Healthy Pets: Fido and Tabby Never Had It So Good Protecting Our Pets Is A New Obsession

The ingredients listed in some pet foods, flea and tick medications and dog shampoos read like a recipe for chemical soup: pentobarbital, tetrasodium EDTA, pyrethroids. “After we got [our dog], I discovered that there are a lot of toxic pet products out there,” says Bethany Gonzalez Moreno.

pet health, Roddy Scheer
We all want to do right by our pets, so why not feed them organic, healthy food? Credit: Roddy Scheer

Concerns over the effects of chemicals and byproducts on her boxer, Athena, led Moreno to swap conventional pet products for organic alternatives. In addition to feeding Athena organic pet food, Moreno traded toxic flea and tick control for dog-safe essential oils, stocked up on hemp toys and purchased organic grooming products.

“Athena is part of our family and we want her to live a long, healthy life,” Moreno says.

Pets Go Organic

According to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), sales of organic pet food topped $94 million in 2010, accounting for 5% of total organic sales in non-food categories.

“People want organic pet products for the same reasons they want organic products for themselves,” says Soo Kim, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “They want to know how the products are produced.

There are no special requirements for organic pet products, although the USDA has formed a task force to examine the issue. But all organic products from carrots to kibble are subject to the same regulations: In order to be labeled organic, products must contain at least 95% certified organic ingredients. Products with at least 70% certified organic ingredients can be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

The Problem with Pet Food

According to Eve Adamson, author of Pets Gone Green: Live a More Eco-Conscious Life with Your Pets (BowTie Press), greenwashing is rampant in the pet products industry, especially in regard to pet foods.

“When products are labeled with words like ‘holistic’ and ‘natural,’ it can be confusing for pet owners,” Adamson says. “Instead of focusing on the advertising on the front of the package, read the ingredient label on the back of the bag and look for the USDA [organic] seal.”

Organic pet food prices are higher than conventional kibble, but the OTA noted in its report that it contains no fillers and is more nutrient-dense which means pets eat less.

And, adds Adamson: “A lot of consumers believe that organic foods will help keep their pets healthier and help them live longer and they are willing to spend a little more money.”

Suzanne Reese is convinced that a diet of commercial pet food played a role in the demise of her shepherd mix, Gibson, who died of cancer in 2002. When Reese adopted another shepherd mix in 2005, she switched from supermarket dog chow to an organic bones and raw food (BARF) diet. She believes the natural ingredients helped Django survive the often-fatal parvovirus when he was a puppy.

“Not only did he live, he is thriving,” says Reese. “The very few times we go to the vet, they comment on his coat, eyes and teeth; he’s not aging like other dogs we know and we believe it’s his diet.”

No Fleas, No Ticks, No Chemicals

It’s not just the effects of chemical residues in foods that concern pet owners: The toxins in flea and tick prevention have them scrambling for organic alternatives, too.

Research conducted by the Center for Public Integrity linked at least 1,600 pet deaths to the use of flea and tick treatments between 2003 and 2008. The deaths resulted from the synthetic neurotoxin permethrin. The known carcinogen also caused medical issues, including brain damage, heart attack and seizures. Shampoos, flea dips, sprays and powders often contain permethrin.

“At first, I felt like we had to use [flea and tick prevention] to protect Athena,” Moreno recalls. “But we hated the thought of exposing our dog to pesticides so I researched alternatives.”

Moreno found a safe alternative—a flea spritzer with essential oils like mint, citronella and geranium. According to Adamson, by using preventative measures such as vacuuming, washing bedding, brushing pets with a flea comb and using organic non-detergent shampoos with neem oil, it’s possible to control fleas and ticks.

While Moreno was concerned about the effects that chemicals in dog food, grooming items and toys might have on Athena, there was another reason she switched to organic products: She worried that her toddler would chew on chemical-laden dog toys or get toxic flea and tick products on her hands (and, eventually, in her mouth) after petting the family dog. “I wanted to keep our home safe and nontoxic for our entire family,” she says.