Make Your Home Healthier for You and Your Animal Companions

Twenty ways to improve your dog’s health – and yours, too!


A healthy home is a happy home. We can all agree on that.

How can you make your home healthier for you and your animal companions? We can tell you 20 ways, right off the top of our heads. We’ll divide our suggestions into four areas: Cleanliness, Diet, Environment, and Lifestyle.


Make Your Home Healthier for You and Your Animal Companions

1. Use safe cleaning agents
Did you know that most brand-name all-purpose cleaners, bleach, floor wax or polish, glass cleaner, and disinfectant dish soaps contain hazardous materials? Read the list of “cautions” on the back of the labels. These common household agents can cause respiratory problems, damage the nervous system, cause diarrhea, dizziness, kidney and liver damage, and cancer. And effective, safe alternatives are close at hand!

White vinegar can be mixed with water and used to clean glass, porcelain, countertops, and tile. Vinegar can also be mixed with salt to create an all-purpose cleaner. Baking soda can be mixed with water and used to scour tubs and sinks. It can also be sprinkled over carpets to remove odors. When washing vinyl floors, add a few teaspoons of vinegar to the wash water to remove waxy buildup; a capful of baby oil added to the rinse water will polish the floor.

Today, there are also a number of safe commercial cleaning products available; look in your local health food store.

2. Vacuum frequently
A powerful vacuum is a pet owner’s best friend. A model with strong suction and multiple attachments can not only help you keep the sofa, the rug, and your going-on-a-date outfits dog-hair-free, but also prevent fleas from completing their life cycle in your home. Okay, not all dog owners care about dog hair on everything they own. But everyone hates fleas.

Fleas spend only a portion of their time on the dog, and their eggs, larvae, and pupae are likely to be found in any area where the dog lives. Female fleas are prolific, laying as many as 20 to 50 eggs per day for as much as three months. Development of the larvae that hatch out of the eggs takes place off the dog, usually on or near the dog’s bedding and resting areas. Concentrating your efforts on removing the opportunities for the eggs to develop is the most effective population control strategy.

The best way to remove the eggs’ opportunities to develop is to remove the eggs, and to this end, your vacuum will be your most valuable tool in the flea war. Vacuum all the areas that your pet uses frequently, at least every two to three days. Since fleas locate their hosts by tracing the vibration caused by footsteps, vacuuming the most highly-trafficked hallways and paths in your house will be most rewarding. Don’t forget to vacuum underneath cushions on the couches or chairs your dog sleeps on. Change vacuum bags frequently, and seal the bag’s contents safely in a plastic bag before disposing.

For more information, see:
Flee, Evil Fleas: June 1998

3. Wash your dog’s bed
Flea eggs and developing flea larvae cannot survive getting wet. We can presume that any dog who has fleas will have flea eggs in his bed (since fleas usually lay their eggs off the dog). So, if fleas are a problem in your neck of the woods, wash his bedding as frequently as possible. It is not necessary to use bleach, or insecticidal or detergent soaps, all of which can irritate the dog’s skin; plain water will kill the eggs and larvae.

If you can’t wash the dog’s entire bed, at least wash the floor underneath the bed as often as you can. Purchase several covers (or sheets, or towels) for the bed and rotate them in and out of the wash.

4. Wash food and water bowls daily
Washing your dog’s food and water bowls with soap and hot water will not only make them look better and make the dog’s food and water more attractive to him, but also will kill any harmful bacteria that may attempt to grow there. If you feed your dog raw meat, it is imperative that you wash his bowls well daily, even if they look clean from his attentive licking. Pathogenic bacteria present on raw meat can quickly reproduce to harmful levels at room temperature.

While we’re on the topic, the safest bowls are stainless steel. Some ceramic bowls may allow chemicals to leach into the dog’s food and water. And plastic bowls can contain a number of carcinogenic substances.

For more information, see:
The Meat of the Matter, January 1999
The Dish on Dishes, August 1998


5. Feed your dog the best food
Advocates of homemade diets have a saying, “You can pay for fresh real food now, or you can pay the veterinarian later.” Dogs have thrived on our table scraps for thousands of years; eating what we eat is good for them – as long as what we eat is healthy! If you can, feed your dog a homemade diet that includes fresh meats; fresh, raw bone (ground or whole, as you deem safe); and fresh or lightly steamed vegetables; with occasional additions of grains, dairy products, eggs, fish, and fruit.

If you can’t see your way clear to feeding your dog “real” food, feed him the best quality kibble or canned food you can afford. Supplement the commercial food with occasional healthy treats from your table – and not the unhealthy chunks of fat cut off of your steak, nor old, smelly food from the back shelf of the refrigerator. Add some of the leftover steamed vegetables to his dinner. Make a little extra brown rice or oatmeal and mix it into his breakfast.

For more information, see:
Eat Your Vegetables, October 1998
Bones of Contention, September 2000
Starting Out Raw, December 2000
Best Dry Dog Foods, February 2001
It’s How You Make It, March 2001
Top Canned Foods, October 2001

6. Feed only healthy treats
Just like us, dogs are better off eating healthful snacks that are packed with vitamins, rather than loading up on sugary, fatty treats that are dyed with artificial colors and preserved with artificial preservatives. Chunks of fresh fruit make great snacks for dogs; many enjoy crunching crisp cubed apples, or munching on grapes, papaya, or banana slices. A raw carrot makes a great chew toy, and helps the dog keep his teeth clean. Dogs who prefer meaty treats will jump through hoops for dried salmon or beef.

For more information, see:
There IS a Difference, September 2001

Make Your Home Healthier for You and Your Animal Companions

7. Provide fresh, clean water
It’s not enough for dogs to have a bowl full of water at their disposal at all times – they should have a clean bowl full of fresh, pure water at their constant disposal.

Many people fill the dog’s bowl only when it’s bone dry, and fail to wash it out until it turns green with algae. For shame! Dogs drink more when they have fresh water and for normal, healthy dogs, drinking water is a good thing. Water helps regulate all the body’s systems.

At least two or three times a day, dump out the water in your dog’s bowl (you don’t have to waste it – you can use it for the houseplants) and refill it with fresh water. Once a day, wash the bowl out with hot, soapy water.


8. Provide Non-slip surfaces
Whether they are polished wood or shiny vinyl, the smooth, glistening floors that most of us aspire to own pose certain risks to certain dogs. Dogs who are arthritic or who have suffered physical injuries can really hurt themselves by slipping on slick floors. For these dogs, use carpet or sisal-grass runners in hallways or other areas where your dog needs traction. Surround his food and water bowls with a rubber-backed rug so he can lower his head to eat or drink without his hind legs slipping out from under him.

9. Don’t smoke around your dog
You already know you shouldn’t smoke, for your own health. But did you know that second-hand smoke has been associated with lung and nasal cancer in smokers’ dogs?

Studies conducted at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences showed that dogs who live with smokers are more likely to have cancer than dogs that live with non-smokers. Long-nosed dogs with nasal cancer were 2.5 times more likely to live in smoking households than among non-smokers. Short-nosed dogs with lung cancer were 2.4 times more likely to live with a smoker.

If you must smoke, do it outside, and away from your dog. Don’t smoke in an enclosed space such as a closed room (or worse, a car) that has your dog in it.

10. Keep emergency numbers handy
Every phone in your house should have a list of emergency numbers next to it: emergency services, your doctor, dentist, and close family members or friends. If you own a dog, that list should also include the number for your veterinarian, holistic practitioners, all-night and weekend emergency clinic, and poison control center. You should also list numbers for a couple of your dog-loving friends, people who could enter your house and care for your dog if something happened to you. If you travel with your dog, make sure you also have these numbers with you. You don’t want to be scrambling for any of these in a real emergency.

11. Preserve air quality
As we discussed in detail recently, the air in the average home is 2-20 times more polluted than the air outside. It’s not unheard-of for the concentrations of dangerous air pollutants in homes to rise to 100 times the concentration outdoors! And even low concentrations of volatile chemicals can cause chronic or acute illness, cancer, and even genetic mutations in humans and their companion animals.

Dogs are particularly at risk. Many common solvents are heavier than air; they sink to the floor level, where our dogs spend most of their time. And dogs have a faster respiratory rate than we do; pound for pound, they end up breathing more “bad air” than we would in the same environment.

There are many ways to improve the air in your home. Limit (better yet, eliminate) petroleum-based products in your home; all of these substances release health-damaging chemicals into the air. Use natural cleaning products. Open the windows in your home at least once a day, for enough time to really fill the place with fresh air. Place non-toxic houseplants throughout your home; they improve air quality by removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Don’t use chemical “air fresheners” in your home; use scented flowers or dried herbs to lend a harmless perfume to your home instead.

For more information, see:
No Room to Breathe, October 2001

12. Handle air pollutants carefully
If you were as familiar as toxicologists are with the health effects of indoor air pollution, you really wouldn’t consider bringing home most, if not all, commercial housekeeping or yard chemicals. Say there is a potentially dangerous product – a mineral spirits paint remover, for example – that you deem necessary to use in a home improvement project. Do a little homework, and see if there is a safer alternative (there usually is). If you just can’t (or won’t) find an alternative, at the very least, take the following precautions:

Buy just the amount you think you will need for the project. Schedule the activity so that it occurs when the weather is mild enough for you to thoroughly ventilate your home while the product is in use and for at least a couple of weeks afterward. Keep the product’s container closed every moment it is not being used. Keep all pets (and children, pregnant women, and other vulnerable individuals) away from the area where the product is in use) for this period of time. And then dispose of the remains of the product in a safe, legal manner (following instructions on the label) as soon as possible; once unsealed, most containers are not completely vapor-proof.

13. Pick up poo
We all know that poop smells bad – yes, even your dog’s poop. It also attracts flies and can spread worms. (The larvae of tapeworms, hookworms, and roundworms are all expelled in an infected dog’s feces. Any dog, or person, for that matter, who comes into skin or mouth contact with larvae-contaminated feces can become infected with the worms.) Ideally, everyone would pick up their dog’s feces daily. This would prevent worms, coprophagia (dogs who eat their poo, eww!), dirty looks from neighbors, and delays for emergency shoe-cleaning.

14. Keep a first-aid kit handy
Just as you plan and prepare your dog’s daily meals and training, advance planning and preparation for the unthinkable accident may help save your dog’s life during the critical time between the beginning of the emergency and access to veterinary care.

The time to plan, obviously, is before your dog is involved in an accident. Start gathering the contents for a first aid kit today. A good holistic first-aid kit might contain Rescue Remedy (or another brand of the flower essence remedy) for shock; gauze pads; cotton; tape; Q-tips; pure water (distilled or spring water); a clean glass or plastic spray bottle; elastic bandages; adhesive tape; tweezers; scissors; hydrogen peroxide; soap (castile or other natural type); and herbal cleansing solutions (calendula and hypericum are miraculous).

For more information, see:
Dealing with Injuries, June 1999

15. Chew-proof the house
Not all dogs are apt to chew on weird, random things around the house when they are bored and unsupervised, though some are. All puppies have this proclivity.

If your dog is a chewer – again, we know that all puppies are – he should not be left unsupervised in any room where there are items that could be dangerous if chewed. This includes exposed electrical cords, clothing items or shoes, electronic items (cameras, remote controls, cell phones, etc.), and just about any toys. When left unattended, vulnerable individuals should be safely confined to a crate or puppy pen.

16. Keep your yard “green”
Don’t use pesticides in your yard. Ever. These virulent chemicals can cause every sort of illness known to man and dog. And there are plenty of safe, organic compounds that can help you control pests and keep your lawn and garden healthy without pesticides.

For more information, see:
Toxic Lawns, May 2001


Make Your Home Healthier for You and Your Animal Companions

17. Balance quiet time and busy time
Those of us who lead chaotic lives tend to dream of and crave days of quiet, restful sleep. People who are housebound and depressed can benefit from activity and stimulation. Balancing rest and action gives the body the opportunity to stress and then rebuild tissues, and lends the individual a healthy ability to cope with whatever life throws his or her way.

Dogs are no different. Some lead incredibly stressful, busy lives, and could use more rest – dogs who go to work with their owners, for instance, may benefit from a few hours a day of protection from noise and visitors. Dogs who are understimulated will benefit from mild physical exercise and mental challenges.

For more information, see:
Stressed Out? January 2000

18. Exercise. period
Exercise is good for all dogs – within reason, and within the dog’s abilities. As always, balance is key. An extremely long run or vigorous romp at the dog park on a daily basis may excessively stress the dog’s joints and muscles, and deny him the opportunity to repair damaged tissues, resulting in stress fractures, arthritis, or strained muscles or ligaments. Strenuous workouts such as these should be limited to three to four days a week, even for healthy, fit dogs. Alternate hard workouts with shorter, easier exercise sessions, such as walks or short backyard play sessions.

There are far more dogs receiving too little exercise than dogs who get too much, however. Many people with old dogs, super-fat dogs, or dogs with physical handicaps feel that it’s cruel to “make” their dogs go for walks. But the more muscle tissue and coordination the dog has, the better – and he’ll lose both if he’s not at least walking a little, a few times a day.

For more information, see:
Spring Into Better Health, April 2001

19. Socialize
Dogs and humans are social; loners are aberrations, not the rule in either species. Dogs and humans should be able to greet each other happily, communicate well, and part easily from their friends. We all want our dogs to be safe and comfortable with other people, so it’s well worth the effort to properly socialize your dog to canine and human visitors to your home. Ask any friend who stops by to feed your dog a handful of treats, one at a time, to help your dog understand that strangers can be a good thing. Use a tether or baby gate to keep an over-exuberant or over-protective dog from unseemly behavior. Arrange occasional play dates with healthy dogs with compatible temperaments.

For more information, see:
Kid-Proof Your Dog, October 1999
Canine Social Misfits, February 2000
Plays Well With Others, March 2000

20. Spend quality time together
We know it sounds hokey, but human/canine relationships are not much different from human/human relationships. Most of us want dogs who like and trust us and whom we like and trust. We want to be able to take them places without them embarrassing us, and we’d like to be able to have friends come over without having to apologize for our canine partners’ behavior. We want them to pay attention to us! And we want them to understand what we are trying to tell them and to comply with most of our requests without us yelling or repeating ourselves.

Ask Oprah: The health of every relationship depends on the individuals spending time together – and not just on infrequent weekends, and not just laying around watching TV! Take up a hobby together: walking, squirrel chasing, agility, flyball. Work on honing your communication skills. Teaching your dog new tricks is a great way to bond, improve his manners, entertain you, and impress your friends. The more time you spend playing with your dog, training your dog, or just lying around petting or massaging your dog, the better your relationship will be.

For more information, see:
Canine Counseling, March 2001