Monday, January 30, 2012

Pets improve owners' health and well-being

Did you know that the presence of a cat or dog in a counseling office can speed the therapeutic process for some patients? Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) was introduced by psychologist Boris Levinson in the 1950s when he discovered that his dog Jingles was able to connect with autistic children in a way humans had not.

Since then, AAT has continued to develop as a therapeutic science. Although dogs are the most frequently used therapy animals, cats, birds, rabbits, horses, donkeys, llamas and even pigs and snakes participate in different programs.

According to research, when people hold and stroke an animal, many positive physical and psychological transitions occur, including lowered blood pressure, a feeling of calm, the ability to be more extroverted and verbal, decreased loneliness and increased self-esteem.

Susan Lee Bady, a clinical social worker who uses cats in her practice, says the cats serve a number of different functions, including facilitating emotional expression and touching; encouraging spontaneity and fun; and providing the kind of unconditional love seldom found in human relationships.

Bady's patients report feelings of peacefulness and serenity when they watch cats cuddle and groom each other. This feeling is enhanced when a cat jumps into a patient's lap. Some patients speak more freely while holding or petting a cat. Patients out of touch with their emotions are sometimes able to identify and understand their emotions by watching the behavior of the cats.

Patients with trust issues learn to trust Bady by watching her with her cats. Bady's cats, like all pets, are independent souls. This independence and lack of predictability helps needy or insecure patients cope better with what they perceive as personal slights in everyday life. For example, when patients feel a cat doesn't like them because he or she won't sit in their lap, Bady uses that reaction to open a discussion about their neediness and the problems it might be creating in their lives.

There's a plethora of literature amassed on the many different ways animals help children and adults with psychiatric illness, mood disorders, developmental and learning disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental and emotional challenges.

One study of hospitalized psychiatric patients concluded that animal-assisted therapy significantly reduced anxiety for patients with psychotic, mood and other disorders.

Another study published in the Journals of Gerontology showed that animal-assisted therapy reduced loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities - especially for those folks who previously owned pets.

A study conducted at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University concluded children with pervasive development disorders (PDD) who lack social communication abilities "exhibited a more playful mood, were more focused, and were more aware of their social environments when in the presence of a therapy dog."

In a report titled "Animal-Assisted Therapy in Psychiatric Rehabilitation," researchers studied the effect of AAT on a group of male and female psychiatric inpatients. By the fourth week of the study, "patients in the AAT group were significantly more interactive with other patients, scored higher on measures of smiles and pleasure, were more sociable and helpful with others and were more active and responsive to surroundings."

Aaron Katcher, M.D., a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, claims there is tremendous evidence for the success of animal-assisted therapy in controlled studies, such as depressed patients had increased socialization and decreased depression; children with severe ADHD and conduct disorder had decreased aggressive behavior and improved attention; patients with autism or developmental disabilities had increased socialization and improved attention; and patients with Alzheimer's had improved attention and decreased aggression and anger.

According to Katcher, there is also clinical and anecdotal evidence that patients with dissociative disorders and agoraphobia are able to decrease anxiety and increase social skills when they have companion animals.

With all the benefits pets provide, shouldn't you consider bringing one of these little miracle workers home today? Visit your local shelter for the largest selection of adoptable pets in your community.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Children's moral development influenced by adopting a pet

Psychologist, animal welfare advocate and human-animal bond expert Dr. Pia Salk (niece of polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk and daughter of bestselling author/psychologist Lee Salk) is a regular contributor to Martha Stewart's The Daily Wag. In a recent article, Salk asked the provocative question, "Can adopting a shelter animal make a difference in your child's moral development?"

Salk offers important insight into the values we teach our children when we adopt a companion animal from a shelter. According to Salk, the very decision to devote family resources to caring for an animal in need sends a clear message to your children about who you are and what you stand for.

When you adopt a shelter pet, Salk explains, children internalize important values - "We are a family that uses the power of choice to save a life." This teaches kids that by taking personal responsibility, their choices can affect the larger community.

Children need to feel they can impact their world. Parents need to give children opportunities to do so in positive, pro-social ways. Adopting and caring for an animal can provide this opportunity.

Where should this life lesson begin? Salk suggests a family meeting to discuss if the family is willing and able to meet an animal's needs. Together, a family should explore every facet of these questions, such as: Do we need landlord permission? How much exercise will the animal need? How will we provide medical care? Who will be responsible for feeding, training and walks? Who will care for the animal during vacations? How will a pet affect plans to move? Such conversations teach the importance of planning, navigating around potential obstacles and committing to a goal, for better or worse. This exercise is an important step in teaching children the inherent value of the animal's life and well-being.

Answering these questions will also help you determine what sort of animal is a good match for your family. Don't hesitate to ask your local shelter for help in making this decision.

The choice around which animal to adopt can lead to deeper discussions about family values. Perhaps your family is willing to provide a home to an older pet abandoned because of an eviction, or maybe to a cat who has lost an eye or a limb. These choices help children see past age and physical "limitations" so they appreciate another being's intrinsic worth. This teaches acceptance and gives children a chance to witness the inspiring resilience of animals.

Perhaps your family is willing to take in a breed disadvantaged by negative stereotypes. This teaches kids to learn for themselves and not be influenced by a biased or misinformed public perception.

For kids who are adopted, adopting a pet provides an opportunity to talk about their feelings while learning more about their family's love and compassion for others in need. Likewise, for a child who is hearing-impaired or has a condition such as diabetes, adopting an animal with a similar condition, or other special need (provided the resources exist to properly manage it), can be therapeutic and enriching for all involved.

"There is no limit to the great lessons you can teach your children when you opt to adopt," says Salk. "These lessons benefit everyone involved and they live on in the minds of children, manifesting in a lifetime of compassionate acts."

What better time to have this compassionate, life-saving family discussion?  Visit your local shelter today to see all the pets waiting for the perfect home - yours.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Circle of compassion rippling through universities

The New York Times recently ran an article by James Gorman on the status of animals in universities across the United States.

Historically, academia relegated animals to the province of science. Rats were confined to psychology labs; cows to veterinary barns; monkeys to neuroscience labs; and preserved frogs to the dissecting tables of undergraduates. At the same time, the attention of liberal arts and social sciences was directed solely toward human interests.

No more. This spring Harvard is offering "Humans, Animals and Cyborgs," while Dartmouth presents "Animals and Women in Western Literature" and New York University offers "Animals, People and Those in Between."

These courses evidence a growing interest in animal studies. In fact, anything having to do with any connection between humans and animals in art, literature, sociology, anthropology, film, theater, philosophy, and religion is fair game for animal studies.

The Animals and Society Institute, itself only six years old, lists more than 100 animal studies courses in American universities. Institutes, book series and conferences are proliferating as formal academic programs emerge.

Wesleyan University, with the Animals and Society Institute, began a summer fellowship program this year. Michigan State now allows doctoral and master's students in different fields to concentrate their work in animal studies. At least two institutions offer undergraduate majors, and New York University is allowing undergraduates to minor in animal studies.

Scholars never actually ignored animals. Thinkers and writers of all ages grappled with human/animal issues and the treatment of animals. However, the current burst of interest is unprecedented.

Jane Desmond of the University of Illinois, a cultural anthropologist, says public sensitivities are largely responsible for all the animal attention.

The trend may be traced back to Jane Goodall, who first showed us the social and emotional side of chimpanzees in a way we could not ignore. Most recently the popular YouTube video of a New Caledonian crow bending a wire into a tool to fish food out of a container caused academics to wonder how old a child would have to be to figure that out.

The most direct influence may have come from philosophy. Peter Singer's 1975 book "Animal Liberation" was a landmark in arguing against killing, eating and experimenting on animals. He questioned how humans could justify causing animals pain.

Lori Gruen, head of philosophy and coordinator of the summer fellowship program in animal studies at Wesleyan, said, "Thirty years ago animals were at the margins of philosophical discussions; now animals are in the center of ethical discussion."

Another strain of philosophy, exemplified by the French writer Jacques Derrida, has had an equally strong influence. He considered the way we think of animals, and why we distance ourselves from them. In "The Animal that Therefore I Am," he discusses not only what he thinks of his cat, but what his cat thinks of him.

What animals think is something scholars are taking more seriously. Referring to academic programs that focused on disenfranchised populations like women or African-Americans, Dr. Weil of Wesleyan said, "Unlike (those populations, animals) can't speak or write in language the academy recognizes." This communication deficit lent itself to academics raising moral arguments on behalf of the animals.

The great variety of subjects, methods, interests and assumptions in animal studies raises serious questions about how it all hangs together. Law schools have courses in animals and the law; veterinary schools have courses about the human connection to animals; and some courses use animals in therapy as part of animal studies.

None of this diversity diminishes the excitement in what's going on, although there are some academics within the animal studies rubric who think the scholarly ferment has a long way to go before it can truly consider itself an academic field.

One thing the new interest in animal studies does not lack is energy. If you want to better understand what all the scholarly excitement is about visit your local shelter for your homework assignment and adopt a pet today.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Euthanasia not acceptable for healthy or treatable pets

The mayor of Los Angeles once told me that he considered managing animal shelters more difficult than running a metropolis like L.A. I had to agree. Animal shelters represent the worst - or best - in a community. They are a nexus of heartache and compassion. When one of these outweighs the other, the soul of a community is revealed.

Understanding the daily challenges inherent in managing animal shelters, my heart goes out to the Arizona Humane Society (AHS). AHS is caught up in a public relations nightmare involving a homeless man who brought his kitten to them for medical care. Daniel Dockery, 49 years old, had hand-raised a 9-month old kitten since she was born. Dockery attributed his companionship with the kitten, Scruffy, to his ability to stay off heroin.

When Scruffy suffered "non-life threatening injuries," Dockery rushed her to AHS where a medical examination determined it would cost $400 to treat her. Unable to pay the fee, Dockery surrendered the kitten to AHS after being assured she would be treated and placed in foster care. Several hours later, Scruffy was euthanized. The report of her death went viral. It seemed every national mainstream and alternate news source reported on Scruffy's untimely death. The resulting outrage forced AHS to hire a publicist to help alleviate public ire.

The publicist explained that Dockery's lack of funds combined with the number of animals in need of urgent care led to the decision to euthanize Scruffy. The betrayal of trust left Dockery feeling responsible for Scruffy's death and prompted an angry public to threaten withholding funds from AHS.

One positive outcome from this ordeal is that AHS created an account funded by donations to cover the cost of emergency animal care. The account is similar to the Yavapai Humane Society's STAR (Special Treatment And Recovery) fund, which is funded by donations and is responsible for saving the lives of many homeless animals in need of critical care.

Having been involved in animal shelter management for 30 years, I understand that mistakes can be made. I have also learned that policies and procedures can be implemented to help ensure errors are made on the side of saving a life, not taking it.

I share this lamentable story because it sits in juxtaposition to many life and death decisions made by the Yavapai Humane Society. For instance, in recent weeks YHS took in four senior pets, each surrendered by their respective owner claiming the pet was suffering from a life threatening illness.

While YHS provides euthanasia to owned animals who are irremediably suffering, we make it clear to pet owners that we will not euthanize an animal when it is determined that the animal is not suffering, is actually healthy, or can be treated.

In each of these cases, after ownership was legally surrendered to YHS, medical examinations were performed. A consultation with the private veterinarian handling the healthcare of each animal prior to surrender was conducted when possible. In each case no life threatening condition or suffering could be found. These animals have since been placed for adoption in hope they will live their remaining years in a loving home.

Every day employees at animal shelters across the United States are faced with decisions to kill or not to kill. Whether it is killing an animal too quickly or not quickly enough, shelters often find they are damned if they do or damned if they don't.

If the Yavapai Humane Society is to be judged, let it always be for trying to save the lives of animals others have given up on. Since embracing our "no-kill ethic," the Yavapai Humane Society has reduced shelter killing 77 percent - making our community the safest for pets in all Arizona.

If you are able to help YHS sustain this life-saving mission (regardless of age) please make a tax-deductible donation to the Yavapai Humane Society today.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Woman sues to prove animals are 'living souls,' not property

"Today Show" contributor Scott Stump recently reported on a New Yorker named Elena Zakharova who filed a civil suit in a New York court against an Upper East Side pet store. The store, Raising Rover, sold Zakharova a puppy that developed numerous medical complications. The suit seeks to hold the store liable for the dog's pain and suffering, and medical bills, as if the dog were a person rather than an inanimate product.

New York law considers pets "property,' but the complaint wants to change that definition. The goal is to help shut down puppy mills that often mass-produce animals sold in boutique pet stores like Raising Rover, where "Umka" was purchased.

"Umka is a living soul,' the suit reads. " She feels love and pain.'

Ownership of Raising Rover has changed since Zakharova purchased Umka.

"I know nothing about the sale. The prior owner has the records. We are careful about where we get our puppies," Raising Rover's new owner Ben Logan told the New York Daily News. Logan declined to provide information about the prior owner.

Zakharova is seeking compensation for surgeries and medical treatment for Umka totaling about $8,000. She also wants a full return of the dog's sale price plus interest since the date of purchase in February 2011. Zakharova intends to donate any award to an animal charity, Lask said.

New York state has a "Puppy Lemon Law' that allows buyers to return sick animals to a pet store within 14 days for a full refund. The law is meant to slow puppy mills' mass production of dogs with inherent medical problems. However, Umka's medical issues did not become apparent for months after Zakharova purchased the dog.

"The Puppy Lemon Law doesn't cut it,' Lask said.

If the definition of a pet is changed from property to a sentient being, it could substantially change the amount of damages awarded when an owner buys a defective dog born in a puppy mill. That could have a chilling effect on pet stores buying animals from puppy mills fearing large payouts from lawsuits.

"It's going to put a number on my dog's broken hips that you created because you're negligent, you're greedy, and you're mass-producing puppies,' Lask said. "Right now, even if you return it, they just kill it, which is so inhumane.'

Lask is an animal lover who owns a Chihuahua named Lincoln who was found to have a hole in his skull months after her purchase. That discovery led her to investigate the practices of puppy mills. She waited six years to find a case to help correct the larger issue.

"It's much bigger than this case,' she said. "I am looking to shut down the puppy mill world.'

The main issue will be proving to a judge that pets are living souls who experience feelings of pain and emotion. "Human beings have treated other humans as property in history before recognizing it was wrong," said Lask, "so it's not too much of a stretch to ask the courts to change the definition."

"It's already a felony to abuse an animal. If animals have criminal rights, why not put rights on a damaged leg or a heart condition? If we're not equating (an animal) to a human being, and we're not equating it to a table, there has to be something in the middle.'

The suit brings to light the practices of puppy mills and their damaging effects on animals and their human owners. A 2011 investigation by The Humane Society of the United States revealed that Raising Rover, where Umka was purchased, was one of 11 upscale pet stores that purchased animals from Midwestern puppy mills with horrendous conditions.

The moral of the story is buyer beware! Experts agree consumers should opt to adopt from shelters like the Yavapai Humane Society to avoid the trauma that comes from paying exorbitant fees for pet store animals with hidden defects.