Sensational Living®

February 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall


I’m biased. I grew up with animals of all shapes, sizes and species. As an evolutionary biologist, I have had access to an amazing array of critters. I cannot imagine a life that doesn’t include animals, yet I continually encounter people who have made the choice to eschew animal companions.

Intermittently in this column, I will address the issues of pets and pet care. This month, I’m going to emphasize the value of dogs and cats. Be forewarned: I will not be writing about feeding, watering and the other usual aspects of pets this month. What I want to do is raise your consciousness regarding animal companions.

Let’s begin with that politically-correct term: Animal Companions. What this does is acknowledge that the animals in our homes are not belongings or objects; they are living beings with a degree of sentience. I can just imagine a collective gasp at the suggestion of sentience, though perhaps not among my enlightened readers. Remember, sentience is relative, not an absolute. Are all people of the same intelligence? The answer to that is a vehement, NO! The same is true with animals. Remember that I approach everything from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist, and there is simply no reason that intelligence should not be present throughout the animal kingdom. As I so often admonish, don’t view intelligence as a black or white issue; as with most of life, intelligence is a “gray” gradient. It is constrained by both nature and nurture. With animals, their intelligence is different from ours because their brains are different from ours. Please, don’t engage in “species-ism” (prejudice against members of other species).

Recently, researchers have identified that the mental processes of animals function the same as those of humans. I wasn’t surprised, but I was pleased to see this issue addressed with scientific rigor, to take it out of the realm of fuzzy thinking and anecdote. After reading the article, I turned to my brother and sister white Persians, Lugh and Luna, and informed them that they had been vindicated; they did the feline equivalent of an eye roll. If this isn’t a valid argument to avoid vivisection and animal testing, I can’t think of one. I remember the disgust I felt as a child when I complained in school during the explanations of how products were tested on animals, and was told by the “teachers” that animals didn’t “feel” like we do. I felt the same disgust in recent years reading the psychological and neurophysiological literature, and discovering “scientists” claiming the same thing; they had made an assumption (of “convenience”), rather than proceeding from a truly scientific foundation. Vile.

Now that it has been established that animals (at least some mammals) think similarly to the way we think, let’s look at some of their other benefits. My favorite is unconditional love. We human beings could learn a lot about true love from our furry friends. If you have ever accidentally stepped on a foot or a tail, or been late for feeding time, or neglected to play or pet or cuddle, you know that there is sadness, but immediate forgiveness. And no, I am NOT projecting here.

We could also learn about less complicated, less materialistic, less selfish lives from these companions. I know I have learned a LOT about the importance of my feline friends versus material items. I was once livid years ago that one of my cats had broken a porcelain ginger jar with some beautiful decoration. I am embarrassed now at my level of anger. In hindsight, I realize that the very presence of that cat in my life was worth more than that stupid piece of porcelain (which has subsequently been replaced by a lesser version). Shala was with me through some of the toughest times of my life, and she truly gave unconditional love, so that I could learn the insignificance of material items. The same is true of shed fur; I am always surprised that people actually get angry AT their pets for shedding. If any of you fall into that category, please let me know, as I can put you in touch with an incredible therapist/counselor! Finally, get over your furniture! I once knew someone who selected cats based on how well they matched his furniture, rather than their personalities (well, he was really quite wacko, despite, or because of, being a multi-millionaire). Most significantly, I do not tolerate declawing of cats. If your furniture is so important, do not adopt a pet! I have terminated friendships over this issue, and I have terminated client relationships because of this. If you think declawing is appropriate, imagine what your life would be like if the last joint of each of your fingers was removed (the one with the fingernail). If you can imagine living your life like that, then do it to yourself first, and if you like it, then go ahead and declaw your cats.

I am also amazed at people who allow their pets on their furniture SOMETIMES, but not at other times. How confusing for the pets! Even I’m confused by that behavior! Would you rear your children that way? Let them do something one moment, then scream and screech at them the next for the SAME behavior? Well, come to think it, many parents do this. Inconsistency is one of the greatest problems with teaching both animals and children. As a scientist, I had the value of consistency is drummed into me, but not everyone has the benefit of such training.

Furry, fluffy pets have a benefit even beyond what I have described above, and that is the effect of stroking their fur on our psychology and physiology. This activity actually lowers blood pressure, and leads to calmness. I can verify this from personal anecdotes, but clinical research has confirmed it. If you take the stroking one step further into muscle massage, not only will YOU have the health benefits, but your cat or dog will benefit; research has shown that pets that regularly receive deep muscle massage have increased longevity. Start slowly, working along the neck, and the backbone, working evenly on both sides of the vertebral column. Watch how your dog or cat responds! Be firm, but gentle. Massage the muscles, not the bone. Work gently around the jaws, and the head, and along the nose, especially that area just between the eyes. Spend some time on the upper arms/legs, and move to the lower arms/legs, and finally, massage the feet and toes. Don’t spend too much time on one area, as over-stimulation can be a side effect. On the other hand, I have found myself going into a “zone” when massaging my cats or my friends’ dogs. It is so relaxing for human and animal alike. It’s a win-win situation.

Additionally, the presence of a pet can offer us distraction from our problems. I remember as a teenager (a not-very-happy teenager), contemplating some very sad and dark thoughts, when all of a sudden, one of our cats decided she had to nuzzle and cuddle. THAT snapped me out of my funk. I remember the stress I experienced often during my executive management career; I would come home, completely spent, and suddenly became totally distracted by kitties demanding to be fed “NeOW!”

Such demands, including our canine friends’ insistence on being walked, teach us mindfulness and responsibility. When we adopt an animal companion into our home and lives, we must, MUST, be mindful of their needs. Fresh water, fresh food, exercise for our dogs, clean litter boxes for our cats, all must be managed/provided. While I don’t think pets should be used as parental training wheels, I can promise you that the talents you develop PROPERLY and MINDFULLY caring for pets will have positive ramifications for your interactions with children (whether your own, or someone else’s).

Furthermore, dogs and cats help both adults and children with the characteristics of playfulness and socialization. Even in the middle of the night, when Lugh decides to play bouncey-bouncey on the bed, I can’t resist. And when he and Luna run races from one end of the apartment to the other, laughter bursts forth uncontrollably. Sometimes they are even doglike in their “come hither and play” glances, which is my way of complimenting dogs for their playfulness. Growing up, we had an Irish setter (among others) who loved to run and play and jump and fetch; playing with her was GREAT exercise. Wrestling and playing with pull toys are great exercise for both human and dog. By introducing a child to such interaction with animals at an early age, socialization is enhanced, when the child learns that the world does not revolve around him/her, and s/he must treat others with kindness. On a lighter note, romantic love has been known to spark due to meetings facilitated by dog-walking; yes, this is a stereotype, but I’ve seen it in action, so don’t knock it until you’ve tried it (and be sure to thank your pimping pooch for his/her assistance).

Future pet columns will explore such issues as “pet caretakers,” “pet movers,” and “pet spirituality,” as well as the basic care of different species.

If you value your health, both physical and mental, you will adopt a dog, cat or both, or several of one or the other or both, and integrate them into your lifestyle. This is what Sensational Living® is all about! Let me know about your own experiences with the Power of Pets in your own Sensational Lifestyle! Call 773.508.9208 or email me.