Archive for Thursday, November 9, 2006

Animals, like humans, have individuality

November 9, 2006

Recently, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal wrote a story investigating whether animals have a sense of self. Having tired of stories of war, murder and the election, I was overjoyed a story about animals later appeared in area newspapers.

This human interest story tickled my funny bone, although it didn't take me long to realize animals have a sense of individuality. Furthermore after a lifelong career treating animals, it doesn't take a PhD in behavior to realize critters are pretty darn smart with more than a few cells between their ears.

I'd like to extrapolate on some of their extraordinary temporal qualities as well as reminisce about some of our real encounters with the animal psyche.

I have heard many accounts of my patient's mental capacity to function in the area of memory: "Doc, you know I don't think Trigger likes coming here. Why, I got him all excited for going for a ride in the car, but when we pulled in your parking lot, he began to shake -- even did his thing on my car seat."

That account of canine memory is so common I've taken to having patients brought in the side door so we don't have to drag them in the front door. You'd think we torture them in the clinic.

Memory is not only short term but long term. If one of my colleagues had a problem with a certain client's pet, I'm doomed. The pet's memory kicks in, and I look the same. They shift into self-preservation mode.

It is no wonder pets and other lab animals can be taught certain responses given the reward system. Psychologists call this "conditioning." By providing a bell or other such command at the same time as a treat, the animal soon responds according to either stimulus.

Is this memory or a conditioned response? Too bad we can only infer the outcome and cannot ask our animal friends what they think. This is the wall we in my profession run up against.

What about what we refer to as instinctive behavior? I tend to explain much of the unexplainable behavior or reactions we see in animals to instinct. But what about the actions of a herd of animals when bad weather is on its way? Is this just survival instinct or is this self-preservation? In the latter sense, isn't it just logical to come in out of the rain or cold? It is smart to seek shelter, and it takes cognitive thought to do so -- in the human sense. In the case of animals, they recognize the threat and take action to avoid it out of self-preservation.

In my first year of practice in St. Louis County, Mo., I was called early one springtime morning to help with a mare who had foaled. The mare had had twins, one healthy and one dying. Earlier that morning, the mare had sought the warmth of a heating lamp (a cognitive gesture), only to cause the lamp to fall on the dry straw bedding. A fire broke out, and the mare had consciously moved her newborn foal to the corner of the stall.

Luckily, the owner had a fire alarm in the barn and was able to extinguish the fire. When I examined the mare, she had third-degree burns on one half of her body while the foal survived without a burn. Call it heroics, but doesn't it seem likely the mare knew what she had to do and acted on it "selflessly" at the time?

Most of the time, animals are irrational. But they tend to amaze researchers, veterinarians and pet owners alike with their inherent thought processes. We will always be a huge step ahead of them in cognitive scale.

It truly is this old vet's opinion that God gave them brains to think and create and act upon stimuli. But as was stated in the story, "If your dog or cat looks guilty over leaving a mess on the rug next time, remember he/she is only being submissive to you and not showing some complex "humanoid-like" emotion.

The other day, I asked my old canine companion "Minnie," my rat terrier, if she minded being homeschooled as opposed to going to a real class. She crawled up in my lap and gave me a big, wet lick on the cheek. I was satisfied with her answer, as love lifted me.

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