Category Archives: 2020 Jan-Apr

Creature Thoughts April 2020: COVID-19 and Animals

Lion sunning himself, Jungle Habitat, NJ, some time in the mid ’70s.
©Gayle Nastasi

COVID-19 and Our Animals

Under normal circumstances, when we humans have a virus, we can safely say that our pets won’t be affected. Human colds and flu don’t infect dogs, cats, or horses. Even the old suspicion that guinea pigs can catch a human cold turned out to be nothing but a superstition.

Now, it appears, we have met a foe that can be transmitted to animals. A news report has come to light that a number of tigers and lions at the Bronx Zoo have fallen ill with respiratory symptoms. One of the tigers was tested, and found to be positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. Although, as of the time I’m writing this, the route of infection has not been confirmed, experts believe that one of the cats’ handlers was positive for the virus, even though they were not showing symptoms, and transmitted it to the cats.

COVID-19 is what is referred to as a zoonotic disease. It originated in animals, and a series of mutations allowed it to be passed across species barriers. Although the exact details are uncertain, it is believed that people were first exposed through a market in Wuhan, China, where exotic species of animal were sold as food. The original animal source of SARS-CoV-2 may have been bats, though that is not definite. A similar coronavirus, the cause of the original SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, was also found in bats, as well as civet cats. Since civets are felines, this may be a clue as to why lions and tigers would be susceptible to a related virus.

Zoonotic viruses are not terribly common, but they are often nasty when they show up. SARS, MERS, and Ebola are all zoonotic diseases. And, of course, everyone is familiar with the horror of disease horrors, Rabies. However, most of these viruses have not been shown to be easily transmitted from humans to other animals through casual contact. Or, at least, there do not seem to be many studies which have looked into that direction of transfer.

MERS-CoV, another coronavirus, was also found to originate in bats, and infected humans in Saudi Arabia, initially through contact with an intermediate host—dromedary camels. While it was known that camel to camel transmission was common, as was camel to human, and the secondary transfer of human to human became a serious problem, little seems to be known as to whether humans contributed to the spread of the virus in camels.

Fortunately, the big cats in the Bronx are doing well so far. They have upper respiratory symptoms, but are responding to treatment.

There have also been a handful of reports, from other countries, of dogs and cats testing positive, but so far studies are inconclusive as to the extent at which other species can contract or spread COVID-19. None of these animals was seriously ill, and there is no definite indication to date that our pets can transmit the virus to humans.

This is, however, a new virus. There are many unknowns. In the wake of the news story about the zoo cats, medical experts recommend that, if you are positive for COVID-19, you should limit contact with your pets, just as you would with humans. Let others do your pet care if possible, and minimize contact if not. Wash your hands before and after, and wear a mask while caring for your animals.

For me, and for many of you, I’m sure, this may be a hard burden to bear if quarantined for this coronavirus. When I was so very ill, all those years ago, the ability to hug and be close to my precious Kai was one of the things that pulled me through. I can’t imagine being closed in a room, isolated from my family, and not even being able to have Ryder or Missie by my side.

But, just as we are now wearing masks in public, and practicing social distancing according to the guidelines from the CDC, we will do what we must to protect our families—furry members, included.

Stay well, my friends. We are all in this together, even though we are facing unusual levels of separation.

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Photo Credit: ©Gayle Nastasi, 1976, Jungle Habitat, New Jersey

Creature Thoughts, March 2020: The Old Ones

The Old Ones

Even if the only pet in your life right now is a ten week old bundle of inexhaustible energy, fate, health, and good fortune willing, you will eventually be caring for a pet who is a senior citizen.

In my life, I currently have a dog who turns thirteen in May, a cat who will be twelve in the same month, several birds who are the same age as the cat, and a plecostomus (that’s a fish) who is, as far as we can figure, approximately twenty.

Oh, there are a few beings here who are younger than that but the majority of my animals are well into their mature years.

(Yes, I did say twenty, and no, that’s not a typo.)

Senior pets bring certain challenges into our lives, but the joys they provide far outweigh the worries. They are true and they are faithful. They know us through and through. Their old eyes look right into our souls and can see the love we have for them in our hearts. They listen to our troubles and understand our very natures. They have grown not only to be eternally beside us, but to be a part of us. They have helped, in their twelve or fifteen or eighteen years of companionship, to make us who we are.

Even those elder pets who are adopted when they are already senior citizens have a special kind of magic. Our own Ryder came to us at almost 9 years of age and moved right into our hearts.

I have had the privilege to work with quite a few dogs and cats who were older when adopted and their responses to their new families always touch me deeply. They fall in love quickly because they seem have an understanding of human nature. There is an internal knowledge that, “Yes, this person loves me. I am safe. I am going to be okay.”

As our animals age, the challenges of pet ownership change. One of those changes is the need for more diligent health-care. Senior pets need periodic bloodwork to make sure organs are functioning well. Their heart health needs monitoring. Aging teeth need to be watched more carefully and tended to if necessary. Just like with humans, as our pets grow older, their bodies need a bit of extra help maintaining maximum health. More than ever, it’s important for the caregivers of older pets to develop a good relationship with their veterinarians.

Our aging animal family members face other changes, too. They tend to be less energetic. They nap more, treasuring every pleasant patch of sunshine. They appreciate warmth and comfort more than ever as old bones begin to ache. They don’t always want to walk as far, because their joints are getting stiff. They might have less tolerance for handling, or they might in fact seek physical contact more than ever. Their appetites, likes, and dislikes may change.

All of these things are normal changes, for which we as their guardians can compensate. We can shorten their walks and provide joint supplements. We can buy them softer beds and warmer blankets, or invest in coats for outdoor activities and pet pajamas for cold winter nights. They have given us the gift of all their lives; keeping them comfortable is the least we can do for them in their golden years.

Toilet habits can also change with age. Old dogs will need more frequent access to their yard (or whatever their appropriate toilet is), and the occasional accident just might happen. It helps greatly to provide closer supervision and make minor adjustments to the family schedule. Some dogs, especially the smaller breeds, can even learn to use an indoor toilet area.

Old cats occasionally experience arthritic changes which make getting into or out of the box, or squatting in the litter, uncomfortable. These kitties need a few adjustments to their care (easier-access litter boxes or joint supplements can help).

Sometimes bathroom issues are due to physical changes but, in some cases, the changes are mental ones. In either situation, the pet can’t help himself, and is not being naughty. He’s simply being old.

Senses can deteriorate, as well. Both cats and dogs can experience hearing loss and diminished eyesight. It’s common for older cats to start using their voices like sonar, to help them orient to their environments, as their hearing and sight are changing. Providing points of orientation for pets who are facing sensory challenges, such as night lights, or a radio playing softly, can help them stay comfortable. Your veterinarian can help you to know whether behavior changes are due to fading senses, or other aspects of age.

Dementia, in various forms and to various degrees, can occur in our pets. Some animals stay sharp and mentally focused right to the end, but others have minds that wander and can forget the things they have learned. Playing daily mental-exercise games, such as trick training and puzzle-solving, can help to keep your pet’s mind sharp.

As you experience these challenges, be patient with your elderly pets. They are no different than us in many ways, after all. We are all going to grow older, the fates willing, and we will face the changes, too.

Remember the gifts they have given you. Tell them of all the joy they have brought you. Sit in that patch of sunshine with your dog or cat, and let them know that they are just as much a treasure to you as you are to them.

News and Updates

Although I am scheduling sessions again, for the time being I will not be taking on new clients. I’m hoping this will change in the not too distant future. Watch my website for information.

Do you have a dog-loving youngster in your life? (Or are you a dog-loving youngster at heart?) Visit my writing website to learn more about the Junior Handler Mysteries, available in both paperback and ebook form.

Creature Thoughts, Jan 2020: Animal Totems


Wolf Totem by Jenny Hawkyard
Wolf Totem by Jenny Hawkyard

For as long as there has been human culture, that culture has had a strong association with the animals with which we share our world.

The Chinese and other Asian cultures revolve their traditional calendar around animals. This year, 2020, will be the Year of the Rat. The Rat is the first animal of a twelve-year cycle. It’s followed, in succession, by the rest of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac: Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. (Sorry, Al Stewart fans, there actually is no Year of the Cat.)

People born in the Year of the Rat are supposed to be witty, social, and well-loved. They draw friends around them and are known to be giving and supportive. They are adaptable and clever, though they can tend to hoard their belongings and be a bit on the possessive side.

Children who were born in 1924, ’36, ’48, ’60, ’72, ’84, ’96, and 2008 are all Year of the Rat babies. Were you born in one of those years? Do any of the above characteristics fit your personality?

The Asian lands, of course, are not the only ones who have associated important aspects of their culture with animals. Animals are an important part of our entire human-centered world. It’s only natural that people have attached spiritual wisdom and significance to them.

Native American nations are well known for their belief in totem and spirit animals, and their respect for animal beings as “people” of their own kinds. Traditionally, animals would bring messages from spirit and guidance on how to best live their lives. The dance of the hunt and the knowledge of how to survive in each unique environment all centered around the special relationship with animals and their spirits.

The ancient Celts had a strong affiliation with the animals around them. As with the indigenous American cultures, animals imparted unique magic and power to their lives. The devoted courage of the wolf, the far-sighted determination of the hawk, and the calm, comforting energy of the wren were all important to them. The Druids, as has been mentioned in a previous article on, saw the Starling as sacred.

Many Greek and Roman myths, and the gods and goddesses with which they are associated, include important animal symbolism. The hounds of Diana/Artemis were indispensable to her hunt. Where would Bellerophon have been without Pegasus? That old Chimaera would certainly have gotten the upper hand.

Of course, we can’t forget the Egyptians. You can’t view a hieroglyphic frieze without running into animals everywhere. Many of their gods took the form of animals and animal-human hybrids, and there are depictions throughout Egyptian archaeology of hunting hounds, hawks, and cats. There have also been a large number of mummified animals discovered, proof that animals were of prime importance in this culture.

Even our western society puts important stress on animal symbolism. Just take a look at the idioms in the English language. She’s sly as a fox; he’s stubborn as a mule. It’s a three dog night. Who let the cat out of the bag?

Animals are as much a part of our human society as we are. Many people feel more drawn to some animals than others. There are those who would say that these species are our spirit animals, or our totems. Some seek out special guidance to help them connect with their animal spirit guides, though it is my belief that each of us has that talent within us. We are the best person to know where our inner self leads, after all. We just have to get quiet and listen.

What animals do you feel strongly connected to? The age old question comes to mind, “Are you a dog person, or a cat person?” Or a horse person? A bird person? A wildlife person?

Are you all of the above? Even if so, is there one specific species that just speaks to you more strongly than others? Is there one which you feel best describes your inner nature?

Are you as sly as a fox? Stubborn as a mule? Faithful as a hound? Farsighted as a hawk?

As we step into this Year of the Rat, I hope you’ll give some quiet thought to the wisdom and guidance your animal friends have brought into your life. They are truly a treasure, in so many ways.

Wishing you joy in 2020!

About the Photo: Jenny Hawkyard (aka Jezhawk), the wonderful artist who created the cover illustrations for my Junior Handler books, has a fabulous collection of Totem Animals available as prints and merchandise. Please visit her Etsy or RedBubble Store and see if any of them speak to you. My thanks to Jenny for her permission to use her beautiful image. Pictured: Wolf Totem

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