When Pet Parenting Takes Its Toxic Toll

Plastic dog toy

Being a parent to a child is stressful stuff. When I was just starting out, everyone had a different opinion on everything from how long to breast-feed to the brand of cocoa butter best smeared on my overstretched belly.

But it wasn't just the unsolicited advice that baffled; the scientific literature on toxins, in particular, jangled my nerves with its scary brand of information overload. NPEs, BPAs, melamine, lead and other heavy metals — the list goes on.

So it was that when someone sent me an article from ScienceDaily.com on the recent identification of toxic phthalates and BPA in dog toys and training aids, I couldn't help but regress to my stressed-out days as a less-than-confident new mom: "You mean I've been letting my baby drink water from a BPA-contaminated sippy cup for six whole months? How will that mess with his growth rate?"

Reading this new BPA article from the point of view of a practicing veterinarian brought the same angst back home again — albeit less acutely, seeing as this subject is nowhere near so alien as my human infant seemed back then.

Indeed, this time I was not so scared for my pets. Rather, I was more impressed by how frightening the concept of unknown animal toxins might be to pet owners suffering the same press of science overkill I experienced 14 years ago — more so now given that we seem to hear about environmental toxins with increasing frequency.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if learning of toxins in dog toys comes as anything but an unwelcome shock to my veterinary senses. But here’s the thing: The revelation that many of my clients feel every bit as jittery and overwrought as I did each time some new tidbit of bad-for-pet tidings comes their way means I’ve been undervaluing the emotional toll on their psyche.

Which helps explain why things like 2007’s massive pet food recall — along with what seems like an inexorable onslaught of recalls, alerts and advisories on everything from pet toys and raw foods to contaminated drugs and chicken jerky (will the chicken jerky crisis never end?) — mean that plenty of pet owners must be feeling the psychological strain of it all.

All of which tends to culminate in one of two common emotional conclusions:

We can either become desensitized to the scariness of it all, or we can feel like incompetent human beings at a time when we most need to rely on our personal judgment.

For my part, I choose door No. 2. Because sometimes being a parent — whether of pets or people — needs to be scary if we’re to learn how to do our job right. If only it didn’t have to be so hard. Sigh.


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