As many pet owners already know, sharing your life with animals can be something special. Pets welcome us warmly, insist we connect with them and love us without question; they are wonderful company.
Less obvious is how much we can learn from our animals. I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and over that time, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the inner lives of my patients. How do animals always seem to know what matters most in life? Why do they seek the path to comfort, contentment and connection with others, while we humans often make choices that so often lead to disconnection and emotional pain? Are they motivated purely by instinct, or do they have some other wisdom?
The more experience I gain as a vet, the more clearly I understand the multiple benefits of having animals in our lives. They can be our best teachers. They show us how to be in the moment, love unconditionally, de-stress, re-energise and find joy in everyday existence. Our animals ask us to prove our humanity on a daily basis.
I was a child of the sixties and seventies. My father died the day after I was born and I grew up with a mother’s love in a house full of chaos. I had four older sisters and a menagerie of animals and, without a dad or brothers for company, the family pets played an important role in my development. There’s nothing like being able to wrestle five rounds or share your secrets with a Sheltie cross called Coco.
As I got older I became frustrated with the frenetic pace, disconnection and materialistic focus of city life; I’d always thought I’d been swapped at birth and actually belonged in the country. I was also beginning to seriously consider a future career in animal health. I’d felt some pressure to do a medical degree but on the day of enrolment, I found myself signing up for veterinary science at the University of Sydney and experienced that sudden sense of peace that comes when you know you are on the right path. A veterinary science degree offered the possibility of living and working in rural communities, so I spent semester breaks doing practical farm placements, and discovered that I loved working in the country, where the sense of community was strong. Working with animals in the wonderful fresh Australian air gave me the motivation to concentrate on my studies and complete my degree.
I finished university with a strong grounding in vet science, but no preparation for how to deal with emotional and social aspects of my profession. In this I was like every other graduating vet: the degree had not included any discussion of this sort of thing, either within the profession or the community more broadly. As a society, we just didn’t seem to understand or want to talk about the emotional and social roles animals play in our lives.
Being a vet can be a very stressful job. We often have to deal with animals suffering or in terrible pain, and the deep distress of their human carers; we make decisions on a daily basis about life and death. Many vets think they have to keep their guard up to protect themselves from the pain of the situation. But this causes its own problems and I am convinced that the effort of keeping one’s emotions in check is one of the reasons for the high rate of depression and burnout among vets.
For some vets, one patient or situation dramatically changes how they practice, but for me it was more gradual. I began to engage with what was happening on an emotional level in the treatment room. I started to look at the way humans held their pets, how they talked to the animals and reassured them as I went through my routine checks. I asked questions about the animal’s role in the home and family, trying to find out where the animal sat in the pack and how it behaved in relation to the humans it lived with.
I began to see that a big part of my job involved understanding the nature of the connection between the animal and their human. This understanding has had a huge influence in how I diagnose and treat my patients and has helped me understand what our connection with our pets teaches us about the things that matter most in life.
Every day I walk through my clinic saying, ‘Good morning, good morning, how are you all?’ and the animals’ eyes light up and various tails wag. It’s a wonderful way to start the day. By no longer seeing the animals in my care as cases and by recognising that they experience emotion just as humans do, I have opened up a channel of connection and communication that wasn’t there before. Recognising animals as sentient beings has made a crucial difference in how I connect with them and how I am able to treat them.
The realisation that there is more to treating animals than attending to their physical problems really kicked in when I started studying acupuncture. Like most vets, I had always relied on the hard science I’d learnt as an undergraduate; you could say I was something of a sceptic about alternative treatments. But there was a veterinarian in Canberra treating animals with acupuncture who was having considerable success. A number of my clients had been treated by her for various ailments and I couldn’t fail to notice a significant improvement in their condition. When she moved, leaving the city without a pet acupuncturist, I decided to step in.
The acupuncture course took eighteen months and involved a considerable amount of study. When I was finished I had a clear understanding of how I wanted to practise veterinary medicine in the future and, using the principles of Chinese medicine, I adopted a more holistic approach. I began to take into consideration every aspect of the patient’s life – environment, nutrition and emotions – and I combined this with my scientific training and used this information to work out what was going on with the animal’s physical being. I also embarked on twelve months’ postgraduate study of animal behaviour across all species, which taught me a lot about body language and communication, and also the need for medical therapy (such as antidepressants) in some cases of behavioural problems.
There are many vets now who practise in this way, and the profession is all the better for it. I’d like this book to help encourage vets and others involved in the care of animals to develop a way of practising that is holistic and humane. It is my hope that the stories I share from my own experience – and the science that supports these observations – will help veterinarians and pet owners alike understand and appreciate the enormous benefits that come from fully engaging with our animals.
Many of you reading this book may already have a pet or an animal you care for. But if you’re reading this to help you work out whether or not you want to bring an animal into your life – or even if you’re just curious about the subject matter – I strongly urge you to go right ahead and adopt that dog or cat, or buy that horse, or get those pigs or rabbits. You won’t regret it – in fact, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it earlier! Because those animals will not only bring you lots of joy but might just help make you a better, happier human being.
As you will discover as you read on, there are many things that animals can teach us, but the most important thing is: animals teach us to connect in a deeper and more satisfying way, not just with them but also with our environment and with the other people in our lives. This truth is central to every story in this book, and lies at the heart of much of the science that proves animals enhance our lives.
A lot is written and spoken about the disconnection of modern life; we are often more interested in our mobile phones, tablets and laptops than we are in face- to-face contact. But I don’t think this disconnection is purely a modern phenomenon, it’s simply that we have found new ways to avoid one another. Avoidance may serve a temporary purpose – it’s sometimes easier to be alone than to engage in complicated relationships – but the long-term effects can be damaging. It is well documented that strong relationships are one of the most important factors in creating a happy and healthy life and that the absence of such relationships can lead to a diminished sense of purpose and an increase in a whole range of mental and physical illnesses. Animals can help us understand that connection can be pure and uncomplicated. Think of the way animals greet their owners. There is always a wag of the tail, a chirp, a purr or a whinny. They acknowledge us, they welcome us, they tell us they are pleased to be with us. When we feel acknowledged and accepted, it’s often easier for us to open our hearts to others. Our experience of our animals and their capacity to give unconditional love gives us permission to express our humanity more fully.
I’ve seen pets bring positive changes to so many families. Often the animal acts as a conduit between the human family members, helping them bond with each other as well as with their pet. Conflict can often be resolved by the shared need to care for an animal, and I have a friend who swears her dog kept her and her partner together in the period before they had children. ‘We’d think of splitting up, then couldn’t decide who’d get to keep the dog, so we’d have to work it out,’ she told me.
Sometimes when a pet is brought into a household, there might be a family member who is reluctant to accept it. Before too long though, the animal wins them over through persistence and patience, and it’s as if that resistance never existed. What about parents who say that a pet belongs to their children, only to dote on the animal when their children grow up and move out, not even thinking of relinquishing the animal? What transformation have these people gone through, that their pet has come to mean so much to them? I believe it all stems from that animal’s basic ability to connect with the human and to accept the human the way they are. That connection and acceptance is what many humans crave from each other and so rarely find.
Making the decision to own a pet
A friend told me a story of how a dog adopted her family when she was a child. The dog – a scruffy- looking mongrel – turned up in the neighbourhood one day and set up camp on this family’s doorstep. My friend’s parents didn’t want a dog. At first they shooed him away. Then they softened and gave him water and something to eat. They put a blanket out on the front step and before long, they’d bought him a collar and built him a kennel. To show his appreciation, the dog, who they named Curtis, would collect presents from around the neighbourhood and deliver them to his new family: shoes, newspapers, garden tools, balls and kids’ toys. He was a loyal and loving creature who went everywhere with the kids, including to school, where he became something of a mascot. The family’s life was enriched immeasurably by the presence of this wonderful creature.
Most of the time, though, we’re the ones who get to choose, and it’s important we choose well. We need to think carefully about our lifestyle and how a pet will fit into it, not just for the benefit of the animal, but for our own sense of wellbeing; as a 1998 study showed, people who are more compatible with their pets report fewer physical ailments and better mental health overall.
When you do find the right pet for you, it’s an incredibly enriching experience for humans and the animals alike. If you see your pet as your potential teacher and not just your furry friend, and if you are mindful of your potential responsibilities and obligations to the animal, then you are more likely to choose wisely.
Animals have been bred over the centuries to ensure their suitability for certain kinds of lives: some dogs have been bred solely for the purpose of providing companionship, others for the purpose of work. You wouldn’t expect a Cavalier King Charles spaniel to round up sheep, nor would you ask a kelpie or border collie to sit quietly on the lap of an elderly woman. This is so obvious that it seems hardly worth mentioning, but you’d be surprised how often people choose animals that are a complete mismatch with their home and life- style. Often the animals react to this kind of situation by behaving in a way that their owners find difficult, which is one of the reasons why our animal shelters are full of abandoned pets.
The most important question you need to ask yourself when taking on an animal is: ‘Am I willing to compromise for the animal?’ Happily, lots of people can and do exactly this. Perhaps the most dramatic compromise I have seen is the client who finally made the decision to buy a house so as to provide a more stable environment for her Shi tzu, who’d had some behavioural issues.
Some people make financial compromises, either to have a pet in the first place or to pay for the pet’s care. I had a client whose dog had a condition called Cushing’s disease, a hormonal imbalance that is fairly common in older dogs. The symptoms can include weight gain and hair loss and reduced bladder control. In most cases the disease can be effectively treated and the animal can live a relatively comfortable life. And so my client decided on treatment. The dog needed regular monitoring, so she’d bring him to the clinic every three to six months. She wasn’t wealthy, and to pay for the treatment she would sell a piece of furniture at a time, because that dog meant so much to her.
Sometimes, with all the best will in the world, there are just some animals and humans who were never meant to be together. And sometimes the anxiety caused by an incompatibility between the animal and their owner leads to medical complications. I have seen cats develop a condition called feline interstitial cystitis, a urinary tract infection that can be brought on primarily by stress, as a result of living in such circumstances. But cats are good at looking after themselves and we have all seen or heard of cats who make the decision to move out of one home and into another. Someone up the road starts feeding them and, before long, the cat ‘belongs’ to the new family. The circumstances of the new household just seem to suit them better; maybe the owners are home more, maybe the household is friendlier, maybe the environment is calmer.
The personalities of the animal and human need to mesh, and the circumstances need to be right. If not, there will be friction, and this can lead the animal to behave in a way that the owner does not like. Sometimes these clashes can be worked out; often they can’t. It’s not uncommon for vets to recommend that an unhappy animal be rehomed. To avoid these sorts of scenarios, it is important to think carefully about adopting a pet.
Some tips for choosing an animal
Take lots of time to think about your decision. Talk to people who own pets. Talk to the local vet. Ring your local council to find out if your area has dog-friendly parks.
You need to ask yourself some basic questions:
• Why do I want this particular animal?
• How is this animal going to fit into my lifestyle?
• What are my expectations of this animal in my life – where do I want it to fit?
• How much time will I spend at home with this animal?
There are a couple of websites that can help you choose a pet: petnet.com.au and pawclub.com.au. They offer detailed surveys, and then recommend one or more breeds based on your answers. The questions prompt you to consider all sorts of things that you may not have thought of yourself: How much you can spend on a pet; how much time you can spend exercising with the pet; do you want a guard dog; do you want a cat that is self-contained or affectionate; will moulting be a problem; will the animal sleep inside?
Don’t discount the idea of having a pet that wasn’t what you first thought you wanted – for example, you may love the idea of having a dog but you may not be able to care for one at the moment, so a bird or fish, or even a reptile, may be better for you. I know a couple who desperately wanted a young puppy, but when they got to the dog shelter, they fell in love with and took home a much older dog.
If you are unsure about whether or not you want a pet at this stage in your life, don’t rush in – even having a goldfish requires work. Think carefully about your decision then commit fully. It can be traumatic for both the animal and human when the relationship doesn’t work, but it’s enormously satisfying when it does.
Excerpted from Animal Wisdom by Michael Archinal. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Archinal.
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