Pets sending silent messages, says new group

By Bette Keva

Marblehead Reporter

The day after the group's first dog walk on Lynn Shore Drive, organizers of the new HealthLink offshoot PetLink brought speakers to Marblehead High School to make connections between cancer in their pets and the prevalence of cancer in humans on the North Shore.

The sunny Columbus Day stroll along the beach brought out 45 registered dogs that trotted in front of their families and assembled at Red Rock Park.

Lori Ehrlich and others organized the speakers' forum to shed more light on how pets can be harbingers of illness in their owners. She introduced doctors, veterinarians, the director of the Rachel Carson Council and residents of Marblehead and Salem who affirmed that dogs and cats living in our homes are often giving their owners messages about the toxins that can be neither seen nor smelled but are harmful enough to cause sickness and death.

Dogs and cats, of course, do not wear shoes and socks; they do not drink bottled water; and they are more intimate with the environment, said Dr. Rodney Page, a veterinarian doing cancer research. Dogs and cats exhibit effects of illnesses far quicker than humans, making it vital to conduct surveys and studies of cancers in pets.

"With people, there are complicating issues. People may smoke and drink," said Page. Because pets don't have those habits, it is easier to get to the root of their illnesses. A cancer survey of cats and dogs done several decades ago points to causes, but a new survey needs to be done to update the information, he said.

Another speaker, Marblehead horticulturist Chip Osborne, has taken a lead role in making the town an organic sanctuary. He is in charge of 1 million toxin-free acres here. But before he learned the dangers of herbicides and insecticides that he routinely used in his greenhouse, his two beloved dogs, Jessie and her daughter Sadie, died of cancer.

"In the 1970s I was just learning about horticultural work. We sprayed to kill anything that would live in that environment. Looking back, that was probably the worst thing we could have done," said Osborne.

He used a fungicide prescribed by his professors. It was so toxic, it stained his hands yellow, but he was never cautioned to wear gloves.

When he watered, the pesticides would run off into the soil. And the soil is where his dogs would lie, sunning themselves, every day while Osborne worked.

Dr. Diana Post, director of the Rachel Carson Council, spoke about 2, 4-D, a component of Agent Orange, which is used in the household and in the garden. It is a pesticide to which dogs are particularly susceptible because they cannot eliminate it.

Post spoke about a well-tempered 5-year-old female dog that would lie out in the grass shortly after it was sprayed with the chemical. She would come into the house wet and lick herself. In only two weeks, the dog developed "strange signs," a more aggressive demeanor and was diagnosed with kidney failure. Her tissues were found to contain a mixture of three herbicides.

The chemical 2, 4-D is linked to kidney failure, said Post. The weed killer's label states that animals may go on the lawn after the chemical dries. Post indicated this is far too soon.

Cindy Keegan, co-chairman of Tuesday night's PetLink event, told of three people living in her home, plus her cat, being diagnosed with cancer within a short period of time. She eventually began to piece things together, remembering that her cat would have seizures once a year.

Doug Haley had a similar story of a beloved dog that lived in the family home on a golf course in Salem. The dog died before her time of stomach cancer. Referring to the many chemicals that are used to maintain the beautiful grounds of the golf course, Haley said chemical companies should be compelled to put black flags with skull and crossbones over the grounds to signal the danger they pose.

Veterinarians Nancy Crowley and Arthur Freedman spoke about holistic care and nutrition. Crowley said tick and flea collars are often not needed; they may pose more of a threat to the animal than the pest itself.

Freedman spoke about the low-quality pet food that is prevalent, and said words like "free range" and "natural" on the labels are "gimmicks."

"Cats are carnivores. Feeding them dry food is not great. Giving them fresh food, canned food, is better," said Freedman. Best of all is to feed pets "a raw diet."

"Don't impose your vegetarian or vegan ways on your pets. It will kill your cat. Give them a half can or totally canned food. I see a lot of cats with cancer," said Freedman.

He is cautious about giving too many inoculations and said he would never give a cat with cancer an inoculation. Shots are not always 100-percent effective and some are only good for a portion of the time they purport to be good. ##