This week: Don't worry, be happy
Since my days in vet school, I have seen many examples that exemplify the biological similarities between animals and humans. I often get asked: 'How can a vet know so much about so many different animals while a human doctor only specialises in one? It must be really hard.' Little do many people know there are many similarities not only between animals and humans but also between different species, especially among mammals. In medical school, doctors are taught human anatomy; at vet school we are taught dog anatomy, then comparative anatomy.
As for physiology, we were taught from human physiology textbooks and then made comparisons with other species. It is not surprising that animals can get diseases that are similar to human ailments.
I often think back on my old, now passed away, Jack Russell terrier, Bobby. I often tell people about him. Bobby had epilepsy, which usually shocked people, especially people in Hong Kong, who never thought a dog could have epilepsy, which they think is a very human disease. They expect dogs to get ear infections, lameness or skin problems, but ailments such as epilepsy, cancer, glaucoma and diabetes in dogs and cats are alien to Hong Kong people's sensibilities.
I adopted Bobby from an animal shelter in 1989. I remember it quite clearly because it was a very turbulent time for me and the world. It was the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, and shortly after the Tiananmen Square incident. Those events set the tone for what was to come for Bobby.
We rejoiced on taking Bobby home, he was smart and handsome and, as it turned out, well-trained. We had no idea why Bobby was abandoned, but he could do pretty advance tricks and was perfectly toilet-trained.
We thought all our Christmases had come at once and Bobby was a gift from heaven. We noticed at the time that Bobby didn't like noise or busy environments. This was a hint of what was to come.
It happened one night six months after his adoption, while we were at the dinner table. Bobby started shivering and drooling and then fell down paddling his legs, which pushed his body right across the room like a rocket. I stood there watching, helpless; I was just a kid, not a vet yet.
It was a seizure and it seemed to last an eternity, though in fact it was two minutes. Afterwards, he recovered, but he was weak in the hind legs for the rest of the night. I was so scared I slept with him in the kitchen.
We took Bobby to the vet the next day and he ruled out organ problems that may lead to seizures and concluded the problem was epilepsy. We started him on anticonvulsants after he had a second seizure just a few days later.
Bobby wasn't the same after that. Every time there was a noisy car or train outside or there was thunder, he would be scared because it reminded him of seizures. He would howl and bark so much that a neighbour complained.
Bobby never went into the kitchen again because he associated the kitchen with the seizure, rather than the treats when mum was cooking. It was so sad. He turned from being a champion trained dog to a nervous wreck.
We put Bobby to sleep about six months after his first seizure. He had had all the anticonvulsants his little body could handle and he was still having seizures every couple of days. Between seizures he couldn't get up, but still wagged his tail as if trying to cheer us up. Between the vet, my family and I, we decided Bobby was suffering immeasurably and it was time for him to go. I cried every day for a month.
I named Bobby after Bobby McFerrin, who wrote the song Don't Worry Be Happy, and the thought of him will always strengthen my resolve when I am faced with a difficult or sad situation. He didn't quit and neither will I. He remained happy until the end and so shall I.
I have found telling this story to friends has had a strong effect, reminding them of the special bond owners have with their pets. And when faced with a dog with a serious illness, the bond is stronger than ever.
They need us so much more when they are sick and they have a way to wriggle their way into the deepest reaches of our hearts like nothing else can.