Dogs and Humans
Some years ago I was helping with a study of older people and the ways in which they kept in touch with friends and family. As part of the survey we showed them a circle and asked them to place themselves in the centre and locate their friendships around them – the closest nearer to the centre (and them) and others further away. We were often asked whether pets could be included and they were invariably placed near the centre of the circle revealing an important truth about human-animal friendship. Many people find their closest emotional bonds to lie with animals as well as humans; animals as several people asserted, have become “part of the family”.
In sociology human-animal interaction has previously been of little interest and has rarely been studied. When it has been given attention this has most often involved considering animals as entirely separate species and “objects” in relation to human beings. However findings like these, studies by biologists of living animals in their natural settings, and documentary programmes such as those by David Attenborough have revealed many of the similarities between humans and animals. Animals are now viewed as sentient and imaginative beings in their own right. All this has become clear in my personal life. At home we have five cats, two horses and two rescue ponies. We also have a dog: a springer spaniel called Jack. They are all very much “part of the family”, but this is a story about Jack and me.
Jack the Dog
Jack is a springer spaniel and we took him on when he was three months old. He had been living with a family with four young children in a semi-detached house in Cardiff. Without exercise he was proving difficult to handle! At that time our previous dog (a spaniel) had died and as we were planning to move from our house in a village to a smallholding we thought that it would be an ideal time to have a new puppy.
We knew about spaniels and that springers were especially energetic but nothing could have prepared us for Jack. He was ‘perpetual motion’: forever running flat out, jumping over walls, always with something in his mouth, often a plant pot covering his eyes.
I got used to finding my slippers in the compost heap. The builders who visited found their gloves and caps disappearing, as well as their paint brushes and hammers. When anything was lost the shout would go up for “Jack!” Soon this little dog had come to dominate all our conversations, usually accompanied by laughter. People became convinced that he had a sense of humour. He would take a glove, run away with it and drop it when asked, only to run back to take the other one of the pair where you had left it! One of our friends was asked by his work mates why he kept smiling and he replied: “I’m just thinking about that bloody dog”. For us, he had become the centre of the house, with an excited greeting every morning, looking forward to the day, following us wherever we went; brilliant and happy with the cats and the sheep and with people. Oddly enough the dog had made it easier for us to interact with people who visited us here on the farm.
However we began to notice a change. When he was about three he was coming into the house in the afternoon and sleeping in his bed. He wasn’t quite as eager in the mornings and we thought that this was the sign of him “slowing down” as he matured. People had predicted that this would happen and that he couldn’t carry on at the pace he was setting. While he was still running around, it was not with such manic intent, and on one occasion he had taken a rest in the field on the way home. I suppose that this should have alerted us to a problem. However it soon become very clear that something was badly wrong. One morning we woke to find that Jack had been sick in the night and couldn’t get out of his bed!
Our vet, Bernice Fitzmaurice, was worried. She looked in Jack’s mouth, and his cold white gums indicated that he was in shock. He was put on a drip and kept in over the weekend for tests. She thought that he might have Addison’s Disease, a rare condition in dogs but not impossible given his symptoms.
We thought this was most unlikely, even impossible, because I had been diagnosed with Addison’s Disease ten years earlier. The disease is even more rare in human beings than dogs and the chances that both of us would have it were exceptionally limited. However, and in spite of all our doubts, the tests confirmed that Jack did indeed have Addison’s – our dog had the same illness as me!
The current estimates of the national incidence in dogs vary from 0.036% to 0.5%. It was common to calculate its prevalence in humans at 35–60 per million and although recent studies suggest a figure nearer 117 per million ( 0.0117%) it is still very rare. So for both of us to have ended up with this unusual and uncommon illness was quite a surprise. Although Riverside Vets in Abergavenny have 7 other dogs (of different breeds) with Addison’s , none of them have owners with the same condition, nor have they ever come across a similar case.
Addison’s Disease is an idiopathic adrenal insufficiency, most commonly brought about by the progressive destruction of the adrenal gland by the immune system. As such the symptoms become more acute over time, explaining Jack’s progressive deterioration. It is the same disease in humans and dogs but there are some differences that relate to our differing metabolisms. The human adrenal gland has three zones producing glucocorticoids, mineralocorticoids and a male hormone. Dogs have just the first two zones but not the third, and they produce much less glucocorticoid than humans. As such the treatment – which is to provide replacement medication (‘steroids’) – is slightly different.
I remembered how it came about that I was diagnosed. I had been very weary for many months. Sometimes in the evening after work I would find even talking to be too much effort. My wife, Helen, thought that I exhibited many of the symptoms of depression yet paradoxically without seeming miserable. I became more and more tired, occasionally exhausted and then unsteady on my feet. After a fall, a registrar at Neville Hall noticed pigmentation of my skin which is a tell-tale sign of Addison’s (which is notoriously difficult to diagnose) in humans. His suspicions were further aroused by a blood test showing high levels of potassium and low levels of sodium. One of the other features of the condition in people is a “postural drop” in blood pressure that occurs when standing up and produces unsteadiness. This of course can be checked but I wondered how vets were able to come to a diagnosis, given that the symptoms are so unspecific and, of course, dogs can’t talk.
Bernice explained that they see Addison’s as “the great pretender”. It mimics many other conditions and in their training vets are alerted to “things that don’t respond as they should to treatment”. They look out for any unsteadiness or hind limb weaknesses and are especially alerted by intestinal problems, or vomiting and dehydration and, as with humans, they would initially check on the electrolytes and see any warning signs of low sodium and high potassium. This is what they did with Jack and, as with humans, followed it with the Synacthen test which confirmed that his adrenal gland wasn’t working.
Tablet Routines and Recovery
Given our differences, our medication is slightly different: I need to take a lot of hydrocortisone while Jack has to take much more fludrocortisone in a tablet called Florinef to replace his mineralocorticoids. We have to do this daily and this does mean that we have similar routines. We are the great tablet takers!
To ease this vital process, Jack’s tablets are wrapped in a piece of chicken. This has meant that he never forgets. When the dose is due he has been known to stand looking at the fridge door to remind me. This also reminds me to take mine!
The tablet regime brought things back into balance for Jack. He was soon back to normal: he hadn’t really slowed up at all!
However things can go off the rails for him and for me. Jack had broken his leg when he was still a young dog and he had endured the surgery and the recovery period with great fortitude. However when he needed a further operation to remove the metal work in his leg, the fact that he had Addison’s Disease was a cause of concern requiring the surgeon to provide steroids during the operation and us to (temporarily) add hydrocortisone to his tablet regime when we got him home.
Infections and stress can also make things go out of balance which, if not corrected can turn into a crisis. Both Jack and I have had crises and they aren’t very pleasant. I can end up in A&E. The last time I was there the Senior House Officer was amazed to hear about Jack and he insisted that I should write about the fact that ‘my dog’s got what I’ve got’. That’s just one of the many ways in which Jack has entered the fabric of our lives and been good for us.
We have also been good for him. If you don’t have Addison’s Disease it’s hard to understand what it is and how it operates. We’ve learned that it’s important to spot the signs in me and this helps us with Jack. It means that we have been able (so far) to intervene when things are out of kilter for him and to prevent an acute crisis.
So we help each other. Given how rare the disease is in humans the chances of Jack finding us was a bit like a needle in a haystack; perhaps two and a half million to one. For his sake and ours, we’re glad that he did.
Many thanks to Helen Sampson for her help with the writing of this piece and to our vet Bernice Fitzmaurice for her advice and encouragement.