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'Emotional contagion' between dads and dogs

I am not fond of cats. My husband is highly allergic, so that may be part of it. It may also be related to the fact I do not understand cats.

We didn’t have them in our home in my growing-up years. Well … there was the time my sister hid a kitten in the closet of her bedroom for three weeks. She had to move into my room for a while after that kitten, sans litter box, was discovered, and she was a cranky bunk-mate, as I recall.

That would be the sister who became a nationally regarded veterinarian-epidemiologist and whose pets include a long-lived feline named Cat who totally rules their household, and a strangely handsome pooch, a cross between a dachshund and a German shepherd that she’s trained to be a service dog. All her children have animals too — mostly dogs. As do all our children. In fact, I just counted, and there are 13 dogs of all shapes, sizes and breeds (mostly mixed) in our immediate family and a few random cats.

That reality made me pay particular attention to a recent section of the Sunday New York Times that touted “Well Pets.” It referred to the animals so many of us have as “partners in a healthier life.”

The article I favored most was about pet donkeys as running partners on moonlit countryside outings in select rural areas. Donkeys and goats apparently have a positive effect on loneliness. It was titled “Finding My Herd.” There was also a piece about cats being a remarkably positive presence in yoga classes (“Poses and Purrs”); it was unexpectedly interesting. And the article on “whisker fatigue” might be worth Googling if you’re a cat fancier.

Throughout my childhood, we had one dog — a small, velvety-brown dachshund named Trudy. We actually had a series of small, velvety dogs named Trudy. For reasons I never clearly understood, the Trudy-dogs kept disappearing and being replaced by another dog that was exactly like the previous one. One Trudy-dog was killed by a nearsighted hunter who mistook her for a badger, and several others may have passed earlier than anticipated because my father kept feeding his “wiener” dog actual wieners and weekly scoops of vanilla ice cream.

That would be the same father who, when I was young, could be found, at the end of most days, sitting in his well worn recliner puffing on his ever-available pipe with a slightly-obese Trudy-dog stretched across his lap. She would occasionally look up at him, lick his arm and he would seem to realize she wanted to change positions or have him hold the newspaper he was usually reading a little higher, and he would make that accommodation.

As one of the “Well Pet” articles stated, “Is there anything more gratifying, better use of mind and muscle, than to understand another creature so well that you know what they want before they ask?”

It’s being referred to as “emotional contagion,” the special feeling between people and animals, and it’s an emerging field of science.

I think my father would have saluted that concept. My entire family would. And yours?

—  Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor. Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.