Danger Lurking In The Lawn


Onyx was a happy, energetic, fun-loving dog. He loved running alongside the bicycle his owner, Tim Cunningham, would ride in his neighborhood near the Southampton train station.

What should have been a happy bonding time for man and his best friend instead turned into a tragedy, according to Mr. Cunningham. He said that he believes Onyx contracted lymphoma from herbicides on the lawns he so enjoyed running on.

Like many East Enders, Mr. Cunningham regularly had his lawn sprayed with herbicides, He stopped when a lawn care worker warned him about the risk of cancer in dogs. That was 2007, the year he adopted Onyx, who was then a 2-year-old rescue.

Saved from an abusive home, the Kerry Blue Terrier with a black head and charcoal body had a higher genetic predisposition to cancer because of his breed, his owner reported. In 2011, Onyx was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died on May 3, 2013, after a tough and costly—Mr. Cunningham spent $35,000 to try to save him—battle with cancer.

His owner wholeheartedly believes it was because of the chemicals his dog encountered on area lawns.

“My best friend is dead and I killed him,” Mr. Cunningham lamented during an interview at his home, visibly broken by the loss of his canine companion.

Over the last few decades, there’s been a lot of discussion in the scientific and veterinary communities about the effects of lawn herbicides on pets. Most experts agree that it is impossible to directly link one specific instance of cancer to one chemical, though many agree that exposure to indoor and outdoor chemicals do contribute to the likelihood of a pet contracting the disease.

In 1991, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute released a study claiming that pet owners who sprayed their lawns four or more times a year with the popular herbicide 2,4-D doubled their pet’s chances of getting canine malignant lymphoma. The paper has been refuted many times in two decades since it was released. But, according to Discovery News, a new scientific study will soon be released in the Science of the Total Environment journal, which will back it up.

Dr. J.J. Wen of Hampton Veterinary Hospital in Speonk is a vet who is known for his holistic herbal remedies. He believes that pet owners need to monitor all of the chemical exposure pets have in and out of the home, as well as genetic propensities towards cancer (inbreeding creates a higher risk, he reported) and diet.

East End dogs have a higher risk of cancer than the rest of the country, according to Dr. Wen, because chemicals are used on lawns here to make them green. There are also more insecticides used here, due to the higher concentration of ticks and other pests, he said.

Returning to a more natural method of lawn maintenance, such as bringing guinea hens and quails back to the environment, would reduce the bug problem without the use of harmful chemical sprays, Dr. Wen reported. He added that in-home chemical exposure from cleaning products should also be avoided.

Diet is also important, he said. The veterinarian recommended a diverse diet for pets, which is good for their gastrointestinal tract and immune system. Additionally, he said, over-medicating and over-vaccinating can also lead to immune system weaknesses.

According to Dr. Justin Molnar of Shinnecock Animal Hospital in Hampton Bays, many of the maladies that cause cancer problems in dogs are the same as those that cause problems in humans: genes, environment and diet. Concurring with Dr. Wen, the vet said that the less chemical exposure, the better.

“My own personal philosophy is, if there is a green alternative to it, they’re a little more expensive but just as efficacious, that’s the way I would go,” Dr. Molnar said.

He also recommended washing pets’ feet or putting booties on if they are going to be on a treated lawn, and waiting at least two hours before allowing a pet on a sprayed lawn. He added that it’s the adhesive agents in herbicide sprays that are really the problem.

“Most of the problems we see with herbicides aren’t with the chemicals used to kill the plants, it’s the soaps that are used to make the chemicals stick to the plants,” he said. “And that’s what causes most of the gastrointestinal signs in animals that walk on it then lick their feet or lick and chew a plant after it’s been sprayed.”

But avoiding chemicals doesn’t mean that pet owners are doomed to having unattractive or pest-ridden lawns. Many local lawn care services offer organic solutions, such as SavATree in Southampton, which offers an organic program using exclusive ingredients reviewed by the Organic Materials Review Institute, and Bartlett Tree Experts in Southampton, which offers a “Boost” organic soil management program.

Pesticide-free for more than five years, the Cunninghams have yet to welcome a new family member into their home. It’s too soon, Mr. Cunningham explained about why he, his wife, Celia, and daughter, Celia, haven’t adopted another dog. But, even though the ordeal of losing his friend was heart-wrenching, Mr. Cunningham said that he felt compelled to share his experience.

“I hope this story prevents somebody from going through what I went through, the horrible ordeal of losing your best friend,” he said, holding back tears.

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