The Animal Doctor

DEAR DR. FOX: I have had lots of friends whose cats lived to be well into their 20s, but mine all die in their teens. And two of them barely made it that long.

For years, I used flea collars on my cats, then graduated to flea meds on the back of their necks. In 1999, my beloved 13-year-old Sureshot began showing symptoms from what turned out to be a tumor in her chest. She died shortly after diagnosis. Three years later, her brother Christopher, a most amazing, soulful, beloved cat, developed a tumor in his jaw. He died after about two months.

The really tragic thing was they were totally indoor cats who didn’t even need flea meds, but they were recommended by the vet. After Christopher died, my beautiful silver tabby Nikki liked to go in and out, so everyone got the back-of-the-neck treatment. Nikki died from multiple-organ failure. Baby (whom I still grieve deeply) died of a brain tumor. When I would go to put the flea treatment on Baby, he would act as if I were trying to kill him, which apparently I did.

After each death I questioned the use of these “medications,” but was assured they were safe. I should have stopped earlier and perhaps saved some precious lives in my family, because there is no doubt in my mind that treating these animals with substances designed to kill fleas also kills them.

Since Baby died, none of my cats have been treated. I use a flea comb on them regularly, and there seems to be no problem. -- L.S., West Palm Beach, Florida

DEAR L.S.: Thanks for sharing your concerns and sad experiences. Because there are so many potential carcinogens in our food, water and home environments, it is with rare exception that one can link a specific product or substance to a particular cancer.

So common sense calls for adoption of the precautionary principle: That means if you can avoid using any product that kills other living beings, be they fleas or weeds, and find safe alternatives, then do so.

Cynics might say, “What’s the difference, now that we have poisoned the entire planet?” But it is never too late for us to clean up our act, even though it may be against prevailing business interests, which continue to successfully lobby to keep hazardous pesticides on the open market.

The flea comb is the first, safest and most effective (but labor-intensive) method of flea control, and there are others, as I review in my article on preventing fleas and ticks on my website ( Many readers have written to me, detailing adverse reactions to various anti-flea chemicals; I will summarize them in a future column.

DEAR DR. FOX: Should vets and big box pet stores inform their customers of potential health hazards from the food they sell?

Recently, we lost our male cat, who was more like a dog than a cat. He was only 9 years old. He was not his usual self when we came home one day, so we took him to the vet. He said he had a urinary blockage, and found out he had 13 little stones in his bladder and needed an operation to remove them. He died three days later. The vet informed us that the Hill’s Science Diet hard food caused these stones to form in his bladder and that it was common in male cats. He said that Hill’s has a hard food for this problem, called Urinary Care. This information came a little late for us.

Shouldn’t this information be offered by vets and stores? The vet didn’t even say he was sorry. This is a long and painful story cut short. -- J.S., Lake Worth, Florida

DEAR J.S.: Your letter hits an ironic fact, which the pet food industry has continued to ignore for decades -- along with some veterinarians, because it is so profitable. The industry makes some animals ill on manufactured cat and dog foods, and then sells special prescription diets to correct the “nutrigenic” diseases caused by these basic diets in the first place.

For detailed documentation and sound science, see the book “Not Fit for a Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Cat & Dog Food,” which I co-authored with two other veterinarians.

This has been a repeated issue in my column over the past several years. I offer home-prepared diets for dogs and cats on my site, and steer people to Susan Thixton’s website ( to support her efforts at monitoring the industry. She provides a list of pet food manufacturers that we consider acceptable, for which there is a charge to support her independent and painstaking work.


An analysis of more than 3.4 million individual health records in Sweden showed that adults who had a dog were less likely than their dogless peers to die during the 12-year study. And among people who lived alone, those who had a dog were less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease.

Researcher Tove Fall said that dog owners tend to be physically active, and that having a dog might increase well-being and social contacts, or introduce beneficial organisms to the owner’s microbiome. (Nature/Scientific Reports, November 2017)

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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