I don’t always have the answers, but boy do I love asking questions. And honestly, one of the most fascinating questions we can answer if we hope to understand modern disease is…

“Why is “Western Disease” something that only humans and their pets experience?”

Below I’ve listed what I think are some of the prime suspects – representing a vast array of health ideologies. Feel free to add to the list in the comments, let me know your personal experiences with illness in pets, and please share your own personal thoughts, especially if your thoughts differ with mine. Otherwise just sit back and enjoy having your mind blown. The focus will be dogs because they are a little more predictable, easy-to-understand, and emotional – generally-speaking.

1) Lack of exercise – If you go out hiking with a dog, the dog will literally spend the whole day running, sniffing, hopping over objects, chasing animals, splashing through water, and sliding around in spring snow. Likewise, if you grab a leash or Frisbee, the dog pretty much always says “yes” to the idea. In other words, dogs have a lot more energy for exercise than they get in their unnatural environment of laying around in a house or yard all day long with no purpose or stimulation. In laboratory animals, restricting movement can cause obesity and the diseases of affluence that often get pegged to obesity (although, statistically-speaking, the connection is blown way out of proportion). While an hour of exercise per day doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on weight, this is not true when exercising 8-10 hours a day. The weight pours off like it did for Kirstie Alley and her 5-hour per day Dancing With the Stars training regimen. Yeah I said Dancing With the Stars.

2) Pet food contains grains – Both cat food and dog food contain grains. Is this biologically-inappropriate substance causing Western Disease in pets? We know it does not cause obesity in humans – grain consumption is strongly associated with leanness not obesity, but the more highly carnivorous cats and dogs may be different.

3) Vegetable oil in pet food – I haven’t carefully studied the ingredient list of the top selling brands of pet food, but if I know anything about cheap processed industrial food that appears on shelves, it must have cheap vegetable fat in it. Vegetable oil seems fully capable of slowing down metabolic rate, causing excessive oxidative damage in tissues, and increasing inflammation – these are the three most common causes or combination of causes of cancer, heart disease, obesity, allergies, asthma, arthritis, and other inflammatory Western Diseases.  Of course, it’s not just pet food that pets eat – especially the fat and diabetic ones.  Mmmm, peanut butter – the food with the highest ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of any known food…

4) Flavor enhancers in pet food – Pet food manufacturing is no different than human food manufacturing – the way to be successful is to produce a pet food that your pet likes better and will eat more of than the competitors. Pet food is designed to have highly-palatable textures, macronutrient balance, and rock-your-fleas-off flavor. Is food overconsumption due to pleasure center stimulation in dog food and treats where Western Disease originates in pets? Pet food is certainly more palatable than say, a freshly-killed mouse covered in hair and full of feces.

5) Psychological Interference with Eating Cues – Speaking of treats… You wanna treat??!!!! Humans seem to hold food over their pets like a reward, triggering Pavlovian responses to the very word “treat.” Food is entertainment, whereas for all wild animals eating is plain, boring, repetitive, monotonous, devoid of seasoning, eaten by itself and not buffet-style, raw, and barely palatable enough to choke down – with a bunch of hair and fiber in it. They also tend to limit food consumption, have set feedings that are often spaced very far apart, and otherwise remove a pet from its natural eating cues – putting it in starve and binge mode that has close ties to obesity in humans. It’s even fathomable that a human with psychological issues surrounding food could easily transmit these emotions around food to a pet. Author Jon Gabriel mentions being able to fatten his cat only by restricting its food intake – triggering its body to attempt to store fat when food was provided. Some of the leanest pets I’ve seen that didn’t go nuts over the presence of food were those that always had a full dish of food sitting on the floor somewhere. There are many lessons to be learned in this realm, and it seems to certainly be part of the whole picture somehow.

6) Artificial lighting – Author T.S. Wiley believes that artificial lighting, because it elevates cortisol in the evening when it should be falling, disturbs circadian rhythms and keeps humans and their pets in a perpetual state of summer physiology. In other words, it triggers us to eat and eat and eat as if storing up for a long winter (in nature, if you have 16 hours of light exposure, it is reasonable to think that this would trigger an instinctual drive to prepare for the coming 8 hours of daily light exposure – whereas in the tropics you have roughly the same number of hours of daylight exposure every day and no reason to store up for some big winter coming up). While this sounds very far-fetched, and is far-fetched, we do know that sleep disturbances and abnormalities in circadian rhythms can cause metabolic syndrome. We are learning more and more about this every day, and it is certainly a big deal. So it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds and may actually be a contributing factor somehow. But regardless of what you think about it, I just got to use the word “fetch” three times (oh, there’s the 4th), which, considering the topic, makes me look like the most awesomest and clever writer of all time ever.

7) Emotional connection with humans – This is by far the wildest idea out there and is the original inspiration for this article. I posed this question about why do pets and humans have diseases that no other creatures seem to have to someone the other day. Then I started peeling off the potential reasons and quickly mentioned that “some people even think that emotional ties to the humans are what causes them to have the same diseases as humans.” The person lit up like a lightbulb when I said this, saying that her dog didn’t have seizures before they bought it, but after entering the household – where both father and daughter suffered from seizures, the dog began having seizures too. Pretty wild stuff. So I later called my most new agey friend who is really into a field in which this type of idea is being studied and utilized called Meta Medicine (You can read about it in the book, Why Am I Sick? By Richard Flook). Excited to tell her about this, as it was confirmation of her views on the origins of disease, she told me of an identical story of her significant other, and how his dog developed seizures when someone else in the household did as well. While this is not proof of anything, it is a complete mind-blower that should make us all question our beliefs about things. It could be that some diseases, at least in part (taking susceptibility out of the equation), are contagious not through germs, but through emotions – especially to our poor pets that do not have reasoning minds to protect against the wild changes in the emotional state that is a side effect of the logical, human mind. Human emotions, because of our brains, are often chronic – which is totally different from the acute emotional surges experienced by wild animals that are quickly dissipated and forgotten. But pets are fully tuned into the emotional state of the “pack leader” (pronounced in a Mexican accent – “Pock Lead-Air”) at all times.  Their senses are so finely attuned to the owner that dogs can detect seizures in humans hours before the seizure takes place. It would be just as outrageous to suggest that human emotions could NOT trickle down and cause the same diseases that we know emotions cause in humans as it would be to suggest that these emotions CAN cause disease. That sentence was terrible but I’m too lazy to fix it. Sorry.

What is the right answer? There is no right answer. But like anything, it pays to really examine the whole picture. It’s probably a combination of many things. There could be all kinds of other factors too – such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals in carpeting, household cleaners, paint, and fabrics. It could be pesticides in agricultural products consumed only by humans and their pets. It could be fluoride in water. We just don’t know. But the whole experience of sitting around unstimulated with physical activity being much less than is natural, eating food that is unnaturally pleasurable, bathing in hormone-impacting artificial light, drowning in a sea of depressive and chronic emotional states, withholding food and then making it overly exciting with bizarre voice inflections, choking down inflammatory and metabolically-suppressive fats, taking in a bunch of foreign chemicals – this whole picture and the diet/lifestyle/psychology as a whole obviously causes Western Disease. Trying to narrow it down to one thing is probably a bad idea, an improper way to think about the big picture, and impossible.

But it’s a fascinating thing to think about. Bring on the pet stories in the comments!