A Return to Inconvenient Truths and Fantastic Opportunities
Last month I gave a presentation on the role of the human-animal bond as it impacts animal health and behavior at Purdue which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its School of Veterinary Medicine. This month I want to share a slightly edited version of that speech because it so sums up my thoughts regarding the history of this interaction and its potential.
Inconvenient Truths, Fantastic Opportunities: A far-reaching view of the bond as it affects animal health and behavior.
Myrna Milani, BS, DVM
Many years ago I gave a presentation at a large veterinary conference on feline behavior and how it affects feline health and the bond. The talk was held in a very small room because my status as an independent scholar in veterinary ethology usually limited my audiences to technicians at that time. Consequently, the elderly couple who sat in the third row directly in front of the podium immediately caught my eye. He was wearing a well-cut conservative grey suit with a stiff, blinding white shirt, and an equally conservative navy blue tie with diagonal red stripes. She sat ramrod straight beside him with her hands neatly folded in her lap. Her ensemble was a feminine version of his, only hers was crowned with a professionally styled, equally conservative hair-do. Both stared at me intently as I began to speak.
Like many of my presentations on animal behavior, this one first described the behavior of the ancestors of today’s companion animals, then discussed how those behaviors play out in the average human-pet animal household. As I was describing these interactions, I periodically saw the man give a slight, almost imperceptible jump. Other times I could sense the motion peripherally, thanks to that diagonally striped tie against his white shirt. This happened so often, I started to feel slightly disoriented and confused, like a lioness trying to make sense of the flashing diagonal stripes of a leaping Thompson’s gazelle.
I concluded my lecture by noting that the #1 feline behavioral problem—inappropriate elimination—and all those nonspecific urinary tract diseases in cats were, for me, a wonderful example of the interaction of companion animal health, behavior, and the human-animal bond. When I said this, the man lurched so noticeably in his seat that the woman poked him in the ribs with her elbow, then grabbed and held his hand.
By now it was obvious to me that what I was saying deeply upset this man and my fertile imagination immediately went into high gear. “Oh, no!” a voice in my head screamed. “He’s from the Veterinary Enforcement Agency! He’s going to jerk my license and send me to the Home for Wayward Veterinarians for re-education because I don’t worship the problem-oriented approach!!” Fueled by such dire, if ridiculous, images of my imminent professional demise, I somehow made it through the question-and-answer session that concluded the presentation, constantly dreading a question from him that never came. After the session ended, I fussed with my notes and other paraphernalia until everyone had left. Then I fussed even longer until I convinced myself that all but the most pathologically determined would have given up hope that I would ever emerge from that room. When I finally did what seemed like hours later, the two of them were standing outside the door waiting for me.
Before I tell you the rest of this story, I want to discuss how I came to believe that the human-animal bond should be integrated into the diagnosis and treatment of virtually every animal medical and behavioral problem. Chronologically, it begins with Ivan Pavlov hooking up a dog to an EKG and getting a resting heart rate, then measuring any change that occurred when an assistant entered the room and interacted with the animal. Briefly, he discovered that the dog’s resting heart rate increased when the person first entered, and then returned to normal as the dog became accustomed to the person’s presence. That came as no surprise. But then the dog’s heart rate continued to slow as the assistant stroked the dog. Later experiments also demonstrated the opposite: certain humans could increase canine heart rate, no surprise to anyone who has walked in on their Sneakapee living up to his name and seen him instantly scurry off the new couch. The changes in canine physiology in response to human presence that Pavlov and others observed were sufficiently significant that these collectively became known as the Effect of Person.
Fast-forward to the post WWII era and the studies on the effects of domestication begun by Soviet geneticist Dmitri Belyaev and his team of researchers. By breeding foxes strictly for a behavioral quality they called “tameability,” in a mere 20 generations they created a fox who displayed many of the behaviors of a domestic dog. Even more intriguing, those animals looked different and were different physiologically. These changes are summed up in the word neotony: the foxes were behaviorally and physiologically immature compared to their wild ancestors. Pertinent to this discussion, these experiments proved that it is impossible to change behavior without changing physiology. Concurrently, the studies that lay at the foundation of today’s animal training and years of practical application of the same make it clear that humans are capable of changing animal behavior.
More recently, we can add all the human-animal bond studies that make it equally clear that how animals relate to people is capable of changing human physiology and behavior, too.
Putting this all together, we can say that any change in behavior or physiology or the bond will result in changes in the other two.
Being only human, we all recognize the power of the human-animal bond as it affects human physical and mental health. Say “human-animal bond” and probably everyone in this room will think about all those warm intimate interactions people have with animals, or the use of animals in therapy and education, and/or of grief counseling for those who have lost beloved companion animals.
But inconvenient truth though it may be, the power of the human-animal bond affects all animals, be they wild or domesticated. We can see it in the eyes of every starving animal, but also in the eyes of every obese one. It is present in every cat with a urinary tract infection as well as every marking one. It resides in every animal with hypo- or hyperthyroidism, irritable bowel syndrome, epilepsy, cancer, aggression or separation anxiety.
Even more inconveniently, on some level and even if only subconsciously, we all know this.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago I received a newsletter from my local compounding pharmacy that included an article on Cushing’s Disease. What immediately drew my attention was the diagram on the first page that depicted the familiar interaction of hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal cortex, interactions familiar to all veterinarians. However, what made my heart leap with joy was that this particular diagram included the usually omitted first step in the cycle, “Incoming Stimuli ‘Stressor’.” Almost shaking with anticipation at the prospect of a discussion of the disease that recognized the role the animal’s human-influenced physical and mental environment played in it, I quickly read the article. Alas, except for one sentence acknowledging the presence of an external emotional or physiological stimulus that usually triggers the hypothalamus to start the internal cycle, it was same old, same old. From that sentence on, the animal as an animal who lived with people with whom he or she daily interacted for good or ill ceased to exist. Instead, the animal was replaced by a physiological problem to be solved.
Think about all the physiological and emotional stimuli the average companion animal processes in an average day. Inconvenient though it may be, it is difficult to get past the awareness that directly or indirectly humans and their relationships with the animal are the source of the vast majority of these. Even more inconvenient, if we think about all the stress hormones and their precursors and the whole-body effects of these substances, is it far-fetched to think that those bond-related stimuli might be affecting the animal’s thyroid gland and pancreas, among other body parts, too? Call me a dreamer or a lunatic, but I see learning more about this interaction as a fantastic opportunity to broaden our treatment approaches to hypo- and hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s and Addison’s diseases, diabetes, pancreatic insufficiency, irritable bowel syndrome, idiopathic epilepsy, cancer and that growing population of immune-mediated diseases.
Lastly, we must confront the most inconvenient truth of all: we are all in this together. Just as changes in animal health or behavior or the relationship with us will inevitably create changes in the other two, changes in our own health or behavior or relationship with the animal will similarly affect them as well.
For the past fifty years, that reality has been almost completely erased in our quest to reduce both human and nonhuman animals to ever more highly defined medical or behavioral problems or even mere algorithms. However the inextricable interspecies effects of the human-animal bond have long been known. In the Old Testament of the Bible (Ecclesiastes 3:19) we read, “For what happens to humans also happens to animals; as one dies so dies the other.” Chief Seattle reiterated this same truth in 1855 when he surrendered his tribal lands to Washington Territory Governor Isaac Stevens saying, “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.” In The Outermost House published in 1923, naturalist Henry Beston ends his plea for a less romanticized, more knowledge-based understanding of our relationship with animals with the words, “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
And now here I am saying it again.
Given the segregated rather than integrated medical and behavioral academic cultures the problem-oriented approach has spawned, the fact that animals and humans inevitably function as a behavioral/emotional-physiological unit is highly distressing at first glance. I do not blame you if this suggestion immediately throws you into denial, anger, bargaining, or depression because I experienced all of these emotions myself when this reality hit me. While others were laughing at the photo of the snarling Chihuahua holding the insulin syringe in a death grip, previously unconsidered questions filled my mind:
- Whose insulin is that? The dog’s or the person whose arm is visible behind the dog?
- If it is the dog’s insulin, how does his temperament affect his glucose levels and other physiological parameters, as well as if, when, and how he gets medicated?
- Is the veterinarian aware that the dog behaves like this at home? If so, how does that clinician interpret laboratory results and compensate for the physiological changes associated with the animal’s behavior? What is he or she doing to ensure that the dog gets properly medicated? What is the veterinarian doing to address the behavioral and bond aspects of this problem to relieve this animal’s considerable stress?
- If the insulin is the owner’s, how does living with a dog like this affect that person’s glucose levels? What does that person do when the dog steals the syringe and won’t let it go? Is this person’s physician aware of this canine factor?
The more questions I asked myself, the more came to mind. And I am sure that those of you currently immersed in medical practice can think of many I missed or was not smart enough to ask. Once again we can see that even though expanding our awareness of the full range of the human-animal bond can yield inconvenient truths about the perceived soundness of our current approaches, it also provides fantastic opportunities for exploring new ones.
But what would the well-dressed elderly gentleman have to say about all this were I to look up and see him standing outside the door today? Twenty odd years ago when he greeted me, he and the woman he introduced as his wife both had tears in their eyes. He told me how he had made the bond-physiology-behavior connection as a young practitioner without any studies to back him up, and how he had tried to incorporate that awareness into the diagnosis and treatment of every animal he saw. When the word got out about what he was doing, he was visited by members of the veterinary community. They told him he was a disgrace to the profession. If he did not stop using this unscientific approach, they would see that he never practiced anywhere ever again. He did stop because he had a family to support and could not afford to lose his livelihood. But he never forgot, even years after he retired.
He and his wife both thanked me profusely and melted into the crowd. If I ever knew his name I have long forgotten it, even though the memory of that conversation has fueled my own, sometimes very solitary trek many times over the years. We have come a long way in our knowledge and appreciation of the role the bond plays in animal health and behavior since then, but we still have a very long way to go.
The paradox of enlightenment regarding any subject is that it is like replacing a low-wattage bulb with a much brighter one: we can see everything more clearly, including some things we might prefer not to see. Expanding our knowledge of the bond reveals that its affects are all-inclusive. In addition to all the domesticated animals we interact or will interact with in our personal and professional lives, the fate of every endangered species rests on the human-animal bond. The fate of all wild animals—be they residents of environments humans covet or those humans summarily dismiss as insignificant—rests on the human-animal bond. The fate of the most primitive organisms that make up the lesser and greater ecosystems of the planet and thus the fate of the planet itself rests on the human-animal bond.
If we do not think that the bond matters, if we continue to restrict it to the realm of benefiting us or, worse, to warm, fuzzy, romanticized public relations and marketing strategies, then we risk undermining the wellbeing of the very animals on whom our own wellbeing depends.
Can we get out of this current mind-set? I honestly do not know if we can. Especially in my lifetime. But in the long run? Well, I am an optimist. I have met freshman and sophomore veterinary students who intuitively recognized the power of the bond as its effects animal health and behavior. Admittedly, some of them give up or lose this awareness by the time they graduate, but others manage to keep it alive and continue to nurture it in practice. And like some of you, those who did have experienced that sweet spot where the human-animal bond, behavior, and physiology intersect, even if they do not know exactly what causes that feeling like no other that they experience when it does. And all of them remain in awe of its power, even when it makes them feel impotent. I, too, have experienced those feelings. It is what keeps me going.
In closing I would like to paraphrase philosopher theologian Teilhard de Chardin’s famous statement about love because it sums up my hopes for a profession I love as well as for all the animals with whom we interact and on whom our lives depend:
The day will come when, after taking the problem-oriented and evidence-based approaches to their limits and confining our perceptions of animal health or behavior or the bond to ever smaller and more specialized specialties, we shall unite them all again, and recognize and harness the true power of the bond for the benefit of all animals, human and otherwise And on that day, we individually and as a profession will discover the equivalent of fire.
I have been fortunate enough in my lifetime to experience that fire even if only on a small scale. Today and whether you are a practitioner, researcher, veterinary student or technician, trainer, or pet-owner, I offer that opportunity to you.
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