Best friends forever

November 17, 2006|By Claire Panosian Dunavan

"The man who slept with his dog" is a patient I'll never forget. Years ago, when I was a medical student, the ragged handyman showed up in my hospital, oddly sanguine for someone so sick. He had been feverish for months. However, it was not until his ribs jutted through his T-shirt that he decided to do something about it. By then he had dropped 40 pounds.

My resident guessed he had cancer, or - "if he's lucky," he grunted in knowing tones - "a whacked-out thyroid gland." Statistically, these were reasonable possibilities. But medicine doesn't always follow the odds.

Several days after admission, the man's blood grew tiny bacteria. This proved he had brucellosis, an old malady usually contracted from farm animals. In fact, he had a textbook case, except for one detail. The colonies on the agar plates were the rare species Brucella canis. "My God!" my resident exclaimed upon learning the news. "He got brucellosis from a dog?" He sent me back to ask more questions. "Sure," the man drawled. "I'm around dogs, Miss - I bunk with one." I was aghast.

Fast forward three decades. The rookie is now a doctor watching a nightly ritual. First, my husband places a towel in the kitchen sink. Then he gathers a finger cot, a tube of "original poultry flavor" toothpaste and a bulb syringe for rinsing mouth and tongue. Although our two spaniels are slinking off, they know their retreat is futile. It's doggie dental time! And yes, once "dental-ed," the little darlings sleep on our bed.

Patrick and I were not always dog nuts. I grew up without pets. And although Patrick once had two manic terriers as a young man, he did little more than scratch behind their ears. It was his first wife who fed, bathed and cleaned up after them.

Then, years later, the unthinkable happened. While returning from a family vacation, Patrick's son and granddaughter were killed in an SUV rollover. We crossed the continent to mourn at their gravesides. Afterward, we sealed our hearts like ancient crypts.

And sealed they stayed, until a ray of light broke through - in a garden shop, of all places. All the charmer did was ask for a tummy rub. Within weeks, we adopted her waggy-bottomed cousin. Then a sassy girl joined our tribe.

I won't claim these newcomers saved our sanity, but they did ease a heartache that could have consumed us. To dogs, someone once said, every day is Christmas. Their bliss trumped our grief.

Today, inspired in part by "the man who slept with his dog," I'm an expert on animal infections in people - including dog parasites that cause serious human disease. But years of practicing medicine have also taught me common sense. For every case of canine brucellosis or dog tapeworm cyst, there are countless dog lovers who do not contract bizarre blights. Plus, medicine now embraces pet therapy. At my hospital, volunteer dogs routinely walk the halls and cheer the sick. According to recent research, even end-stage cardiac patients benefit from their TLC.

I know dogs are not superheroes or angelic beings, but they have their missions in life. Many work, protect us, and keep us company. Others reveal magical things about the world. Some even guide us for a season on our journey toward spiritual peace.

Take my husband, for example. Having endured loss, Patrick never forgets that our dogs' days are fleeting. And so, while brushing their teeth or combing their ears, he cherishes them. As I watch him at our kitchen sink with a soft smile, I believe these moments - laced with love for the living and the dead - are a kind of communion and a prayer.

Claire Panosian Dunavan is a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her e-mail is cpanosian@mednet.ucla.edu.

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