Living in Harmony

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

As a typical youth growing up in a rural environment, I was aware that the value placed on pets was based on the work that each could perform. Sheep and cattle dogs helped protect the flocks and herds. Barn dogs protected the chickens and baby animals from foxes and coyotes, and yard dogs served as security to prevent skunks, rodents and other varmints from setting up housekeeping under the farmhouse porch. Barn and equipment-shed cats had the responsibility for keeping the population of mice and rats at bay. These pets were outside animals that seldom had the opportunity to gain admittance to the warm and cozy confides of the family home, except on occasions of extremely harsh winter weather or the stifling heat of the dog-days of summer. These are the pets that I knew as a child and young adult in rural America.

Fortunately, the fate of the dog and cat has changed appreciably from those humble surroundings of my childhood. The accelerated rate of the post-World War II urbanization of America has changed the purpose of the dog and cat, moving them inside the home as trusted companions of family members. Many dogs and cats now sleep in the same beds as do the human members of the family. As a practicing veterinarian in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I began to see and follow the value being placed on the family pets by all members of society. Sight and hearing dogs were the norm, as were police and military dogs that served a purpose beyond being just a best friend. I had clients in my veterinary practice who realized the value in their dog’s presence from warnings of oncoming thunderstorms to the unconditional love displayed by the family dog as a companion to a young recipient of a much deserved “time-out.”

The dog’s love and attention never wavered. Dogs have been trained to pick up toys and place them on a tray for physically or mentally challenged toddlers, and dogs have been used to train prisoners and juvenile delinquents about the need for love and nurturing. Soldiers returning from battle have realized the value in bonding with the family pet in overcoming the psychological effects of returning from the stress of war zones. The answer has been found in the relationship formed between the family member and the dog, cat or other pet.

In 1981, Dr. Leo K. Bustad, then dean of the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, first coined the term “human-animal bond.” Dr. Bustad, who had many honors bestowed upon him for his work and writings on the “bond,” served as chair of the newly chartered not-for-profit-organization, The Delta Society. That international group focused on gaining the understanding of the quality of the relationship between pet owners, pets, and pet caregivers. The Delta Society, whose mission is to improve human health through service and therapy animals, later teamed up with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the largest and most influential veterinary support group in the world, to nurture the term “human-animal bond.”

Both human and veterinary medicine continue to discover the power of animals in influencing the healing powers of a strong human-animal bond. Thousands of articles and books from pediatric medicine to writings for the aged have been written relating the benefit of a strong human-animal bond in lowering blood pressure, lowering cholesterol, weight loss regimens, easing depression or healing minds from loneliness and emotional isolation, and detection of seizures and various types of cancer. In a recent study by Japanese scientists, it was determined that oxytocin, a hormone that among other things helps to reinforce bonds between parents and their babies, increases in humans and their dogs when they interact, particularly when they are looking into one another’s eyes.

These scientists described a series of experiments that suggest that people and their dogs have mutually developed this instinctual bonding mechanism in the thousands of years since dogs were first domesticated. “Oxytocin has many positive impacts on human physiology and psychology,” stated Dr. Takefumi Kikusui, a veterinary medical professor at Japan’s Azabu University whose research was published in the journal Science. Pets have become a full-fledged member of many families the world over.

With the aforementioned review of the evolution of the dog and cat into becoming family members through many thousands of years of domestication, I would like to pick out one typical American family with pets of all types and the harmony that exists within that family structure between the family members and its pets. I consider this to be the normal human animal relationship in many of the 62 million North American households that include pets as part of the family. And this real family truly exists.

Dr. Tom is an equine veterinarian who practices solely on thoroughbred race horses at several race tracks in the Mid-West. His wife, Pam, is a thoroughbred horse trainer who for many years has mounted six or eight horses early in the morning every morning to put these equine athletes through the rigors of their training sessions in order to compete in the races for which they were bred. Megan is a high school junior who is involved in each musical concert, drama or choir presentation her high school offers and Chris is a busy sixth grader who plays on his youth hockey and little league baseball teams. Together, this family of four lives on a 17 acre horse farm where there are 15-20 horses being boarded that are at varying stages of preparedness for going to the race track to compete in racing or mares going to the breeding shed to produce foals. A very balanced family don’t you think?

But wait there is Sally, a brindle Heinz-57 bull-dog type, whose main purpose in life is to greet anyone who comes to the farm for any reason. Sally is first to greet family members or visitors as they come and the last to give them a sloppy sniff as they leave the property. Sally spends her inside, non-working hours laying quietly and calmly next to the couch where Dr. Tom watches television or grabs a quick nap to recover from a trying day. Wilma, a black and white mixed breed dog of medium size, thinks she is the queen bee of the colony making sure all the horses are in the correct paddock or that the barn cats stay in their allocated living quarters without gaining any of the pleasures and accolades of the “real” members of the household. Wilma watches over the goats to make sure they stay in their designated areas in order to maintain harmony amongst all the animals on scene.

Then there are the twins, by that I mean totally opposite littermates. Stumpy is an all-black neutered male Manx cat whose role in life is to catch any bird, squirrel or small rodent of any kind and place it on the steps to the back door to prove his worth as a hunter-gatherer for the good of the family. Stumpy spends most of his nights outside and appears to rule over both the outside feral cat populations and other predators, as he has never come back to the house with signs of being involved in a conflict with other animals. Stumpy spends most of his daytime hours sleeping on the bed of his masters.

Puffy, on the other hand is a white, albino female Manx cat who is totally deaf. Puffy does not get to go outside, on purpose, for fear that she might be hit by a car or lawnmower, or even worse, be attacked by a predator because she couldn’t hear them in her presence. Puffy does have the hunter instincts of her brother; however, as she will go to the basement in the middle of the night when the entire family is fast asleep and return to the kitchen floor with a “captured” animal such as a teddy bear or stuffed unicorn, place it on the floor and let out a YYEEEOOOOWWWWWEEEEE!!!! announcing to all that she has captured her prey and brought it home for review.

More recently, DeeDee was added to the menagerie. DeeDee is a Pineapple Conure of unknown sex, who during the day has the liberty to fly to all parts of the house and take refuge in her cage when needed. DeeDee takes pleasure in teasing Stumpy, but never unless she has the advantage of height or distance to do so. Stumpy attempts to show his disinterest in DeeDee, but the family knows he is just itching to get close enough some time to capture the little twit! Therefore, when the family leaves the house in total, DeeDee is locked in her cage and safe as far as anyone can determine. DeeDee quits whistling and Stumpy goes back to his spot on the pillows of his masters. Puffy is oblivious of all this childish activity!

And there are the fish, both fresh and salt water fish in their separate tanks. These fish serve two purposes, one to create a beautiful spectacle of nature with their bright colors and fluid swimming motions, and a nervous dilemma for Stumpy who spends more than a little time on the back of a chair waiting for his chance to pounce. However he has never had the nerve to try to jump in and pursue what we all know he is thinking. Nor has he ever attempted to capture the two red toads named Get and Go in the aquarium with the Lizard. We are never sure which toad is Get and which one is Go!

Thus, we find today’s typical family that includes pets of all kinds and species sharing our homes with us. And science tells us that the animals, fish, reptiles and humans all fare better because of the bond that has evolved in our families between the humans and the pets. The human-animal bond is a real phenomenon that enhances the lives of all living beings. I am glad I am a part of nature’s family.

Bruce W. Little, DVM