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The Minds of Animals

We share our quiet hours with them. We sleep with them. We trust them with our children, our property, with our deepest secrets. We trust them to accept us, even our belches and worse, knowing that they will love us anyway.

These are our pets, whose undying, unquestioning devotion we rely upon with a faith that can only rarely be granted to another human being. Who are they? What are they thinking? How do their minds work?

Animals talk to me every day, and I talk back. They are very clear in their “words,” asking only that I be willing to watch and “listen” to the things they tell me. The only difference between me the veterinarian, and me the pet owner, is that I regularly talk to animals who don’t already know me. It’s really not so difficult.

I make a point of being polite. When I walk into a new place, no one is allowed to grab me and perform a prostate exam. Yet this is exactly the experience that most animals suffer when they visit the veterinary hospital. No, no, no! What must they think? “Whoa, Doc! Can’t you just take a sniff like everybody else?” The doctor-visit experience is intrinsically threatening and scary, and I make sure not to make it any worse. I start with a friendly greeting, first to the pet owner (to demonstrate that they think I’m OK) and then to the animal. It never hurts to start with a compliment, “Hello, Sweetie. What a good dog!” and then move on to a friendly pat on the head, a scratch of the ear, or perhaps a pleasant massage of the back.

It’s appropriate and necessary for a veterinarian (or anyone) to demonstrate that I am friendly, that I mean my patient no harm. It never hurts to get down on one knee and greet the dog on its own level. I have to prove my good manners during the first few seconds. I have to be patient and allow my patient to relax. THEN, once I have established that I am friendly and likable, then and only then will an animal cooperate with me and allow its body cavity to be invaded! In this regard, people and animals are just the same!

Dogs are brilliant animals. While the minds of dogs are different, I consider their intellect to be on par with a five-year-old child. Some animals, particularly experienced working dogs, are even more intelligent! That is an awful lot of brainpower! Humans like to think of ourselves as immensely brainy, but we routinely underestimate the capabilities of our dogs. I think most dogs have a language capacity of about 2,000 words. Consider this: If you understood 2,000 words of Chinese, YOU COULD SPEAK CHINESE! Yes, your dog probably DOES understand everything you say to him.

Here’s a surprise from my work: A lot of dogs understand and respond to the word “please.”

That five-year-old human capability also applies to the emotional abilities of dogs. Think about it: They can be sad or frustrated or happy or pleased with themselves. They dream. Dogs are anxious to please and will do almost anything to help.
Most dogs are happiest in the role of Daddy’s (or Mommy’s) Little Helper.

Cats are another matter. While cats are smart and capable animals, they just don’t have the intellectual ability of a dog. My cats operate at a human two-year-old level, prone to stubbornness and tantrums, and always happy for a chance to say “No!” Greeting a strange cat requires a bit more finesse. Fortunately, all cats are vain. One need only greet a new cat with “Oh, what a handsome kitty you are!” and a friendly rub of the ear. Most cats will respond with a silent, “Why, yes I am! That’s very perceptive of you. You’re not nearly as stupid as most humans,” and then allow you to continue sucking up to them. And sucking up is important with cats. Some cats are massage-between-the-shoulder-blade cats. Others are scratch-the-base-of-the-tail cats. Still others are rub-the-inside-of-my-ear-canal-with-your-finger cats. The sooner you discover a particular cat’s pleasure, the faster you’ll become a friend. I generally find the ear rub works best. Imagine being a kitty, and having no finger to scratch inside your own ear! Sometimes I think this is the only reason they put up with us. Humans ARE good for something.

The minds of animals are different. Sometimes they are simple, but mostly not. It’s important for us to realize that our human viewpoint is not the only lens through which our world may be viewed. Other, “lesser” (How anthropic a viewpoint!) animals, including unrecognized intellectual giants like banana slugs, demonstrate amazing capabilities when we humans take time to observe.

Happy New Year!

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