We probably all remember Aesop’s fable about Androcles removing a thorn from a lion’s paw and being rewarded later on when the lion saves his life. But do animals really come to us when they’re hurting? The answer is often yes, although we don’t always realize it.
I have to admit, I was blind to pets presenting themselves to a human caretaker for help until I was in the process of writing The Healing Power of Pets in 2000. That’s a little embarrassing coming from not just a pet lover but a veterinarian who is trained to look past the obvious and see what lies beneath.
What I learned changed my dog’s life and made me a better veterinarian and pet owner.
Actions Speak Loudly
As part of the research for my book, I traveled to Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine to interview integrative medicine expert Narda Robinson, DVM. With a dog in front of us on the floor of an exam room, she told me how dogs and cats will lick or rub areas that hurt or are inflamed, just as we might rub our own sore shoulder.
When I went back home to Idaho, she suggested I should start observing my pets to see if they were rubbing certain areas of their bodies on the couch or licking a particular area.
“You don’t really even need to catch them in the act,” she said. “Just look for areas where the fur is roughed up from rubbing or licking. When you see the spots, feel them. You typically find that they are warmer from inflammation than surrounding tissues.”
When I asked her what to do after I saw the sore areas and felt the inflammation, she advised gently massaging those spots, using a gentle, steady touch and avoiding bony prominences. Most importantly, never hold pets against their will. (And if a pet is coming to you with a sore spot, it is crucial that you find out what the underlying cause is.)
I filed Dr. Robinson's advice away, not realizing how soon it would come in handy.
Eyes Wide Open
A few days after I got home, I was working at my desk, pounding away on the keyboard like a woodpecker, when our elderly Wire Fox Terrier, Scooter, came up the stairs to the loft where I write and over to my desk to be petted. I looked down, and I could see that the fur over her left hip was roughed up.
I took my hands off the keyboard and put them on that spot, and I could feel the heat. I started massaging Scooter as Dr. Robinson had instructed, and soon Scooter was groaning with delight.
For the next week, at least twice a day, our beloved 12-year-old girl would seek me out (at my desk, on the toilet, you name it) and would back up to me for a massage. I could almost hear a sound like those warning beeps trucks make when they drive in reverse. I'd start massaging, and Scooter would push up into my hands and almost purr with relief.
After about a week, I took Scooter to North Idaho Animal Hospital and radiographed her hips. Eureka! She had hip dysplasia in her left hip joint. Looking back over the past several years, I realized she would present that area to be petted or rubbed first and for the longest. But I had ignored her communications with me.
From then on, I started watching our other pets much more closely, and I saw the same type of behavior. On one occasion, our Lab, Sirloin, gave me his foot, because he had a cheat grass awn embedded in it. I heard from other pet owners about their experiences, too. Their pets come to them with cut pads, broken toenails, arthritic pain or stomach upset, lifting a paw, rolling over or just wanting to be extra close to their faithful humans. How special is that, that our animals trust us so much?
The human-animal bond is a wonderful thing in and of itself. But once we learn to go deeper and read our pet’s actions more clearly, it binds us even more strongly. That’s good for all of us, pets and people alike.