All Aboard the Panic Train

[Please note this was written years ago for the now closed, Sheltie Pacesetter but it is still important today.]

Panic is dangerous.  Panic clouds rational thought.  Panic affects our ability to step back and review the source of the information or the drive to verify it.  “I heard through a club memo or saw it online, I got an email, it happened to my best friend’s cousin’s step grandfather’s second cousin four times removed so it MUST be true!”  The adult daughter of an elderly man I knew from my days showing rabbits, rides the panic train with everything.  More than half the information she passes on is erroneous, taken out of context or is very outdated and the issue fixed.  “Please be careful getting into your car, as there is a man under it waiting to cut your Achilles tendon.  Psychopaths are taping AIDS laced hypodermic needles to gas pump handles.  A child somewhere is collecting cards so we must send them!”  Enough replies with links to sites such as Snopes.com and other “debunking” sites stopped her, at least from emailing me.  At some point in time, we have all jumped the train.  Admit it.  I admit the periodic ride until I started to step back from the platform.  So, how can the Panic Train get started?

Let us look at a non-dog-related panic train topic: vaccines and Autism.  And yes…  Before this goes on I realize this will anger people.  Though many of the people I run into who are angered at first are panic train riders.  Those who are not are those who are looking for rational explanations for the panic.

Many people know I have a son who is Autism Spectrum.  When we were trying to find where in the spectrum he fell, I got quite a few calls and emails all asking the same thing “Did you vaccinate him?”  Well of COURSE I did.  I had done research and in the average, healthy child, vaccines are little worry.  The doctor who claimed a vaccine link to Autism was taken out of context and his words altered.  He more accurately stated that he was seeing things that warranted more investigation into but could not claim if vaccines were the cause. (http://www.immunizationinfo.org/immunization_issues_detail.cfv?id=52)  Another doctor who pushed this link may have falsified data.  (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/health/article5683671.ece)  Other studies were so small that there was not a decent sampling from which to gather data.

An Autism diagnosis is done through looking for a series of behavioral traits as there is no genetic test for Autism as of the time of writing (though there is encouraging news from the land of research in regards to beginning to indentify genes that may be linked to it).  Some genetic issues like Klinefelter’s can present with Autistic-like behavioral and learning issues. Klinefelter’s is found only in males.  It is also found in about in 500 live male births. (http://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/klinefelter_syndrome.cfm)  There are several issues with the X chromosome that can present with Autism Spectrum traits   (Turner’s Syndrome which is found in about 1 in 50,000 live births, etc).  (Autism-lessons from the X chromosome, Elysa J. Marco and David H. Skuse, Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2006 December; 1(3): 183–193. )  How many parents of Autistic children are having their child tested for a chromosomal abnormality? I personally know one boy who was tested and this was because there was a known history of Klinefelter’s in the family.  I have a friend with a Turner’s syndrome daughter. The girl was only tested because a few of us pushed the mom to have testing done due to other physical developmental issues the child was having.  A doctor agreed and a screening was done. Some food allergy reactions can present Autism-like symptoms but a study showed that there was little improvement in the group on a special diet and the control group.  There is a big push towards special diets with Autistic children.  Is diet the cure?  (Millward C, Ferriter M, Calver SJ, Connell-Jones GG. Gluten- and casein-free diets for autistic spectrum disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD003498. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003498.pub3). Therefore if the symptoms presented are caused by food allergy, then yes, improvement will be seen. Heavy metal poisoning can also display similar symptoms people look for when diagnosing Autism.  Lead poisoning can mimic Autism like behaviors as a friend of mine found out when her children tested positive for high levels of lead and we did some investigating.  There is a condition where a person does not process heavy metals as effectively as a normal person should.  However, the mercury in vaccines was a form that is metabolized easier and has not been in vaccines since 2001: therefore, why have incidences not fallen if vaccines were the cause?  Why no drop off in diagnoses?

Remember, Autism is currently diagnosed by looking at symptoms and reactions.  Maybe we are screening more children and deciding that behaviors that would be considered “quirky” a couple decades ago are now classified as Autism Spectrum.  I was even told that when I was a child, a child like Connor would not be labeled Autistic.  However, the definition of Autism Spectrum has broadened greatly in the past 15 years or so.  Therefore, are the more incidents or just more kids who 20 years ago would never be considered Autistic now being labeled as Autistic?  When you get off the panic train and start looking at other issues, it is amazing how things have changed over the years!

So, how did the vaccine panic start?  Well, most Autism symptoms start to show when a child is about 12 – 18 months old: the same time the first MMR vaccine is given.  One researcher stated it bore looking into and BAM!  AAAAAALLLLL ABOOOOOOAAAARD! And yes, I was given a bit of flack for my “cavalier” attitude towards vaccinating my children. Hey, look at some of the almost eradicated illnesses making a comeback and in areas where vaccines are not given or in children whose parents decided not to vaccinate.  No, I have done the research, consulted with doctors and researchers and refuse to fall for the panic.  I was struggling academically math.  When I was in college, a professor of mine was concerned that I had a learning disability but there was really no name to the issue.  It would be several years later before someone told me the name and then the researchers working with Connor at Georgetown University as part of a Hyperlexia/Dyslexia study would help confirm his suspicions.  I have Dyscalculia (think number/math related dyslexia), and today it is often classified in the – you guessed it – Autism Spectrum.  The scary thing is, how many myths and misconceptions and half-truths, misquotes, anecdotal evidence without research is still fueling the Autism fire.  This is how the panic train starts.  Let us look at the Panic Train and apply it to our dogs.

FOOD

Who can forget the Melamine issues?  Well, yes this was horrid and well documented and yes, I was worried and began checking various foods.  I was using an affected food and I switched to a better brand of food. The subsequent fallout to the commercial dog food industry as a whole has been shocking.  However, it also had some positives as people became more aware of ingredient quality and source.

First, there is no perfect way to feed a dog be you buying commercial food or making your own.  That said, not all foods, be they commercial or homemade, are equal. I have known people who have had issues with both methods of feeding.  Grains are ripped apart in dog foods.  However, it is more what is used and the quantity that is the issue.  There is one website claiming beet pulp causes bloat and has too many sugars.  Well, another site claims to have done research that the pulp has most of the sugars processed out, and the bulk is needed for the digestive tract.  Others claim that meat-by-products are bad.  How many are aware that by-products can be organ meats?  How many sites claim only whole meat should be used?  They forget that meal is dried meat. When you take whole meat and process it into kibble, you can end up with less meat by weight than if meat meal was the ingredient.  Allergy prevention panic has lead to a slew of exotic dog foods.  However, veterinarians are running out of options to feed dogs with allergies because owners jump on these exotic foods assuming they will prevent an allergy from forming.  How many riders of the Panic Train are there in regards to dog food?

TOYS

No toy is 100% safe for all dogs.  Just because something is sold for dogs does not mean it is safe for all dogs.  A client of mine had to put working with her dogs on hold.  We had discussed toy safety and enrichment for her smaller, very energetic and bored, adolescent terrier.  We had discussed to safety many times.  I had given her a safety sheet.  I had recommended she STOP using several toys with her dogs, especially the young male terrier.  After a few sessions, the owner emailed me to say that her dog was at the vet for a severe blockage.  It took over five hours of surgery and five incisions into the intestines (I know one of the people who assisted with the surgery) and no idea if the pup would live.  What caused it?  She had left a rope toy, a common toy owners buy for dogs, with the crated pup when she went to work.  This toy was not an appropriate choice for him if she was not going to be able to monitor how he was playing with it.  The pup was destructive.  He had already destroyed similar toys.   She ignored the warning and our toy safety discussions.  Her reaction was “Should I call my lawyer and sue the manufacturer?” She was reminded of the talks we had.

Shortly after this, there was a terrible story about a dog who suffered severe tongue injuries from a ball toy with a hole.  The ball toy had no other hole to help prevent suction from building up.  Now this is a design flaw.  Dogs lick things, licking can build up suction (think a dog trying to get stuff out of a Kong toy).  If there is no way to prevent suction, then there can be trouble.  However, we have to inspect toys and know No, but they MUST be educated consumers in regards to overall toy safety and know how to choose dog toys based on their individual dog.  They also need to learn how to monitor a dog and determine if the toy is safer for their individual animal.  This client of mine was all set (and had the money) to sue a company when she knew the toy was not suitable for her terrier.  She chose to ignore my warnings and safety instructions.

What can happen when the panic train is jumped on without common sense and rational thought?  Bad things are what can happen, well depending on your perspective.

When a popular dog food had to change ingredients due to the economy, a few dogs sickened and died.  There were blogs and even articles telling people to stop feeding as this food will kill.  AAAALLLLLL ABOOOOAAARD!  My understanding was the company sent out notices to their retailers regarding the change.  This is far more than most companies do!  When the letters were received is still under debate. Some I know got the message before the reformulation while others got it after.  This could be due to a lot of different things.  If the letters were snail mailed, they could have been delayed.  My husband was waiting for a check.  It took four weeks to get to us!  I checked the postage meter and it was metered four weeks earlier.  I have had cards take two weeks to make it across the county.  We live in Suburban Washington, DC.  We are not a rural area by any means.  Other issues could be that if the letters were emailed that they went into a Spam folder. How often do we check those folders?  I do maybe once a week but I know people who almost never do.

I get my dog food (the same one people are telling me to stop feeding or my dogs will die) from three main retailers and sometimes a couple other places.  NOT ONE posted the notice from the company!  I recently spoke to the owner of a local store who carries this brand.  Even she stated that she was upset the company did not do more to inform buyers.  I asked if she got the notice and passed it on to the customers.  She got the email but did not pass it on.  Why?  Well, it was too much work.  HUH?  It was too much work to print up the information and tape it to the shelves?  The company does not know who is buying the food; all they can do is alert the distributors and retailers.  After that, it is up to them to pass on the information.  If the distributors and retailers are failing to pass on the information, they then are failing their buyers in regards to allowing them to make an informed decision.

Every day companies change ingredients – regardless of the quality of the food.  I know if your dog was one of the handful that suffered adverse affects this is no consolation.  I have a cat that is sensitive to certain commonly used topical flea treatments.  I was lucky that his reaction was caught quickly.  However, whenever a change in a product is made, there will always be some animal that does not tolerate it to varying degrees.  Another concern I have is has the product been definitively linked to the deaths?  Sometimes owners are so upset that they have to blame something, even if that this is not truly related to the death. Sometimes there are other issues unknown to the owner.  The product can be coincidence or the catalyst the other issue needs.

A friend of mine blames dog food for all her dogs’ issues.  Well, tests have shown in two of her dogs that they have underlying medical issues, not food related, that could be causing the issues she is seeing.  However, she constantly blames the foods and fails to address the known medical issues.  The issues persist regardless of what she is feeding.  She has fed foods from commercial to homemade. Is it the foods or is she in denial and a regular rider of the Panic Train?

The Panic Train is a dangerous thing.  If ridden for a couple stops, it may get people willing to look further and determine if a situation is really worth the full trip.  If ridden too much without care, the Panic Train can do more harm than good.  It is important that when we are sent that email, read something online or get that call that we take pause.  Step back and look at all the information, do a little legwork and look at reality.  Has the product definitely been linked to the issue or is it speculation?  Has the owner done any testing?  Did the dog have any underlying medical conditions?  Was the owner acting negligently and set the dog up for the issue?  The Panic Train can do a lot more harm than good when the panic is unfounded.  Panic in general causes a lack of rational thought.

Before you board that train, stop at the platform, look at the ticket in your hand and think, “Have I stepped back and thought rationally?”  Even if the situation is serious, like the melamine issue, settle down and think about how you will pass on the information.  Will you forward that panicked email or will you do some more investigating and pass on facts and reports from professionals that may have a better take on the situation?  Have you checked out to make sure this is not an urban myth (www.snopes.com is a good resource for this) or outdated information?  For example, who remembers the Swiffer Wet Jet panic?  I still get this every so often.

The Panic Train, something we need to step away from and think before we board.

And now I am going to make my aluminum foil hat because I just learned that microwaves from a secret government facility are going to fry my brain if I do not.

Karen Peak, West Wind Dog Training

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