By Kim Everson, DVM
Animal companionship has a proven positive influence on our general health. Numerous scientific studies have shown that caring for a pet actually improves our health by reducing stress levels and increasing our physical activity.
Unfortunately, we and our pets also have a lot of diseases in common — cancer, diabetes and inflammatory disease — that are often directly linked to negative lifestyle choices.
Kick the Habit
Cigarette smoke is a long recognized cancer-causing agent in humans. The risks of second hand smoke to other people has led to smoking bans in all public places in Wisconsin over the past few years. News flash! Research shows that second hand smoke causes cancer in pets, too. Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a common cancer in cats. It often occurs on their face or in their mouth. The development of SCC on the lips, eyelids and nose has been associated with light-colored cats that love to sun-bathe! The form of SCC that occurs in a cat’s mouth responds poorly to treatment and has been linked to ingestion of cigarette smoke from the fur. Cats are fastidious self-groomers, so they are exposed to a lot of cigarette chemicals this way!
Second hand smoke is a cancer causer in dogs too. Whereas the carcinogens inhaled in cigarette smoke settle out by gravity in human lungs, in dogs these cancer-triggering chemicals are filtered out by the delicate canine nasal tissues and create tumors in the nose. In fact, the longer the snout — think greyhound vs. pug — the bigger the risk of developing nasal cancer.
Shed some Lb’s
Obesity increases the risk of many diseases in people and pets. Fat dogs, for example, suffer from debilitating orthopedic diseases. For years we veterinarians have preached weight loss in cats, for example, to prevent and manage diabetes mellitus. Now cancer researchers have connected the dots between obesity, diabetes and cancer. There is an elaborate Rube-Goldberg-type biochemical chain reaction to explain the link, but the “Chemistry for Dummies” version goes something like this: high carbohydrate diet (especially processed sugars) è increased blood sugar è increased insulin receptors è obesity and inflammation è cancer.
We can break the links in the chain any number of ways to reduce the risk of cancer in ourselves and our animals. Changing our diets to significantly reduce highly processed carbohydrates. Bam! Shedding that excess weight. Bam! Reducing inflammatory processes in our bodies. Bam!
A natural dietary supplement that is being used in human and veterinary medicine for a variety of beneficial purposes are polyunsaturated fatty acids. One way fatty acids benefit animal health is by reducing inflammation (in the skin, joints, gut, etc.). Fish oil and algal sources are appropriate for pets, but don’t bother giving flax seed sources to Fido or Fluffy because dogs and cats cannot metabolize flax to access the beneficial fatty acids.Your veterinarian can help you determine a fatty acid dose for your pet (it’s higher than you think!).
When it comes to being susceptible to cancer — whether you walk on two legs or four — genetics and environment are intimately linked. Many of the lifestyle changes recommended by the American Medical Association over the years to improve human health also improve the lives of the animals who share our homes and hearts! If you don’t do it for yourself, maybe those pleading puppy dog eyes or that purr of contentment will convince you to make that one vital change.