Friday, September 12, 2014

Living with a god . . . err . . . dog

Insight, Sep '14
By Dr. Tirthankar Guha Thakurta

Dogs have shared a long evolutionary history with humankind. The archaeological findings on the walls and floors of Chauvet Cave in southern France or the Goyet Cave in Belgium bear testimony to the tens of thousands of years of our relationship with our best friend, the dog. Many theorists believe that humans and dogs evolved together, resulting in a deep sense of interdependence and mutual understanding. It is not surprising that dogs, even without rigorous training, understand so many gestures and words that we use in our day-to-day life. With such an intense inter-species relationship comes a great responsibility – to make the journey safe and joyous for both the species.

The author with Bravo. Photo credit: Anuprabho Ghosh
I grew up with my cousins in a joint family in my ancestral house in Kolkata. We had a passion for adopting stray pups and nurturing them as our own family members. Growing up with several generations of this loyal and intelligent species, I realised that each dog has a unique personality – much like humans. Some are childlike, some more responsible, others are naughty or foodies, while some are too lazy to be anything. I think what binds us with dogs is more than their faithfulness. They are a model for what we consider one of the greatest virtues of humanity – unconditional submission. They teach us through their act of love, forgiveness and loyalty, a state of complete submission to someone we believe loves us. We wish in a corner of our heart that we could be them. They inspire us to be better than who we are today. This is what, I feel, makes it a wonderful experience to grow up with dogs.

If you have a dog at home, you are blessed with a wonderful companion who brightens up your days with the gift of playfulness, naughtiness and loyalty, all in one bag. However, there are certain unique health problems that your companion can suffer from that you need to be aware of. Dogs can lead happier and healthier lives with better-informed human companions.

If you are planning to adopt a dog, you must ask yourself a few questions: Which size (or breed) of an adult dog can live comfortably in your house? Do you have enough space for the dog to move around? Do you or your family members have sufficient time to look after the dog (like taking the dog out for a daily walk, bathing, grooming, feeding and playing with the dog)? Can you afford the basic expenses for the treatment of your dog when needed? Do you have a friend or family member you can count on for looking after your dog, when you are out of town for some urgent need? These questions apply to any other pet as well that you may be planning to adopt.

Some dogs are by nature less active (my own pet dog Bravo, for example). Some breeds of dogs require a daily exercise regime. Some like the Labrador-retrievers can be very homely and friendly to all family members (including children), while other dogs have a bit of a temperament, but can be good watchdogs. It is wise to think about the possibilities before you adopt a dog rather than struggle afterwards.

What are the common health problems that dogs suffer from? These include ear infection, flea infestation, intestinal worms and common cold. Infections that are more serious in canine species like dogs include the parvovirus infection that causes a sudden drop in the white blood cell count causing immunity suppression, distemper and rabies. These diseases do not have any specific drug treatment, but may be prevented by vaccination or other medicines. Speak to your veterinary doctor regarding routine vaccination of your dog and additional vaccinations if needed, depending on the breed and the place you live in. Deworming your dog to prevent and treat intestinal worms is necessary for you and your dog's health. As a responsible dog-owner, it is your duty to get your dog regularly checked up and vaccinated against infectious diseases.

The microbes that infect dogs are mostly unique to the canine species. However, certain bacterial, viral and parasitic infections can be transmitted from dogs to humans. The list can be long, but most of the serious ones are of rare occurrence. Scabies (an itchy skin infection), certain intestinal worms and some bacteria that cause bowel upset can be transmitted from dogs to the human members of the family. With proper hand hygiene and timely vaccination and deworming of the dog, most of these diseases can be prevented.

Is the reverse possible, that is, can humans infect dogs? Some human bacteria and viruses can infect dogs (though very rarely). Most dogs have high immunity and can ward off ordinary infections from humans.

Another question I have often been asked by friends is whether stray dogs (pariah dogs) make good pets? The Indian pariah dogs (commonly referred to as street dogs) are one of the oldest evolutionary lines of dogs that are hardy, intelligent and easily domesticated. They require minimum grooming, a basic diet (usually the same as yours) and can adapt best to the Indian climatic conditions. They come in brilliantly coloured fur and make for a wonderful pet at home. In addition, they will not cost you a rupee. If you are planning to adopt a pariah, wait no more. In the canine context, the term pariah has no derogatory sense!

You also need to be aware about laws in India that prevent cruelty to animals (the Prevention of Cruelty to AnimalsAct, 1960). The Constitution of India makes it a responsibility for all citizens to show compassion to the animals in our country. If properly used, the law can be our most effective weapon against cruelty to animals. India has one of the most comprehensive sets of animal protection laws in the world. There are detailed codes of conduct governing our behaviour towards domestic and wild animals.

So if you see a dog or any other animal being abused, do protest! Make the abuser understand what they are doing is wrong and illegal. Help the animal and call an animal welfare organisation to rescue if needed. If the animal is injured, help the animal get some urgent first aid, and then call a vet or animal welfare organisation; even better, carry the animal to a vet. Last, but most importantly, file an FIR in the nearest police station. Do not be discouraged if the police officer refuses to entertain your complaint. Be firm and polite. Unless we report these crimes, there will never be an impact on the legal system of our country.

Here’s wishing you a joyous and safe life journey with your dog!

If you are interested in learning about animal assisted care giving therapy, please contact Caregivers Link, which specializes in support for caregivers. – Editor

Confused? Disturbed? Just inquisitive? Write in any query on the mind, body and family to, and Dr. Tirthankar Guha Thakurta, teaching faculty at a Kolkata-based medical college, will be happy to answer them – with due respect to confidentiality.