Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

The Intelligence of Animals

The social needs and sensitivity of animals are a window into human potential.

 Why does it make me so happy to think that other animals are intelligent and social like human beings? It's especially nice when they aren't known for having wars or some other less impressive human traits.

I know I'm hoping that humans will become less tolerant of cruelty over time--to both humans and other animals. We already have. In medieval Europe, audiences enjoyed watching cats flung into a fire; now we give substantial medical care to aging pets

Today, we argue over whether humans should be more important than animals. Should we all be vegetarians? Is animal research to help cure human diseases is justified? What do you make of obsessive or reclusive cat-lovers who obviously prefer their pets to other people?  

To my mind, these questions are distraction from a bigger picture. I believe that when we appreciate animals we appreciate the better side of human beings.

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The latest is that bottlenose dolphins may call each other by name! If so, they'd be the only animals other than humans to do so.

 Earlier research found that each dolphin has a unique whistle that can be heard more than 12 miles away. Other dolphins recognize the whistle.

 The most recent discovery, by Stephanie King, a research fellow at University of St. Andrews: when separated, a dolphin may call out another dolphin's signature whistle, and she believes that they do so in order to get back together.

 Studying wild dolphins around Sarasota Bay in Florida from 1984 to 2009 and four adult males who live in an aquarium, her team observed mothers apparently "calling" their calves and male dolphin “buddies” calling each other. (Songbirds may copy each other songs, but that's been interpreted as competition, not social bonding).

 Dolphins’ sounds, which include clicks and squawks, may have a kind of grammar and syntax. Lori Marino, an evolutionary neurobiologist at Emory University, says that they process information and make decisions quickly and and they show altruism towards other dolphins.

It's well-known that pets make humans happier and healthier. Stroking a pet can lower your heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure.Even watching fish swim is good for you.

When an earthquake devastated the Japanese city of Kobe in January 1995, and thousands had to be housed in public buildings, officials bent the usual rules against animals and let people bring their pets. "It was an eye-opening experience for everyone," Dr Gen Kato, president of the Japanese Animal Hospital Association told Readers Digest. "People who had pets were clearly more happy and coped better with the disaster."

Research has shown the long-term benefits of owning a cat include protection for your heart. Over the 20 years of one study, people who never owned a cat were 40% more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had. Another study showed that dog owners had a significantly better survival rate one year after a heart attack. Overall, pet owners have a lower risk of dying from any cardiac disease, including heart failure.

And animals can be more tuned-in than a human friend. About one in three dogs living with a diabetic can smell the onset of a drop in blood sugar and alert their owners to eat a snack to avoid an attack.

Trained dogs can sense when someone with Parkinson's is "freezing" and touch the foot to let the person keep walking.

Dogs can also predict epileptic seizures, apparently by detecting subtle changes in their owners. Andrew Edney, a British veterinarian, studied 37 pet dogs that reacted to their owners' impending fits. Some became anxious or restless; others nuzzled their owners, stood guard over them or ran to fetch people.

A Briton, John Stoddart, who is epileptic and asthmatic, lived in fear that he would have a seizure and choke on his tongue, .But now his Jack Russell terrier Bruno acts as an alarm system: Bruno will jump up at yap in a particular way that warns Stoddart to lie down. "I've lost count of how often he has saved me from serious injury or worse," Stoddart says. 

Trained dogs are even able to retrieve a phone for a 911 call. (canineassistants.org) 

Trained dogs now accompany autistic children to school, helping to cut their anxiety and give them ways to interact with other kids (autismservicedogsofamerica.com) 

The Mexican hairless, or xoloitzcuintli, is comforting people with fibromyalgia and other forms of chronic pain. Patients feel better simply by holding the warm body or lying next to it. (pawsforcomfort.com) 

But having pets isn't just for people with special needs. There's a good reason the classic family had a dog and maybe a cat.  Pets can help children become more compassionate. Small in stature themselves, children identify with stuffed animals, other kids, pets, and underdogs. Their natural empathy must compete with other aspects of childhood--the limited impulse control that makes them pull the cat's tail and their belief that their needs absolutely must come first.  

Teach a small child how to touch a baby (or an animal) gently and how to speak in a kind patient voice.  Make it unacceptable to be mean to animals and expect children to help with chores. Two-year-olds can scoop dry cat food out of a bag. 

And I hope your two-year-old will grow old in a world where some of today's cruelties to both humans and animals have become unthinkable.  

 For editing or writing coaching, contact me at expertediting.org. 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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