Allow me to once again wish you and your pet-owning, animal-loving families all the very best for 2023 and beyond.
Each year, at this time, I make every attempt to urge you, dear readers, to consider adopting a dog or cat. Such an addition to your family is guaranteed to bring joy and more togetherness, and immeasurable benefits to every person in the household, for different reasons.
I dare say that you would have sincerely made your New Year’s Resolutions (some of which you know you would have already broken ??). If one of them was to add a new four-legged member to your family, I urge that you please pursue. You will not regret honouring this resolution. So, today, permit me to share with you some thoughts on the human-animal relationships, which ought to cement your decision to adopt a pet from one of the many shelters in Guyana (e.g., Guyana Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals, PAWS for A CAUSE, Rosewood Foundation Guyana, Tails of Hope) as part of your New Year’s resolutions.
I have often argued that the education a child can receive from observing the pregnancy, birth process, and maternal care of the offspring is an emotive experience that money cannot buy and textbooks cannot give. However, it goes further than that. Experts today call the special friendship between pets and people the human-animal bond, and recognise that, in addition to being fun and fulfilling, owning a dog may benefit a person’s health.
When an affectionate greeting from your dog at the end of a stressful and especially difficult day seems to lift your spirits and ease tensions, it is not just your imagination. Your pet is in fact good for you, both mentally and physically.
Scientists have shown in several studies that, in the presence of pets, people simply behave in a more relaxed and open manner. They are happier, smile more readily, communicate better, and may be more likely to get regular exercise – all of which lead to improved general health.
I am well aware that the enduring and painful period of the COVID-19 pandemic has had worrisome consequences on mental health – anxiety, depression, social awkwardness. Having a dependent, loving and loyal companion may offer you the pathway to a return to normal life.
In one very interesting study of heart attack patients at the University of Maryland, it was revealed that those who owned pets were more likely to be living one year after the heart attack than those who did not. Researchers also found that the simple act of petting a cat or dog consistently lowered a heart patient’s blood pressure. (Ref: The American Journal of Cardiology, Volume 76, Issue 17, 15 December 1995: Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial).
This affinity that humans have with dogs evolved tens of thousands of years ago, when humans decided to cultivate, befriend, breed, and love wild forebears of the present-day dog. I know someone who believes that the whole human-dog association started with the canine (feline also?) conning us. They observed our bi-pedal behaviour and decided that mankind looked like it was going somewhere upwards in the evolutionary tree. They latched on to us and mimicked our behavioural patterns so that we would believe they were easy to get along with. For that, we would feed them and keep them warm. In turn, they gave us, then and today, immeasurable loyalty and protection.
Indeed, it seems that compelling evidence is emerging that dogs and cats have figured out how to join the community of an entirely alien species, and this is evidence of their sophisticated social competence.
I know that, as a scientist, I should not be even thinking of attributing human characteristics like feelings to dogs and cats. Well, the scientists’ code is beginning to change. Researchers are now seeing what every dog and cat owner knew all along: dogs especially do exhibit human characteristics of grief, envy, jealousy, anger, rage, bellicosity, love, hate, guilt, remorse, happiness, resentfulness, anxiety, fear, contentment, deceit, pride, arrogance, shyness, bravery, kindness and willingness to help, desire to make the human happy, recklessness, sadness, depression, vexation (e.g. at being blamed wrongfully), gluttony, malice (aforethought?), low self-esteem, laziness, greed, stubbornness, playfulness (including engaging in pranks), selective forgetfulness, vengefulness, boredom, communicativeness using only the eyes, flirtatiousness, coyness, loyalty, protectiveness; and I’m sure that I have left out some important characteristics. But I am equally sure that one of you will point out my omission.
Professor in Animal Psychology, Alexandra Horowitz, wrote a seminal tome called “Inside of a Dog”. It became a bestseller when published in 2010. Here is what she wrote: “In learning how to study the behaviour of animals, I was taught, and adhered to, the scientist’s mantra for describing actions: be objective; do not explain a behaviour by appeal to a mental process when explanation by simpler processes will do; a phenomenon that is not publicly observable and confirmable is not the stuff of science. These days, as a professor of animal behaviour, comparative cognition, and psychology, I teach from masterful texts that deal in quantifiable fact. They describe everything, from hormonal and genetic explanations for the social behaviour of animals, to conditioned responses, fixed action patterns, and optimal foraging rates, in the same steady, objective tone”.
Then she added: “And yet”. What came after those two words was the confession that, traditionally, science — as practised and deified in tests — rarely addresses pet-owner experiences of living with, and attempting to understand the minds of, our companion animals. Since then, a lot more objective studies have been, and are being, carried out and shared with the public in easy-to-read articles.
The Scientific American (May 1, 2015 issue) carried an in-depth cover story on “Why do we have pets” — the science behind the bond”. Well worthy of a read! (Ref: Why Do We Have Pets? – Scientific American).
What does all of this mean? Quite a revealing treatise. What I am saying is that there should be less trepidation and worry when we go into a shelter to choose a companion animal as a complement to our family. Nevertheless, should you make the decision to choose a companion animal, it may be worth your while to have the potential family member examined by your Vet.
Again, please accept our kindest wishes for 2023.