Plastic in our environment, (including our bodies) is a growing global crisis. Though the components and creation of new plastics is beginning to change, becoming safer and more recyclable, there is a planet full of plastic problems to address. Created to last forever, plastics do lots of good but this amazing invention has drawbacks, some of which we are just learning about now. For pet owners, plastics pose dangerous threats to our companion animals as well.
Plastics in pet toys
PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) is soft and bendable without breaking, does not breakdown in sunlight or extreme weather, it is the seemingly perfect material for such things as food wrap, infant teething rings and pets’ toys. Since most of its components are virgin materials, it is not made from recycled products and, in turn, only about one percent of it can be recycled, not a great environmental circle of “life.” Furthermore, PVC is referred to as the poison plastic because it is not completely inert, it leaches chemicals throughout its existence, which happens to be a really long time. They are things like plastic wrap that oftentimes is not reused, and pacifiers that are typically used for brief periods of time and not passed along to other infants in need. Also pet toys are chewed on excessively, and if they are not eventually consumed whole or bit by bit, are passed on to another pet.
More than 13 years ago, a Danish study conducted to address concern about the chemicals in the plastics of dog toys concluded that a particular chemical, phthalates, was especially elevated in the test subjects and posed a greater risk during canine pregnancy and in pups.
Plastic in the environment
Plastic products stuck in their mouths or around their necks can be resolved if you find the pet in time, but unfortunately that is not always the case with both companion animals and wild creatures. Choking, strangulation, suffocation and starvation are the grim results of some plastics in the environment.
Plastic stuck in the gut
Aside from the chemical hazards plastics pose, our pets eat plastics, and dogs are not the only guilty party. Cats can play with and eat paper, yarn and plastic, none of which is a great idea for an obligate carnivore. Plastic bags can be an attractive toy to cats because of its lightweight and has a crinkling sound, but the plastic can contain gelatin (an animal byproduct) that might be deemed edible by a cat. Plastic food bags may also have the scent or residue of food. The term “pica” is used to describe a craving to chew, lick or eat non food items and can be caused by stress and boredom, two maladies that cats commonly suffer from. Nutritional deficiencies, dental disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, tumors, GI issues and anemia are other factors that may cause pica in felines, in addition to curiosity. Once consumed, plastic can cause vomiting, diarrhea and internal injury including obstructions that require surgery to remove.
Most companion animal veterinarians have at least several dog stories that relate it a $4,000 pacifier or a $5,000 water bottle or similar plastic object that a dog had obstructing its throat, stomach or intestines. The $3 pacifier or $1.50 water bottle quickly becomes at least a very costly item to be removed and potentially deadly object when it winds up being consumed by your dog. Dogs especially love the sound of plastic in their jaws, the crunch-able pliability and convenient availability so plastic consumption for dogs may seem like a good idea to them initially.
Dogs that have fairly sudden onset of vomiting, especially just after eating or drinking and/or have diarrhea that may or may not be bloody, are weak and lethargic, gagging, retching or straining without production for bowel movements, have a painful abdomen that they may not allow you to touch, pain symptoms such as whining and pacing, distended or bloated abdomen and signs of dehydration are all symptoms of a foreign body. Dogs that seem to chew anything, get into the garbage or are constantly chewing away at a favorite plastic toy are at risk. These are symptoms that require an immediate trip to a veterinarian and if, through diagnostics it is determined to be a foreign body by the veterinarian, emergency surgery is often required. If removal of the object is all that is involved, if it can be removed intact without perforation tissue, organs or vessels, the hospitalization is typically just a few days and recovery outlook is good.
Dogs don’t always learn from their mistakes and mishaps, FB prone dogs will sometimes be repeat offenders of chewing and swallowing what they shouldn’t. A few suggestions: Keep garbage cans tightly sealed, keep plastics up and out of reach, work at training your dog to chew only vet-approved items, add lots more exercise into their day and consider a dog day care if problems occur when you are not at home.
A debated topic in the veterinary world relates to pets developing allergies to plastics. The cases of dogs or cats that develop facial rashes, infections and persistent wounds that do not respond to topical medications is thought to be caused by feeding or offering water from plastic dishes.
The possibility of plastic allergies is present but what many researchers and vets believe now is that the plastic dishes can hold and host more bacteria along with tiny rough edges so a pet that may have a sensitive area around their face will be much more prone to infections and further abrasions. If you believe this may be a cause of irritation with your pet, switch to safe ceramic, glass or stainless steel bowls, but leave your pets with both options, especially for water, until they become accustomed to the new dish.
As we are all finding, plastics are, oftentimes unfortunately, here to stay. There are no simple answers to the problems they pose, but education and awareness of the benefits as well as the risks helps to make safe decisions. The following are several resources for more information about plastics and pets.
Terry Hannum is a licensed veterinary technician, a farmer and an animal advocate. If you have a subject you would like to have her address, email email@example.com. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/news/lifestyles.