Dogs, Bees and Us: Do dogs or cats prevent heart attacks?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Dogs, Bees and Us
Birmans on homemade stamps on Zazzle

Birman owners love our “sacred cats of Burma”! On the Zazzle design-it-yourself website, a number of Birman owners have made US Postage stamps from photos of their cats. And, the cats are featured on commemorative stamps in countries from Congo to New Zealand.

I wasn’t always a cat person.

My affection for felines began when our son was 6 and my wife announced, “He needs a cat.”

My wife was an only child and had a special bond with her cats. Our son is an only child, and my wife felt it would be beneficial for him, too. When we told him we were going to get him a cat, he was so happy he burst into tears. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the human-animal bond, including its relevance for our values.

And, by the way, did you know that sharing our lives with animals yields health benefits?

We looked for a breed that was sociable, gentle, quiet and companionable—settling on Birmans, known as the Sacred Cats of Burma.  From the moment we got the cat, I observed the evolution of a boy-cat bond that supports what biologist Marc Bekoff writes in his latest book, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation. This book is a remarkable collection of Bekoff’s columns from Psychology Today about the latest research into animals, their psychological and emotional lives, and human attitudes toward animals.

One thing I’ve learned, for example, is that a cat can get depressed. We saw that whenever we went on a trip and had someone stop in regularly to feed the cat. Sociable animals need companions and we realized that our responsibility was to provide one. So, we got a second Birman, half-brother to the first, and the depression never reappeared.

Our animal companions also produce benefits for our emotional and physical well-being. Bekoff cites a 10-year study with the astonishing conclusion that having cats helps prevent death from heart attacks! “Those who owned a cat were 40 percent less likely to die from heart attacks than those who had no feline in their lives,” he writes, summarizing the study.

Do dogs have the same effect?  They don’t, according to the study.  Dogs, of course, have other beneficial effects on our lives.

What have you learned from your animal companions?

Are you surprised to learn that cats reduce death from heart attacks?

What benefits have you observed?

Want to learn more about Marc Bekoff’s work?

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Marc about his new book and this emerging field of research in this week’s cover story.

Dogs, Bees and Us: Are we more affectionate with animals than humans?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Dogs, Bees and Us

Rob Pasick book Conversations with My Old DogDo you know about Jane Goodall’s “Roots & Shoots” program? Founded in 1991 by the famed primatologist, it is a “program about making positive change happen—for our people, for animals and the environment.” Marc Bekoff, author of Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, teaches for the program, and for years, has done so for inmates at the Boulder County Jail in Colorado. (All this week, we’re looking at Marc’s new book; you might also enjoy an interview with Bekoff.)

What does Marc Bekoff’s experience with inmates tell us?

“Many inmates find it easier to connect with animals than with people,” writes Bekoff. “Animals don’t judge them.” The inmates “trust and empathize with animals in ways they don’t with humans.” To model healthy relationships, Bekoff tells the inmates about the social behavior of animals who live in groups, such as wolves, and how they cooperate with and depend on one another.

But, I think, the observation that it’s easier to connect with animals extends beyond the prison population.

“People are able to express more emotions and physicality with their pets than with one another,” says Rob Pasick. A practicing psychologist and consultant, Pasick also is author of Conversations with My Old Dog.

We play with, touch, and talk to our pets in ways that are outside social norms for most human-to-human interactions. “Pets give us permission to do things that would be made fun of” otherwise, says Pasick. Pets can be “substitutes for interactions we wish we had with people,” but that society does not value, sanction, or permit.

Do you know people who connect more easily with animals than humans?

What does this tell us about society and what we value?

Dogs, Bees and Us: Does “Lassie” reduce stress?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Dogs, Bees and Us

The Lassie TV show in the 1950sLassie—the loyal collie who always saved the day—is a fictional character appearing over the years in film, radio, television, and books.

Called the “world’s most famous dog,” Variety named Lassie one of the 100 icons of the past century. Do you recall Lassie? Did watching an episode of Lassie make you feel good?

Here’s one way to know for sure, as Marc Bekoff summarizes in Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: Watch a Lassie film, then spit in a cup.

If a lab then analyzes your saliva for stress biomarkers, you’ll find that they have fallen after watching the canine clip. Watching Lassie reduces stress. That’s the conclusion of research conducted by Cheryl A. Krause-Parello, currently an associate professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing and Director of Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors—C-PAWW.

Krause-Parello’s research focuses the “relationship between human-animal interaction and stress biomarkers in vulnerable populations including military veterans and children of alleged sexual abuse.” Animal-assisted interventions can produce emotional, physical, and healing benefits.

The mutual benefits of human-animal interactions are profound for everyone. “A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits,” says a Mayo Clinic oncologist that Bekoff quotes in his book.

Are you surprised to learn that even watching a film of Lassie reduces stress?

Do animals play a positive role in your life?

What are your stories of healing human-animal interactions?

Dogs, Bees and Us: A link between cruelty to animals and humans?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Dogs, Bees and Us
The Humane Society of the United States website

VISIT The Humane Society of the United States website for more information. Just click on this small snapshot fro the HSUS website.

Cruelty is the dark side of human-animal interactions.

Did you know that there is no national accounting of cruelty to animals? We have uniform accounting, each year, of crimes against humans—but not so for animal abuse and other attacks against animals. The U.S. Humane Society (HSUS) reports:

“The shocking number of cruelty cases reported daily in the media is only the tip of the iceberg. Most cases are never reported, and most animal suffering goes unrecognized and unabated. Although there is no national reporting system for animal abuse, media reports suggest that it is common in rural and urban areas. Cruelty and neglect can also cross socio-economic boundaries.”

Despite the lack of national reporting, the HSUS has collected and summarizes a lot of data from media reports. And, if these reports move you to do something, HSUS provides a Take Action page as well. Of course, most of us are deeply troubled when we hear of such abuse.

And, my question today may add to your concern: Can cruelty to animals predict cruelty to humans?

Researchers are sure there’s a link, as Marc Bekoff summarizes in Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, the book we’re consulting this week. He focuses on the work of Australian psychologist Eleonora Gullone, from her book Animal Cruelty, Antisocial Behaviour, and Aggression: More than a Link. She notes that “mild and isolated forms of animal cruelty may be part of normal exploratory developmental behaviour” in children. But “persistent or recurrent cruelty to animals” is associated with, precedes, and predicts later anti-social behavior, aggression, and violence toward humans.

Once again, the HSUS has helpful information, including various connections between animal and human cruelty. Here are some of them:

  • Animal abuse can reveal people who are also engaged in criminal activities, as well as reveal family violence.
  • Cruelty to animals can be a “warning sign for at-risk youth.”
  • One of the predictors of domestic partner abuse is cruelty to companion animals.
  • A history of animal abuse in childhood may translate into tolerance of interpersonal violence in adulthood.

Have you observed the cruel side of human-animal interactions?

Have you seen a link between cruelty to animals and to humans?

Dogs, Bees and Us: So, why DO dogs hump?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Dogs, Bees and Us
Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Why do dogs hump?

And why do humans feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when it happens? The answer to the first question is one of the many surprising facts about animals that biologist Marc Bekoff writes about in Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, the book we have been exploring all week. Learning about non-human animals and their behavior tells us something about our own values and attitudes.

Today, I’ll offer an answer to that question about our discomfort with the behavior.

Before continuing, how would you answer the question?

This week, we’ve discussed a number of amazing facts about animals and human-animal interactions, based on Bekoff’s writings: cats reduce heart attacks, connecting with animals may be easier than connecting with humans, watching a “Lassie” flick reduces stress, and how cruelty to animals can predict cruelty to humans. Today, we consider the question about dogs posed in Bekoff’s title.

Humping (or mounting) behavior is a “normal part of a dog’s repertoire,” says Bekoff—for both male and female dogs.

But it turns out that there isn’t one answer to the question of why dogs hump. Reproduction is one reason why mounting occurs, but this behavior occurs in many different contexts and emotional states. So, a dog might hump or mount because it is excited, aroused, stressed out, anxious, bored, or just being playful—or something else. “In truth,” writes Bekoff, “we really don’t know all that much about these behavior patterns…so generalizations about what they mean to all dogs need to be put on hold until further research is done.”

With so many different reasons why humping occurs, why are humans uncomfortable when it happens? The word “hump” itself, when used as a verb, has several meanings, according to the online Free Dictionary. It can mean to bend into an arch, to exert oneself, to carry something, to hurry along, and—in vulgar usage—to engage to sexual intercourse or contact.

It may be the last meaning—the sexual one—that is an assumption we too often make about dog humping. Human sexuality is a complicated and often difficult topic for many. If, and when, we import the sexual interpretation to dogs, we feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. Perhaps our discomfort comes when we anthropomorphize dog behavior.

We share the world with animals, often taking them into our homes as companions and comfort. But, we really don’t know that much about animals.

What can we learn from animal behavior?

What does it tell us about ourselves?