We've been told for years now that getting a pet may rank right up there with clean living when it comes to improving our health and disposition. A good dog, or even a cat, can take away some of our loneliness, ease depression, and lower our cholesterol, according to the Mayo Clinic.
One study even found that stockbrokers with pets were better able to control their high blood pressure than stock brokers without pets.
Lots of science backs that stuff up, and that prompted a team of veterinarians at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, to ask a simple question. If pets do so much for us, why are we so often abysmally ignorant when it comes to their needs?
One thing led to another, and the vets have just released a new textbook, Companion Animals: Their Biology, Care, Health and Management. The book is designed for general education courses on the college level, and the authors think they're addressing a subject that has been long neglected.
We know we love our pets, but too often we don't take the time to understand the very different world that pets inhabit, and how similar, and different, they are from us. Do you know your dog can suffer from depression? And your iguana needs ultraviolet light, not just a steady diet of crickets? And your ever loving cat, if left to its own devices, can turn into a neighborhood predator?
Understanding Your Iguana
It's a jungle out there, and by all reports, it's growing. There are more than 77 million cats, and 65 million dogs, in the U.S. alone, most of which live in cities. And that's just the "traditional pets." Add to that the population explosion of guinea pigs, hamsters, hedgehogs, lizards, birds, snakes, and just about anything that breathes.
What troubled the Illinois vets is the simple fact that all these species are different, and all have different needs, yet not many of us understand just what it takes to be a healthy iguana.
"A lot of people don't actually know that you can't feed dog food to cats without having some potentially serious health consequences," says Karen Campbell, head of specialty medicine in the university's College of Veterinary Medicine, co-author of the textbook. "Cats lack some of the enzymes that dogs have in their liver, like vitamins and acids. So dogs don't have those requirements in their food, but if cats don't get them they will get serious heart diseases and eye diseases.
"The differences are based on the physiology of the animal."
The differences are even more pronounced among the more exotic animals. But as Lori Corriveau, a vet at Purdue University, found out awhile back, people are more inclined to seek out good medical treatment for Fidel the dog than they are for Hammy the hamster. Apparently, we're just not conditioned to pay as much attention to the health of nontraditional pets as we do to dogs and cats, most likely because of a lack of understanding of the biology and physiology of the animal.
Corriveau points out that many exotic animals are prey species, and they don't want to show signs of illness because that would reveal a weakness, so it may be too late by the time the owner catches on.
Dogs and cats are more likely to let the owner know when something's wrong, partly because of a very long history of companionship between humans and these popular pets. But that doesn't mean the old natural urges are gone.