Tuesday, Sep 03 2013 06:00 AM

Living with animals opens our hearts

Keeping animals brings us such joy but it is often tempered by emotions, theirs and ours.

Our kind, older dog, Luke, was living in pain. I could see it in his eyes. He tore his cruciate ligament and needed surgery. After checking options, we took him to a surgeon in Sherman Oaks. The surgery was a success and Luke came home with strict instructions for after-care.

A couple of days later, Straw, one of our horses got sick. The vet suspected a probable sinus infection. We trailered the horse to the vet hospital where the vet bored a tiny hole through the animal's skull to flush out the infection and administered antibiotics.

The infection cleared up and we brought Straw home but he wouldn't eat and ended up back to the vet hospital. This time his diagnosis was a gastric ulcer.

The dog was a trooper and, while lame from surgical pain, his ligament pain was gone. We began his therapy with several short walks gradually increasing the time and distance to help him build new bone and strengthen muscle. He began healing and his eyes shone with happiness.

Between Luke, the dog recuperating from surgery and Straw, the horse going back and forth from the vet hospital, dosed with weeks of medications, we were feeling overwhelmed.

If we are stressed, I thought, how do these animals feel?

Luke was confined to a tiny space and had to wear a lampshade collar. Straw had to leave his home and routine and wait mournfully at the hospital, lost without his buddies. Did Luke think he was being punished? Did Straw miss his pasture mates?

I know they were confused, maybe sad, anxious, depressed or frightened. Concern for their emotions filled me with anxiety. I worried about their feelings and their recuperations.

We connect emotionally with animals. And as more people live with and care for animals, scientists have begun to study this connection.

"The field of animal emotions -- which is a specific area of focus within the larger scientific discipline of cognitive ethology, or the study of animal minds -- has changed a great deal in the past 30 years," according to the book The Emotional Lives of Animals, by Marc Bekoff.

"Cognitive ethology is the comparative, evolutionary, and ecological study of animal minds. It focuses on how animals think and what they feel, and this includes their emotions, beliefs, reasoning, information processing, consciousness, and self-awareness."

"Animal emotions should be important to us because we need animals in our lives; they help us. It's because animals have emotions that we're so drawn to them; lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication," Bekoff writes.

Living with animals opens our hearts to the remarkable world we inhabit with them. A couple of years ago, we had to put down our seriously laminitic horse. The horse had trouble standing or walking and was in terrible pain. The day the vet came to put him down, his best horse buddy lay down right next to him in exactly the same position.This horse never did anything like that before or since. What did he sense? What did he feel?

Horses being herd animals, the need for emotional attachment could serve them well. Dogs also express their emotions with people and other canines. During Luke's long recovery, our other dog frequently licked Luke's ears and eyes and even brought him dog toys.

A friend's horse recently died in a nearby pasture. While many struggled to get the horse to stand, it was not until his owner arrived that he made the final effort to get up and go to her. Did he care enough about her that he overcame his pain?

Animal emotions connect us with the animals that share our lives. We all can share stories of our animals' feelings and what we learn by interacting with them. By simply observing our animals, we find they can teach us a lot about loyalty, joy, hurt, friendship, loneliness and love as well as many other emotions felt by both humans and animals.

GINGER MOORHOUSE is a part-time Tehachapi resident.

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