As with humans, the birth and life courses of our pets expose them to a disability, to a greater or lesser extent. Does the resulting loss of autonomy have consequences on their lives with their pets, but also with humans?
Our pets have been in our homes for such a long time and have integrated so well that they are considered full members, to whom we develop strong bonds of attachment. However, is their inclusion in our societies so extensive that we behave towards them as we do towards human beings?
Do we project the same view of them as we do of our fellow citizens? A priori, yes, if we refer to “genrage”. In the West, this phenomenon, which consists of considering that girls and boys are different in terms of behavior, puts weight on little girls and boys. For example, a boy is expected to hide his emotions and be brave, while a girl is expected to be sensitive and gentle. And it is suggested that courage and sensitivity are incompatible.
Fortunately, in advanced societies, this difference between the sexes tends to disappear among the new generations. However, this societal “straitjacket” still weighs heavily on our four-legged companions, and the majority of dog owners, for example, behave differently depending on whether it is a male or a female, projecting their expectations, all humane, onto the animal living next to them.
Does this phenomenon extend to another area such as disability? In humans, disability is unfortunately very often synonymous with social difference and exclusion.
So much so that a day has been created, the International Day of Disabled Persons, which takes place every year on December 3, to encourage us to change the way we look at them and better include them. Do we look at our disabled animals in the same way? And above all, are they aware of a difference?
From an ethological point of view, the notion of disability in animals is very little studied, or at least indirectly. The research that does exist mainly concerns the dogs associated with disabled people and the help they provide them on a daily basis. Nothing directly on the animal’s handicap. However, what can be said is that there are two essential, scientifically validated differences between humans and dogs that influence their relationship to disability: the relationship to self and the relationship to time. The relationship to oneself concerns the consciousness that the individual has of himself, of his existence and of what differentiates him from others.
This notion exists in humans and has been highlighted by scientific work. It is not (yet?) the case in dogs, as ethnologists have not succeeded in clearly proving that dogs are aware of themselves, of their singularity. Certainly, they know how to categorize their species, but, to date, scientists have not managed to demonstrate that they are capable of considering themselves, as individuals, as living beings different from others.
AN ASSOCIATIVE MEMORY
As for their relationship to time, it concerns memory, memories. It is different from ours. While we have a so-called “autobiographical” memory, which allows us to mentally move our “I” in time and to form thoughts such as “ten years ago I was able-bodied and could walk” or “in five years I still won’t be able to hear”, dogs are devoid of it, at least from a scientific point of view since no research has brought it to light to date.
The dogs’ memory is rather “associative”; it allows them to remember the consequences or emotions related to a situation they have already experienced. It is for this reason that they are capable of learning, sometimes extremely complex. However, they cannot say to themselves, for example, “it was better when I had my four legs,” or “I wish I could see or hear again.
These two points are essential because combined, they allow us to affirm that dogs are probably not aware of their difference, of their handicap. Dogs are not, like us, capable of projecting themselves into the future; they are animals of the present. They can suffer physically from a handicap because animals are sensitive beings and feel pain. But they are not able to feel different, excluded, or to live badly their change of condition.
All we need to do is look around to see that disabled dogs (when there is no pain associated with the disability), whether they are deaf, blind or amputees, show behavioral signs of well-being and pleasure, just like their fellow dogs. They express joy when they find their human again, they play, they move with enthusiasm, on three or even two legs, eat with appetite, sleep in peace, love to sniff every nook and cranny of their environment?
A NEW RELATIONSHIP
During an observation work carried out several years ago, I was able to interview owners of animals with a disability, who described that they had a relationship similar to the one they had (or had had) with their animal when it was able-bodied, just as complicit as before.
Of course, it is necessary to adapt one’s home or the way of behaving with them – for example, warning a dog that has become deaf so as not to surprise it by touching it, adapting walking times or routes so that they are suitable for an amputee dog, which can tire more quickly – in the same way as with a puppy, a sick or elderly dog. It is also possible, for paralyzed dogs, to provide them with a wheeled cart, which allows them to move around freely, to continue walking, and to explore their environment.
However, some dogs can become unwell (when we are sure that it is not a question of pain, here again); an unwell feeling, which is often a reflection of their master’s emotions. The phenomenon of emotional contagion, well known in ethology, has shown that the owner’s stress has an impact on his dog’s stress because it modifies the dog’s behavior.
The most likely hypothesis is therefore that humans, who stick to their … human point of view on disability, are sad for their dog, regret the time before the disability, and communicate their anxiety to their animal. This transfer occurs mainly when the disability has arrived suddenly. Owners who encounter this problem can be helped by a veterinarian to verify that the animal is not suffering and by a psychologist, who will accompany them in accepting the situation and re-establishing the relationship with their animal.
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