ONE VETERINARIAN’S DECLARATION AND APPEAL
By Michael W. Fox, BVetMed, PhD, DSc, MRCVS
Good nutrition, and the judicious use of vaccines and various preventive medicines, have done much to improve the health and longevity of cats and dogs as well as humans and other animals. But many health problems are now associated with various commercial, highly processed foods, and a host of complex diseases have been linked to adverse reactions in dogs and cats, as well as human infants and other species, to what were formerly considered safe and necessary vaccinations. Other serious health problems in companion animals have come from long-term administration of steroid drugs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents, and systemic insecticides, the misuse and overuse of which I find deeply disturbing.
Some critics simply blame “big business” and the profit motives of a market-driven economy for the all the ills of society. But this view, in part affirmed by the reticence of the food and drug industries to acknowledge responsibility and not dismiss or evade the clinical evidence that would mean more costs to them in having to either improve the quality, safety and effectiveness of their products, or take them off the market, is only half the truth. We have government, through the FDA in the US---the Food & Drug Administration---working at the behest of the food and drug industry to protect corporate interests in a competitive world market. The FDA’s mandate to protect consumers from harmful drugs and unsafe food is clearly compromised.
A case in point is the US government’s failed attempts to change the National Organics Standards by having genetically engineered crops and foods included under organic certification (on the grounds of ‘substantial equivalence’), and at the same time resisting any challenges over the environmental and consumer risks of such crops and foods.
The increasing incidence of skin and food allergies, and other suspected allergies associated with digestive disorders and inflammatory bowel disease in dogs and cats may well be caused or aggravated by novel proteins and other chemical contaminants in GM (genetically modified or engineered) ingredients in manufactured pet foods. Animal lab tests confirm this risk. I have seen a dramatic increase in these problems over the past decade in the thousands of letters I receive from cat and dog owners who read my nationally syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor. My advocacy of home-prepared diets and of those brands of new generation pet foods that are GM free, not laced with various synthetic additives, or composed principally of cereal and other human food and beverage industry byproducts, has generated several testimonies from cat and dog owners of the benefits of changing from conventional, manufactured pet foods, notably improved vitality, demeanor, and dramatic recovery from chronic skin, digestive, and other diet-related heath problems.
It is surely no coincidence that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, in Oct. 2008, an 18% increase in allergies in children under the age of 18 years, between 1997-2007. Some 3 million children now suffer from food or digestive allergies, their symptoms including vomiting, skin rashes, and breathing problems. They take longer to outgrow milk and egg allergies, and show a doubling of adverse reactions to peanuts.
What we have done to the environment, and to our increasingly contaminated food chain and water sources, as well as to air quality, are as much to blame for many of the diseases like cancer and impaired immune and endocrine systems that we face today in our companion animals, in wildlife, and in our own lives, as are the poorly regulated vaccines, drugs and processed foods most consumers accept without question for their families, including their pets.
So it is ultimately up to all of us consumers and care-providers to make the most informed choices that we can about food, nutrition, and health care maintenance and disease prevention. As I have documented earlier* the branches of government with regulatory authority over agriculture, environmental protection, food, and drugs have traditionally aligned themselves with corporate interests rather than putting the rights and interests of the consumer first.
This means that we cannot rely on the Word of big government, but on what sound science and clinical evidence we can muster when it comes to assuming personal responsibility for our health and for the related health of our companion animals and of the environment as a whole. How well our companion animals are in body and mind indeed mirrors of our own well being. How can we rely on the word of academia and of physicians and veterinarians, when Medical and Veterinary Colleges, and professional organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association, continue to receive gratuities in the $millions every year from the food and drug industry?
Until recently, short courses in companion animal nutrition were given to veterinary students by veterinarians employed by major pet food companies. Now these same companies have set up academic scholarships, lectureships and even funded clinical and other facilities as well as research fellowships and grants at veterinary colleges in the US and abroad. They have also made inroads into animal shelters and humane societies through donations of cash and pet foods. They have succeeded in convincing most conventional veterinary medical practitioners that when an animal is presented with any health problem, their manufactured pet foods are the last thing to consider as a possible cause of illness; and that not feeding their products has nothing to do with preventive and integrative medicine and holistic animal health care.
While drug companies seek to profit by lobbying governments to have traditional herbal medicines, nutraceuticals, and even vitamin and mineral supplements removed from the shelves and made available, if at all, by prescription only, others with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of conventional, allopathic medicine oppose alternative, adjunctive treatments to the point of effectively excluding them from coverage under most health insurance programs. The nascent pet health insurance schemes being promoted by pet food and drug companies, and by other veterinary business enterprises, parallel the profit-driven developments in human health care and insurance-determined treatments.
Our ever increasing numbers and consumer habits combine to signal an environmental apocalypse, the social, economic, public health, wildlife conservation, and habitat protection costs and losses being incalculable, as well as the suffering of domestic animals; especially the billions of those today incarcerated in overcrowded, polluting, and disease-spreading factory farms, and others roaming free but barely surviving starvation and dehydration on arid rangelands the world over: Plus those millions of animals used in biomedical research and product testing to find cures for diseases we bring upon ourselves, and to develop new and profitable cures. The much touted concept of ‘One Medicine’ needs to be complemented by the bioethics of a ‘One Earth’ perspective, beginning with a close look at the sustainability and bioethics of a livestock-based economy, diet, and veterinary and drug sectors.
How well is the veterinary sector engaged in production medicine facilitating the transition to a more sustainable, humane, and organic domestic agriculture that could become a value-added export business? I have long felt that this would appeal to many veterinary students who would like to work in the farm animal sector but share my aversion for concentrated animal feeding operations. These are now proliferating in developing countries where the demand for animal produce, short-lived as it may be, is escalating. Many are now entering the export market where international standards even in food quality and safety, and the use of illegal production-enhancing chemicals (like melamine in China), and disease controlling drugs prohibited in the US and Europe are virtually impossible to regulate and monitor because of sheer logistics and the funding and staffing limitations of responsible government agencies.
The union of science, technology and commerce, especially in the food and drug industries, must be balanced by a union of ethics with compassionate care and service in human and veterinary medicine. Otherwise the healing professions will become mere cogs in the business wheels of commerce and industry, all in the service of mammon rather than for the good of all.
*Eating With Conscience: the Bioethics of Food ,(New Sage Press, OR. 1997), and Not Fit For a Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Pet Foods (co-authored with Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins and Prof. Marion E. Smart, Quill Driver Books, Sanger, CA. 2008)
For more details on bioethics, see M.W.Fox, (2001) Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society. Albany, NY, State University of New York Press.