Caring for our piece of paradise with pets often fills the better part of a day off. We enjoy it, of course, or we wouldn’t do it.
Yet sometimes we get so busy snipping off branches or pulling up weeds that we lose touch with the slower pace of life’s mysteries constantly unfolding before us. When we get too wrapped up in our activity, it helps to take a lesson from cats, who are so adept at just sitting and looking.

Caring for our piece of paradise with pets

But often, before we know it, we find ourselves looking at what seems to be a problem to solve: Should we pull up some of those grasses before they go to seed? Are those carpenter ants? Should we destroy them so they won’t destroy our home?

Yet, even weeds can have a beauty of their own, as lush and diverse as a forest floor, with tiny flowers that attract a hum of diverse beneficial insects. Ants are admirable, so energetic and so enduring. Ants crawled over this land long before we humans appeared. And despite all the wars we wage upon them, ants still thrive and will probably outlive us. Often we just let them be, humbled at how little we understand about the thousands of backyard plants and animals whose lives are affected by our actions.

When our lives get busy and we do not take the time to see and appreciate in this way, we humans seem to detach ourselves from nature and unwittingly accept the idea that we are free to tamper with the web of life.

We think we know enough and are clever enough to step into this extraordinarily beautiful and complex web of life and remake it in our image. We humans seem to be reaching a cultural crisis, one that will require us to step back and rethink what our role on this planet truly is.
Having examined our approach to food, as well as some of the problems from creating unnatural breeds, in this chapter we now shift our focus to our homes, where we spend much of our time and where many of our dogs and cats spend their entire lives.

When you stop and think about it, our homes are often pretty far removed from nature and natural materials. We use a variety of materials such as plastics and paints that can, over time, contribute to the dust in our homes, or gas off into the air we breathe. This is particularly important for dogs and cats because they live in close contact with the ground. They sit, play, and sleep on it. Even indoors, pets are exposed to plenty of dust. A six-room urban house may accumulate as much as 40 pounds of dust in a year. And when our pets lick all this dust off their fur, they actually consume it.

That used to be fairly safe—“You’ll eat a peck of dirt before you die,” moms used to say.

But dirt is a lot dirtier nowadays, so we need to take special precautions to protect children and pets from possible harm. A scientific team of “dust busters” found that 25 out of 29 typical homes they studied in Seattle had rugs with excessive levels of toxins and mutagens. They also found that toddlers ingest more than twice as much dust as adults, and contaminated dust is probably more risky for pets than it is for children. Pets wear no protective clothes or shoes and, like a shag rug, their fur attracts dirt, which they then lick up during grooming.

One thing to be especially aware of in older homes is the possible presence of lead and asbestos.

Lead paint may be on any interior or exterior surface, but particularly on woodwork, doors, and windows. Cats, especially, will start licking walls as a symptom of digestive trouble and swallow paint flakes in this way.
In 1978, the Consumer Product Safety Commission lowered the legal maximum lead content in most kinds of paints to 0.06 percent (considered a trace amount). You can have your home tested for this common contaminant, and there are several do-it-yourself kits available at paint stores and home centers (note they are not sensitive enough to pick up low levels, which can still affect pregnant women and maybe cats and dogs). Water pipes can be another source of lead in a house, so that’s another thing to check.
Symptoms from lead can be vague but often include listlessness, loss of appetite, irritability, stupor, incoordination, vomiting, constipation, and abdominal pain. Not surprisingly, lead poisoning has caused seizures in small, urban dogs.

So if your home’s age falls into the range of possibility, it might be smart to check out your wall paints, floor paints, water, etc., especially if you have an animal that has shown any symptoms like the ones we listed. I often suspected lead exposure in dogs that developed epilepsy, though this is difficult to confirm with certainty. What we can do is make sure there is no ongoing exposure from someplace in the home.
If you are remodeling or repainting, here are some simple suggestions supported by the Seattle study.

•Be especially careful about sanding or cutting into paint layers of homes built before 1978, because most of them contain lead paints.

•Wear a dust mask while working on painted areas and keep pets and children away.

•Clean up thoroughly after each workday.

•If intact, old lead paint layers can be painted over or covered with drywall. Consider replacing old wooden doors and windows, because simply using them can create lead dust.

•Wipe the work area frequently with a solution of trisodium phosphate (sold at hardware stores). Be sure to wear gloves.

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Another common ingredient in urban dust, asbestos, produces particles that have been found in the lungs of virtually every city dweller who has had an autopsy. The United States remains one of the few developed countries to not completely ban asbestos,1 which is legal and still widely used in such common products as clothing, pipeline wraps, vinyl floor tiles, millboards, cement pipes, disc brake pads, gaskets, and roof coatings. What is usually most visible are ceiling-coating materials (what are called “popcorn ceilings”). Another source is vermiculite, used in insulation, which can contain small amounts of asbestos.

The greatest danger is inhaling the small microscopic fibers, which settle in the lungs and never come out. The body can’t get rid of these fibers, and the subsequent inflammation causes serious lung disease. Some contaminated lungs develop cancer, as well.
If you think your home could have some asbestos, there are programs for safe removal and disposal. For a situation with no evidence of asbestos, best you can tell, one cautionary measure would be to install an air filter for the dust. Just in case.