Vets Say People Need to Understand Their Pets

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.

Campbell points out that abandoned cats soon turn to their old ways, resuming the role of the natural predator, and that's one reason she cites rampant population growth as the No. 1 problem in the pet arena.

"There are simply too many people who allow their dogs and cats to breed without figuring out if they are going to have homes for the offspring," she says. Thus many animals are abandoned, some of which become public nuisances.

Punishment Often Futile

Nowhere does our lack of understanding of pet psychology show up more than in our frequently failed efforts to get our animals to behave properly. Some people think discipline is the only way. That really bugs animal behaviorist Andrew Luescher of Purdue University, whose research shows that pets, especially dogs, can suffer from as many psychological disorders as humans.

That's especially true of dogs suffering from canine compulsive disorder, which is frequently revealed by such things as tail chasing, licking excessively, and barking monotonously.

That's a stress and anxiety problem, Luescher says. So how does the typical dog owner react? By disciplining the dog for all that monotonous barking.

"Punishment increases that stress and anxiety to the point that the behavior only gets worse," Luescher says.

But, Campbell asserts, that doesn't mean that discipline has no role in training a pet. It has to be done right, and quite often pet owners wait too long. When you come home from work and find that the pooch pooped on your prized Oriental carpet early in the day, that's not the time to whack him.

"It does absolutely no good to punish them when you come home two hours later," she says, because the pet won't have a clue as to what's wrong. No matter how smart we think our pets are, they just don't think the same way we do.

University of Florida psychology professor Clive Wynne, who has studied how animals think, believes dogs so desperately want to be a member of the pack they will do anything to stay with their owner, even if mistreated. Thus they are very good at reading human cues, even about how we are feeling on any particular day, and that, in turn, can affect their behavior.

Cats, on the other hand, love their independence and are less likely to realize you've had a lousy day.

Incidentally, Campbell believes pets tend to respond more to rewards than to discipline, just like kids, but some kinds of discipline seem to work better than others. A harsh word might get the job done. But if that doesn't work, the next time the pooch steps out of line, act like a pack leader.

After all, dogs have been conditioned for thousands of years to be pack animals, and if you're the only other animal in the house, you're the pack leader.

"If you grab a dog by its muzzle and hold its mouth closed, that is pretty effective in telling it to stop whatever it is doing," Campbell says. I tried that on my border collie and it worked quite well. But I don't think I would try it on a cat.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.