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.
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.”
Posted by Pets Best on 3/13/2006 in Training Tips Articles
If it’s true that 80% of communication is non-verbal, it stands to reason that we could learn quite a bit from our canine friends. Since the beginning of the man-dog relationship, dogs and wolves have proven to be expert communicators through their use of body language, facial expressions and vocalizations. Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian dog trainer with over fifteen years experience studying wolves, has discovered over thirty calming signals that can easily be recognized and used by humans to directly communicate with our canine companions.
In her book On Talking Terms with Dogs, Rugaas shares her insights on the fascinating world of communication between dogs, as well as between dogs and their owners. “We need to learn to understand the language of dogs so that we can understand what our dogs are telling us,” Rugaas says. “That is the secret of having a good life together.”
One signal that is commonly misunderstood in the human-canine connection is the dog’s use of the yawn. Rather than signifying that he is tired or bored, the yawn is a coping mechanism used when the dog feels threatened. When a threat is received, according to Rugaas, the dog will always respond with a calming signal such as yawning, licking his nose or turning away, among others.
Unfortunately, she says, a large majority of dog owners ignore these signals, creating stress, anxiety and even aggression in their pets. Rather than help the situation, correction and punishment only further complicate the human-canine relationship, so understanding is key.
“The dog may yawn when someone bends over him, when you sound angry, when there’s yelling and quarreling in the family, when the dog is at the vet’s office, when someone is walking directly at the dog, when you ask the dog to do something he doesn’t feel like doing, when your training sessions are too long and the dog gets tired, and in many other situations,” Rugaas says. What he’s really telling us is, “Please understand me.”
“These signals are international and universal. Dogs all over the world have the same language. A dog from Japan would be understood by an Elkhound who lives in an isolated valley in Norway. They will have no communication problems!”
The trouble then is not so much dog to dog, but dog to human. With our sweeping gestures and loud voices, too often we send our dogs into a state of panic where they struggle to communicate with us through calming signals. Even young puppies will display the use of calming signals in the hopes of communicating uncertainty or fear. And we thought that all that sniffing at the vet’s office was just out of curiosity!
Strengthening the animal-human relationship is not easy, but it is most certainly possible, especially with a little patience and a better understanding of what our four-legged friends are trying to say.
Source: HSUS.org; healthypet.com; geocities.com; newsday.com; cavolark.com; canis.no/rugaas/index; clickertraining.com
By: Dr. Jack Stephens
Veterinarians and veterinary technicians like all professionals continue their education (CE) after they graduate to keep up with all the many changes, discoveries and to learn about new technology. Gaining a degree is only the first step in what should be a lifelong journey of learning. In veterinary medicine there is a plethora of CE opportunities locally, regionally and nationally. The abundance of courses teaching new knowledge astounds me. Frankly it is intimidating for busy veterinary practitioners to maintain the pace of being informed on new techniques for surgery or diagnostics to uncover a disease. You should know that attendance by your veterinarian is at an all time high with an increasing number of CE opportunities. For instance, one that struck me was a new DNA test that eliminates the guessing of a dogs breed. According to the Western Veterinary Conference, which I attended last week one company was introducing a Breed Identification Test that will allow your veterinarian to unlock the mystery of the primary breeds involved in a mixed breed dog.
You might ask, “Why is that important?” Most of us are quite happy with our mixed breed dogs. In fact, mixed breed dogs are known to be healthier and have less hereditary or congenital defects. Yet, even with mixed breed dogs, they do posses and will at times manifest severe genetic defects that need to be treated. The premise is that early detection may allow prevention. Also, as more gene therapy techniques become available, better treatment option for some genetic conditions will be possible.
Knowing the parentage of a mixed breed pet may someday soon allow your veterinarian to prevent the onset of certain diseases, giving your dog more years of good health, according to a spokesperson for Progressive PetCare, the DNA test provider.
The recent Western Veterinary Conference also announced that canine influenza, a highly contagious respiratory disease infecting dogs across the United States is an emerging problem for dog owners. A two hour symposium was provided that discussed the outbreaks, clinical signs, new diagnostic testing, treatments and control measures. The disease has been identified in 18 states and is similar to kennel cough in its symptoms. Like kennel cough, a secondary bacterial infection can develop and lead to pneumonia. Treatments require hospitalization, isolation to prevent further spread, antibiotics for secondary infections and supportive therapies, according to the symposium. There is no vaccine for canine influenza at this time. Another of many reasons, to have pet health insurance for your pet.
Pets Best Exhibits at CE Conferences
Like most other companies that provide products, equipment or services to veterinary professionals, Pets Best insurance was at the two largest conferences recently, North American Veterinary Conference and Western Veterinary Conference. This was our unveiling of Pets Best to veterinarians and their staff. After 25 years in the business, I must admit I was still somewhat apprehensive of how our new pet health insurance would be received by my colleagues. After all, they had only known me to be at one company for all these years. I am happy to report that the response was overwhelmingly positive and even jubilant by many of my colleagues that I was back in the industry. Not only was I back, but I had improved pet insurance greatly. I knew I had made many innovative changes and improvements, but still you wonder if those most critical will notice. AND THEY DID! Your veterinarian is very sensitive to only providing their clients with good services and products, because after all their integrity is on the line every time they recommend any service, product or company.
For companies offering services or products exhibiting at CE conferences is a good method to inform and to receive feedback on how you are doing as a company with veterinarians. At Pets Best veterinarians are our first customer and pet owners are our ultimate customer. At Pets Best we recognize that we must satisfy both to be successful; our policyholders and their veterinarians.
At the Western Veterinary Conference I was able to take four of our dogs, Skeeter of course, Torrey, Obie, our Scottish Deerhound and Cricket, a Brussels Griffon. They were our official ambassadors and provided petting opportunities to all the many attendees who missed their dogs. It was also special, because Skeeter had his 14th birthday party at the conference, where he is an honorary Board member. Skeeter attends many veterinary conferences, but at the Western Veterinary Conference he has had 13 straight annual appearances and is loved by all for his stoic good nature. Crowds do not phase him. He remains calm and relaxed in front of large groups and audiences, something he has done many times. Skeeter is one of a kind.
“We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare and love we can spare. And in return, dogs give us their all. It’s the best deal man has ever made.”
By: Dr. Jack Stephens
Feel like talking or not? If not, tell people you sell insurance! Several years back, while traveling extensively to promote pet health insurance, I noticed something interesting. Everyone that travels has had the experience of going on a flight and after you are seated you or the person next to you ask where you are going? Are you going home, traveling on vacation or on business? Then they will invariably ask you what your occupation is.
For many years at parties or social gathering, I was reluctant to offer my occupation, not because I was ashamed, but because I would be overwhelmed with stories about pets or asked for medical advice on pets. Flying was the same. If I told my fellow passenger that I was a veterinarian, then a litany of pet stories would ensue and sure enough, I would be provided some pet symptoms and asked for my medical opinion. I found I could not read, contemplate or get any work done.
Quickly I discovered that if I wanted to read or work or simply did not feel like talking due to some major issue that I was pondering, I would tell my fellow passenger that I sold insurance. That ended the conversation! I must have given that answer to over 100 people over a 20 year period. And, you know, not ONE person asked what kind of insurance I sold. I guess they were afraid I would try to sell them an insurance policy.
In fact, I never really liked insurance or the thought of insurance ever since I was a senior at Veterinary School and was bombarded by all the University ex jocks who sold life insurance. They descended upon soon to be graduates like a lynch mob in the Old West. But here I was, a veterinarian who sold insurance. I always distill things down to the basics and it was true, like so much in life we never know where life will take us. Yet, I slowly and deliberately chosen my new career path and was not about to change. I was helping many hundreds of thousands of more pets than I ever could have done in my pet practice and was providing a service that protected family bonds and pet health. But my method sure stops people from chatting if you are ever on a plane and not in the mood to talk!
I Sell Pet Insurance
Telling people I am a veterinarian has one path of continued dialog, telling them I sell insurance ceases all dialog; but tell them that I sell Pet Insurance and watch out. At first, they just sit or stand there, with their mouth partly open; pondering the dichotomy of a vet, who is generally held in high regard or even revered by some and combined with selling insurance which is similar to being a used car salesman, although with more education. Then, after a few seconds of silence, their whole face brightens up and they say, “That is a wonderful idea. Did you think of that?” Their first impression, which they do not share, is “that is the dumbest thing I ever heard.” But during that silent pause to be courteous, they realize that pet insurance is a good idea. Why? I think because everyone in America and throughout the more urban societies is starting to recognize the REAL VALUE of pets. As we leave more rural areas and agricultural societies to dwell in urban societies we lose the ties of family and small close knit groups who help one another. We also lose the interaction with animals that has been rooted in our biology over many thousands of years. We have more time from labor intensive activities; we have more complex relationships that create stress and emotional upheaval which causes us to seek solace and non critical companionship. It is easy to understand why pets with their unconditional acceptance of us play a vital role in our health and well being.
Not sure? Animals, especially pets have a biological relationship with us that has developed over the eons of time. This longstanding relationship has created positive biochemical and hormonal reactions within us that helped us survive and cope. We have known for some time that pets can lower our blood pressure. In fact studies have shown that simply sitting in front of a fish tank will lower our blood pressure.
Petting even a strange pet will increase good hormones, chemicals and neurotransmitters and decrease stress hormones in our bodies. It also results in an increase in serotonin levels in the brain, which is a natural antidepressant. Pets are so good for us, that innately we want to provide for them. Often my wife will tell me that she wishes I would respond to her greeting as enthusiastically as I do to our pets greeting. She is right and it is a good reminder of my deficiencies as a husband. But our pets display the same overwhelming exuberance when I am gone from the house for a few minutes as they do when I return from a long trip. They are simply glad to see me and they have to outdo one another in their greeting. Whenever my wife or I return form a brief trip to the store or from a long trip we receive the same “pack welcome”, which makes us feel good. Think how many times you are anxious to go home and see your pet, because of their greeting. Just the thought of your pet greeting you at the door is enough to make you smile. Watch pet owners who talk about their pet, they are smiling. Stop and think of your pet now or describe some episode with your pet and you will smile. Each of us has our own special memories or daily activities with our pets that make us happy.
Oxytocin is a natural human and animal hormone. We think of it as only being a hormone for women that increases with pregnancy and is responsible for helping mothers give birth. In fact, oxytocin is given to animals to stimulate birthing. But men also have very small amounts of oxytocin, which is one reason why men and women are different. Oxytocin also is thought to be primarily responsible for the feeling of “warmth and comfort,” in men and women. Oxytocin has much higher levels in women and is thought to be the reason why women are more responsive to children.
Petting your pet increases the oxytocin levels in our bodies, even men! It gives you that feeling of well being and warmth. Don’t worry men; your level will not increase enough to cause you to want to give birth. But it will give you a glimpse into the feelings that women have for children.
“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”