When It Comes to Being Sick, Dogs and Cats Are Stronger Than Us
I recently faced a case diagnosed with the most frightening disease known to the medical community. Once I learned the patient’s signalment (age, breed, and gender) and the description of his presenting signs (cough, congestion, restlessness, agitation, and poor appetite), I knew I was in for an incredible diagnostic and therapeutic challenge.
Surprisingly, my patient didn’t have an aggressive form of cancer. He also didn’t have outrageously complicated blood work abnormalities or questionable biopsy results. There were no broken bones or bleeding wounds to tend to. The patient wasn’t even a companion animal.
The subject I speak of was my husband.
And the diagnosis was the dreaded “Man Cold.”
Women around the globe are well aware of the enormous gap between what transpires physiologically when they are sick with a cold versus what transpires when a man is stricken with the same illness.
What will debilitate the male species to a puddle of trembling, feverish flesh is what woman bravely face on a Tuesday morning when pollen counts are up. My own research has found that “sick” men require approximately 75% more sleep, 50% more couch time, and 85% more take out food than their healthy counterparts. Sick women seem to require no such adjustments, and show quicker recovery times when they actually take on more than their usual workload.
In fact, most men insist that human MDs consistently underestimate the severity of a runny nose, swollen glands, and watery eyes in those possessing a Y chromosome, inexplicably confusing surefire signs of imminent death with those of the common cold.
My ill husband’s constant wincing, sighing, tossing and turning, and overall grumpiness led me to consider the outward signs of illness I see in my own patients.
As "serious" as we humans should be about Man Colds, I know this fictional disease biologically contrasts significantly with what sick animals encounter during the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
When I paused to consider the disparities, I concluded that although women handle illness far more gracefully than men, when it comes to the mental and physical toughness required to face a truly devastating diagnosis, it’s animals that really show us humans up, regardless of our gender.
Most newly diagnosed dogs with cancer actually show no life-threatening signs. They also maintain their stoicism while undergoing aggressive treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy. When illness develops, they are rarely prone to protests or changes in attitude.
Cats, on the other hand, are typically diagnosed at more advanced disease stages. In turn, they are more likely to show signs of affliction. However, they aren’t particularly creative in their repertoire of symptoms, as most sick cats show identical signs, like hiding, constantly sleeping, or refusing to eat or drink regardless of the underlying cause. I wouldn’t consider any of outward these to be overly remarkable though.
From a strictly biological perspective, it's not surprising that companion animals are adept at hiding signs of disease. Domesticated cats and dogs, for the most part, retain at lease some semblance of the survival instincts of their wild ancestors, who are forced to mask signs of pain or sickness or otherwise be considered easy targets for other species to prey on them.
This certainly isn’t true for all animals, however, and owners must be careful when approaching their pets when they are sick, as their behavior can be unpredictable. Even the calmest pet could react by biting or scratching out of fear or pain when their more primitive reflexes overtake learned submissive behaviors.
Those patients are the most challenging from a veterinarian’s perspective as well. We are trained in the art of healing, yet this cannot be directly communicated to the animals we work with. We may be faced with an animal that behaves aggressively because it is scared, or put ourselves in danger in order to help treat a pet that ultimately views us as a threat.
Certain dogs will always wag their tails, no matter the amount of pain or suffering they endure. Purring can be a sign of affection or anxiety in cats, and may occur despite severe sickness and debilitation. Whether their actions are a result of nature or nurture is debatable. We are fortunate that the vast majority of our patients tolerate disease in a way that allows us to provide comfort, with zero complaint.
What matters more are the lessons humans could stand to learn from our veterinary counterparts when it comes to dealing with adversities related to our own health. We should be more patient, more tolerant, and keep negative thoughts from pervading our mindset in order to allow for the chance to heal.
Though there were touch and go moments this past weekend, it appears the Man Cold has completely resolved, with my subject making a near complete recovery. And I’m blowing off my newly developed annoying running nose and persistent cough because I really don’t have time to be sick myself.
Ladies — I know you understand what I mean.
Dr. Joanne Intile
Image: Sick as a dog, Michael Pettigrew / Shutterstock