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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”