Hope for Us All
A man is truly ethical when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.
Aggression is the number one cause of death among pet animals, because patterns of violent behavior all too often lead to them being put down. The following story has one such sad ending.
Ruckus, a four-year old, neutered male, soft-coated Wheaten terrier, more than earned his name. He was brought to Tufts for evaluation after an odd and progressively more serious problem of aggression, coming to me at two years of age. He was the best-looking specimen of the breed that I have ever seen. Spirited and playful when he was first adopted by his owners, Dick and Nancy Tiemer, a handsome couple who clearly loved their dog, Ruckus was, in effect, their surrogate child. During the initial consultation, they both held me with an intense, pleading gaze, as if begging for help.
Dick started off by telling me about their early days with Ruckus. Apparently, there were a couple of red flags, if only they had been alert enough to see them. The dog’s former owner informed Dick and Nancy that Ruckus had been in a crate for about fourteen hours a day. He also gave them a piece of unsolicited advice: “Make sure that you get into bed first at night.” At the time, the Tiemers found the suggestion to be somewhat odd, but dismissed it in the midst of their joy over the new puppy. The words would come back to haunt them.
When they got Ruckus home, all was well until evening. Ruckus dashed upstairs ahead of them and commandeered the bed. When they tried to remove him, he held his ground and would not budge. He gave a low growl, indicating the bed was his territory. Other issues became apparent within the first seventy-two hours. Ruckus began to display various ornery traits, including putting up a huge fuss when they tried to crate him. Nancy wondered whether they should return the dog. When they called the previous owner, he refused to take Ruckus back. Dick and Nancy were stuck.
The more modest levels of aggression eventually transformed into barking, teeth-baring, and other threatening displays. Initially, they were able to get control of the aggression using commands like come, sit, and down. The dog would obey, “reluctantly,” as the Tiemers put it. After two weeks in the household, Ruckus had already bitten Dick twice.
Their local vet prescribed Prozac for Ruckus, though the med also might have helped the owners. He also suggested that the Tiemers should hire a trainer, who in turn proposed keeping Ruckus confined to one room and the use of baby gates in all doorways. Basically, the pet was to be allowed to move from one area to another only if he was invited to do so, and only if he worked for the privilege by obeying a command. This same trainer also suggested using a muzzle to protect Dick, and an electric shock collar as the ultimate deterrent.
I did not and do not approve of the latter strategy. For me, shock collars always bring to mind a sage comment by Abraham Lincoln: “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” I would advocate the same approach in the case of shock collars.
As bad as the situation was when the Tiemers sought the trainer’s help, Ruckus’s rage outbursts toward Dick actually increased in frequency and intensity. The local vet recommended euthanasia, saying that Ruckus was “miswired.” Dick and Nancy wanted to keep trying. They scheduled an appointment with me at Tufts.
As we sat there in the consulting room, with Ruckus behaving like a perfect angel, they described him as sweet toward strangers, children, and other dogs, as well as with other family members. Apparently, the only difficulty was his aggression toward Dick, but that problem was particularly severe. The Tiemers were willing to euthanize Ruckus, they told me, “If he was truly suffering in some unrelenting way.”
I was not so sure Ruckus was suffering. After much discussion, we agreed on a way forward. I upped Ruckus’s Prozac dose, gave additional advice about avoiding conflict, and had them discontinue use of the shock collar. I instructed them to make Ruckus work for food and treats. I also suggested another “as needed” medicine, clonidine, that I thought might help at nighttime.
A week later Dick emailed me a progress report. “The week began with more of the same (a Friday night attack and more unpleasantness over the weekend) but then the medications calmed his outbursts dramatically.” This sounded encouraging. There was some later backsliding, so I adjusted the dose of both his medications.
For a short period the terrier’s behavior improved. We used this window of opportunity to have Dick engage in some counter-conditioning exercises, designed to convert the dog’s unpleasant associations with his owner to more favorable ones. Through various upswings and downswings, it became clear that Ruckus continued to be dangerous. It reached a point where Dick had to call Nancy on his cell phone when he was approaching the house. Nancy would then put the dog away so that Dick could enter his own house without being attacked.
The endgame came about in tragic fashion. Ruckus was outside, tied to a stake while Dick was mowing. With a violent lunge, the terrier tore the stake out of the ground. Tether and stake trailing behind him, he raced toward Dick and attacked him savagely. Eventually, after receiving several nasty bites, Dick managed to pin Ruckus and yell to Nancy to get help.
The Animal Control Officer arrived within minutes. He and his assistants managed to subdue the dog. They applied a transparent plastic muzzle and carried him, still struggling, to their vehicle. Unfortunately, the muzzle was too tight. Ruckus could not breathe. By the time they arrived at the Animal Control Officer’s vehicle, the poor terrier had asphyxiated and was gone.
Our victories might fade into the background, but we always remember our defeats. The case of the belligerent terrier remains fresh in my mind even today. It helped reinforce my ongoing determination to discover new ways to treat aggression in pets. No dog should suffer the way Ruckus did, and no animal should experience such a death.
If there is a gleam of light in this terribly dark story, it is the incredible dedication of the Tiemers toward saving their dog. Even in the face of violence and aggression, even with Dick being bitten repeatedly, they did not give up. Their story represents an incredible testimony to human love in the face of adversity, and to the tremendous attachment people can have to their pets.
But there’s another reason I’ve introduced this distressing tale. In the course of this book I’ve discussed a wide variety of treatments, and many of them employ sophisticated medicines. I have often encountered pushback when I discuss such measures with people. They seem to see a disconnect between our warm and fuzzy friends and the complex molecules we use to treat them. They’d prefer to keep things simple, organic, and straightforward.
When confronted by such an opinion, at a cocktail party, say, or during a lecture, my mind immediately goes to my experiences in the consulting room. There I am confronted by desperate, teary-eyed owners of animals who are suffering. It’s very easy to dream about a unicorn world where pets can be healed simply by love and pixie dust. But when a dog or cat is in pain, the stakes turn very serious, very quickly. There are no atheists in foxholes, and there are few starry-eyed herbalists in consulting rooms, holding their suffering pet. In that situation, I challenge anyone to refuse proven scientific measures of relief.
The cases of pet behavior I’ve discussed in this book range from the serious to the frivolous. Throughout, I’ve tried to emphasize the principles of One Medicine. But I would not have you think that I am a pill pusher, a Doctor Feel Good who reaches into the medicine cabinet at the first sign of trouble. Nothing could be further from the truth. The majority of the behaviors I encounter can be treated first and foremost with common sense, employing strategies that do not involve pharmacology at all, but changes in an animal’s environment and lifestyle, his interactions with you and other beings in his life.
I call them the Four Es. They represent the tried and true line of defense against a whole spectrum of unwelcome behaviors and situations.
Enhance. Employ. Exercise. Empathize. That is,
• Enhance your pet’s environment with toys, distractions, and stimulating activities.
• Employ a sensible diet to match your pet’s needs.
• Exercise your pet daily.
• Finally, and here’s the most important one—empathize with your pet’s state of being.
In many cases, employing the Four Es will have wonderful therapeutic effects on your pet’s health. I believe empathizing is vital, since only if we as humans cross the species barrier and try to truly understand a dog, cat, or other animal will we be able to help it. Too often we allow emotional judgments to color our relations with animals.
I can hear the pet owner’s voice in my head. “I am so angry with my dog. She refuses to stop barking at strangers! It’s driving me nuts. I’m so embarrassed. I try to shush her, but it’s like she’s doing it just to annoy me.”
Well, she’s not doing anything just to annoy you. Her behavior has deep-seated reasons. Aggression against strangers might indicate deeper behavioral issues.
“Oh, okay, so you’re telling me, Dr. Dodman, that my dog might be fearful of strangers because of possible mistreatment in early puppyhood? And that there are measures we can take to address the issue? So I don’t have to take her back to the pound after all?”
Empathy helps where judgment fails. But empathy depends in part on identification. We can’t empathize if we feel a creature is somehow alien, different, or separated from us by insurmountable barriers. My emphasis has always been upon our commonality with our pets, not our differences.
Let’s return to my initial considerations. Are animals like us and are we like them? Do they have intelligence? Do they have emotions? Can they suffer as we sometimes do?
Arguments about animal intelligence have been going on for a very long time. One of the most well-established reasons for differentiating nonhuman animals from people was that animals supposedly did not employ tools. Tool creation and use are what gave humans the edge. That particular line in the sand got erased in the 1960s, when pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall stunned the scientific community by showing that chimpanzees used tools in a variety of situations. The first discovery she made involved chimps using long twigs to fish tasty termites out of the mounds. Chimps also fashioned “sponges” of crushed leaves on sticks in order to soak up rainwater to drink. They utilized sticks and rocks to smash fruit with hard shells and to intimidate others, too.
In response to these discoveries, Dr. Louis Leakey wrote: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”
Other tool-using animals were soon identified. Monkeys, elephants, dolphins, sea otters, mongooses, American badgers, ravens, finches, alligators, and crocodiles were all caught red-handed—or flippered, or beaked, or clawed—using tools.
Given Leakey’s choice, the purists chose to redefine man. No, no, humans weren’t the tool-using animal, after all. We were now, instead, defined as the language-using animal.
Soon enough, this distinction began to crumble as well. Apes in the wild use complex vocalizations. In captivity, gorillas and chimpanzees have been taught to use sign language, and African gray parrots employ large vocabularies.
Okay, okay, so man is not the language-using animal. We’re . . . we’re . . . something else special! Memory! What about memory?
Quite recently there was a report that surprised the media, showing that chimps and orangutans could remember things for years. This finding indicated that the memory function of great apes resembled our own. Experiments with King, a western lowland gorilla at Florida International University, established that he could recall who fed him what foods even when his caretakers had forgotten. And as was shown in a remarkable demonstration, chimpanzees can actually triumph over humans in short-term memory trials (http://on.fb.me/1OTZo9n).
As soon as one distinction fell, another was erected in its place. The bar always had to be set a little higher.
Just hold on, we’ll come up with something to distinguish us from the beasts!
But what if animals actually do think about what they are doing? What if they have feelings and emotions? What if they are more like us than was previously thought?
The four species of great apes are currently locked in a legal fight in courts around the world, their advocates pursuing legal personhood for gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees. Steven M. Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project has filed briefs for captive chimpanzees in New York State and elsewhere, hoping to establish their rights to freedom under the writ of habeas corpus.
To invoke another example, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests now accepts that dolphins and other cetaceans are highly intelligent and sensitive animals. Specifically, the ministry agrees with various scientists who consider that because of unusually high intelligence displayed by dolphins, they should be seen as “non-human persons.” As such, dolphins would enjoy their own specific rights. It would be recognized as morally unacceptable and legally untenable to keep them captive for entertainment purposes.
A team from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland discovered that dolphins use signature whistles to communicate with each other, much as we use names. The team believes the dolphins are acting like humans, in that when they hear their name, they answer. This ability implies that dolphins are self-aware and fully cognizant of other dolphins around them. That dolphins are self-aware may sound obvious to the average person. Such a statement would be rejected by extreme behavioral scientists. Such folks always clamor for proof of anything cerebral and non-reflexive in animals. With dolphins, they now have it.
The apparent lack of language among animals has always been a barrier to scientists accepting them as intelligent entities. There are people who believe that language is necessary for thought. They believe that without a fluent vocabulary of interconnecting words, deliberation and reflection are simply not possible. This argument has largely been invalidated by accounts of people who have temporarily lost language as a result of some cerebral injury, such as a stroke. Certainly, life is different without language. But thought is not lost.
Prelingually deaf people who have never heard or uttered a single word still think. They sometimes gather in groups, miming their thoughts to each other as the only way they have of communicating. It takes a bit longer, but they succeed. Human babies have been shown to communicate long before their spoken language skills are developed. And Temple Grandin has shown that at least some autistic people think in pictures.
In the 1850s, Charles Darwin wrote a fundamental truth. Humans are animals. We are simply part of a grand tableau of creation. We are not its purpose. Darwin believed that our emotions and intellect, and not just our bodily form, evolved from a common primate ancestor. He suggested that we can best understand ourselves by studying the psychological, as well as physical, steps in evolution. That’s what I have been attempting to address in this book, by considering the psychological, psychiatric and behavioral parallels that exist between people and pets.
Much of our own mental life is automatic, unconscious, and outside the control of our reason or will. Certainly we can stop and think. But we also operate on autopilot much of the time. Nonhuman animals also appear to stop and think, too, though we can’t ask them what they are thinking about. Experiments have been designed to examine thought processes in animals. All are rather simple and equivocal in terms of what they actually mean.
One experimental setup had dogs exploring a T-maze, with a reward at one of the limbs of the T. When a dog reached the point of divergence of the limbs of the maze, he hesitated before committing. This hesitation, which can be measured, was believed to represent the dog vacillating over which way to go.
At a recent meeting I attended, I heard about a similar situation that occurred with cats in a T-maze. The researcher observed the hesitation at the T-junction. She apologized to the erudite audience, which was made up largely of behavioral scientists, about the possible anthropomorphic interpretation.
“I realize you are all behaviorists, so I’m almost afraid to say what I think this means,” she said. “It does look for all the world like the cats are confused and trying to think which limb would be best to explore.”
Despite Darwin, despite Goodall, despite Temple Grandin, and so many others, we still find ourselves having to apologize in scientific circles for ascribing the power of thought to animals. It now requires a head-in-the-sand approach to deny that the similarities between mammals far outweigh the differences.
Today mammals, tomorrow the avian kingdom. Birds, especially psittacines, seem very much cognitively attuned. You have to live with birds to fully appreciate their intelligence. My Amazon parrot, whom I nicknamed Green Jungle Chicken, convinced me that animals can have skills far beyond what is normally assumed.
This bird was more like a dog than some dogs I know. Chicken, as we called her, flew free in our residence, and had many humanlike qualities. She had an incredible vocabulary, wolf-whistled when anyone was naked in the shower, greeted me on my return home by flying onto my shoulder, and flew up to the upstairs landing, anticipating that I was heading to bed. Chicken liked her coffee with milk and one sugar. She would drink it from a spoon held in her large gray claw. There’s an instance of tool use for you!
Living with Chicken made me think of Pippit and my mother’s wild flock of birds. Gwen Dodman used to have a parrot, too, an African gray called Polly. Polly would always ask for the remains of the apple before anyone was finished with the fruit. “Polly wants the core,” she’d remind us, squawking fitfully. When my father would raise his hand and pretend to be about to strike my mother, Polly would also fly to her defense, attacking my father by latching onto his rear end with her beak.
One fascinating story involves a humpback whale showing gratitude after being freed from entanglement in fishing nets. The divers worked for hours to free the huge mammal. They finally achieved their goal. Once free, the whale dived off into the murky depths. Minutes later, one of the divers saw the huge whale heading up straight for him at top speed. As the whale got close, it slowed down. The fifty-ton beast, the size of a school bus, came to rest a few inches from the diver’s chest.
The whale gently nudged the human in the chest a few times. It then raised its head out of the ocean to stare at the diver for more than half a minute. For the diver, it represented a haunting experience. “I’ll take it to my grave,” he said. The whale then went on to the next diver, and the next, until it had made the full round of all the wet-suited Samaritans.
No doubt an extreme behaviorist—that is, one bound by Morgan’s Canon, with no interpretation of animal behavior permitted—would try to find some reflex explanation of the creature’s actions. To me, the truth is clear. The whale was clearly showing gratitude.
All the conditions I have described in this book involve animals being to some degree aware and sentient. They sometimes become anxious or even angry in this hectic modern-day life. They reflect similar mental issues to the ones we ourselves may experience.
Some of the behaviors in question have “face validity” for their equivalent human conditions—that is, the actions look similar. Acral lick dermatitis, for example, resembles its human hand washing equivalent. Almost all animal equivalents of human behavioral conditions have “predictive validity” for the corresponding human condition. It is quite possible to predict that what works in humans to alleviate an anxious disorder will work in animals, and vice versa. The anti-OCD strategy of using an NMDA blocker was first tested by us in mice, dogs, and horses before it was ever found to work in people.
These examples provide clear documentation of this predictive validity. The final element of sameness is “construct validity”—meaning finding similar genes, similar structural homology, and similar biomarkers. Though this last element of proof is incomplete for most animal behavior problems, the net is closing and the evidence is mounting.
Face validity, predictive validity, and construct validity. Game, set, and match. It’s pretty much everything we need to know to establish true homology with the equivalent human conditions.
Here’s just a few examples that we’ve delineated in the preceding chapters:
• The neural cadherin gene’s involvement in canine and human compulsive behavior.
• Fragile X syndrome in bull terriers and in some autistic children.
• Elevation of plasma neurotensin in spinning bull terriers, which also occurs in autistic children.
• A serotonin gene’s involvement in aggression in Golden retrievers, with serotonin and aggression inversely related in man and animals.
• Brain centers underlying aggression are the same across mammalian species.
• Brain changes in compulsive Doberman pinschers are the same as reported in humans with OCD, especially hoarders.
• Amyloid plaques and tau tangles occur in canine cognitive dysfunction, as they do in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Soon it will be very difficult for the naysayers to deny the parallels between animals and people. As Darwin realized, though animals aren’t people, people are animals.
Certainly, no doubt about it, humans have the edge cognitively. We possess the mental equivalent of a mainframe computer atop our shoulders, while the animals must make do with the less sophisticated but functionally similar Commodore 64 version. Animals clearly are capable of thought, can remember events for a long time, are aware of time passing, can become upset, angry, and sad. They have primary and secondary emotions and are capable of suffering and being anxious.
As humans excel in some areas, nonhuman animals beat us hands down in others. Animals are particularly good at tailoring their facilities according to their ethological niche.
• Dogs are better than us at reading body language. This is a skill they need in the pack. Dogs are also better than us at making mental maps. That’s a skill that facilitates hunting and getting home after a long trek across their vast home range.
• Cats have outstanding balance and excel at kinesthetic intelligence. They are better at orienting their bodies in space than the greatest human gymnasts. This talent suits them well in their arboreal pursuits and is useful for snagging birds on the wing.
• Horses see separate visual fields and can distinguish what they see on either side of their body. That’s a useful gift for a prey animal as it helps them to see all around their body at the same time.
Consider poor humans, with our lesser vision and auditory ability, weak olfactory capability, and poor body language skills. What we do have that they don’t have, though, to suit our own biological agenda, is a highly developed brain and a specialized version of a particular gene, called FoxP2, that allows for the proper development of speech and language.
In the days when mass immigration occurred into the United States via Ellis Island, people were judged according to parochial standards. Many were deemed mentally challenged, imbecilic, idiots, or morons. Such judgments arose because the applicants for entry could not answer questions about, for example, American civics or jurisprudence, in tests posed in a language that they did not fully comprehend. But at times the immigrants seemed smarter than the examiners.
“If you would use a broom to clean stairs, would you clean from the bottom up or the top down?” asked an Ellis Island officer of a female immigrant.
“I didn’t come to America to sweep stairs!” she replied.
We must be careful when judging animals by our own standards, so as not to make the mistake of the Ellis Island authorities.
Fortunately, using modern imaging techniques, it is now possible to peer inside an animal’s brain. We can see it think. We can gauge its response to visual or auditory cues in a sophisticated way, right down to identifying the brain regions activated. Using such techniques, along with identification of the pathways activated by the relevant genes, we should soon be able to scientifically substantiate everything I have suggested as true in this book.
In identifying psychological and psychiatric conditions that are common in separate species, it was never my intention to reduce humans to the level of beasts. Rather, I’d seek to raise our appreciation of the complex interior lives and mental abilities of our pets. We need to more fully appreciate their struggles. We are all animals in this life together, and we should respect the right of nonhuman creatures to be treated kindly and respectfully.