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Pets & New Children

Posted on: December 15th, 2006 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

There are many reasons why people should not consider “getting rid” of a pet when a new child enters the home. Unfortunately, this happens all too often with pets that have provided years of companionship. They become disposable. The pet owner mistakenly believes that a new child and a pet are incompatible. They may be concerned that the added responsibilities will be too much for them, or that the pet might injure the child. However, the many advantages for pets in households with children far outweigh these concerns; usually, those who consider disposing of their pet are unaware of the many positive benefits that result from pets.

It now documented and scientifically proven that pets are good for our health and well-being. The simple act of petting a dog will improve a human’s internal biochemistry in several ways. Interaction with a dog or other pet increases certain hormones such as prolactin (the feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (the warm-feeling hormone). These are interesting bodily changes in our chemistry, especially given that these hormones are higher in women and even higher in women with newborn infants! Prolactin is responsible primarily for milk let-down in nursing mothers, and oxytocin is primarily responsible for the birthing stimulus. In other words, Mother Nature gives women higher levels of these hormones, so they will be more nurturing towards infants. Over the eons of interacting with animals, this same biological benefit was also being developed by safe, quiet interacting with animals for both men and women. If pets provide us with higher levels of the very same hormones, ones that cause us to be more nurturing and to generally feel better, why remove the stimulus?

Pets also decrease cortisol, the stress hormone. Blood levels of the primary hormone that can be measured when we are stressed (cortisol) actually decrease when we pet a pet. It has been a long time since I raised my four children, and I loved them dearly when they were small; but I can tell you it was stressful being a parent. Why remove the pet that actually reduces your stress and has the other proven benefits of reducing your blood pressure?

Additionally, pets increase certain neurotransmitters and other favorable chemicals that allow your nerves to work more efficiently and effectively. Pets improve Serotonin levels, decreasing depression. Think about all the post-partum depression that occurs and how having a pet may play a role in alleviating depression. It has been well documented – and I have personally seen many times – that obtaining a pet will lessen or even alleviate depression. I have witnessed people eliminate antidepressants completely by the simple act of acquiring a companion pet. Notice I said “companion pet,” because the pet needs to interact with you daily and be part of your life in order to obtain the maximum health benefits. If a household pet, such as a dog or cat is not feasible, consider an aquarium. There are even measurable benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, that have been observed with the interaction of pet fish and people.

Household pets, especially older pets, should be introduced with the new child, just as you would introduce the new infant to a sibling. After all, we don’t call pets our babies and treat them like children for nothing; and – as with human siblings – there can be some jealousy of a new member of the family. Proper introduction can head that issue off and prevent a negative association with the new member.

Allow the pet to see and sniff the new family member. Praise and pet the pet as you do the introduction, and always follow up with a treat. A few episodes of positive reinforcement with praise and petting, followed up by a treat, will soon associate the new family member with rewards. This same pattern should be used for any new family member, whether four-legged or two-legged. This should work in most all cases, if not; consult a professional behaviorist for advice. There is a solution to almost all situations.

Most pets are simply curious about a new family member. After all, this has been their household, and anything new in the environment demands their attention. Pets, like humans, need to assimilate and understand how change affects them. They have questions, which, while they cannot be expressed in language, are important to resolve through positive reinforcement and close supervision at the introduction.

Pets, like very small children, are curious and need to know how to avoid anxiety, frustration and undesirable results. Also, pets, like children, cannot express, nor can they understanding in our language, what is going on. In other words, you can not simply tell a dog how wonderful it is that the new baby is here and expect him to understand. Once their curiosity has been satisfied and they receive positive feedback for their curiosity, things will return to normal in most households, and nearly all pets will accept, if not welcome, the new member of the family. It is important to understand that a pet’s behavior is a direct result of your actions and reinforcement through the positive feedback mechanisms of praise and reward.

In our hectic lives pets can be a welcome, non-judgmental distraction from our stresses of the day. We have many demands, and a new child, although most welcomed, does come with stress. There are more concerns regarding how they are doing, their comfort, feeding, bathing, and changing of diapers, for instance, that increase the parents’ work load. The argument that adopting the pet out will relieve a few more burdens or chores that take time away is not valid, because the pet does not take that much time away. And – as we know from the positive biochemical and hormonal changes pets provide – valuable improvements in our lives because of our pets allow us to be even better parents.

The old school of thought that keeping children, especially infants, away from pets was helpful for preventing allergies has now been scientifically shown to be wrong. Evidence supports that early exposure to pets is actually better at preventing future allergies and non-exposure causes greater allergies for many children. Having pets around infants may actually improve their chances of having fewer allergies, certainly to pet dander, anyway.

In life, we owe certain loyalties to individuals, our family, society, the community and our government for the benefits they provide us. There is no less loyalty owed to a companion pet who has been there for you and been part of your family. You owe them an allegiance for the value they have brought to your life. Changes in your family situation do not change your loyalty to your other family members. It does not change your loyalty to society or to your community, nor should it change the loyalty you have to your pet. We are the protectors of children and pets. The creator granted us dominion over animals, but with that dominion comes responsibility. All things are temporary and transient, but how you deal with life and others is not. Pets give us unconditional love and loyalty. That loyalty should be reciprocated and not abdicated when family situations change.

I realize your pet may not be a Lassie that will save your child as Lassie did for Timmy many times, but it does happen. Pets commonly protect children introduced to them when they are mature. As the children age, many animals bond to children in their homes, in a manner that is still to be quantified. In fact, many breeds of dogs were specially bred to protect the children of emperors and nobles. There are many stories of pets protecting children and families. Cats have awoken their owners when a fire was present in the home, saving their owners’ lives. A pot bellied pig, when its owner suffered an incapacitating stroke, went into the street and would not move until a person followed her to her stricken master. Dogs have pulled children out of lakes and pools.

Dogs and horses have saved children from poisonous snakes. Even birds can be early warning signals for toxic fumes. Remember the canaries in the coal mines? Coal miners placed canaries in the mine shafts to warn of deadly toxic gases, by giving their lives as an early warning. Now instruments have been designed to take the canary’s place and measure deadly gases in the air.

One never knows when disaster will strike, or what form danger could come in for your child. Why not have trusted pet companions that can sense and know things you do not and can be there when you are not to protect your child?

There are many positive benefits of companion pets for you and your child. With a few easy steps, you can be assured of a good relationship between you, your pet and your new child or family member. The benefits of keeping the pet far outweigh the attitude that when new family members come, pets must go.

Dogs Help to Find and Cure Rare Human Disease

Posted on: September 18th, 2006 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

At the University of Missouri-Columbia, Tibetan terriers are contributing to a canine DNA bank in an ongoing research program that studies the genetic basis of a neurological disease that affects both dogs and humans.

The disease is neuronalceroid lipofuscinoisis (NCL) in dogs and Batten disease in humans. A rare, inherited neurological disorder, NCL/Batten disease does not currently have a cure. According to Dr. Martin Katz, professor of ophthalmology with a dual appointment in the School of Medicine and the College of Veterinary Medicine, human NCL often goes misdiagnosed due to its rarity and symptoms that are similar to other diseases. Affected children develop symptoms that may include blindness, seizures, cognitive decline and loss of motor function.

But Dr. Katz feels the purebred Tibetan terrier may hold the key for the genetic basis of the disease. By comparing the mutated genes of affected dogs to unaffected dogs, researchers have been able to pinpoint the mutant gene and identify through a complicated mapping process where the gene is in the DNA sequence.

A simple test for the mutation can then be performed on any dog using DNA extracted from a blood sample. This test will enable breeders to screen dogs prior to breeding to prevent future generations from being affected. This process will also lead to making it possible to determine whether any humans with NCL have the same mutations in the corresponding human genes.

The shorter life span of a dog allows researchers to conduct their studies much faster than with people, and the similarity of the disease will allow for better and faster results for humans. Another benefit of studying the genes in dogs is that there is excellent record keeping by the breed registries and close observations by the dog owners, which make them ideal subjects for genetic studies.

Another way man’s best friend continues to help us.

Source: Veterinary Medical Review, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Missouri.

Cantankerous Goose Helps Elderly Cancer Patient

Posted on: September 9th, 2006 by

By: Dr. Jack Stephens

A northern Idaho man diagnosed with terminal cancer says a usually cantankerous goose that befriended him on his walks has helped him live past doctors’ predictions. Bill Lytle, 73, a two-time state legislator told the Coeur d’Alene Press that after retiring, he became a founding member of a walking club that walked around a local lake where a goose was well-known to actually attack humans. After he was diagnosed with cancer, the goose, called Mr. Waddles, began to attach himself to Mr. Lytle. For some strange reason, this change in behavior only happened after he was diagnosed with cancer and seemed to be limited to this one person.

Mr. Lytle thinks Mr. Waddles knew he was sick and started coming up to him and letting him pet him. The goose now rubs his head against Mr. Lytle, yet will snap at anyone else who comes too close! This has inspired Mr. Lytle to continue his walks despite feeling ill, in order to have the daily meeting with Mr. Waddles. “He keeps coming to me, and I look forward to the daily sessions. Although I have cut my walks, he inspires me to keep going even when I do not feel like it,” Lytle said. (Coeur d’Alene Press)

Another example of animals helping humans. It is a mystery why this goose-who was well-known in the area for being a bird to stay away from-would change from a goose that would charge and nip anyone straying to close to suddenly befriending one ill person. Why would its behavior change so dramatically to this one person and become a motivational factor in this man’s battle with cancer?

My own personal experience with Spanky, coming to my rescue in my battle with cancer, was similar in that his behavior changed suddenly when I was diagnosed with cancer-although not as uncharacteristically as Mr. Waddles. He became tuned in to my need to fight the disease with more than drugs and radiation-a mystery in life that I feel is somehow rooted in our biology from eons of interaction with animals. My faith says humans are the stewards of animals, but is that because of our hierarchy or is it much more because they benefit us in ways we do not understand?

Aging Well

Posted on: August 28th, 2006 by

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 on: August 12th, 2006 by

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.