Author Archives: Hadley Rush

Aging Well

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

Skeeter is nearing his fifteenth birthday. As Skeeter ages I am witnessing on a closer and more intimate the effects of aging on pets. It is not that I have not lived with older pets previously, but Skeeter shares my life nearly 24 hours every day, going to work with me and traveling with me. His aging has begun to affect how we relate with each other and has made me more sensitive to aging in general.

Older pets have similar problems as older humans-they get arthritis, have liver and kidney failure, obesity, gum disease, decreased thyroid function, blindness from cataracts, diabetes, dull hair coat and skin problems, loss of hearing, and even dementia from decreased cognitive function.

Decreased cognitive function can be demonstrated through an increasing reliance on you and concern over their immediate environment. In other words, they become more anxious and dependent, a version of separation anxiety.

With pets living longer due to better health care and nutrition, we are also witnessing much more cancer, a huge concern for our pets. It has been reported by a leading University School of Veterinary Medicine that 60% of dogs over six years of age will acquire some form of cancer. Today, cancer does not necessarily create a situation for euthanasia, as many cancers can be cured or controlled so that a pet can lead many more years of a healthy life. But, cancer in pets, like humans, has a high price tag. It creates a crisis for the pet owner both emotionally and financially. With Pets Best insurance, at least the financial concern is eliminated because you can afford the best care.

Skeeter has lost his hearing completely, I now must “motion” to him when we need to move along or I want him to come to me. When he first started losing his hearing I was left to determine if he simply could not hear me or was ignoring me, as he could do at times. Finally, it was apparent that the verbal request was no longer an effective communication tool when he would not respond to the door bell or loud noises.

He is also developing cataracts, which are beginning to affect his vision. We have had his initial exam from an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) which indicates that if the retinal scan is clear that we can proceed with corrective surgery to remove the cataracts. My goal is to restore his vision and avoid blindness.

His bouts of colitis are more frequent if I am not careful what he eats. His hair coat is duller and turning the brilliant back sheen of his coat to a brown. Supplements and coat conditioners are now part of his regime.

Yet, despite his infirmaries, he is still more than willing to follow me everywhere, if he sees me move. He sleeps more soundly than he used to, and with his loss of hearing he can slumber long after I have moved off. Once he awakens he will patiently begin his search for me in all the usual places. There is no panic, yet he is definitely becoming more apprehensive if he cannot soon find me. His frustration quickly evaporates once I am found. He now lives for the moment and constantly reminds me to emulate his patient, stoic nature, which I seldom heed.

Torrey has long since taken over the role of primary lap dog with her overbearing personality and strong will. Skeeter is content just to lie next to me or near me while I am working. Torrey is now the entertainer and dominant dog in the pack, despite her diminutive one and half pounds. Skeeter simply ignores her, although often, as Skeeter lays on the rug while I am showering, I see her rub up against him and walk under his chin, rubbing as she walks-just like a cat does when they rub up against you wanting attention. So much like a cat, I quite expect to hear her purring one day.

Although aging pets, like Skeeter, do not have the stamina they once did, they still can have a high quality of life. After all, after a decade or more of their enhancing our lives, we owe them continued loyalty and a willingness to change our approach to a more senior-care focus.

As your pet ages, you should be diligent with their exams from at least once a year to twice a year. A semi-annual exam should also include diagnostic test to screen your pet’s internal organ functions and urinalysis to test kidney function. These tests become even more important as a pet ages.

Teeth cleaning to remove tartar-which can accumulate and enter the bloodstream as micro emboli or as an infection-also becomes more important. As your pet ages, or if they are prone to heavy tartar build up on their teeth, you may need hand scaling of the teeth, with light sedation, once or twice a year and a deep cleaning with anesthesia yearly. Bad breath can be eliminated, but more importantly the overall health of your pets is greatly improved by keeping their teeth and gums healthy.

Senior pets should receive a modified diet to meet different age-related requirements. Also consider vitamin and mineral supplementation. As pets age, just as in humans, vitamins and mineral supplementation become important again to prevent disease and maintain our immune systems. I was never a big fan of supplementation, but as Skeeter ages and we placed him on a senior vitamin supplement, I can definitely see an improvement in his coat, activity level and cognitive functions.

Older pets’ immune systems diminish with age, and they become more prone to disease and cancer. This weakened immune system encourages us to be more diligent through exams and early diagnostic testing, modification of their diet, and supplementation.

Skeeter receives a semi-annual exam with a blood test to screen his health, because I want to catch any problems early, before they become critical. As you know, pets age faster than humans. Large dogs age faster than small dogs, and small dogs age faster than cats; therefore, a year to a pet is like four to seven years for us as they age.

Follow your veterinarian’s advice and set up a senior program for your pet based on his or her assessment. Then your treasured pet, like my Skeeter, can live a long and relatively health life. Pets are good for you, be good to them.

Decreasing Loneliness in Nursing Homes

Posted by Jack Stephens on 8/12/2006 in Pet Vet – Talks

Individual dog visits at nursing homes resulted in a bigger decrease in the feeling of loneliness than group visits with a dog, according to Saint Louis University School of Medicine. They found that nursing home residents prefer one-on-one time with a dog. Their original prediction for the study was that dog visits would increase interaction between the nursing home residents. Based on the results, these researchers say the main way pets reduce loneliness in nursing homes is by being with people alone, not by enhancing socialization among people who already spend their days together.

Man’s Best Friend comes through again.

Walking Your Dog is an Effective Weight Loss Plan

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

According to a research project at the University of Missouri (conducted by Rebecca Johnson PhD and Richard Meadows D.V.M.) study participants who walked a dog averaged a weight loss of fourteen pounds, which was a better result than most weight loss plans.

The project goal was to look for ways to increase the average exercise regimen. They found being responsible for a pet, such as committing to walk a loaner dog, encouraged people who did not own dogs to walk more often and for longer periods of time. Their first study group averaged a weight loss of fourteen pounds during the one year program.

The lesson was this: having a pet encourages owners to get more exercise and lose weight. Good for the human and good for the dog.

As you know from my prior posts there are other advantages of being with your pet that result in biochemical changes that take place in you. Some examples:

• Reduced cortisol, the hormone associated with stress (therefore your stress level decreases),
• Increased oxytocin hormone, which makes you feel good,
• Increased prolactin, your bonding hormone,
• Increased serotonin levels, helping to reduce depression, and
• Increased phenylethylamine which increases your feeling of exhilaration.

All that and loosing weight while walking your dog!

Another way pets help us physically.

Pet Premonition

Dr. Jack Stephens

Many bonded pet owners I have talked with have had episodes where it seemed that their pets had apprehensions that affected them, such as avoiding danger or knowing when they would return from a trip. When I was young my dog knew when I would be home from school and would either come to my school and greet me or she would be waiting at the end of my block. This I always attributed to their biological clock and not premonition, which is knowing an event in advance.

I experienced what I consider true pet premonition while I was undergoing treatment for cancer. Although my family was extremely patient and emphatic when I had my cancer, they could not sense what was just right, without asking. They would ask how I felt, as anyone would when a loved one is going through a severe illness, but Spanky, my miniature pinscher just knew. Some nights he would lie up next to me and cuddle, giving me that warm, oxytocin feeling. Other nights he seemed to understand and would simply lay off and watch me from a distance. Constantly on vigil to see how I was coping. Surviving cancer, I witnessed firsthand the power of pets in the healing process. This innate ability of animals to help us in many ways is now being recognized as I continue to repeat in my messages and my mission to better understand the power of pets. But, again I did not attribute this attribute of Spanky as premonition, but more the power of observation, empathy, or perhaps my body emissions called pheromones, which pets can pick up on by simply being in the room with us.

Spanky was a most unusual dog and I have had many from which to compare. Originally, Spanky was acquired by my wife for herself, but it was not long at all before it was evident that Spanky bonded to me. So much so that he actually knew when I would arrive home at night from work, although I never kept a routine. I had heard of such paranormal abilities of pets to sense when an owner would come home, but until Spanky, I had never experienced such an attribute.

Spanky did not display this exceptional quality until after I acquired my cancer. I began to notice that upon arriving home at night he would be standing on the back of the couch upstairs and looking out the window at our drive way. I began to look forward to him being there, with those little “batman” ears looking down when I would drive up. I would be disappointed if he was not there when I drove into our driveway. I had assumed he was simply looking out the window at cars or people on the sidewalk. However, one day as I opened the front door, my wife was there with a drink in hand. I asked her if she called the office and they told her I was on my way home. She replied, “No, Spanky told me.” I said sure, Spanky told you, she said, “No really, every night a few minutes before you arrive Spanky will get up from his bed in the kitchen near me and run upstairs and get on the couch and watch for you.” She then realized that indeed he does that most every night. “How does he do it?” We never knew, because we lost Spanky suddenly shortly after that and I can never think of him without emotional feelings of a great loss.

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” Roger Caras

Stress Causes Disease

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

I have personal experience with the more severe consequences of chronic stress causing disease. I cannot say what caused my cancer. Although I never smoked, in 1989 I acquired throat cancer of the tongue and tonsilar area. Initially, after a persistent sore throat, my doctor thought my tonsil, which had been removed as a child had grown back. My cancer, very likely was at least precipitated by continued chronic stress over many years in my new vocation of being the CEO of a pet insurance company. In trying to keep pet insurance and my former company in business, both financially and operationally I endured many years of unrelenting stress. Looking back, I was ahead of the perceived need for pet insurance and certainly very undercapitalized for such an enterprise. I simply started pet insurance too early, before pet owners were ready for the concept. It took many years to establish the company and the associated chronic stress placed a heavy toll on me emotionally, physically and financially. All of these are common factors in stress related illness. Although we know stress can bring on illness and disease and that stress can even cause death, we do not yet know how stress is involved in causing cancer. It is thought that the chronic affects of the stress hormone, cortisol diminish our immune system, making us more vulnerable to disease and diminish the healing process of the body.

I firmly believe I won my battle with cancer in great part because of a strong Human-Animal bond I developed with Spanky, our miniature pinscher. He was an Angel to my wife and me in so many ways in those awful times. Spanky brought us joy with his playful antics, such as chasing and jumping at his shadow. He made us laugh at a time we did not feel like laughing. His entertainment and the joy he brought us allowed us to forget the debilitating affects of the treatment for my cancer. He also forced me to get out of the house in the fresh air and take walks. He would bring me his leash, then proceed to jump and bark at me until I would relent and take him and my Labrador retriever, Remy for a walk. After our walks, sure enough I felt better, otherwise I would tend to sit around and feel sorry for myself. Other nights he seemed to know that I was simply too sick from the chemotherapy or radiation to take our walk, he would let things be. How he knew is a mystery. He seemed to grasp what was going on with me both physically and emotionally and respond accordingly. Upon reflection years later I realized he never demanded the walks before my cancer treatment started and soon after my treatments and recovery he ceased initiating the walks! This change in behavior, as any “dog” person knows is indeed strange, because dogs are creatures of habit. They have schedules for feeding and activities that is built into their biological clock. They are able to tell time, when it comes to enjoyable events, such as feeding time, departing for work, bed time or play time.

If stress can cause or exacerbate disease, then the lack of stress can assist in preventing disease and aiding the healing process. After my experience, I began to observe how a close relationship with a pet made a difference in others who were in stressful situations, such as the loss of a spouse, an impending surgery or a divorce. Bonded pet owners had a positive outlook and a focus on life and their pet, instead of their problems. My wife and I, when confronted with people going through stress, started encouraging the idea of acquiring a pet because of our experience and observations. We noticed quickly that this simple act of introducing a pet reduced their stress and improved their lives in former non pet owners. This was long before we knew there was a biological basis for pets improving our body chemistry. In addition we noticed depression was reduced or eliminated by having a bond with a pet. Yes, pets can help reduce depression.

An incident several years back vividly demonstrates that pets can reduce depression. A man in casual conversation, which was stimulated by our pets, shared with my wife and I that he was soon to have prostate surgery and he was very uneasy about the surgery. To make matters worse, his wife had died the previous year, his family was out of state and he had no friends nearby. He spent a lot of time alone and could not get excited about much of anything, since he wife passed on. Even to our untrained observation he had classical symptoms of depression.

We told him about Spanky and how he had made my ordeal with cancer more bearable. How he made a huge difference in my healing process, my mental outlook and certainly decreased tensions in the family. We suggested he get a puppy, which to our surprise he readily agreed. He bought a miniature pinscher puppy and we did not see him for a couple of months, until after his surgery and treatments. The change was clearly evident; he was transformed by that puppy, which he named Buster. He was not the same person we met before. He was so excited to tell us how much his life had changed for the good because of Buster. He bonded quickly with the puppy, so much so that he was out of the hospital in record time. He related that all he could think about while in the hospital was getting home. He missed his dog, he worried that Buster would not eat while he was in the hospital and would not get enough exercise. He was anxious to resume their walks. The doctors were shocked at his lack of post operative pain, how quickly he was dismissed from the hospital and his overall recovery. Whereas, before Buster, his doctors were concerned about his lack of support and depression.

Our new friend said not only did having the responsibility of the puppy help him recuperate, but walking him around the neighborhood had introduced him to new friends. Who can pass up stopping someone walking a puppy? He said before Buster he would walk the neighborhood, but never met anyone, now through Buster he knows all of his neighbors. He was no longer depressed, he had new friends, he had responsibility and he had unconditional love from Buster.

We asked him about his long term prognosis with his cancer, which he replied, “Oh, I am fine, I don’t have time to be sick, Buster and I have a trip planned and he wants a playmate, so we are shopping for a new buddy for him.” Indeed, this was not the same person, who just a couple of months previously was overly preoccupied with his health, his lonely life and worried about the upcoming surgery.

Physicians have long known that depression can lead to prolonged recovery from illness or surgery and even cause health problems if not resolved. There is of course medication for depression, but why not the natural method of having a beloved pet? However, from my observations it requires a “bonded” relationship with a pet, not just a pet in close proximity, such as the back yard. The pet must be part of your daily existence and that you care about. Although, there are some benefits from even a fish tank, the benefits are not as pronounced, as when a bond exists.

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”
Ben Williams

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