's a great question. We've spent decades trying to figure out what wild carnivores are doing, as they run around the landscape leaving little messages for each other in the form of scat, or urine, or scrapes, and it took us until the mid 90s to look down at our own dogs and realize they could read the messages themselves, and even more importantly, they’re keen to tell us about it. It's hard to imagine, given that we've lived with these guys for 30 or 40,000 years, but maybe that's why we've taken them for granted.
What have other conservation biologists said about your project?
People love to see what dogs can do, and when we talk with biologists or land or wildlife managers the conversation almost always leads to new ideas and new ways that dogs can help. It's great fun. Dogs are also a great tool for outreach because people love to see what they can do. We often work on projects where biologists have been studying or working to protect an animal for years or sometimes even decades, and they laugh because the first time a dog comes to help them do their work, the press is there, and they want to hear about the project. This is also a pretty good job to have when you go to cocktail parties. A friend of mine recently introduced me as her friend “the environmental conversationalist”, which isn't far from the truth these days, I suppose.
What projects are planned for the future?
This is an exciting time for us. We've grown a lot, and we've moved from being a service provider who sits back and waits for people to ask for our help, to a real driver in our field. We are now able to try new things, develop new methods, and work in places and focus on issues that we think are important for conservation and the health and wellbeing of wildlife. We're going to continue to grow in two important ways. First, we're shifting towards building capacity. That's just a fancy way of saying that we're going to teach others how to do this work, rather than try to do it all ourselves. We believe that conservation dogs need to stop the illicit wildlife trade by being as ubiquitous and effective as narcotic detection dogs. That's a huge, daunting undertaking. Think of all the borders, airports, post offices, shipping terminals, rail stations, and everywhere else that dogs would need to be. By creating model programs and sharing how we do the work we do, we hope to make it as risky to trade and wildlife as it is to traffic drugs.
The second, and maybe even more exciting, growth area for us is through innovation. Every new laboratory technique opens a door for us, by increasing what we can learn from scat. Just last year some of our collaborators made it possible to detect pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, and heavy metals in mink and otter scats, so we’ve combined these techniques with dogs’ ability to find those scats, to create a new way to monitor the health of aquatic ecosystems. We also started another related program looking at the ways in which poisons, specifically rodenticides, move through terrestrial food webs. The results can be a little bit alarming, because we find contaminants and poisons in places we thought were pristine, but the information is invaluable in documenting the problem and figuring out how to prevent it.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers?
No matter how much I do this work, I continue to be amazed at how effective the dogs are, and how tirelessly and enthusiastically they do their work. We really are only limited by the crazy things we can dream up and ask the dogs to do. As more people know about us and see the possibilities that dogs offer, they support our work, either financially, through donations and grants, or by collaborating with or hiring us to try new things and expand the possibilities. It's really amazing how many different issues or problems are limited by what we can detect, so it's great fun and really gratifying to have a bunch of partners who run around with the world’s best chemical sensors on the front of their faces!
Many thanks, Pete. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions. This is fascinating work and I look forward to learning more about your future projects and successes. I imagine there are a lot of dogs who would love working with you. You can contact Working Dogs for Conservation here.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017.
This story was originally published by psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.
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