De-icing, pets and animal rights

When March blew in like a lion, dumping more than five inches of snow in the Philadelphia area, I decided to write an innocuous little item about how to protect your pets from the hazards of de-icing salt. Instead I ran headlong into a battle between agribusiness and animal rights.

It started when my friend and colleague, Tom Fitzgerald told me what happened when his wife Kathy took their dog Alley-Oop on a walk after a snowfall in their New Jersey neighborhood last month. Alley, a five-year-old Brittany Spaniel, was happily trotting along the sidewalk when she suddenly froze in her tracks, refused to walk forward and started whimpering.

"It was hurting so much she couldn't walk and then she started crying," said Kathy.

She immediately suspected Alley had stepped on some de-icing salt and quickly moved her to a clean snow pile to wash off her feet. That got the Fitzgeralds thinking about how they could protect their four-legged family member in the future.

So I took a research trip to the de-icing product aisle of the local Giant supermarket and found among the several different brands of rock salt, one called Diamond Crystals with a picture of a boy and his German Shepherd on the front. Why would a company selling a product widely known to be harmful to pets (and children should they ingest it) display a picture of a child and a dog on its packaging? In addition, there was no warning on the package as there was on a competitor product, Zero Ice Melt.

I called the maker of Diamond Crystals, Cargill, and got their de-icing product spokesman, Mark Klein, who told me the product was "generally safe." Then he read to me from the FAQ section of the website that the product could cause "frostbite" if pets walked over it. When I told him general consensus on the Web was that all salt-based de-icing products could harm pets' paws, Klein asked me who was saying that. I told him several of the leading animal welfare groups, for instance.

That's when he exploded: "The animal welfare people don't want anyone to have pets," he said. "It's part of their campaign to scare people."

I asked Wayne Pacelle, chief executive officer of the Humane Society of the United States to respond to the charges by Cargill.

"It's an embarassing, ill-informed opinion," he said. "We would expect much more from a major company that has a connection to animals."

Meanwhile, as the snow melts around Philadelphia this week, you may want to consider breaking up the ice with shovel or purchasing one of the "pet friendly" ice-melting products for your driveway or sidewalk - although be prepared to pay about eight times the price of regular rock salt.

For those who must venture into unchartered pavement, try these tips courtesy of the the web site "ehow:"

Try to walk your dog on un-salted areas. An easy way to do this is for you to walk on the salted areas and your dog to walk on what would be the grassy area. Your dog will be walking through snow, which may be challenging for him/her, but overall safer.

Purchase some dog booties and place on your dog's paws before venturing out into the snow. Although your dog may give you a hard time while you attempt to put them on, it will help them out overall. These booties will completely protect your dog's paws and can be used over and over again.

Try placing disposable, rubber, dog booties on your dog's paws, especially if the cloth ones did not work out. These booties are more affordable and can be thrown out after one use. They come in multi-packs. Dogs tend to like this style of bootie more because it feels less like a shoe. Wearing this type of bootie is comparable to wearing a latex glove instead of a mitten. There is more freedom and feeling left in the paw when using this style.

Clean your dog's paws as soon as you return from a snowy walk. If your dog refuses to walk on the snow or wear either type of bootie, you have no choice but to walk them through the rock salt. As soon as you return home, take a damp cloth and wipe down each of your dog's paws thoroughly, making sure all rock salt is gone.