Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cats are not small dogs, but dogs are people?

When I was a little girl, about 3 or 4 years old, I had a talking Mother Goose. Under one of her wings was a cassette holder. I could pop in a tape and she would read me stories.

Not only did she read me stories, she read to all of my stuffed animals as well. She had a lovely little bonnet and pretty blue eyes with black eyeliner, and she looked around and winked and blinked kindly as she told her stories. We could read together for hours.

One day, her voice started to slur. I took her to the hospital wing and let her recharge (new batteries). But it didn't help. She got slower and slower, and then she stopped talking altogether. My Mother Goose was dead.

Since I hadn't had any actual pets, hers was the first death I really experienced. Now I experience it regularly.
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We often say in veterinary medicine that "cats are not small dogs," as a response to many situations in which cats differ greatly from our canine companions. But are dogs small people?  This New York Times article, Dogs Are People, Too, was published a few days ago and highlights some recent work that was done with dogs and MRIs. Dogs were trained to remain still in an MRI machine while completely awake so that their brain activity could be accurately monitored in different situations. What they found was that dogs had very similar brain activity to humans in a particular part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is activated during positive emotions.

This is very interesting research and the closest yet to proving that animals have emotional lives. Animal behaviorists have been studying this for years attempting to design scientific experiments to gain more ground in this area of research. (Most likely Julie Hecht at Dog Spies and Dr. McConnell at The Other End of the Leash can better explain this). Every animal lover "knows" that their cats and dogs have emotions. But how can this be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt?

This research is the first step. But the author took it one step further already. He suggests that reconsideration should be given to animals as property and mentions many rescue groups refer to pet owners as guardians. I don't believe this particular author was quite aware of all the implications of his statement.

A few years ago, California was considering changing ownership to guardianship for pets. Thankfully, no serious attempts at passing a law were made, and the idea lost traction. "Guardianship" of animals will bring about many changes in the relationships humans have with their pets, and not good ones. There will be many unintended consequences of such a decision, as there often are when well-intentioned but misinformed people make decisions such as this.

Considering animals on a level with humans or at least more than "property" will mean that euthanasia will no longer be an option to end animal suffering. Animals with painful, terminal illnesses will have to suffer, just as humans with terminal illness do. The difference is humans can understand what is happening to them, but animals cannot.

"Guardianship" will mean that every animal must be treated to the fullest extent possible, even if it is not in the best interest of the animal, and even if the "guardian" can't pay for it. Veterinarians already experience this attitude from the general public ('I can't afford to pay for this, but you should fix this for free because you love animals.') We do not receive large insurance payments, or subsidies to operate from the state or federal government. We only survive on what we charge for our services. Veterinarians would not survive in such a world.

The word euthanasia means "well" (Gr. eu) "death" (Gr. thanatos). It is a completely painless way to end suffering, and most vets consider it a gift we can give to animals. Nearly every client whose animal I euthanize asks me, "This must be so hard, how can you do this all the time?' As we cry together, my answer is always the same. It is hard, but it is almost always in the best interest of the animal. I would rather let animals leave this earth easily and comfortably than allow them to suffer until they die on their own.

I would fight, and fight hard, before losing that ability.

Since Mother Goose passed on, I have experienced many deaths. At most, I cry. The human-animal bond is very special and it is my wish that all animals are treated humanely and with compassion and love, by their owners.

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See Dr. McConnell's post here and many interesting and thoughtful comments.

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