Pet Medicine, Part 2: Rescue Animals
In direct contradiction to what every pet keeper has always known, scientists have historically viewed animals as unthinking, unfeeling creatures, little more than furry instinct-driven automatons. But the scientific tide has been turning in recent years, and a large body of emerging research confirms the evident physical and psychological benefits our animal companions offer us.
Because both species have evolved together, dogs have been protecting humans for as long as dogs have been dogs and humans have been humans. There’s no shortage of historical accounts of heroic dogs defending their people. My dogs have never hesitated to shield me from harm, even when doing so places their own lives in jeopardy.
And there are several subtler health benefits to the company of animals beyond the considerable advantage of outright preservation of life and limb. Service dogs have long assisted the blind. Recent studies prove conclusively that the presence of cats and dogs is invaluable to autistic children and adults suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, providing a source of comfort, stress reduction, connection and focus that is not as effective or immediate in any other form. Pets also improve cardiovascular health by increasing physical activity and lowering blood pressure, stress responses and incidence of depression. These great advantages, however, are only the beginning.
There’s a lot of information out there describing how therapy pets promote the well-being of nursing home clients, hospital patients and those in other institutional settings, naturally and without chemical intervention. Even before I researched this resource further, I could totally see it: I know from long experience the joy and solace my pets have given me. Dogs, in particular, have a knack for sensing when you’re ill or stressed or sad. When I’m troubled by something, my dogs do their darnedest to console me, often by acting as if they’re the ones in need of reassurance, supplicating me for relief from their concern for my welfare.
I’ve got to admit I cried a bit while watching the video for Therapy Dogs International. The video portrayed all kinds of unfortunate folks—crippled, broken in spirit and/or body, aged to the point of decrepitude, lonely, mentally challenged, suffering, etc.—some of whom had simply given up, others of which were grimly persevering. Yet every single one of their faces, no matter how contorted by pain or removed from the larger world by reason of their infirmities, lit up the moment a therapy dog came into view. They were transformed, becoming joyful and animated, reaching for the dog, keen to pet and make contact with it, as eager to receive canine love and comfort as the dog was to give it.
My intention with this essay was to crack wise about the imagined scenario of my wild young Border Collies, Dickens and Twain, being introduced into an environment of fragile folks and the havoc they might wreak. But the truth is that all dogs are specialists in love. Even wild young ones are balms to the spirit, loving by nature, their antics sure to raise a smile. And it appears that face-licking by therapy dogs is allowed and even cheerfully tolerated. (Plus, the dogs are on harnesses and closely supervised by handlers. I’m guessing their nails are also trimmed.) The bottom line is that it makes no difference what your physical or mental condition is; dogs are inherently givers, natural faith healers who know how to reconnect you with life, even after bad health and misfortune have knocked you so far off that path you despair of ever finding your way back.
During the course of further investigation, I was amazed, though not particularly surprised, to learn that some dogs not only protect us from external threats, but internal intruders as well—such as cancer. With their incredible sense of smell (millions of times more acute than our own), dogs identified with this particular sensitivity are able to detect different forms of cancer from urine or breath samples with nearly 100% accuracy in research studies. We already have sophisticated diagnostic medical technology available to those who can afford it, including a couple with other animal-themed acronyms: PET scans and CAT scans. But, though a DOG scan is far more precise than existing methods (and far less expensive, considering the lack of high-dollar equipment and the fact that the lab technicians work for Milk Bones and attaboys), this procedure isn’t expected to become an accepted form of cancer detection any time soon.
I absolutely believe that some dogs can indeed sense illness in people. Two of my three dogs possess this ability. I had only to correlate my health journal entries with the times when Chance, my elderly Belgian sheepdog—and now also Dickens, one of my Border Collie puppies—got extremely insistent about checking me out. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t foretell an illness or bad spell before I myself started noticing it. Despite their rude technique, it’s very handy to have an in-house physician or two on staff. Too bad they can’t write prescriptions. A lack of medical degrees, rather than handwriting skills, is the problem with that.
You don’t have to be sick in body or spirit, though, to profit from the company of animals. If you’re happy and in good health, well! Pets can help you to yet better health and to even greater enjoyment in life. Cats can be great and rewarding friends with a lot to teach us, and dogs—in addition to specializing in unconditional love—are also experts at happiness.
Dogs and cats, with their different physiology and perception, live almost entirely in the moment. They clearly have memories—for people, for places, for situations, for ways of getting their way, etc.—but their memories function differently than ours do, being less strictly cognitive, more sensory-based and triggered by emotional association. We humans are all over the place, dwelling more in the past or the future than in the present. What am I going to cook for supper? Do I have the ingredients on hand for that or do I need to stop by the store? Did I remember to put the trash out for garbage collection day? Do I have clean socks for tomorrow? Enough money in the checking account to pay bills? Stamps to mail the bills with? And on and on.
I am certain that even if dogs and cats could keep to-do lists, they wouldn’t. So they’re free to revel in the pure joy of scarfing down some food, luxuriating in a sunbeam, playing with each other or a toy or something you don’t want them fooling with, rolling in the grass, streaking off in hot pursuit of a squirrel, settling in to a good nap, etc. They are totally present in the moment, Zen masters we can well learn from. They center us, helping us move from being on-task inside our heads all day to being present in the world the moment we walk in the door to an enthusiastic welcome. Who else is ever that happy to see you? Oh, boy, YOU’RE HOME!!! Forget about being stuck in the past or worrying about the future. While you might object to getting mauled in greeting, your entire being responds to these dear ones, right there, right then. What better way to decompress from your harried workaday human existence?
And, while not exactly domesticated (except when they want to be), cats are also domestic creatures. As such, they too are wonderful sources of comfort, grounding you in the ease that resides within each moment. What better sleep aid than a cuddly cat leading a bedtime meditation session with a blissfully purred mantra? And there are no possible side effects or drug interactions, as with pharmaceutical remedies!
We’re all familiar with the term “rescue animals,” in reference to pets we adopt from shelters or roadsides to become members of our households and families. In many cases, we do literally save these cats and dogs from a certain death; I know that would’ve been the fate of many of my pets had I not intervened.
But think of the term “rescue animals” in a different sense. My pets have just as surely rescued me: from attack, from despair, from more than my dim human senses can even perceive. Without them, my life would’ve contained less joy, less amusement and certainly less love.
While I’ll continue gathering data, my preliminary research findings show that most, if not all zoonotic risks attendant to pet keeping are preventable with proper veterinary care, reasonable precautions and timely treatments. And the data I’m discovering suggests that the very real physical and psychological benefits associated with the company of animals are greater than we ever imagined.
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