Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

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What is safe? Thoughts of an oncologist and mom

After a pet Guardian finds out their dog has cancer, I am often asked, “What caused my dog’s cancer?  Was it the water, the food, the food bowls, the shampoo, the cleaners I used around the house, the herbicides or pesticides used on my lawn?”

While there is so little evidence directly linking chemicals and health issues in people, there is much concern, as highlighted in the NY Times article,  “Is It Safe to Play Yet? Going to Extreme Lengths to Purge Household Toxins” (March 14, 2012). This article by Michael Tortorello features a movement to minimize exposure to everyday chemicals found in makeup, skin products, and detergents. Dr. Dressler also talks about this topic in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide.

In the article, a pregnant mom-to-be researches70 household items, and she finds out that many contained “estrogenic hormones and neurotoxins and bioaccumulators.” She used a website called Skin Deep, created by the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org/skindeep), a research and advocacy organization.

There are now multiple sites where parents can go for more information on harmful chemicals and safety ratings for children’s clothes, furniture and toys, including Healthy Child Healthy World, (healthychild.org), GoodGuide (goodguide.com), and Healthy Stuff (healthystuff.org).

According to the NY Times article, “more than 80,000 chemicals go into American industry, from the manufacturing process in a factory to the end product at the big-box store.” That’s a lot of potentially toxic chemicals to look up and to worry about.

Do I worry? As a doctor, the evidence linking chemicals to health disorders is lacking; the analytical part of me believes we need more scientific proof before I recommend and implement potentially costly changes.  But I realize it takes time, even years or decades, for evidence to show up. Think about how long it took to determine smoking is bad for you.

On the other hand, I am a mother. To be honest, it was becoming a mother that made more aware of my household environment. It also makes me sometimes a little paranoid.  Parenting articles are filled with advice to avoid plastic with bisphenol A (aka BPA), antibacterial soaps, toxics cleaners, air fresheners, nonstick pans and no-stain fabrics. But there is BPA lining in most canned goods and even on store receipts. This is where I start to get overwhelmed again, as a mom.

Although the article was about children, it got me thinking again about our pets. Like environmental chemicals and children, we know very little about the individual chemicals that enter our pet’s bodies and how thousands of chemicals may interact in the human and animal bodies. Also similar to children who play on the floor, our pets also spend significant time on the floors and carpet and can absorb chemicals through the skin.

So as of rates of cancer, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and asthma go up in people, I am completely torn about this topic. On one hand, I want more information about the chemicals in my home – what I clean with around the house and yard, what I wash my kids’ hair or my dog’s coat with, the bowls we eat out of, the food I feed them all, their bedding.  But what is the line between aware and obsessed?

I don’t want to be paranoid, and I am working to find a reasonable compromise. I acknowledge there will always be carcinogens present in our daily lives – that I will never live in a toxin-free bubble. We need to focus on the things we can change. For our dogs and cats, we can re-evaluate the cleaners we use, the food we feed, the bowls they eat and drink form. And check out the Dog Cancer Survival Guide for more tips and advice.

For me, I cannot protect my kids and pets from every foreseeable toxin and risk factor, but I will just do my best to minimize my family’s exposure to the things that I can control, and hope that that helps.

About the Author: Susan Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology)


Susan Ettinger, DVM. Dip. ACVIM (Oncology) is a veterinarian oncologist at Animal Specialty Center in New York and the co-author of Dog Cancer Survival Guide: Full Spectrum Treatments to Optimize Your Dog's Life Quality and Longevity. She blogs about dog cancer at http://www.DogCancerBlog.com.

  • Karen Kaeumlen

    I have 2 pugs with cancer now. I run a rescue.hospice and find all info on the subject important.

  • Jean

    Absolutely agree. Do what you can. Ceramic bowls and filtered water are easy changes.