Pets and People
It’s great to grow up with a pet. Everyone who has done so knows the unique value of the relationship between animal and human. Growing up with a pet allows a child to see the world as full of animal energy and love, and as an adult, that person will understand, without thinking, that animals are a vital part of our life and world. Dogs are our companions and best friends—which is so much easier to understand when one isn’t any taller than the family’s German shepherd or Irish setter; and cats are … well, at least we can say they are our superiors and role models. Underneath, though, we know that they really love us too; otherwise, why would they let us feed and take care of them?
Humans have wavered in their view of animals through the ages. In ancient times, many cultures revered animals, most notably Egypt, which deified cows, serpents, fish, and, most of all, cats. So sacred was the feline that anyone bringing harm to the cat, even accidentally, risked being put to death. At the end of its glorified life, the animal’s body was carefully wrapped and masked, and placed alongside mummified pharaohs and other noble beings in preparation for the next life. The tides turned dramatically for cats in 13th-century Europe, just when their function as mouse killers was needed most to ward off the plague. During the Inquisition, when “witches” and other heretics were burned en masse, cats were also tortured and killed by the hysterical masses, who thought cats to be yet another manifestation of the devil himself. Fortunately, the madness stopped before the species became extinct, although in the so-called Age of Reason, another less than ideal view of animals developed—the belief that animals were merely mechanisms, and, as such, incapable of feeling and emotion. Charles Darwin, who studied animal populations with scientific detachment, was one who initially adhered to this philosophy. But his thinking about animals and humans was turned around when he witnessed a vivisection of a live, unanaesthetized dog. The dog, with its paws nailed to the operating table, licked the hand of its vivisectionist, and in that gesture Darwin saw the capacity of dogs to love, forgive, and communicate with humans. At this moment, Darwin recognized what the animal truly was—not an exalted god, not a robotic machine, but a sentient being.
Our animal companions are here to love us. This is true of all pets, not just cats and dogs. Pet owners have meaningful relationships with house-trained pigs, rabbits, and ferrets, guinea pigs bought or adopted or brought home from a child’s school, snakes that owners “wear” around their necks, fish, and birds that talk or fly around the house. A bond can be established between almost any animal and its human companion or caretaker. By loving us unconditionally, they show us how to love better and more freely. This is their first lesson for us. But according to Dr. Stephen Sinatra, there are several other lessons that our pets or companion animals teach us:
They teach us to appreciate life itself and its smallest pleasures, including our own bodies. Animals are always in tune with their bodies.
Animals know things—possess specific knowledge that is beyond our grasp—as well. This is why it is essential to respect all wildlife, not just the animals we share our homes with. Butterflies and geese know when to fly south and how to get where they’re going without a map. Squirrels bury their collected nuts in the late fall and can remember for months or even years the exact locations of their different stashes. Perhaps we can learn things from these species. Also, let’s remember that such “non-pets” as squirrels, feral cats and dogs, and even pigeons, can have ongoing, loving relationships with those who feed them in parks, on the street, and in alleys. All of these are examples from everyday life of the profound interconnectedness of people and animals on our planet.
PETS AND CHILDREN
Many people think of their pets as children, especially if they have no children of their own. Certainly, similarities exist. Companion animals, like children, depend on others for care and attention, and offer unconditional love in return. But if a child enters the family, the differences between the species become obvious, and the child-substitute risks a loss of status. A parent may begin to worry about the germs that the child will come in contact with as a result of playing with the animal. As a rule of thumb, if you keep your dog or cat clean and well groomed, and maintain its good health through regular veterinary checkups, there shouldn’t be a problem. Another concern is the possibility of animal jealousy of the new arrival in your family. This should not be a problem either, though, if you develop a savvy strategy to introduce the baby to your pet.
If you have a dog, you may also need to review basic obedience commands, such as “sit,” “down,” or “stay,” so that in your child’s presence the animal will be calm and well behaved. If your animal exhibits any behavior problems, now is the time to resolve these issues, as you will have far less time and patience to deal with them later. If your dog won’t learn from you—perhaps the animal is undisciplined, wild around people, fearful of new situations or strangers, or aggressive—check with your holistic veterinarian to make sure there is no physical illness at the core of your animal’s problem. Then once your animal’s overall health is confirmed, seek out the services of an obedience teacher who trains with gentle, not punishing, methods. Flower remedies may be a useful tool here as well.
When you bring your baby home, you may need to isolate your pet from the child for the first few days. Although you are feeling excited, greet your pet calmly, and even though the bulk of your time is now spent with the newborn, be sure to spend quality moments with your animal each day. During this time of separation, you should present your pet with a blanket containing your baby’s scent, allowing your pet to explore the new odor and sleep with it.
At the dog’s and baby’s first meeting, hold your dog on a short leash in a “sit” or “stay” position while another adult, across the room, holds the baby. Each day allow Rover to get a little closer. In a few weeks, your dog should be alright off its leash, but you should remain cautious, never leaving your infant unsupervised in the presence of an animal. Be especially wary if the animal exhibits fear or aggression around people. If for any reason you feel your dog might harm your baby, as an extra precaution keep a muzzle on your pet during training. Whenever you are uncertain of your dog’s trustworthiness, err on the side of your child’s safety. Hire babysitters that are experienced with pets, instructing them to keep the two apart.
Dogs will sometimes eat soiled diapers. This seemingly strange behavior is meant to protect new offspring from predators that detect their prey’s odors. To prevent this from happening, get a pet-proof hamper. Cats and dogs may also urinate or defecate on baby blankets, baby clothes, or a newborn’s crib. These territorial markings help relieve anxiety by covering the baby’s scent with their own. Rather than adding to your animal’s stress during this time of adjustment through scolding, prevent access to its targets and spend more time with your pet.
A more likely scenario involves protecting your animal from your toddler or young child. Children do not understand that they can inflict pain upon animals by biting, stepping, jumping, kicking, squeezing, hitting, or pulling body parts. A child may toss a light pet, scream in its ear, chase it, or give it no peace. Monitor children’s interactions with animals, and teach them how to respect pets by talking to them and demonstrating proper handling techniques. Children must learn that pets are living beings that feel pain. Supervise child/animal interactions, intervening whenever necessary to demonstrate acceptable behavior, and praising appropriate actions. Show children which parts of a pet’s body can be touched and how to gently pet them. Teach them not to disturb an animal that is sleeping, resting, eating, playing with a favorite toy, or chewing on a bone. Getting your child to role-play, pretending to be a dog or cat, can be helpful. After all is said and done, if your child still doesn’t exhibit self-control around the family pet, keep the animal isolated until your child exhibits maturity. Remember, every animal, no matter how tolerant, has its limits. It is unfair to allow any animal to be harassed or abused.
By the time your child is a little older, and the family pet is a faithful companion, your child might make the generalization that all animals are trustworthy. Teach your child to be cautious around other animals and continue keeping an eye on your child at all times, even around a friend’s trusted pet, as attempting to show affection to another animal could prove dangerous if the animal becomes scared or just doesn’t take to your child.
To help your child remember, keep the chart in a highly visible place. You may want to structure pet chores around daily rituals. An example would be feeding the dog at dinnertime. If the child forgets to fill Fido’s bowl, simply remind him that just as he is hungry for his dinner, so is the dog.
The experience of owning a pet can also help your child to love and appreciate animals. Most children develop intense bonds with their companion animals, which helps build the foundation for a healthy, loving relationship between the species. Parents can add to their children’s awareness by including them in family discussions about the pet at a level geared to their understanding. For example, children can be included in discussions about taking the dog to the veterinarian, why the animal is, or is not, receiving vaccinations, the pet’s nutrition, and any health or behavior problems that the animal may be experiencing. Discussing your animal’s needs will help your child see the pet as a living, feeling being.
CAN OUR PETS MAKE US SICK?
Our companion animals love us dearly, and we, in return, want to display our affection to them. We express those feelings through petting and sometimes kissing our pets, and we accept a lick from a dog or cat as a sign of genuine affection. In general, no one should withhold affection from a beloved animal for fear of germs any more than they would stop kissing people because it is unsanitary. There are, however, certain people who need to be more cautious than others. Go ahead and kiss your animal, but don’t let your child do it because youngsters are more susceptible to what are called zoonotic diseases, advises Paula Cooper, author of The 277 Secrets Your Dog Wants You To Know and 277 Secrets Your Cat Wants You To Know. Also, Cooper points out that if your child and your German shepherd kiss each other regularly, your child might see another German shepherd and, not fully understanding that this is someone else’s, want to kiss that dog, an act that can prove dangerous. In addition to children, the elderly and individuals with poorly functioning immune systems should probably not get on kissing terms with Fluffy or Fang.
Actually, animal diseases are spread mostly through biting and scratching. Because a cat’s teeth are long and thin, their bites may inject bacteria deep under the skin, and so cat bites are potentially harmful if left untreated. Dog bites may look worse, but their damage is generally on the surface and less severe. Cat scratches can be the cause of cat scratch disease (bartonellosis) when their thin, sharp claws inject bacteria under the skin. Whenever an animal bites or scratches you, clean the wound thoroughly, and, if you suspect infection, see your physician.
Probably the most serious and well-known zoonotic disease is rabies, a virus that attacks the brain and is generally fatal. The disease is transmitted whenever a wild or domesticated animal infected with the virus bites a human or another animal. In addition to pets, possible carriers include bats, skunks, foxes, coyotes, and raccoons. Fear of this dreaded disease has prompted most states to enact strict rabies vaccination requirements for dogs and cats. You must therefore vaccinate your animal for rabies, remembering not to over-vaccinate—according to homeopathic philosophy, that could cause chronic side effects that mimic the disease—but rather checking blood titers periodically to see that the animal is still immune to rabies. When immunity is no longer present, your doctor should once again vaccinate for the condition.
If you or your pet are ever bitten by an animal, and the skin is broken, the incident must be reported to local public health authorities. This is especially important if the animal is not your own, there are injuries to the head or neck, the injury is serious, the attack was unprovoked, or the animal was behaving abnormally. Health officials will want to observe the animal and, if the animal is suspected of having rabies, you may need to be immunized against the disease. The animal could also be destroyed, another reason it is important to immunize your animal against rabies and to keep proof of the vaccination in your records as well as on a tag that is worn on the collar at all times in case the animal gets lost.
Contact with an animal’s feces could result in the transmission of intestinal parasites, such as roundworms or tapeworms. To prevent this, check the animal for worms on a regular basis, wash your hands after scooping up after your dog or changing the cat’s litter, and wear shoes when outside. In addition, monitor young children when they are playing outside, making sure they do not eat sand or soil, which may contain the eggs of these worms.
Another serious health concern is toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection shed in cat feces that could result in miscarriage or organ damage to a fetus. A pregnant woman who thinks she is at risk can get a blood test to see whether or not she has the disease. Also at high risk are immune-compromised individuals, such as people with AIDS or cancer. In these people, toxoplasmosis could result in damage to the central nervous system. Pregnant and immune-compromised individuals should not change cat litter and should be careful about handling cats that have not been tested for the parasite. If having someone else change the litter is not an option, these individuals should wear rubber gloves when doing so, and wash both gloves and hands afterwards.
Cats may carry ringworm, a fungal infection that can cause an itchy ring-shaped rash to develop on the skin. Often, animals show no outward sign of the disease. Though ringworm is highly contagious, creams are available to speed recovery and increase comfort during the healing process.
Certain diseases are not truly zoonotic but can be transmitted by pets nonetheless because the pets carry the disease-causing ticks. These tiny creatures, which cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease, can attach themselves to larger animals and then crawl onto humans who touch them. Ticks being so small—about half the size of a grain of black pepper—are difficult to identify, but anyone living with an animal that goes outdoors should be aware of what the insect looks like and get into the habit of checking the animal’s fur. Dogs are more prone to Lyme disease than are cats, which tend to get rid of ticks by licking their fur. Still, cats should be checked around the ears and head for ticks.
Some diseases are shared by animals and humans, but not spread from one species to another. These include leukemia, AIDS (sometimes called feline immunodeficiency disease in cats), hookworm, pinworm, and systemic fungal infections. Animals do not spread colds, flu, or sore throats, with the exception of ferrets, which are susceptible to influenza A and B strains. These viral strains can be passed back and forth between ferrets and humans. Dogs do not give humans bordetella (kennel cough), although this disease is highly contagious to other dogs. Nor do dogs spread heartworm.
Many diseases we get from animals can be prevented with proper care and hygiene. Common-sense practices such as changing cat litter on a regular basis, and scooping up after your dog, are essential to good health. In addition to good grooming and hygiene, regular health check-ups are important. When you first adopt a pet, take the animal to your veterinarian for a thorough examination before the animal comes in contact with family members. The pet’s stool and blood should be checked for parasites, and tests should be run to determine antibody levels for diseases. This preventive measure is recommended even if you are given a veterinary history at the time of adoption. Thereafter, your companion animal should be examined by a veterinarian at least yearly. Your vet will advise you about the health-maintenance measures that may be needed, such as a minimal number of immunizations, and regular worming. If you stick to the program you needn’t worry too much about being close to your companion animal.
One of the diseases a bird can carry is salmonella, a condition people we know of in connection with contaminated foods. Birds too can get the disease through ingestion of contaminated food or water. A bird infected with salmonella may exhibit lethargy, loss of appetite, watery droppings, and arthritis. Parrots may become profoundly depressed and die. Birds with salmonella can be treated with antibiotics, although they may remain carriers for life.
Parrot fever, or chlamydiosis, is an airborne bacterial parasite most often contracted from pigeons, turkeys, and ducks, and spread from person to person. Many birds with the condition are asymptomatic, but outward signs of infection could include inflamed eyes, difficulty breathing, and watery droppings. Symptoms in humans are flu-like and can include fever, diarrhea, chills, conjunctivitis, and sore throat.
Avian tuberculosis is an airborne disease usually transmitted via exposure to infected feces. Humans with compromised immune symptoms are at greatest risk. A bird owner infected with tuberculosis could also infect a bird and should therefore avoid contact with the animal while sick. Symptoms of avian tuberculosis in an infected bird are species-specific but generally include weight loss, depression, diarrhea, increased urination, abdominal distention, lameness, and breathing difficulty. Treatment of affected birds is difficult and traditionally includes antibiotics. Infected birds are generally quarantined for up to two years while being tested for the disease every six to twelve weeks.
Of the three main strains of influenza (A, B, and C), only influenza A appears to infect birds. Migratory birds such as water-fowl are believed to be at high risk for carrying influenza A. Symptoms in birds may include depression, appetite loss, coughing and sneezing, and some birds may die suddenly with no apparent symptoms. A companion bird may infect a human, but a more likely scenario involves a human infecting a companion bird. A bird owner with clinical signs of influenza should therefore avoid contact with his or her pet.
Allergic alveolitis is a condition that can affect people who are ultra-sensitive to bird feathers, feather-dust, or feces. Initial symptoms include coughing, breathing difficulty, chills, and fever. If the condition is left untreated, more serious long-term consequences can occur, including progressive breathing difficulty, dry cough, and weight loss. But measures can be taken to prevent any of these problems. Hypersensitive individuals should minimize the amount of dander in their environment by keeping the bird cage clean, bathing their birds frequently, not overcrowding their animals, providing adequate ventilation, and using an air purifier.
TRAVELING WITH YOUR PET
In this highly mobile world, there is often a need or opportunity to travel, and that sometimes means traveling with your pet. Whether it’s a short trip to the vet, a long-distance move to another part of the country, or a vacation together, you will want to be well prepared to keep your animal safe and happy.
Vacationing together is a great way to bond and, in recent years, it’s gotten much easier with thousands of accommodations throughout the country that, for an extra charge, are now welcoming pets. Some, in fact, prefer animals to children! Accommodations range from the extravagant—The Ritz-Carlton will pamper both you and Fifi—to the economical—if you are budgeting your income, try such motel chains as Motel 6, Best Western, and Comfort Inn. The Appendix lists a number of pet-friendly lodgings throughout the country. You could also get help through the Automobile Club of America or online at such websites as takeyourpet.com or petopia.com.
When contemplating a pet-accompanied journey, your first consideration should be whether or not your animal is in condition to travel at all. Whenever possible, avoid traveling with animals that are very young or old, or that are pregnant, sick, or recovering from an illness or operation. Unless you are taking a short trip to the vet, it’s best to leave these animals home. You should also avoid traveling with animals that are aggressive, disobedient, or in any way not socialized.
These frequent shorter trips are an ideal time to get your dog accustomed to a doggie seat belt, and your cat or other small pet acclimated to riding in a carrier. An unrestrained animal in a moving vehicle spells danger. In the event of an accident or sudden stop, the animal could be catapulted through the windshield. Moreover, a loose animal could endanger itself by trying to jump through an open window. In addition, driver and passengers, not to mention other people in the car’s path, could be harmed if the animal decides to climb under the gas or break pedal. When traveling by truck or camper, keep the pet near you, not in the back of the pick-up truck or camper.
Solid walls on the carrier provide a sense of security, especially when you add a familiar blanket, a favorite soft towel, and a piece of your unlaundered clothing (your scent has a soothing effect). Fresh water should always be available. Since a water-filled bowl could easily spill its contents in a moving vehicle, placing a few ice cubes into it is a good idea. They melt slowly, providing a constant supply of fresh water. When traveling in a carrier, your pet should never wear a leash. The animal could become tangled in it and even choke.
Keep a leash with you in an easy-to-access place, even if your animal is a cat and doesn’t normally use a leash at home. Cats as well as dogs need to stretch their legs, and a harness and leash will keep the animal from running away. Cats sometimes have difficulty adjusting to harnesses and leashes, so you may want to practice ahead of time for short periods.
In addition to a leash, your pet will need its own duffel bag filled with items important to its safety and comfort. You will want to include familiar food and a few gallons of water from home, or distilled drinking water. This is important to prevent your animal’s sensitive stomach from reacting to the different bacteria found in unfamiliar water. Also important are a portable water bowl or water bottle, a leash, an extra collar, a first-aid kit (see Chapter 7 for contents), a brush and comb, a lint remover, a blanket and familiar soft toy for the carrier, and a flashlight for walks at night. You should also bring a roll of paper towels, plastic bags, and a pair of rubber gloves to clean up any accidents or sickness. Be sure to bring a litter pan and litter for your cat and a pooper scooper for your dog.
Hopefully your animal won’t get lost, but if it does you will want to maximize chances of a quick reunion. Make sure that your pet is wearing a secure collar with tags that show your name and phone number, as well as proof of rabies vaccination. Also, carry a recent photo and description of your pet that includes its name, breed, sex, and age. You could then photocopy the picture and description to post throughout the area. For extra protection, consider micro-chipping. Humane societies, kennels, and shelters across the nation are now scanning found animals to see if they can access identification information in order to reunite animals quickly with their loved ones.
Pack up-to-date veterinary records just in case your animal needs emergency medical treatment or you must board your pet unexpectedly. Many kennels require kennel cough (bordetella) and other vaccines. To avoid over-vaccinating, get your animal’s blood titer taken and if levels indicate immunity have your holistic veterinarian write you a letter stating that.
While traveling, you will need to take periodic breaks in order to give your pet the opportunity to eat, drink, exercise, and relieve itself. Schedule a stop every couple of hours. To lessen your chances of losing your pet, never let your animal roam; always walk it on a leash.
It is important to purchase an airline-approved kennel. These crates, which are approved by the Department of Agriculture, withstand in-flight jostling. The kennel should also be labeled “Live Animal” in large letters on the top and sides. Should your flight be delayed or canceled, this message will aid airline personnel in finding your pet and taking it out of the heat or cold. Your name, address, phone number, and destination should also be clearly and securely attached to the top of the kennel. These measures should be taken even if your pet is going to be traveling with you in the cabin, just in case the airline suddenly decides not to allow you to carry the pet on board.
Here are some important tips for flying with a pet:
Exercise your pet before placing it in the kennel and do not feed the pet six to eight hours before the trip.
HOW ANIMALS HELP PEOPLE
A sailor swept overboard is miraculously pushed to shore by a compassionate sea mammal. Dolphins are legendary for saving the lives of drowning people fortunate enough to be in their paths. More recently, these magnificent animals have been recognized for their ability to help autistic and other disabled children, an effect scientists attribute to their calming sonar vibrations. Truly we are on the threshold of understanding how humans can heal with the aid of the animal kingdom, although we already do utilize animals’ help to some degree. Everyone is familiar with the wonderful Seeing Eye dog that, through its intelligence and devoted hard work, brings independence to a blind person. Less known, but also of great value, are the specially trained dogs that assist paralyzed people by helping with chores such as shopping, doing laundry, and even banking by ATM! Other dogs have been trained to help people with epilepsy; they remind them, with the aid of timers, to take their medication; they help them recover from seizures, a task that includes standing at rigid attention to provide physical support for the person to use in standing up; and they fetch the phone when necessary. Then there are pet “therapists.” These animals, usually dogs and cats, periodically visit the most despairing populations—the terminally ill, the mentally and emotionally disturbed, the elderly living in nursing homes, and prisoners. Their mission: to promote joy. An animal’s natural ability to bring a smile to a face has made pet-assisted therapy a valuable new branch of the health care profession.
In those days, blind people were considered invalids. They were either institutionalized or completely dependent upon others. Simple things like getting a haircut, shopping for groceries, or holding down a job were beyond a blind person’s reach. Eustis responded to Frank’s letter, stating that if he could get to Europe, she would train a dog for him. These goals were accomplished, and upon his return to the United States, Frank spent a year touring the country, explaining to people what a dog could do for a sightless or sight-impaired individual. In this way Frank and Buddy, his dog, changed sighted people’s perceptions of the blind.
Morris Frank and Dorothy Eustis opened The Seeing Eye school in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1929. (The school was later moved to New Jersey, as Nashville’s temperatures were too high to train dogs year-round.) The first class had only two people, but by the end of one year, 17 men and women were enrolled and rewarded with the gift of greater independence. Initially the dogs were imported from Germany, but as the need grew, they were bred in New Jersey.
Today’s Seeing Eye is supported only by philanthropic donations. A blind or sight-impaired person need only pay a first-time fee of $150 (a price established in 1934 that was not changed with inflation), and $50 for subsequent use. This token fee gives a blind person a sense of contributing toward his or her own independence, rather than taking a handout. This low fee is quite remarkable when you consider that the cost of breeding, training, and placing a guide dog into service for one person is approximately $45,000. The difference in cost is made up by donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations.
Seeing Eye dogs come from a fine stock. After litters are born, careful records are kept of the animals’ temperament, hip condition, size, intelligence, and various other factors that would enable a dog to enter the program or preclude it from participating. Candidates must work particularly well with humans and enjoy being able to please their owner. Generally, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers are used today because of their trainability, ease of care, and moderate size. These breeds are big enough to pull on a harness to guide someone, but small enough to fit comfortably under chairs in restaurants or desks at work. Also, their coats require little maintenance outside of normal cleaning. Dogs with long hair or dogs with very curly hair, such as poodles, often require the care of a professional groomer, making the cost of owning the dog a factor.
Puppies are raised in volunteer homes. This is preferable to kennels where the dogs don’t form strong early bonds with humans, which are so crucial for future bonding experiences. Volunteer families receive the puppy at about seven weeks of age and agree to raise it according to specific guidelines. The family teaches the dog basic obedience commands and manners, and exposes the puppy to the many kinds of situations it may encounter in its work as a guide dog (such as bus travel, city streets, restaurants, and stores). The family is compensated for all veterinary costs, and they receive a quarterly stipend for food. But money is not the main incentive; families raise these puppies out of the goodness of their heart. It is essential to the success of the program that the puppies’ first experience be in a loving environment.
Young dogs remain with the host family for a year to a year-and-a-half. At that point, the animals are returned to The Seeing Eye for formal training. The first month back is spent in a kennel where the dogs receive a thorough physical examination. Veterinarians make sure the general health of the dogs is good. Dogs with health problems—a chronic skin allergy, for instance—are taken out of the program, so that a future owner will not be responsible for expensive veterinary bills.
Once a dog is deemed fit to enter the program, it is assigned to an instructor to thoroughly train for its future work. After lessons in basic obedience and manners, the dogs begin harness training where they learn to pull with just the appropriate amount of force. It is this tugging that allows a dog to guide a blind person. The dogs must become accustomed to the harness and learn that wearing it means paying attention to their surroundings. The dogs are taught to take their work seriously.
During the period of training, instructors reinforce desired behaviors—sitting at a curb, stopping at the foot of stairs, halting at a street curb—through praise, while undesirable behaviors—sniffing food in a restaurant, being overly friendly to strangers—earn a reprimand. Initially, a reprimand consists of a verbal correction. Should the behavior remain unchanged for a longer period of time, a trainer might try a leash correction—a small tug on the leash to refocus the dog to attend to its job.
Once the dogs are accustomed to the harness and understand where to stop, they are introduced to more sophisticated concepts. The animals learn clearance; they are taught to think in terms of the height and width of their human companion in order to provide clearance around obstacles and under low-hanging objects, such as signs and awnings. Next is traffic work. Dogs do not naturally understand that moving cars are dangerous, so their instructors may play-act a scene, running into a car and slapping the door to make a loud noise. That gets the dog’s attention and teaches the animal that a car is to be respected, but not feared. Dogs learn to check for traffic in a simulated environment before they are exposed to the real world. A dog will learn to stop at red lights and to halt ahead of time any time a car heads toward the path of its person. If the dog comes across a hole in the sidewalk or a barrier, it will learn to safely lead its person around the obstacle.
Instruction is given in small increments so that the dog can master each step before progressing to the next. Periodic evaluations are given throughout the process to be sure that the animal is performing at a satisfactory level. Halfway through the training the instructor will blindfold himself and, accompanied by a supervisor, take the dog out to practice what was learned. The supervisor watches to make sure there are no serious concerns with the dog’s progress that might keep the animal from becoming a successful guide dog. If, for example, the dog is too timid in traffic, or too bold, or too friendly with strangers, the supervisor may recommend that the dog not continue with the balance of training.
Generally, guide dogs complete their training and are placed with a person at two-and-a-half years of age. Their average working life is seven to ten years. Some schools for guide dogs retire the animals at a predetermined cutoff age, whether or not their health is declining. But if the dogs are from The Seeing Eye organization, the retirement date is left to the owner’s discretion. Usually, once a dog begins to slow down or develop arthritis, the owner decides to retire the dog. The retired dog may stay with its owner, along with a new guide dog, or it can be placed in a new home, with a family member, perhaps, or some person in the community. If the owner does not keep it or find it a home, a third option is to return the dog to The Seeing Eye for the school to place. The organization has a long list of homes for puppies that don’t graduate from the program, and the retired dogs are worked into that list.
A working animal’s colorful backpack alerts people to the fact that concentration on an owner’s safety is a top priority. So these animals should not be petted, talked to, fed, or otherwise distracted; that might put the owner in jeopardy. Trying to direct a blind person, either by pulling on his or her arm or on the dog’s harness, is analogous to pulling on the steering wheel of a car while someone else is driving. If a blind person appears lost, it’s okay to ask if assistance is needed (one should not assume that the dog automatically knows how to take the blind person to and from places). The guide dog leads the blind person, but only in response to commands from its master such as forward, right, or left (orientation and mobility skills are taught to people before they are given the dog). While guide dog and master are walking, the blind person is concentrating on the sounds of parallel traffic and other sounds to give him his location. Distracting a dog or its master could cause the person to lose orientation and become lost.
Protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992, these wonderful dogs are given full access to public places. The animals are granted this special privilege because they are highly trained, vital to a blind or seeing-impaired person’s independence, and behave properly in any environment.
While AAT has been gaining in popularity for the past 25 years or so, it was actually used as early as 1792, in a Quaker-run asylum. During World War II the American Red Cross sponsored a program at the Army Air Force Convalescent Center in Pawling, New York, in which dogs, horses, and farm animals were used as a diversion from the strain of daily physical therapy for recovering servicemen. Nonetheless, AAT has become established and widely used as a form of therapy only in the past couple of decades. Why? Like many holistic medical practices, AAT was at first rejected by many conventional facilities and therapists as too “far out there” and nonscientific. But studies have confirmed what the pioneers of AAT—and many a pet-owner—have known all along—that having loving, accepting, nonjudgmental animals around makes a person feel better. Just as our society’s awareness of the human/animal bond and the sanctitiy of all animal life has deepened, so too has the realization that animals can help those in physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. Florence Nightingale once said that pets are wonderful companions for the sick. Studies have long shown that animal owners have a greater chance than non-pet-owners of surviving a year or longer following a heart attack. Now, studies have confirmed that patients who receive AAT experience quantifiable physiological benefits, including lower blood pressure, improved muscular movement, and an overall improvement in feelings of well-being.
People living in nursing homes are often profoundly lonely, sometimes spending long periods without a single visitor from outside the facility. In the 1970s, volunteers began to realize that nursing home residents could use some extra visitation of the four-legged variety. The benefits of animal visits are immediately visible in the reactions of residents, who may smile, reach out to the animals, and talk in ways that they ordinarily don’t, or aren’t encouraged to. Renee Lamm Esordi, a photographer and dog owner who has collected photos of AAT in her book You Have a Visitor, observed how the visits spark conversations between volunteers and residents, who frequently begin to reminisce about pets they owned in the past. These stores seem to get some reticent people going, and often residents will go from there into talking about where they used to live, what kind of work they did, and other subjects. The animals become a great aid to socialization in this way. By taking along different kinds of animals, volunteers can usually match a resident’s personality with that of a pet—many people, for example, don’t feel comfortable with the friendliness of large dogs, but love the warmth and companionship of a cat sitting in their lap, ready to listen to every word and enjoy every stroke.
Originally AAT was intended only for adult-care facilities; a reason for this was that liability insurance was a concern. Nowadays, however, volunteer organizations carry their own insurance, and most organizations check out a volunteer animal first to make sure it has the right personality for this kind of work. Animal-assisted therapy is now commonly practiced in facilities for children. In children’s hospitals, dogs must remain on leashes, but they are allowed to jump on patients’ beds. For children who may be facing a lifetime of institutionalization, or who may never be able to own a pet, these visits open up a whole range of positive emotional and physical experience. For depressed patients of any age, animal visits can be a real asset; the animals frequently help them to come out of themselves through physical touch and play. For people, especially children, with severe physical limitations, rubbing the animals can increase the patient’s range of motion, another tangible benefit of AAT.
For anyone who would like to become involved with the wonderful volunteer work, there are plenty of opportunities. Please note, though: You should not simply show up at a nursing home with Fido for an unannounced visit! What you should do is contact any local SPCA or animal organization to find out who does AAT in your area and how you can get involved. As we’ve mentioned, your pet will probably have to undergo an evaluation for proper personality and behavior before it can participate. Because the visits can be extremely emotionally draining for the human volunteers, you may want to limit how often you do them. One side benefit of volunteering, Esordi points out, is that it’s quality time for you and your pet to spend together. DeltaSociety.org is a good website to check out for more information.
Eventually, of course, our pets have to die. Almost always, we out-live our pets, and that loss can be one of the worst of our own lives. Dr. Donna Raditic is another holistic vet who is concerned with what animals have to teach us, and she believes that our pets show us two things—how to live, and how to die. Raditic says that one of the unexpected joys of being a vet, as opposed to a “people doctor,” is seeing the entire life cycle of a pet, from babyhood into old age and death. Raditic believes that each pet comes into our lives to teach us something specific, and if we are lucky in that relationship, the pet lives long enough to complete the lesson, and then moves on.
For animals, death is not a disease or a disaster, but another natural process. It’s only humans who have medicalized death and made it something to fear. So when a pet owner is facing the choice of whether to euthanize a suffering animal, Raditic and other practitioners are able to look at the situation with empathy for the animal, which does not fear death and may need to move on. It’s the owner who is left with grief, and there are many support groups available for people suffering over the loss of a pet. These can be a safe haven for the person who is reluctant to speak to colleagues or friends about this grief, fearing ridicule from someone who has never experienced the human/pet bond and cannot understand it. As for the process of euthanasia itself, it is not painful for the animal, and many animal technicians report feeling the animal’s peacefulness at being allowed to pass on. It is for the bereaved owner, counsels Dr. Raditic, to reflect on the lesson that animal taught you, and honor your pet’s eternal memory by living what you have learned.