There's no doubt Americans are trying to live a more natural or organic life. Almost three-quarters of Americans buy at least some organic products, and 31 percent increased organics purchases between 2008 and 2009, according to the 2009 U.S. Families' Organic Attitudes and Belief Study. Interest in natural and organic pet care has also been growing slowly but steadily in recent years, as pet owners begin to realize, the things that are bad for humans are also bad for animals.
Diet plays a crucial role in your pet's health. Most manufactured pet foods are made with preservatives such as sulfites, which are not good for overall health. Organic and natural pet foods are increasingly available, but there are some things to know before you shop. There is no USDA standard for "natural" foods, so be cautious about pet foods claiming to be natural. Also, pet foods are fortified with essential nutrients that are not always found naturally in the food ingredients, so they can't be 100 percent organic according to USDA rules.
Manufactured pet foods have come under great scrutiny in the past few years. Studies published in 2002 and 2004 also linked Bisphenol-A in the lining of pet food cans with hyperthyroidism in cats, a leading cause of illness in mature cats. More recently, pet food manufacturers voluntarily recalled more than 100 cat and dog food brands in 2007 after animals developed kidney failure as a result of melamine contamination.
Homemade food made with natural and organic ingredients may be the healthiest alternative for your dog or cat. It's best to consult with your veterinarian about homemade pet foods, as dietary requirements will vary depending on your pet's health and species—cats, for example, require the amino acid taurine, which is found naturally in fish, but too much fish could lead to elevated mercury levels.
Grooming and coat care is another issue to consider. Many dog and cat cleaning products are full of chemicals and synthetic fragrances, which can irritate your pet's skin. Additionally, many flea and tick treatments are loaded with carcinogens and other toxins. Look for all-natural products, and read the labels and research any suspect ingredients before buying. Some products will list plant ingredients in Latin, but as a general rule, if it reads like a chemistry textbook, it's probably full of chemicals.
Pets can also be particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins. In 2008, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report titled Polluted Pets: Chemical exposures and pets’ health, and though the study was small, Dr. John Billeter, DVM, the veterinarian who conducted testing, said the results suggest there is a potential of "harmful consequences" for animals and the need for further study.
The EWG tested dogs and cats for 70 industrial chemicals, and found 48 of them in the animals tested; what's more, the concentrations of 43 of the chemicals were higher than that found in humans. Levels of fire retardants (PBDEs) in cats were 23 times the levels normally found in humans, while levels of plurofluorochemicals—found in stain-proof and grease-proof coatings—was 2.4 times higher in dogs than in humans.
In a different study published in 2004, researchers linked an increased risk of bladder cancer in dogs to exposure to lawns or gardens treated with herbicides and/or insecticides. Researchers found the risk of bladder cancer increased 7.2 times when using both herbicides and insecticides, compared to dogs that were exposed to untreated lawns. Lawns treated only with herbicides increased the risk 3.6 times, while those treated only with insecticides increased risk 1.6 times.
While environmental toxins are a concern, there are ways to minimize exposure. Think of all products you bring into your home as part of your pet's environment. Look for furniture, carpeting, cookware, and other household products have that not been treated with a fire retardant, a stain-resistant coating, or a greaseproof coating.
As you support a natural environment and diet for your pet, you might also want to consult with your veterinarian to consider homeopathic pet health care to compliment all the other things you're doing to help your pet live a long, happy, and healthy life.