The Rest of the Story

Back in the seventies, anyone who cared anything about animals and enjoyed reading was reading a series of books written by British veterinarian James Herriot, a.k.a. Alf Wight. Later, the BBC made the books into a television series that introduced even more people to the life of a trio of veterinarians plying their trade in the 1930s and 40s in the Yorkshire Dales. For a period of several weeks during this past long winter of record-breakers, I’d recover from shoveling snow, chipping ice, hauling wood and other chores by making myself a cup of herbal tea and watching episodes from the first BBC series, All Creatures Great and Small. Inevitably the dogs would join me on the couch, I swear in hopes that Siegfried Farnon would head out for a farm call with his pack of barking dogs so they could bark along with them.

Because so many years have passed since the time in which the stories are set and since I’d read and watched them, I was curious to see what I’d think of them now. What surprised me could be summed up in the old saw, “The more things change, the more they stay the same. ”

A case in point: A recurrent theme throughout the series was how helpless the veterinarians felt when it came to the treatment of certain diseases. They recognized the problem, but could do little or nothing to treat it. Although there are now treatments or vaccines for many of the diseases for which none existed in Herriot’s time, there are also new diseases that now elicit those same feelings of hopelessness. Technology permits us to describe what’s going on in the most precise terms and to a degree never dreamed of before. But even though symptomatic treatments have advanced a great deal, they’re still only symptomatic treatments; they’re not cures because the cause of these problems remains unknown.

At the same time, though, contemporary veterinarians learn the same lessons Herriot and his predecessors and their predecessors have probably learned for centuries: Just because some treatments seem so simple and low-tech doesn’t meant they have no value. Two segments in the television series, one involving a sheep and another involving a poodle, make this point. And the point they make is as relevant today as it was back then.

In the first case, a ewe was dying from a condition for which there was no treatment but the cheapskate farmer considered euthanasia a waste of his precious money. While he went into the house to get the fee he begrudged Herriot, the veterinarian zipped into the barn and gave the ewe an overdose of anesthetic to put her out of her misery. When the veterinarian visited the same farm for another reason several weeks later, the curmudgeonly farmer took him into the barn where he smugly showed Herriot the ewe who was now acting quite normally.

Naturally, the farmer crowed to all his neighbors about how smart he was not to listen to the vet who wanted to kill his sheep and charge him for doing it no less. Nor could Herriot bring himself to tell the man what he’d done, any more than he could explain why it helped the ewe recover instead of smoothing her way to death. At this point books and TV series diverge regarding how the veterinarian came to believe that anesthetizing the animal gave her a sufficient respite from pain that she could channel all her energy toward healing. What’s important is that this is the conclusion that was drawn, regardless how unscientific it may seem.

In the second incident, a doted on poodle developed gastroenteritis. No matter what the veterinarians prescribed, the dog’s vomiting and diarrhea continued and she became dehydrated. Because the wherewithal to replace fluids intravenously in small animals didn’t exist at that time, the animal was permitted to drink. When she did, the water would trigger the release of more irritating digestive enzymes that wood further irritate the lining of her stomach and gut and trigger more vomiting and/or diarrhea. This would further dehydrate her and cause her to drink more, continuing the downward spiral.

Finally the dog was in so much pain that her distraught owners requested euthanasia. Recalling what had happened to the ewe, Harriot suggested they literally rather than figuratively put the dog to sleep for two days. It was his hope that this would relieve the dog’s pain, keep her stomach and gut empty, and allow it to start healing. And it did. When she awoke, weak but more interested in her surroundings, they offered her tiny amounts of water, then bland food, a practice familiar to many whose companion animals have suffered from GI upsets.

In the decades since Herriot made his observations and drew his conclusion out of desperation, the healing power of sleep has been shoved aside in favor of whatever medications and other paraphernalia it takes to maintain the illusion that everything is fine. This can be particularly unfortunate for companion animals for behavioral and bond as well as medical reasons if the owners’ definition of fine is what is fine for them rather than what is fine for that particular animal at that particular time.

An image that haunts me is of the dogs who arrive at daycare wanting only to be left alone so they can sleep. If the daycare-givers are knowledgeable and caring, they provide these animals with comfy beds and a quiet environment for this healing interlude of physical and mental R&R. But doing so may not be a serene experience for those care-givers if the owners catch their dogs sleeping: Why should they pay good money for their dogs to do something they could do at home?! Well, because the dogs can’t relax and sleep soundly at home. Something there sufficiently stresses them that this isn’t possible.

Sadly, sometimes these owners don’t see it that way. Instead of seeing the dog’s unacceptable behaviors at home—barking, chewing, whining, going berserk when someone goes by the house, getting into the trash, etc. —as evidence of the animal’s stress, they decide the dog has “too much energy. ” In that case, what better way to solve the problem than for their dogs to get so exhausted from exercise that they have no energy left to do this? In such a way, Sparky winds up getting off-lead hikes where he runs willy-nilly more often ignoring his owners’ commands than obeying them. And/or he gets shipped off to daycare specifically to run himself ragged in a pack of dogs, at least some of whom may also have problems.

In terms of eliminating the signs of stress, such exercise can work in some cases, but in others it makes the dog’s behavior worse. Or the animal trades in a stress-related behavioral problem for a stress-related medical one.

While sleep can provide time for mental as well as physical healing, sadly the same intellectual glitch that has plagued us for years remains: beneficial as sleep may be it, too, only addresses the effects rather than the cause of the problem. But as long as we continue to seek answers strictly in the physical realm while ignoring the interaction of animal health, behavior, and the bond, that may be the best we can do.

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