Upon adopting my chihuahua-terrier mix, Buddy, in 2014, I entered a world that I had only heard legends about: that of veterinary pseudoscience. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Goop-y wellness trends have seeped into the $70-billion pet care industry; fortunately, I have yet to find a holistic animal healer who recommends shoving a jade egg in my dog’s butthole, but I’m not holding my breath.
If you walk into any pet store these days, you’ll be confronted with a plethora of “natural” bullshit that’s not much different from the conventional stuff. But the “all-natural” pet-care trend goes deeper than companies trying to sell you stuff. There have been reports of people putting their animals on vegan or raw diets without veterinary oversight. More frighteningly, there have been reports of pet owners opting out of everything from heartworm and flea treatment to vaccines and microchipping, out of concern over side effects.
I know you love your pet. I love mine too! And I want the best for him. But organic isn’t always better. Here’s why.
just say no to pet homeopathy
When I adopted Buddy, he had tapeworms. It’s pretty easy to tell when your dog has worms: it looks like they’re shitting wiggling flakes of coconut. My vet told me which medication to get, and I went to a large pet retailer to buy it. While I was browsing the shelves, I was quite surprised to find a product called “Homeopet Wrm Clear.”
Homeopet Wrm Clear is a “an all-natural, fast-acting, broad-spectrum homeopathic liquid” that promises to create “an environment in your pet's body that worms can no longer survive in, resulting in the parasites being harmlessly flushed from the body.” Hmm. The wording on the package was careful, claiming that “WRM Clear does not kill the worms, but helps the animal’s own immune system remove them from the body.” The ingredients list on the package included many magical-sounding things, like Arsenicum Album (AKA arsenic), Nux Vomica, and Natrum Muriaticum. Curiously, the package did not list anything that has been proven effective for tapeworm treatment, such as praziquantel, the proven active ingredient in many commercial dewormers.
Furthermore, the quantity of active ingredients in Homeopet Wrm Clear was not listed in grams or milligrams but by dilution, making it damn near impossible to figure out how much medicine was even in the product. When your dog is shitting worms, there is no time for creative mathematics.
For my pup I bought medicine that my vet recommended. The active ingredients are clearly labeled with the amount of praziquantel per pill. It also provides a dosage instruction chart that’s weight dependent. The Homeopet package has a chart as well, but it’s for “dog, cat, bird, & small animals,” and there is no change in dosage from one species to the next, which renders it fundamentally unhelpful.
When your dog is shitting worms, there is no time for creative mathematics.
In humans, homeopathic remedies typically work because of the placebo effect. You take a pill, you expect a result, you see a result. The mind is a powerful thing, and the significant prices of many homeopathic treatments can raise your expectations (and sometimes your responses to them).
Humans know they’re taking a pill. Animals, who sometimes eat their own shit, not so much. At best, homeopathic remedies for animals waste your money. At worst, they can delay treatment for severe ailments.
For the love of god, vaccinate
An August 2017 article in the Brooklyn Paper reported on “Hip youngsters who promote a more holistic lifestyle for their pets” by not vaccinating them. “I had a client concerned about an autistic child who didn’t want to vaccinate the dog for the same reason,” Dr. Stephanie Liff, a Brooklyn veterinarian, told the Paper. “We’ve never diagnosed autism in a dog. I don’t think you could.” There are real but rare reports of (mostly minor) reactions to vaccines in pets, but those risks far outweigh the danger of not vaccinating.
Conditions like leptospirosis, distemper, and rabies are all very real and dangerous things in pets, and can be prevented through simple vaccinations. Most anti-vaccination advocates present wholly illogical guidance. Here’s a “holistic vet” named Judy Morgan on whether dogs should get the vaccine for bordetella (commonly known as kennel cough):
I do not believe they should get (the bordetella vaccine) ever. They can shed the disease after vaccination and expose other animals to the disease. The vaccine is short-lived and only vaccinates for a few of the upper respiratory illnesses that can affect pets in high density situations. Kennel cough is not life-threatening. It is annoying. There are over 60 respiratory illnesses that pets can be exposed to; vaccinating for 3 makes no sense.
Oh my. Vaccine shedding is a thing, but not the way that Morgan presents it. Viral shedding can occur from some live virus vaccines (like the flu vaccine), but the odds of infection given the routes of transmission via shedding are statistically unlikely, and generally only a risk in immunocompromised populations. The odds of spreading an infection via being infectious (and, let’s not forget, feeling sick and miserable at the same time) compared to being vaccinated are worlds apart.
A site called Dogs Naturally Magazine suggests that you don’t have to vaccinate for distemper, a potentially fatal viral illness in dogs that attacks the respiratory, urogenital, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems, because it’s “a relatively rare disease” (which is true, and that’s because we vaccinate for it!). The site’s stance on the vaccine for parvo, a virus that attacks the intestines and kills 30 percent of the dogs who contract it, is similarly alarming:
Puppies are likely to be exposed to parvo when brought to the vet’s office for their parvo vaccination. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to protect the puppy, so not only can the vaccine cause parvo in puppies, the trip to the vet’s office can.
Got it. The best way to prevent viruses and infections is by not ever leaving the house.
There is minimal risk from vaccination for animals. The health risks are much, much higher if you do not vaccinate, which is why we started vaccinating in the first place. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) stands firmly behind vaccinating. You should vaccinate your goddamn pets, if not just for your pet but mine, too.
Okay but what’s the deal with pet food
Dog food. Where to even begin. Looking on chewy.com, you can get a 31-lb bag of Purina for $22.99 or a 30.8-lb bag of Royal Canin for $111.99. The labels on both bags of food say that the ingredients in them are tested, that they contain certain protein and carbohydrate amounts within the proper specifications, and they contribute to balanced diet. So why the huge price differential?
Evidence that you need to throw down a lot of cash for your pet’s food is somewhere between scant and mixed. Dr. Rebecca Remillard of petdiets.com recommends that people choose their pet’s foods by the animal’s nutritional needs with the help of a vet. She provides an energy-requirement calculator and a guide to evaluating foods by labels and nutritional content. What she doesn’t do is recommend any one brand of pet food, instead focusing on helping make sure you understand your pet’s nutritional needs.
Just like us, however, animals can have allergies and other dietary restrictions. What you should do if this is the case: take your pet to a vet. What you should not do: put your pet on a raw or vegan diet. The thought that these types of meal plans are bringing our pets back to their ancestral diets may be a well-intentioned one, but it neglects to take into account how much our selective breeding has altered the digestive tracts of modern domestic animals.
What you should not do: put your pet on a raw or vegan diet.
According to a 2012 study in Nature, ten canine genes with roles in starch and fat metabolism were altered from their wolf ancestors, increasing the amount of amylase they produce and allowing dogs to eat more of our starch-rich diet. Dogs are not wolves. Cats are not lions. They don’t need to eat just meat, or raw meat for that matter. Moreover, going “back to basics” with your pet’s food could be dangerous: A 2011 review study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that raw diets could put pets at risk for salmonella and nutritional deficiencies.
Meanwhile, an article last year in the Los Angeles Times claimed that dogs can get along just fine on a vegan diet. Hmm. Dogs have evolved into a species that produces the enzymes necessary for processing starches, and they’re now easily grouped with omnivores, unlike their gray-wolf ancestors. In certain cases in which dogs have difficulty managing allergies, a vegan diet that’s been carefully planned with the oversight of a well-trained professional can be an appropriate course of action. Otherwise, well — have you seen how your dog looks at steak? Your dog would eat your face if it came down to it.
On the other hand, cats have been known to nearly starve to death on vegan diets. A 2014 preliminary study out of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna looked into the effects of carefully designed and balanced vegan and vegetarian diets for cats and dogs. The study concluded that such diets “can barely be implemented without supplements.”
If you’re the type of person who relishes in the joy of forcibly shoving pills into a cat’s mouth in the name of an arbitrary dietary choice, I can’t stop you. However, maybe you should just feed your cat some damn meat.
Bob Barker was right
A question: Why should you, a responsible pet owner, engage in the barbarism of chopping off Fluffy’s balls?
The desire to keep a pet “natural” by not neutering causes more animal suffering than it possibly helps. But there are those would would say otherwise. A “natural dog trainer” named Kevin Behan argues on his website that “sexuality is so vital to the canine’s social nature we must reopen the debate on neutering.” He writes: “it’s strange that we don’t recognize the obvious good effects that sexuality imparts to sociability. We recognize that male and female dogs get along better in the same household than same sexed pairings because the overt, complementary sexual channel between them is so readily available.” Ew.
I’m begging you. Get your pet spayed or neutered.
Behan might want his canine companions to exist in sexual ecstasy, but the hard reality is that spaying and neutering greatly help to control the unwanted-pet population. Here in California, legislation passed in 1998 mandated that any cat or dog adopted from a shelter must be spayed or neutered. Thanks to these proactive spaying and neutering programs and no-kill shelters, the number of pets who have been euthanized in America has fallen from 17 million in the ‘80s to 1.5 million in 2016.
So please. I’m begging you. Get your pet spayed or neutered.
Drugs work, tinctures don’t
In addition to Buddy, I have three cats (my boyfriend and I Brady-Bunched our critters). Oliver, my mammoth, fetching black tabby, has had some urinary marking issues. After a check-up cleared him of any serious health problems, I followed some simple advice from my vet and the errant pissing stopped: I added a few extra litter boxes, changed to unscented litter, and cleaned every last molecule of urine odor out of the apartment to deter any further marking. But when I moved to a new house, the change triggered the same behavior in my beloved cat and this time, nothing could stop it.
So I did what a responsible adult would do. I ordered a boatload of Nature’s Miracle, a new carpet cleaner, scheduled some extra therapy sessions, and took Oliver back to the vet. On the trip there, he peed in the cat carrier.
Once again, our vet found that there were no serious health issues — nothing wrong with Oliver’s kidneys or any other organs. The vet diagnosed him with anxiety, and suggested Oliver start taking Prozac.
Yes, it might seem ridiculous to put your pet on an antidepressant. But it can be the most effective treatment for an animal with anxiety, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Much like in humans, SSRIs are a safe and effective way to help when there are symptoms of various things ailing your cat’s brain chemistry. This includes aggression, separation anxiety, animal bullying, thunderstorm phobia, and a variety of other animal behavioral issues.
There are a lot of useless things marketed to help calm your pet. I can pretty much guarantee that almost none of them work:
Pheromones are hormones that are believed to be used in animal communication as scent signals, and they are available commercially in collar, diffuser, or spray form. It’s thought that pheromones can calm your pet by acting like hormones that typically give them comfort, like those from a nursing mother. However, a 2010 systematic review in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found insufficient evidence of efficacy.
The Thundershirt is a tight wrap that’s supposed to make your dog feel secure and relieve anxiety for the low cost of $39.95. At best, there’s some evidence that the Thundershirt can reduce the heart rate of an anxious dog. However, per the only study provided by Thundershirt on their website, the product is not effective at managing most symptoms of anxiety. Most of the evidence Thundershirt provides consists of vets saying that they recommend it along with other behavioral modification techniques.
The liquid herbal tincture Tranquility Blend ($17.88) directs you to “squirt directly into animal’s mouth,” to “promote a calm and restful state.” Because apparently these people don’t understand how cats work and want the rest of my furniture destroyed.
Much like humans, a vast majority of pets need snuggles, food, and shelter to feel secure and happy. Also much like humans, they sometimes need prescription medications to live a stable life.
Please welcome our microchipped cat overlords
In the middle of writing this, my little anxious pisser, Oliver, decided he was going to go on a walkabout. Which is not good, because he’s a small cat-shaped creature in Northern California.
My boyfriend and I went into a temporary panic spiral. In hopes of luring him back, we put food on our front and back porches. We walked around the neighborhood playing a recording of him meowing. And mostly… we waited and cursed ourselves for being the worst pet parents ever.
But one thing I didn’t worry about was Oliver not being returned if he was found, because we’d had him microchipped.
The device, which is roughly the size of a grain of rice, is implanted in between your pet’s shoulder blades via syringe. The procedure takes about as much work as any injection would and it’s very affordable (generally about $45). The best part is that, should your animal decide to go on a sojourn, vet’s offices and shelters have scanners to identify your pet’s unique microchip number.
Unsurprisingly, there are some factions that are against microchipping your pets. Dr. Richard Allport, a U.K.-based veterinarian, claims dogs are far too young to be microchipped at eight weeks, the age that pups are required to be microchipped under British law. But he also urges pet owners with elderly dogs to ask for an exemption based on their advanced age, so it seems there’s no acceptable age for a dog to be microchipped. On my favorite pseudoscience website, mercola.com, a vet named Karen Becker advises pet parents about potential dangers involved in microchipping, including a possible risk of cancer. She suggests tattooing your pet as an alternative. Um. Okay.
Unsurprisingly, there are some factions that are against microchipping your pets.
Even if there’s the occasional vet who’s opposed to the practice, the AVMA supports both the safety and efficacy of microchipping, stating that there were only a few hundred adverse reactions — mainly the chip shifting to an uncomfortable location — in the more than four million animals who have been chipped since 1996. And the benefits far outweigh the risks. According to a 2009 study from Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the owners of microchipped cats were found successfully more than 38 percent of the time. The success rate is less than two percent without a microchip.
Oliver returned to us after an eight-hour catcation. Perhaps he knew, because of his microchip, that he could never really get away anyway.
How do I keep my pet alive and happy?
My Buddy is 11 lbs. He’s afraid of the rain. He needs prescription dog food or else crystals build up in his urinary tract and he pisses blood. He and nature don’t coexist very well. Nature really doesn’t give a shit whether Buddy lives or dies. And since I do care, I’m not so sure that we should use nature as a credentialed source of vitality for a small animal who fears common weather phenomena. Most pets aren’t “natural,” they’re domesticated. They live and thrive on our care.
So much like with human health, don’t leave it up to the internet. Bring your questions about your animal’s health to your veterinarian. Keep observing their behavior and any changes to skin, coat, reactions to food, energy levels, and weight. Get them vaccinations and preventative treatment for appropriate things like fleas and heartworm.
And for fuck’s sake, don’t feed your cat a vegan diet.