The Animal Doctor by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Religion, Animals and the Environmental Crisis

For most of human history, we humans were gatherer-hunters with an intimate knowledge of the natural world. This knowledge was the basis of our animistic religious sensibility that felt and respected the life force in all things, as in ourselves, which gave us a sense of kinship with all life.

Lakota author Luther Standing Bear, in his 1933 book, “Land of the Spotted Eagle,” wrote: “The animal has rights -- the right of man’s protection. ... The concept of life and its relations was humanizing and gave the Lakota an abiding love. It filled his being with the joy and mystery of living; it gave him reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal respect for all.”

Missionary doctor Albert Schweitzer later echoed this spiritual realization in his philosophy of reverence for life, especially from the perspectives of world peace and disease prevention. I see this as the fundamental bioethical principle of One Health.

Contemporary religions have taken us away from such affinities with other living beings and the natural world, long condemning such views as primitive paganism, heretical to the divine order of man under God and man over all else. It is surely time to make amends to all indigenous peoples and species, and the natural environment that sustains us all.

DEAR DR. FOX: Our little mixed-breed Cavalier King Charles spaniel yawns widely every few minutes when she is awake.

She is a rescue, about 5 years old and 21 pounds, full of joy and playfulness. She eats well and seems healthy, but the yawning bothers me because I have never seen a dog do this so much. Have you? -- G.T.W., West Palm Beach, Florida

DEAR G.T.W.: Yawning in some animal species is thought to be a social signal of relaxation or a tension-reducing behavior. In humans, it may help cool the brain.

You have a breed of dog that can suffer from neurological problems associated with a skull that is misshapen in the back by the neck, putting pressure on the brain. This is called a Chiari type 1 malformation. It may lead to syringohydromyelia: a painful condition of fluid buildup in the brain cavities that can affect locomotion; cause pain, irritation and scratching of the shoulders, head and neck; and even seizures. Yorkshire terriers and miniature and toy poodles can also develop this condition, which can be treated with surgery and medication.

If your dog is showing no other signs of discomfort or neurological impairment, she may have a very mild form of this malady, or else her yawning has another cause yet to be determined. Yawning may indicate a lack of oxygen due to a heart problem -- common in small breeds, especially -- or low blood pressure.

Dogs, like humans, have mirror neurons in their brains that make them highly responsive to others’ faces and actions. Some dogs actually sneeze or yawn when a person in front of them does so, and so your yawning could be a trigger for your dog. Or else there is an external trigger that sets her off, and you need to note the time and conditions that might be a trigger, such as turning on the TV or other electronic devices. Some emit non-ionizing radiation or high-frequency sounds, which could upset your dog, who then yawns as a sign of anxiety or as an attempt to relax.

Another possibility: Is she doing it simply to get your attention away from the TV, computer or smartphone? These devices do affect how animals behave around us, and dogs, like infants, seek attention from their distracted caregivers. In my opinion, these devices should be used for very limited periods in both homes and workplaces because of the potential harm of non-ionizing radiation, as well as the potential damage to the brain development of younger users.

I never thought there could be so many reasons for yawning! I am sure there are more. In any case, a full veterinary checkup would be advisable.


Nonprofit organization Pets of the Homeless works with Lighthouse Mission Ministries in Bellingham, Washington, to cover the costs of food and veterinary care for the pets of homeless people.

Allowing pets extends the shelter’s reach, says Lighthouse Executive Director Hans Erchinger-Davis, adding that having a pet brings feelings of safety and connection to people as they “start their journey towards health.” (KCPQ, May 9)

I hope more communities and civic leaders will pick up on this kind of good Samaritanism and extend their concern and compassion to people’s companion animals. The mental health savings are well worth the cost of helping the homeless and the poor keep their animals with them, and to help ensure they are kept well-fed and healthy.

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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