Author Archives: Hadley Rush

Pets Are Good For Us

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

How you feel can be affected by interaction with your pet. Simply being with your pet can provide positive health benefits because they affect your internal chemistry in ways that until recently were unknown to us. However, in the last few years several chemical indicators in our bodies have been measured before and after interaction with a dog. Previously, I discussed one of these, Oxytocin, but there are more I will discuss periodically, which are cortisol (stress hormone), prolactin (bonding hormone), endorphin (warm feeling or high feeling hormone), phenylethylamine (attention hormone), dopamine and epinephrine (nerve transmittors) and serotonin (depression related hormone). All of these natural chemicals in our body are affected in a positive manner when interacting with your pet.

As pet lovers we know that pets are good for us, because we experience an enhanced well being when we are with our pets. We look forward to going home and being with our pets. As humans we seek acceptance, unconditional love, understanding and uncritical companionship, which in our modern complex society is fleeting at best from other humans. However, we received all these benefits and more from our pets. Pets can become a safe haven of retreat which allows us to diminish all the negative chemicals that build up in our bodies from life’s daily duties such as, paying bills, commuting, work, and coping with complex human interactions. As you and I will come to understand, our pets help us to restore a natural chemical balance and avoid chronic imbalances which can negatively affect our health and well being. The way we feel about our pets has a physiological basis, which is currently referred to as, the Human-Animal bond.

Cortisol is the “stress hormone” in our bodies. It has long been known that when we are under stress the body produces a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol allows the body to react to an immediate life threatening situation, which allows us to react quick enough to avoid danger by fighting or fleeing. In our primal beginnings we needed to be able to react to danger without a lot of thought. This is our natural defense which places us into a state called the “flight or fight” syndrome that allows our bodies to react almost instantaneous to any perceived or real danger. Without this quick reaction mechanism, as a species we would not have survived. Cortisol has other functions which in small quantities have positive affects on us necessary to carry out our metabolism, such as glucose release to fuel our bodies. In prolonged quantities Cortisol can have negative affects on our health.

Prolonged stress, such as we endure in our fast paced culture can cause cortisol levels to be continuously high, instead of spiking in a crisis and then tapering back to normal levels. The desired affect of preparing our body too quickly react, will have the opposite effect of damaging our bodies if the spikes of cortisol do not return to normal levels. Interacting with pets reduces your cortisol levels, almost like an “all clear” signal to calm us down. Measurements of cortisol levels in our bloodstream decrease when we are quietly caressing or petting a dog. Although to date, only measurements of blood chemistry have been done in humans, interacting with dogs, there is other strong evidence that similar positive results would be present with any animal or pet. Certainly, riding a bull or confronting an enraged animal of any kind would have the opposite affect of increasing our cortisol levels, but only until the episode or dander was over. Then the cortisol levels would rapidly diminish.

People under chronic stress with continuous high levels of cortisol become immunodeficient. Our immune systems become deficient and thus susceptible to infections. An interesting fact is that unlike our pets which decrease our cortisol levels, our spouse increases our cortisol levels. This may be because as humans, we have complex relationships that require more effort and diplomacy for acceptance. We are always more vulnerable to those we are most close to, from which we expect and become more demanding of.

“The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue.”

A New Puppy

Posted by Pets Best on 4/12/2006 in Training Tips Articles

A new puppy can be a fun addition to a household, but is a decision that should be thoroughly thought through before making the commitment for the next ten to twenty years. Puppies while being cute and entertaining require a great deal of time, patience and supervision. A young dog is not fully mature until the age of three or four meaning a good number of years before that puppy settles into a quiet adult dog and all puppies even if well supervised will wreck some havoc on a home and yard. If a new puppy is going to join your household or already has the first steps to take are potty training and puppy proofing.

…The key to potty training is setting your dog up for success by creating a daily routine of pattern behaviors…

Potty training is an absolute must for a canine companion in order to allow them in the house and in public environments. The key to potty training is setting your dog up for success by creating a daily routine of pattern behaviors. To start a new puppy off give them a safe and comfortable doggy space such as a crate where they can eat, sleep and are unable to exhibit any bad choices. The area should be small enough that your puppy cannot go potty on one end and sleep on the other. Dogs do not like to eliminate any place they sleep or eat so go ahead and feed meals in the crate or small space and in addition this will keep the space positive.

During the day set your pet up with a set schedule. Regular feeding times and regular potty breaks are essential, keep in mind a puppy will need to defecate approximately twenty to thirty minutes after a meal. Before allowing your puppy play time in the yard or quiet time in the house, always make sure they eliminate in the appropriate location. Anything is more fun then going potty, therefore it is typically necessary to take your puppy outside on leash, be patient, walk back and forth in the designated location and verbally state to your puppy a cue to go potty. Watch closely for sniffing, walking quick in circles and holding the tail up, all good signs we are about to go potty. Once we have gone potty reward with lots of praise, remember dogs are mans best friend and want to please us. After going potty then your puppy can enjoy playtime or activities in the home.

Inside your home set your puppy up for success by keeping them on a leash until potty training is complete and you can trust that the puppy will not be destructive, endangering your home or your pet’s health. Homes are generally too large is size for a new puppy that will have no problem going into another room for potty breaks. If you keep your puppy in sight they will be less likely to have an accident since dogs do not like to eliminate in lived in spaces, and you can watch for signs of having to go potty such as sniffing or acting restless. If you notice these signs head to the appropriate location and remember to reward.

It is also recommended to keep the water bowl outside. A water bowl in a crate can be quit a mess and you will be unable to keep track of how much water is consumed. A puppy given regular potty breaks with a water bowl on the way to that designated location will get plenty of water and you the owner can keep a mental track of water intake. If a puppy has drank a lot of water a potty break will be needed shortly. Since your puppy will be on leash in the house a water bowl in the house will not be easily accessible, also many puppies love to put there feet in the bowl and even splash water.

All dogs including puppies should be proofed, meaning anyone can manipulate any part of your their body without the pet becoming defensive or upset. The reason this must be done is so that you the owner can handle your pet, if a child runs up and grabs your pet the child does not get bit and for visits to your veterinarian and groomer. These exercises not only make life easier and less stressful for both you and your pet but make the veterinary visits and groomer visits a simple task.

…As you touch the dog’s tail, feet, ears, and belly reward with verbal praise, food rewards, and a calm soothing voice…

To begin this exercise start slow and reward often. Practice by touching areas you would normally pat and move to other body parts such as the toes, ears and tail. Keep the first few sessions short and positive however try to have a few sessions each day. As you touch the dog’s tail, feet, ears, and belly reward with verbal praise, food rewards, and a calm soothing voice. As your pet gets used to these body parts being touched start to be a little rougher, without hurting your pet. We want your pet prepared for an ear cleaning at the veterinarian’s office as well as being tackled by a neighborhood kid. If you get some resistance or nipping go ahead and say the word ‘no’ but continue with the exercise until your pet calms down and allows that body part to be touched. If your dog is nippy you can hold the pet under the chin to prevent being nipped or keep a plush toy available to keep the mouth busy. Remember to reward often when the puppy is still and allows their body parts to be manipulated.

In addition to dog proofing you need to teach your pet that it is ok to be restrained by a person. The best way to do this is to sit on the floor and roll your pet unto their back into what is called a settle position. The owner can hold onto the dogs front legs and place their legs on either side of the dog to provide support. If the puppy is a small breed this exercise can be done on your lap while sitting on the floor or while sitting on a sofa. Reward by providing praise when successful and keep the first few settles short. If your pet resists and try’s to get up continue to hold until still and then let your pet up. The exercise of proofing needs to be continued through maturity and ideally for the rest of your pet’s life.

Keep in mind any new pet needs a great deal of time, attention, and structured exercise. Any further questions regarding potty training and proofing should be directed towards your local veterinarian who may refer you to a professional dog trainer. It is always recommended for inexperienced dog owners to seek the assistance of a professional trainer to get your pet off to the right start and all dogs should be trained basic obedience and taught proper social skills in addition to potty training and puppy proofing.

Animal Bonds

Posted by Pets Best on 4/7/2006 in General Articles

Companion animals have evolved over the last hundred years into a huge component of the human household and in many cases are considered a family member. Over half a million households in the United States share a home with a pet. The change in human perception of animals and their relationships has created a mutual necessity for domesticated pets in society. Animals are amazing creatures that have unique bonds between one another as well as with their human caretakers. They can provide us daily assistance in ways man can not and can positively benefit our health and longevity.

Many humans today would not choose to live without a companion cat or dog. In addition to serving as loyal family members some animals are able to assist us in our daily lives, even providing services another human could not perform. We have all heard of guide dogs for the blind and police dogs, but today dogs are used to detect seizures to allow an owner time to prepare before one strikes, such as pulling the car over. Canines are also being used to assist people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, in the course of the disease feet can freeze in place, while the rest of the body maintains motion causing a person to fall, a trained canine can either detect the feet are about to freeze or counterbalance the person until they regain use of their feet. It is also amazing that a canine can detect hypoglycemia, low blood sugar, allowing the owner to alleviate the condition before it becomes life threatening. Currently it is also being discovered that canines are capable of detecting cancer, a service that surely will be used a great deal in the future.

In addition to trained canines providing amazing services to their owners, companions pets that never work a day in their life can also greatly benefit their owners. Many humans find their pet is a fundamental reason for them to continue with this life, and many find having a pet combats loneliness. Furthermore many individuals feel much safer with a pet in the house and carry no worries when walking or running a pet on city streets. Pets are able to offer their owners an impressive array of traits such as loyalty, enjoyment, company, and safety.

…Studies are showing the presence of an animal can positively affect blood pressure, heart rates, and cholesterol…

The health benefits being discovered that pets offer their caretakers as well as the sick or elderly is absolutely astounding. Studies are showing the presence of an animal can positively affect blood pressure, heart rates, and cholesterol. Many elderly respond to animals in ways they would not respond to a person, they may exhibit higher degrees of alertness, attentions and even reach out to touch the animal. Pets have even proven an ability to eliminate depression, and decrease feelings of fear and anxiety. Horses for many years now have been able to aid those with physical disabilities by influencing the patient’s posture, bodily movements, balance and physical functions.

Due to the huge role pets play in our lives and the correlation with a pet’s shorter lifespan can make loss and bereavement overwhelming for anyone that has lost a faithful animal companion. It can be even more devastating when that pet also provided a much needed service. Approximately sixty percent of dogs sleep in our bedrooms, even a greater number greet us at the door and when times are bad they are always a reliable friend. When a pet passes there are defiantly stages of grief we must pass through, such as anger, depression and acceptance. One thing pets do teach people is how to deal with grief and letting go. Once we have accepted the loss we can freely move on with our lives and hold on to a cherished memory.

The same feelings of lose a human feels are being discovered as being felt by animals as well. Animals that have a close bond with another animal friend show physical signs of loss. Research on horses has shown they appear to feel devastated, eating less, acting withdrawn and at times this can adversely affect a healthy animal’s health. PET scans that show neurological activity have found that humans and animals show similar changes in brain activity when experiencing grief. Some even say that when one animal passes, if there is a close companion to let the other animal spend time with the remains. This can allow the living friend a chance to say goodbye and realize that the other has passed away. Once the animal no longer shows interest in the deceased companion than it should be removed. However be prepared for the grieving animal to display strange actions, some may be fearful, show no interest while others may seem to desire a good amount of time with the deceased.

Certain unique animals have been able to form some very unusual bonds that cross beyond the lines of normal behavior but aid to exhibit the importance of needed a friend. In a Kenyan sanctuary a rescued baby hippopotamus has taken to a one hundred and twenty year old tortoise. They can be caught sleeping and even swimming together. In a Tokyo zoo a live hamster labeled as snake food as become the best buddy to that snake. The snake has now overcome a dislike for frozen rodents and the staff has named and provides care for the hamster. These unique bonds represent the need for animals as well as humans to bond with other living beings and by doing so we can gain the wealth of talents only certain species hold, enriching everyone’s life.


Skeeter Foundation Revitalized

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

Recently, through the generous donations of General Fire & Casualty Company, the underwriter for Pets Best insurance and Greg Mc Donald, the chairman of GF&C, the holding company for General Fire & Casualty Company, the Skeeter Foundation was revitalized. If you don’t know me, you are asking yourself, “What is a Skeeter?”

Skeeter is my miniature pinscher that I write about a lot. He and Torrey (my tea cup Chihuahua) travel with me daily to work and occasionally around the country to Veterinary Conferences. Skeeter and now Torrey are the daily reminders of why I am such an advocate of pets.

My wife, Vicki and I started the Skeeter Foundation in 2000 to fund and assist volunteers who take their certified therapy pets to hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities and schools and to fund studies that prove scientifically the positive attributes of pet ownership. “Prescribe Pets Not Pills” is the foundation’s mission.

Of course we know that pets will not eliminate the need for humans to take pills. But we also knew from unscientific observations that pets make us healthier and happier. We witnessed people eliminating the need or decreasing the need for antidepressants, by the simple act of obtaining a pet. We also witnessed people that obtained pets, being less lonely, more fulfilled, meeting new friends, being discharged from hospitals quicker with less post operative pain and generally having a better outlook on life. My own personal observations during my bout with Cancer demonstrated other benefits of pets, such as distraction, entertainment, empathy and a complicated technique, the National Cancer Institute terms complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) . So, why not prescribe a pet instead of a pill, when it works?

Skeeter Foundation – The Start
A primary goal of the Foundation is to fund, organize and assist volunteer pet therapy teams to visit hospitals, nursing homes, hospice facilities and schools. Helping volunteers to bring some joy to others who are under stress from health care issues or educate our youth about the value of pets in society. For me, it all started over 25 years ago when I made my first visit with a therapy pet to a hospital. As the therapy pet and its owner handler walked the isles of the hospital (I was an observer), a nurse came over to us and said she really did not have permission, but would we visit a child in one of the wards who was scheduled to see a psychiatrist, because of emotional trauma associated with post operative pain. The child refused to open her eyes, after surgery. The nurse explained that the parents, siblings, doctors and nurses were unable to get the child to open her eyes, despite any pleading, promises or encouragement. It seems the little girl thought the pain would return if she opened her eyes. After several days of urging, the doctors had finally recommended a psychiatrist be brought in the next day.

The volunteer of course obliged and went to the child’s room. The nurse told the child, “that there was a furry visitor here to see her, would she open her eyes and see the nice golden dog”. The little girl refused, whereupon, the dog walked over to the bed, pushed his nose and muzzle under the girl’s hand, as if to say “pet me”.

Immediately, the young girl opened her eyes and began talking, petting the dog and after about 15 minutes when we had to leave for the other visits, I can still remember her, jumping out of bed and running down the hospital isle, with the IV stand and tubes still attached telling us, “Don’t leave yet”. Nothing against psychiatry, but wasn’t this much better, cheaper and NO PILLS REQUIRED!

That episode inspired me to learn more about how pets affect us and how pets can make us healthier. No scientific studies had been done to validate the observations of me and countless others, but we knew something powerful when we saw it. Validating the positive effects of pets is another primary mission of the Skeeter Foundation; to fund scientific studies that measure the biochemical changes that occur between humans and pets.

The Skeeter Foundation is an all volunteer organization. My wife and I donate our time, mostly Vicki, to the foundation. The foundation has many volunteers who spend countless hours training and preparing their pets for hospital visits in effort to bring joy to others.

He Killed My Dog

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

Since graduating from Veterinary School, protecting pet family members has been my mission. My observations back in the late 1970’s that economic hardship was often the culprit in pet owners not being able to restore a pet to health caused me to wonder how as a society we could overcome that obstacle.

One day as I pondered the solution to helping more pets and before I ever thought about starting a pet insurance company a lady and her daughter brought in a middle aged dog to my practice that was very ill. As I examined the pet the mother kept telling me that “I should do whatever it takes to heal Fluffy, she is family.” She related, “Fluffy and been in the family since her daughter was an infant and she was family.” The daughter was crying and the mother was consoling her. After a preliminary exam, I told her that Fluffy had a serious medical problem and that I needed to take some blood to test her liver, as she was showing symptoms of liver disease. The mother replied, “Do what ever it takes” over and over. I told her we may need additional test, to which she gave the same reply, “Do what ever it takes.” She was quite well dressed and they lived in an expensive house in an expensive community, all the trappings of success. As I started to review the preliminary estimate of the cost for initial treatment, hospitalization and the testing, the mother started asking “If Fluffy was suffering?” I replied that she was very ill and was feeling more like a severe flu, than pain. She stepped behind her daughter and kept repeating the new mantra, “We don’t want Fluffy to suffer” and would shake her head from side to side in the negative to me as a signal she did not want to pursue diagnosing and treating Fluffy. I replied that although she was ill, if we were successful we would have her back feeling good soon, but until I knew more there was no guarantee. The mother again replied “We do not want Fluffy to suffer.” I got the hint and replied there was another alternative for terminally ill pets, which was putting her to sleep (euthanasia). She immediately said “If I thought that was best for Fluffy then we should put her to sleep.” Again, I stated I did not think that best, but it was an option. The mother continued to assert only that option as best, signed the approval for euthanasia and left.

Several months later I was shopping in the local grocery store with my wife and we met the client and her daughter. She said hello and said to her daughter, “You remember Dr. Stephens don’t you dear?” The response changed my life.

Her response was, “Yes, he is the man that killed Fluffy!” I was stunned! I do not remember how the conversation ended, only that I was the villain who had caused that young girl to lose her beloved pet. As a veterinarian I only wanted to treat pets, I studied even more after I entered practice than I had in school, I agonized when I could not diagnose or cure a pet, now I was a villain! To that young girl I was at fault, not the real villain the family’s finances or their attitude toward pets. Appearances can be deceiving, I will admit. As a Veterinarian I have had clients who seemed to have no money, yet they provided very expensive care for their pet and like this lady who seemed to have much wealth, not willing to spend even the $300 I estimated was necessary to find out if we could save Fluffy. Again, was it the willingness, motivation or simply having the money that was the problem? So much for Fluffy being part of the family.

After that day, I resolved to never euthanize a pet that was not terminally ill. Others could do it, but I would not. Others could put a pet to sleep because the people were moving, the pet was ill, they simply did not want the pet any more, but not me. Of course, reality is not that simple, so there had to be another way to protect pets. That’s when I started my campaign to develop pet health insurance. I had no expertise in the field; remember I was not particularly a fan of insurance. But I knew if I was to really help pets on a large scale, there had to be a broad economic method, not my skills as a veterinarian helping one pet at a time. After that day, I started the campaign to develop Pet Insurance.

“The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.”
Andy Rooney

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