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Do you have a little furry, scaly, or feathery friend at home? If so, you are one of the more than 86 million households in the United States that own a pet. In 2022, Americans spent $136.8 billion on pet foods, toys, bedding, and now even clothing.
We consider our pets as part of our family, but what we don’t realize is that we are exposing them to harmful substances every single day. There is a plastic component to nearly everything we buy for them, and most pet owners are completely unaware. Their plush toys, water bowls, and even the food they eat comes with the added ingredient of microplastics, known as primary microplastics, or little fragments of plastic material that shear off from larger products, known as secondary microplastics.
While the danger of microplastics for human health is gaining more attention globally, there is still little awareness of the threat they pose to our beloved pets’ wellbeing. So, it may be shocking to learn that plastic is sometimes even present in the food we give them. Sheep heads with plastic tags on their ears, for example, come to pet food processing plants to be ground up as a component of pet food.
However, the plastic tags on their ears can be difficult to remove so are often just left on the carcass and processed directly into the pet food meal. These tiny fragments of plastic pieces may be small — plastics can break down to a fraction of a micrometer in size — but your pet is still consuming them. And some plastic pieces are not always ground down either, which is why in 2015, one company received 295 complaints from customers who had found large and visible foreign plastic materials in their pet food. Either way, it means our cats and dogs are potentially eating plastics.
Other materials are similarly turned into ingredients for pet food, including wasted human food that is still wrapped in plastic. Yes, you heard that right, still wrapped in plastic! When animal owners noticed that food pellets they had purchased for their pets contained large pieces of plastic, they not surprisingly reached out to the suppliers to complain, only to be told that using plastic packaged food is a legal part of the recycling process! Why? Because the machinery that is meant to remove the plastic is not perfect and sometimes the plastic makes its way into the mix.
In the UK, plastic is actually legally allowed to be used in animal feed up to 0.15%. In the U.S., the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which is supposedly enforced by the FDA, ideally addresses pet food safety. But the FDA, which is already largely ineffective at regulating human food, let alone pet food, essentially allows the pet food industry to regulate itself.
The chemicals used in food packaging can also pose a threat to pets. Most pet food cans are lined with an epoxy resin made from Bisphenol A — BPA — which can leach into the pet food directly. Long-term exposure to BPA, which will occur if your pet eats canned food every day, is thought to have negative effects on their health. Studies in rodents found that BPA can interfere with hormones, specifically the thyroid, which in turn can potentially lead to an array of health issues.
Even the water that we put in our pets’ bowls contain microplastics and plastic fibers. Just like us, pets need to stay hydrated, but by giving them tap water we could be jeopardizing their health. Giving them bottle water too doesn’t negate the problem, as single use bottled water also contains microplastics.
As if that were not dangerous enough, we also indirectly expose pets to microplastics in our home environment as well. Microplastics in our homes can come from a variety of sources, from clothing to carpets. Researchers found that children come into contact with more microplastics in the home than adults, but little to no research has been done on the effects of this exposure in pets. Given the amount of time our pets spend indoors, it seems completely likely that they too are being exposed to high levels of microplastics.
Plastic exposure for our pets does not end here: pet toys, pet clothes, and pet food containers pose another threat. The overall lack of chemical-specific regulations for pet products means that microplastics that leach from these objects can be potentially harmful. BPA, the same chemical used to make the resin in pet food containers, has also been found in other items like food bowls and food storage containers.
Many dog toys also contain chemicals known as phthalates — more commonly called plasticizers — that make these toys more durable. But as your dog chews on these toys, they are exposed to these chemicals. Phthalates have been shown to have impacts on the reproductive systems of animals and disrupt endocrine function. We recognize the threat these plastic toys pose to human children; phthalates are regulated in childrens’ toys, and young children exhibit similar chewing behaviors to pets but the pet toy market remains unchecked.
Specific chemicals within microplastics can have varying health impacts on the endocrine and reproductive systems, but microplastics as a whole pose a threat to pet health no matter what toxins they contain. It has been proven that pets ingest these particles — they have been found in the internal tissue of pets and their feces.
Microparticles can absorb other contaminants such as metals and organic substances that can make our pets ill, and we also know that microplastics carry bacteria and potentially even viruses. These can cause disease and illness in humans and animals alike. Exposing pets to bacteria via plastics can cause a variety of health problems or exacerbate existing conditions. Intestinal toxicants in particular have been linked to microplastics, which interfere with gut microbiota and critical intestinal functions.
There is a need for more data on how microplastics adversely impact human health, but the evidence that microplastic ingestion and inhalation is harmful for human beings is growing. There is much work to be done on the effect of microplastics on animals; we assume pet food and goods are safe, but we do not know the long-term effects of these products or of the chemicals used in the plastics they are made from. We know that microplastics, like other materials, can bioaccumulate in humans over time. This is likely the case for pets as well.
Plastic products are so ubiquitous that it is hard to find pet products free from all plastic components, but there are toys, collars, and leashes made from natural materials like hemp. Additionally, you can avoid pet shampoos and other grooming products that contain microbeads, those tiny pieces of plastic found in many beauty products. When you pick out treats for your furry friend, look for packaging that is eco-friendly or BPA-free. Finally, using less plastic in the household overall reduces the amount of microplastics in the indoor environment and will hopefully lead to healthier humans and pets.
To learn more about plastic’s impact on our planet and EARTHDAY.ORG’s goals for plastic reduction, take a look at our Planet vs. Plastics page. If you want a healthier future for yourself, your pets, and the whole planet, sign our Global Plastics Treaty today and commit to ending plastic pollution.
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