Question of the Week

January 8, 2007


Pets play a big role in the lives of millions who live in the United States and around the world.

"Pets love us unconditionally. They're also great for our health -- mentally and physically. Caring for pets can boost self-esteem, prevent loneliness, and even lower heart rate and blood pressure in some people. Growing up with a pet can be wonderful for kids. But remember that although the experience gives kids a sense of responsibility, only adults can be truly responsible for a pet. Selecting the right pet is a serious decision that family members should make together. A common mistake is bringing home a pet on an impulse without fully understanding the level of commitment involved. ... Before adopting or purchasing any pet, talk to all family members, discuss expectations and responsibilities, and take a realistic look at your family's lifestyle."

Whether considering the adoption of a pet, or caring for one currently, it is important to be aware of the many aspects of an animal's health, and how those factors can affect the health of its owners. Many people consider the allergies of those in the family before deciding on a pet, but many other health issues are often overlooked.

"Like human foods, pet foods are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and must be pure and wholesome and contain no harmful substances. They also must be truthfully labeled. Foods for human or pet consumption do not require FDA approval before they are marketed, but they must be made with ingredients that are 'generally recognized as safe' (GRAS) or ingredients that are approved food and color additives. If scientific data show that an ingredient or additive presents a health risk to animals, CVM [Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine] can prohibit or modify its use in pet food. ... Some animal nutritionists recommend switching among two or three different pet food products every few months. Burkholder says nutritional advice for people to eat a wide variety of foods also applies to pets. Doing so helps ensure that a deficiency doesn't develop for some as yet unknown nutrient required for good health. When changing pet foods, add the new food to the old gradually for a few days to avoid upsetting the pet's digestive system."

While some owners are read labels on the pet food they buy as carefully as (or more carefully than) they read the labels on the food they are buying for themselves, not all pets are getting the proper nutrition. Some animals eat table scraps in addition to their food, while others just eat the pet food provided.

Whatever the source of the food, pets can eat too much and exercise too little -- just as humans can.

"The first diet pill for dogs will soon be available by prescription in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced. Marketed by US drug maker Pfizer, Slentrol acts as an appetite suppressor and reduces lipid (fat) absorption, the FDA said. "This is a welcome addition to animal therapies, because dog obesity appears to be increasing," said Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Veterinarians are well aware that overweight pets are at higher risk of developing various health problems, from cardiovascular conditions to diabetes to joint problems," he added. "It's a lot about lifestyle. More people have pets but they don't have a yard. People don't have the time to run around and play with dogs and get exercise," said Michael San Filippo, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Just as inactivity and obesity are becoming more of a problem for people, animals are seeing the associated health problems, as well. Having a dog can sometimes motivate a person to become more active because the dog needs to go out for walks. On the other hand, an inactive person can also have an inactive dog (with neither getting enough exercise and leading sedentary lifestyles).

If a dog does develop health problems, and lifestyle changes are not enough, a veterinarian may prescribe some form of medication.

"Some of the Internet sites that sell pet drugs represent legitimate, reputable pharmacies, says Martine Hartogensis, D.V.M., promotion and advertising liaison for the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). But others are fronts for unscrupulous businesses operating in violation of the law. "Some of these Internet companies are overseas, and there is a risk of the drugs not being FDA-approved," says Hartogensis. The FDA has also found companies that sell counterfeit pet products, make fraudulent claims, dispense prescription drugs without requiring a prescription, and sell pet drugs that have expired. Pet owners who purchase drugs from these companies may think they are saving money, says Hartogensis, but in reality they may be short-changing their pet's health and putting its life at risk.">

In order to prevent some illnesses, animals in the United States (and other countries) are required to get a certain number of vaccines. Just as with a human, the places the animal is planning to be and the lifestyle it leads will dictate how many -- and which -- vaccines it will need.

"Very young puppies and kittens are highly susceptible to infectious diseases. This is especially true as the natural immunity provided in their mothers' milk gradually wears off. To keep gaps in protection as narrow as possible and to provide optimal protection against disease for the first few months of life, a series of vaccinations are scheduled, usually 3-4 weeks apart. ... Discuss with your veterinarian your pet's lifestyle, access to other animals, and travel to other geographic locations, since these factors affect your pet's risk of exposure to disease. Not all pets should be vaccinated with all vaccines just because these vaccines are available. "Core" vaccines are recommended for most pets in a particular area. "Non-core" vaccines are reserved for pets with unique needs. Your veterinarian will consider your pet's particulars, the diseases at hand, and the application of available vaccines to customize a vaccine recommendation for your pet."

In addition to getting an animal vaccinated, pet owners can do other things to help prevent unnecessary illness.

"Every home contains a variety of everyday items and substances that can be dangerous or even fatal if ingested by dogs and cats. You can protect your pet's health by becoming aware of the most common health hazards found in many pet-owning households. ... Many foods that are perfectly safe for humans could be harmful or potentially deadly to dogs and cats. ... Many household cleaners can be used safely around cats and dogs. However, the key to safe use lies in reading and following product directions for proper use and storage. ... Medications that treat human medical conditions can make pets very sick. Never give your pet any medication unless directed by your veterinarian. ... Small items that fall on the floor can be easily swallowed by a curious cat or dog. Such items include coins, buttons, small children's toys, medicine bottles, jewelry, nails, and screws. The result may be damage to your pet's digestive tract and the need for surgical removal of the object. While electrical cords are especially tempting to puppies who like to chew on almost anything, even an adult dog or cat could find them of interest; burns or electrocution could result from chewing on live cords. Prevent this by using cord covers and blocking access to wires."

Before an animal is introduced into a new home, that house must be carefully checked for hidden hazards. In a similar way, families with small children take extra care in order to keep the house as safe as possible for those little ones. When a home has both pets and small children, families need to be even more careful.

"Infants and children less than 5 years old are more likely than most people to get diseases from animals. This is because young children often touch surfaces that may be contaminated with animal feces (stool), and young children like to put their hands in their mouths. Young children are less likely than others to wash their hands well. ...
* Children younger than 5 years old should be supervised while interacting with animals.
* Children should not be allowed to kiss pets or to put their hands or other objects into their mouths after handling animals. ... CDC recommends that infants and children under 5 years old avoid contact with the following animals: * Reptiles (lizards, snakes, and turtles), * Amphibians (frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders), * Baby chicks, * Ducklings, *Petting zoos.
Additionally, children less than 5 years old should be extra cautious when visiting farms and having direct contact with farm animals, including animals at petting zoos and fairs."

When considering the possibility of adding new animals to the family, it is important that the health of the animals -- as well as the health of the people -- are taken into consideration when deciding what is best for that particular living situation. Pets are a big responsibility, but -- if the right match is made -- they can also be a wonderful addition that can have positive health benefits for the people in their new family.

"Medical studies on the human-animal bond reveal that pet owners are more likely to have reduced stress levels, cholesterol levels and blood pressure. They also experience fewer heart attacks than people without pets. Researchers have found that the mere presence of an animal has a beneficial effect on heart function, and stroking and talking to a pet reduces blood pressure and stress. Many hospitals and retirement homes engage in animal therapy. This may involve visits from volunteer animals or a pet that is kept at the facility. Seniors with pets are much less lonely than non-pet owners. Consequently, they do not make unnecessary visits their doctor out of loneliness. A study of women undergoing stress tests demonstrated that the presence of a dog had a greater effect on lowering blood pressure than the presence of friends. Companion animals also provide psychological benefits. Pets are sympathetic, supportive and non-judgemental listeners. Pets provide us with a distraction from our worries; they encourage social interaction and provide a soothing presence."

Questions of the Week:
In what situations would adding a pet to a household be a negative experience for the people, the animals, or both? In what situations would the addition of a pet be positive? What should a family consider before deciding to get a pet? What factors can help a family decide which pet would be best for them? Once a family has a pet, what health issues do they need to be aware of that might affect that animal? What health issues do they need to be aware of that might affect the people in that home?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions. Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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