Sunday, October 9, 2011


Do you have a Toto in your life?
Pet therapy: How animals help us heal
By Edward T. Creagan, M.D.
I'm part of a palliative medicine program at Mayo Clinic. Palliative medicine is an emerging specialty that focuses on quality of life and symptom control for patients with life-altering conditions. It's closely related to the hospice movement.

Several months ago, I was asked to see a woman in her early 30s who had suffered a devastating accident that resulted in paralysis from the waist down and a life-threatening infection from a broken bone in the thigh. She underwent multiple surgeries and was started on a complicated medication schedule. Before she left the hospital she was instructed in the importance of keeping the wound clean and how to change the dressing, and reminded to strictly follow her medication schedule. The patient was bright and clearly understood the importance of these recommendations.

Over a number of months, however, the patient returned to the hospital frustrated and in a desperate situation from dehydration and pain. Once again, she was given careful instructions, which she said she understood.

When I later visited with the patient in the outpatient setting, I saw a miraculous transformation. Hope had replaced despair, and joy had replaced anger. I asked her what had happened. She said, "I owe it all to Toto."

Toto was a dog that my patient had rescued from the local pound. This dog, in turn, helped save its owner by giving her a reason to get out of the bed every morning. Toto needed to be fed and walked. Toto had to see the vet, and so on.

Toto brought something more as well. As scientists have discovered, animals have healing powers. When you stroke a cat or pet a dog, you experience a surge of healing hormones and chemicals that produce feelings of peace and serenity.

Healing relationships come in many sizes. Some have two legs, some have four legs, and some even have fins or feathers. Do you have a Toto in your life?

Adapted from:,%202010

So many of our discussions here at Questions On Dogs and Cats have centered on how a pet owner can take better care of their pet.  We all enjoy having a dog and/or cat as a pet and, in most families, they have become an important part of the family.  Giving them proper and loving care helps build a much stronger human-pet bond.  To make that bond even stronger, it's instructive to consider how many ways our pets can help make our lives better as well.

Helpful Buckeye will be presenting an interesting and informative review of the many ways pets contribute to helping us have more enjoyable, safer, and healthier lives.  Starting with this week's issue and continuing for 2 more weeks, Helpful Buckeye will give you numerous opportunities to decide if you "have a Toto" in your life.

Dogs Adept at Reading People’s Minds

To anyone who is familiar with the eerily human-like qualities of man's best friend, the news that dogs can read your mind shouldn't come as any surprise.

The latest research adds to growing evidence that dogs can interpret both human body language and general behavior, and use it to their advantage.

"Dogs and [human-raised] wolves are capable of distinguishing between a person looking at them, someone who's paying attention and someone who's not," said Monique A.R. Udell, lead author of a study published recently in the journal Learning & Behavior. "They're more likely to beg [for food] from someone paying attention to them."

Researchers have been learning more and more about the surprising capabilities and intelligence of Canis lupus familiaris, better known as the domestic dog.

One recent study found that dogs have the developmental abilities of a human 2-year-old, with the average dog capable of learning the meanings of 165 words.

"Over the last five years or so, we've been trying to understand how dogs and relatives of dogs such as wolves respond to social companions," explained Udell, who was a researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville when the study was conducted.

"The idea behind this particular study was to try to understand how it is, for example, that dogs can use cues of attention to predict what we're going to do next and use that information to decide to beg for food from one individual and not another?" she continued. "How is it that dogs make us feel that they know what we're thinking?"

The study involved groups of pet dogs, stray dogs from a shelter and hand-raised wolves (named Tristan, Miska and Marion, among other monikers) who were comfortable around humans.

Two people stood about 6 meters apart, one of them looking directly and continuously at the dog or wolf. The other person had their vision blocked, either with a bucket over their head, a book obscuring their face or because their back was turned. Both humans held a piece of food.

"On average, both dogs and wolves were significantly more likely to be begging from the person looking at them when the other person's back was turned," said Udell.

But levels of sensitivity did vary by how domesticated the dog or wolf was.

"Domesticated dogs were more likely to beg from someone paying attention to them, but shelter dogs and wolves who don't often see a person reading books were not likely to get that cue," Udell related. "So it does seem like specific life experiences really do matter in this context."

The findings, said Udell, are "important because previous research suggested that something happened to dogs during genetic domestication that made them begin to think like humans. This shows that wolves are capable, if reared with humans, of [picking up human cues]."

"Animal people in the scientific community have known for some time that dogs are pretty smart and very good at reading our body language," said Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk Program of the Humane Society of the United States. "This shows that something about dogs or wolves inherently allows them to read humans far better than other animals can."

Now that we know that dogs can pick up human cues, it's not that difficult to understand that they might then be capable of feeling sorry for us:
Dogs Feel Sorry For Us

Dogs appear to empathize with us, to the point that some therapy dogs even seem to take on the emotions of their sick or distressed human charges, according to a new paper in the latest issue of Biology Letters.

The matter is more complicated than you might think, because researchers need to tease apart true empathy from a phenomenon known as "emotional contagion."

Emotional contagion is more of a knee-jerk reaction to various behaviors and other cues. For example, if you yawn, others near you, including dogs, might start to yawn too. They're not necessarily empathizing with you, although areas of the brain tied to empathy are involved. In fact, the mimicry is primarily triggered at a subconscious level. No one is certain why this happens. Some scientists suspect it has to do with communicating levels of alertness and coordinating sleep schedules.

But dogs do more than just copy us, according to the study's authors Karine Silva and Liliana Sousa of the Abel Salazar Biomedical Sciences Institute.

"Indeed, a study showing that pets, namely dogs, behave as 'upset' as children when exposed to familiar people faking distress, strongly suggests 'sympathetic concern,'" Silva and Sousa write. "Also it has been reported that untrained dogs may be sensitive to human emergencies and may act appropriately to summon help, which, if true, suggests empathic perspective taking."

In experiments, dog owners feigned a heart attack or pretended to experience an accident in which a bookcase fell on them and pinned them to the floor. The dogs in these studies just looked confused and didn't do much, but the scientists think canines need to also smell and hear signals tied to actual stress in order to respond. In other words, you probably can't easily fool a dog when it comes to emergencies.

Another study found that therapy dogs are both emotionally and physically affected by their work, "needing massages and calming measures after the sessions," according to the authors.

Silva and Sousa argue that dogs have the capacity to empathize with humans for three main reasons:

1. Dogs originated from wolves, which are highly social animals that engage in cooperative activities and are believed to have some ability to empathize with their fellow wolves.

2. Biological changes produced during the domestication of dogs may have allowed them to synchronize their wolf-inherited empathic capacities with those of humans.

3. Breed diversification and selection for canine intelligence may have increased the dog ability to empathize.

The scientists say further research is needed, with many questions remaining. If dogs do empathize with us, are some better able to do this than others? If so, is that ability at times tied to certain breeds more than others? If the ability is connected to genetics, are some dogs and people just born more empathetic than others? Can you train a dog or a person to be more understanding?

As the researchers point out, all of these related issues "should have considerable implications for education and society as a whole."

Adapted from:

So, if "scientists think dogs need to also smell and hear signals tied to actual stress in order to respond" with empathy, just exactly how does their sense of smell figure into this?  Our reliable friend, Clay Thompson, columnist at the Arizona Republic, addressed this very question in one of his columns:

Dog’s Sense of Scents

Today's question:

When my dog sniffs a spot where other dogs in the neighborhood have marked, can he distinguish between the smells of individual dogs, or does he just think it smells"doggy"?

Dogs, as you know, have an excellent sense for scents.  If you could detect smells the way your dog does, you'd probably go into sensory overload. As it is, their little doggy brains seem to be able to handle it all.

According to "The Dog's Mind" by veterinarian Bruce Fogle, you have about 65 square inches of nasal membranes. A dog has about 900 square inches of the stuff.  You have about 5 million nasal receptors. A German shepherd has about 225 million such receptors.

And a dog's wet nose helps it capture and hold scent molecules.

Now, when a dog marks, it isn't just taking a whiz. Dogs have two anal glands that release Fido's distinctive scent along with the urine.  When a dog sniffs a marking spot or another dog's butt or face, it can determine the other dog's sex, age, status, whether it's neutered or not and even its mood.  And it can tell if the scent is a new one or one that is familiar.

In the case of females, males can tell if the female is ready to mate or not interested.

A dog can even determine another dog's level of confidence. For that matter, it can determine your mood at the moment.  They can even tell if you're crying tears of joy or grief or anger.

And yes, they can distinguish the scents of individual dogs. A dog's scent is like your fingerprints. No two are alike.  The really amazing thing, if you ask me, is that all those scent messages go to different parts of the brain, where they are stored pretty much for life.

Adapted from:

Now that the sense of smell has been established, we can move into the realm of the unusual...namely, how are dogs capable of using this "talent" to help people?

Why Pets Have ESP When It Comes to Health Crises

Dogs may be "man's best friend," but parrots, cats, lizards and horses also form connections to human beings. Not only can having a pet cheer you up and reduce your stress levels, but your pet could save your life. These pets may be able to detect cancer, diabetic crises, seizures, migraines and Parkinson's "freezing," helping owners get timely -- and often critical -- help.

Detecting Cancer

Dogs can actually be taught to detect cancer. Melanoma is the least common but most deadly skin cancer, accounting for 79 percent of skin cancer deaths. Diagnosis relies mostly on the way the skin looks -- even though many melanomas are invisible to the naked eye. But cancer causes the body to release chemicals into our urine, sweat and even breath that smells different than normal.

Tallahassee dermatologist Dr. Armand Cognetta heard about the terrific scenting prowess of dogs sniffing out bombs, termites and even dead bodies underwater and wondered if they might be able to detect skin cancer. As an experiment, he partnered with Duane Pickel, who specializes in training bomb detect dogs. George, the standard Schnauzer, was taught to detect cancer samples in test tubes -- and proved to be 99 percent accurate!

Once George knew what to look for, the team "planted" samples (both benign and cancerous) on human volunteers with Band-aids. Again, George was 100 percent accurate. Cognetta even convinced a few volunteers to let George sniff bare skin. And the dog found six melanomas that were undetectable by handheld microscope.

Carol Witcher's Boxer dog, Floyd Henry, was able to detect his owner's breast cancer, which was then confirmed as malignant by Dr. Sheryl Gabram-Mendola, a breast surgical oncologist at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Both Witcher and Gabroam-Mendola agree that the dog saved her life. Dr. Gabram-Mendola has since developed a test that looks for different compounds in the breath of cancer patients.

Other programs in the UK and elsewhere use dogs to detect prostate cancer through urine samples. The British journal Gut reported that an 8-year-old Labrador named Marine, trained to detect colorectal cancer, was accurate 91 percent of the time when sniffing a patient's breath and 97 percent of the time when sniffing stool.

Seizure Assistance Dogs

Dogs can also be trained to respond to seizures, keeping owners safe by fetching help or medication. But we still don't know why dogs have the ability to pick up on a seizure before it occurs. It may be that they cue into subtle body signals, or even chemical changes that make our bodies smell different.

Early studies reported in both the January 1999 and January 2001 issues of Seizure magazine, posited that dogs trained to help people with seizures by bringing them medicine or alerting others to the situation, actually develop the ability to predict seizures and react in advance of an oncoming seizure. Some dogs learn how to do this by watching other dogs.

Migraine Alert Dogs

Migraines cause debilitating pain in 36 million people each year. And medications work best when taken as early as possible. Dogs, cats and other pets often naturally detect pre-migraine characteristics -- prodrome -- which may include irritability, yawning and dizziness, among others. There may also be subtle changes or smells that animals detect. Some dogs now have been trained to act as sentinels and warn owners to take medication far enough in advance to prevent the headache.

Diabetes Alert Dogs

Katie Jane Brashier, a high school student in Denison, TX was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes four years ago. Her assistance dog, Shots, detects when her blood sugar level changes by sniffing her breath. The Labrador mix, adopted from the local shelter, received special training to help Katie Jane maintain a normal life and accompanies her to band practice, classes and doctor visits. Shots learned this skill by sniffing cotton balls scented with Katie Jane's saliva.

The British Medical Journal published a report written by Dr. Gareth Williams from Liverpool University Hospital, that discussed how pet dogs sensed an imminent hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) shock in their diabetic owners and warned them ahead of time to take proper medication. Even the Mayo Clinic has welcomed a diabetic service dog into the facility.

Pet dogs -- and even cats, rabbits and birds -- show behavioral changes when around people whose blood sugar level changes. Now some dogs have been trained to alert their owners to these changes. "Brittle" diabetics -- those with hard-to-control blood sugar levels -- may be fearful to leave home. Diabetic service dogs sniff their owner's breath and detect both high and low levels of blood sugar -- sometimes before it reaches dangerous levels -- allowing owners to lead more normal lives. Some of these dogs become so good at it, they "alert" random people around them and actually diagnose diabetes in people who didn't know that they had the condition. Dr. Debra Wells, of Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is currently analyzing data from a study to try and determine exactly where these powers of detection come from.

Parkinson's Disease

People suffering from Parkinson's disease can experience (among other things), a condition termed "freezing." Their feet suddenly stop moving while the rest of the body continues on, and the fear of falls can leave some people homebound. Service dogs are trained to tap owners on the foot, which often gets their partner moving again. In fact, some of these dogs learn to anticipate the freeze and stop it before it even starts.

Ultimately, experts don't know exactly how animals predict such things. While many animals may be able to detect and alert their owners to such changes through their sense of smell, it takes a special bond for the pet to actually care and make it happen.

Amy D. Shojai, CABC, is a certified animal behavior consultant and the award-winning author of 23 pet care books. She also writes for and and appears on Animal Planet's CATS-101 and DOGS-101.

Adapted from:

Let's consider this week's issue the "Introduction" and "Foundation" for the really interesting stuff that Helpful Buckeye will present next week.  And don't forget, if you want to leave a comment, do so at the end of this page by clicking on "Comment" and follow the prompts...or, you can send an e-mail to Helpful Buckeye at:

The Pittsburgh Steelers surprised everyone today by soundly defeating the Titans, behind 5 TD passes from Big Ben.  After last week's pathetic effort, today's performance was vintage Steeler football...a good mixture of running and passing.  If we can get some of our injured players back into the lineup soon, this team is capable of making some noise the rest of the season.


It was 3 weeks ago today that I tore my right calf muscle.  Since then, I have been limited to the occasional short walk while running errands.  Today, I was able to go for a 1-mile walk...which might not sound like much but, when you consider that 3 weeks ago I was slow even walking to the's real news!  I still have my sights set on the Tour de Tucson bike race on the 19th of November; however, I do realize that getting my leg back into top condition is the main priority.

Our good buddy, Mark Twain, pretty well summed it up, from my point of view:
"He had had much experience of physicians, and said "the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd druther not."  -From Following the Equator

I'd "druther not" be sitting around waiting for this to heal....

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~ 

1 comment:

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