The value of adopting a pet in the new year

Firstly, allow me to wish you and your pet-owning, animal-loving families all the very best for 2016 and beyond.

pet cornerI would urge you, dear readers, on this first Sunday of the New Year to consider adopting a dog or cat in 2016.

I dare say that you would have already prepared New Year Resolutions (some of which you know you will break within the first week). I would like, today, not to return to our technical stuff – rather, let’s keep it light but meaningful. So today, permit me to share with you some thoughts on the human-animal relationships, which in turn might move you in the direction of adopting a pet from the GSPCA’s Animal Shelter in the New Year — as part of your New Year’s resolutions.

I have often argued that the education a child can receive from observing the pregnancy, birth process and the maternal care for the young is something that money cannot buy and text books cannot give. But it goes further than that.

Experts today call the special friendship between pets and people the human-animal bond, and recognize that, in addition to being fun and fulfilling, owning a dog may actually benefit a person’s health. When an affectionate greeting from your dog, at the end of a stressful and especially difficult day, seems to lift your spirits and ease tensions, it’s not just your imagination. Your pet can in fact be good for you, both mentally and physically.

Scientists have shown in several studies that people in the presence of pets simply behave in a more relaxed and open manner. They are happier, smile more readily, communicate better and may be more likely to get regular exercise – all of which lead to improved general health.

In one very interesting study of heart attack patients at the University of Maryland, it was revealed that those who owned pets were more likely to be living one year after the heart attack than those who did not. The researchers also found that the simple act of petting a cat or dog consistently lowered a heart patient’s blood pressure.

This affinity that humans have for dogs did not just arrive. It has evolved from that very time, tens of thousands of years ago, when humans decided to cultivate, befriend, breed and love wild forebears of the present day dog. I know someone who believes that the whole human-dog association started with the canine (feline also?) conning us. They observed our behaviour, and they decided that mankind looked like it was going somewhere upwards in the evolutionary tree. They latched on to usand mimicked our behavioural patterns so that we would believe that they were easy to get along with. For that, we would feed them and keep them warm. In turn, they gave us, then and today, immeasurable loyalty and protection. Indeed, it seems that compelling evidence is emerging that dogs and cats having figured out how to join the community of an entirely alien species is in itself evidence of their sophisticated social competence.

I know that, as a scientist, I should not be even thinking of attributing to dogs and cats, human characteristics — you know, like feelings. Well the scientists’ code is beginning to change. Researchers are now seeing what every dog (and cat) owner knew all along. Dogs especially do exhibit human characteristics: grief, envy, jealousy, anger, rage, bellicosity, love, hate, guilt, remorse, happiness, resentfulness, anxiety, fear, contentment, deceit, pride, arrogance, shyness, bravery, kindness and willingness to help, desire to make the human happy, recklessness, sadness, depression, vexation, (eg at being blamed wrongfully), gluttony, malice (aforethought?), low self-esteem, laziness, greed, stubbornness, playfulness (including engaging in pranks), selective forgetfulness, vengefulness, boredom, communicativeness using only the eyes, flirtatiousness, coyness, loyalty, protectiveness; and I’m sure that I have left out some important characteristics. But I am equally sure that one of you will point out my omission.

A professor, Alexandra Horowitz, wrote a seminal tome called Inside of a Dog. It became a bestseller when published in 2010. Here is what she wrote:

“In learning how to study the behaviour of animals, I was taught and adhered to the scientist’s mantra for describing actions: be objective; do not explain a behaviour by appeal to a mental process when explanation by simpler processes will do; a phenomenon that is not publicly observable and confirmable is not the stuff of science. These days, as a professor of animal behaviour, comparative cognition, and psycholgy, I teach from masterful texts that deal in quantifiable fact. They describe everything from hormonal and genetic explanations for the social behaviour of animals, to conditioned responses, fixed action patterns, and optimal foraging rates in the same steady, objective tone.”

Then she added: “And yet” what came after those two words was the confession that, traditionally, science — as practised and deified in tests — rarely addresses pet owner experiences of living with and attempting to understand the minds of our companion animals. Since then, a lot more objective studies have been and are being carried out and shared with the public in easy-to-read articles. Only recently, the Scientific American (May/June 2015 issue) carried an in depth cover story on “Why we love pets and why they love us — the science behind the bond.”

What does all of this mean? It tells us that when we choose a dog or cat for a pet, we are not left alone to handle “personality quirks” in our pets (cats/dogs). What I am saying is that there should be less trepidation and worry when we go into the GSPCA’s Shelter to choose a companion animal as a complement to our family.

Again please accept our kindest wishes for 2016.

Next week we will continue our discussions on conditions in the oral cavity.

Please implement disease preventative measures (vaccinations, routine dewormings, monthly anti-Heartworm medication, etc) and adopt-a-pet from the GSPCA’s Animal Clinic and Shelter at Robb Street and Orange Walk, if you have the wherewithal to care well for the animals.  Do not stray your unwanted pets; take them to the GSPCA’s Clinic and Shelter instead. If you do not wish your pet to have puppies or kittens, you may exploit the GSPCA’s free spay and neutering programme. If you see anyone being cruel to an animal, or if you need any technical information, please get in touch with the Clinic and Shelter by calling 226-4237.

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