Holistic Health

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Manmade chemicals are everywhere, and increasingly people are making a conscious effort to combat the negative effects to themselves and their pets through diet, using organic and chemical-free products, and more.In addition to everyday common sense choices that can really make a difference for our animals, an emerging therapy hit Spot’s radar recently:  detox.  While apparently not widely used (or even impressed upon the collective conscious yet), it’s here, so let’s learn about it, shall we?

The term “canary in a coal mine,” is a grim reminder of the long-ago practice of keeping canaries in mine shafts for use as reliable barometers of air quality.  In the event of a carbon dioxide or methane leak, the birds were affected long before the miners, giving the latter time to escape the poisoned air.

While this practice is long defunct, experts say pets play a similar role today — in everyday life.  Today’s environment exposes people and pets daily to manmade chemicals, pollutants, fuels and toxins.  The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit research and lobbying organization headquartered in Washington, DC reported in 2008 that “America’s pets are serving as involuntary sentinels of widespread chemical contamination that scientists increasingly link to a growing array of health problems in all species, including humans.”

The American Cancer Society released an alarming statistic in 2010, stating that one in every two men and one in every three women will experience cancer in their lifetimes.  The outlook for companion animals is equally grim.  According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, cancer claims the lives of nearly half of all companion animals over age 10, and a 2008 report by the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Center states that dogs acquire certain cancers, such as skin, breast and bone, at a much higher rate than humans.

All of this can seem overwhelming, particularly because while certain things can be controlled — like what we eat or use for cleaning — many cannot, such as car exhaust, the neighbors’ lawn care products, and more.

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One EWG study reported that blood and urine taken from a group of dogs was contaminated with 35 chemicals, 20 percent of which had average levels five times higher than humans.  Contaminants included perfluorochemicals found in stain and grease-proof products and fire retardants, and toxins found in plastics.  Exposure to all of these can occur in the home despite a pet parent’s best efforts.  This particular report cites hazards that might not even occur to many people, as such as:  “leaching from dog food bag coatings, house dust, stain-proofed furniture, dog beds, and carpets.”

The findings on cats were even higher.  Blood and urine from the cat sample group revealed 46 chemicals, including over 25 that were five times higher than human exposure.  These included “very high levels” of neurotoxic fire retardants and methylmercury, a contaminant often found in seafood.  The EWG study suggests that a pet’s shorter lifespan, proximity to the ground, and constant grooming and ingestion of contaminants may all contribute to the higher levels of toxins found in their systems.

This high exposure to chemicals can cause any number of ailments in pets, with a dizzying number of symptoms.  Pet care consultant Kerri Duncan, who offers holistic pet therapies through her Portland practice, Holistic 4 Pets, ticks off an exhaustive list of conditions associated with toxic build-up.  “Muscle pain, joint pain, lethargy, weight gain, lack of interest in eating, bad breath, skin disorders, gas, bloating, loose stool, respiratory illness, anxiety, cancer . . . all of these things can be linked back to the body accumulating too many toxins in the system,” she says.

Duncan says many of her clients arrive not knowing what’s wrong or what to do for their ailing pets.  “Most people who end up seeing me are desperate for help.  Often they’ve already spent thousands of dollars at the vet without success.  They don’t even know that detox is what they need; they’re just looking for a solution.”

While the concept of detox is not new, the idea of detoxing pets is.  Are we talking colonics for cats?  Lemon juice diets for dogs?  No.  As with humans, it’s important to research available treatments to determine what makes sense and is safe.  While a 30-day juice fast isn’t viable for canines, there are approaches to detoxifying animals that are.

“We use many of the same techniques on animals as we do for ourselves,” says Duncan, “such as the use of milk thistle for detoxing the liver.”  She continues, “There are all sorts of herbs used for detoxification of organs, even massage.  With massage it’s the same as with humans, you’re stimulating tissue and increasing oxygen flow and circulation.”  Duncan points out that massage is easily done at home.  “You don’t need a certificate to massage your animal.  Just sit down and rub ‘em!” she says.

Dr. Jeff Judkins of Hawthorne Veterinary Clinic in Portland also promotes a regular detox program for animals.  “I think it’s a good thing to do twice a year,” he says, adding that in the natural world animals detox as a matter of course.  “You don’t really detox efficiently when you’re eating all the time,” says the doctor.  “We feed our animals twice a day, every day, and never allow them to fast.  In the wild animals can’t always find food, so during that time their bodies start to cleanse.  Because we never allow that to happen it’s even more important to look into some sort of [detox] assistance.”

Judkins also uses natural herbs such as dandelion root and burdock to “promote the elimination of toxins through the bile, which then passes into the intestinal tract.  Fiber supplements can then be used to help bind the toxins and eliminate them from the body.”

Rosemary Levesque, a Portland-based holistic wellness consultant, provides a different kind of detox therapy, which she developed working with her own dog, Ginger, who was diagnosed with blood cancer in 2006.  Levesque believes strongly that environmental toxins such as pesticides, chemical fertilizers and cleaning products place an enormous burden on an animal’s health.  In her research, Levesque discovered that the mineral clay zeolite had been used as a healing method for over 800 years.  “Cultures have been eating clays for hundreds of years and getting health benefits from it,” says Levesque.  “The one I use is manufactured to be very small and gets into the blood stream to clean the blood, detoxify safely, and pull out all the heavy metals — the causes of many problems — allowing the body to work better.”

While simply adding herbs to the diet or imposing a day-long fast might seem like a good plan, detox is a gradual process, which can leave people unsure that a technique is even working.  “Toxins do build up over time,” says Duncan.  “I tell folks the process will take one month for every year the animal has been alive, and that things can get worse before they get better.  You’re flushing the organs and everything is coming out of the body.  I tell people we need to be persistent and patient.  This did not occur overnight and we can’t fix it overnight.”

Duncan also counsels her patients on the importance of prevention.  “You can’t really detoxify if you’re still putting toxins in.  In my opinion, the worst source of toxins is poor-quality food — those not human grade, containing byproducts, chemical additives and preservatives, artificial flavors.  I council people to read the ingredients on all food, even treats.  It should be chicken, carrots, apples.  It should be stuff you would eat yourself.”

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Duncan also suggests taking inventory of what is being used at home and what products might be eliminated.  “If you use a toxic chemical cleaner on your floor, guess who’s always scamming around looking for food crumbs?” she points out.  “There are plenty of earth-friendly cleaning products; even just using simple baking soda and vinegar works great, and it’s safe for everyone in your family.  At our home we stopped putting stuff on the lawn and have learned to deal with the fact that we now have voles.  You have to decide what’s important, and we decided that we weren’t going to put anything on our property that would harm our family.”

Levesque agrees.  “All of those things within the home can be highly toxic to animals.  They’re in it and all these toxins float down to the rug and the surfaces of furniture where they are inhaled by animals,” she says, adding, “I like to point out to people that what’s happening in their animals is something to pay attention to for themselves.  Our animals are the indicator species for us.  What’s going on with them is something we really need to pay attention to.  We can help them have a cleaner, healthier life, and we should do that for us too.”

Resources for Detox

Jeff Judkins DVM

Hawthorne Veterinary Clinic

Holistic Medicine For Animals


Kerri Duncan

A Holistic Choice For Pets, LLC


Rosemary Levesque • Rosemary’s Solutions.com

To read the full report from the Environmental Working Group go to: http://www.ewg.org/reports/pets

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Nikki Jardin is a Portland-based freelance writer who loves to write about people dedicated to making the world a better place for all beings. When she’s not writing, she’s either exploring the great outdoors, traveling, or volunteering with Fences For Fido, a local nonprofit dedicated to giving dogs freedom from a previously chained life.