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Animal Doctor: Opportunities and probabilities post-coronavirus pandemic

Animal Doctor: Opportunities and probabilities post-coronavirus pandemic


Dear Readers: As we are learning with the COVID-19 pandemic, such pandemics and epidemics from wild and farmed animals can cause millions of human deaths and much suffering, emotionally and socioeconomically. They are a consequence of our mistreatment and exploitation of animals and nature.

Aside from America’s documented lack of preparedness for this pandemic, no less urgent is the need for national and international prevention of future pandemics.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that three-quarters of new human diseases originate in animals. Factory-farmed animals are not only the main source of influenza epidemics but also, because they are fed antibiotics, they contribute to the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some 2.8 million Americans are sickened by such bacteria annually, of whom 35,000 die, according to the CDC.

We cannot continue to rely on ever more vaccinations and pharmaceuticals, both of which take a very long time to develop — and to prove effective, with no harmful consequences and side-effects. Rather, we must focus on prevention. This path involves phasing out factory farms and feedlots, and prohibiting the farming and harvesting of wildlife species for human consumption and international trade.

For another voice supporting this view, see Fareed Zakaria’s recent column in The Washington Post titled, “The real scandal isn’t what China did to us. It’s what we did to ourselves.” This is the big story of our time; we have disrupted nature, and it needs to stop.

Already, we are witnessing a positive consequence of this pandemic: improved global air quality due to less travel by road, rail, air and sea. This means less pollution from fossil fuels and their associated emissions. Improved air quality, in turn, means lower susceptibility to lung and other infections. It also means slowing down climate change.

Changing our travel and dietary habits (switching to more plant-based, home-prepared, unprocessed whole foods) are positive consequences of this pandemic. If these trends continue, rather than returning to the status quo, much agricultural land currently used to produce GMO commodity crops like corn and soybeans to feed factory-farmed animals could be recommissioned to produce organically certified foods for human consumption. And millions of acres of “carbon sink” wetlands, forests and grasslands could be restored. This will improve water quality and help temper droughts and floods.

A final thought on the topic: “There is always a silver lining in every cloud, and for COVID-19, I think it just might be a quantum leap for the One Health philosophy.” — Craig N. Carter, DVM, MS, Ph.D.; professor of epidemiology in the Department of Veterinary Science, University of Kentucky

Dear Dr. Fox: I have a neighbor who has a dog with a serious skin condition, which seems to be worse every time I see them walking the dog. I am sending photos that I took one day when their daughter was out with the dog. She said her parents never take care of his skin, and she wishes they would take him to the vet. What should I do? This dog is very sweet and is only 6 years old. — L.K., via email

Dear L.K.: I applaud your vigilance and concern about this dog. I wish all people were like you and would intervene when there is an animal health and welfare issue, and possible neglect or abuse.

From my impression of the photo you sent, the issue looks like demodectic mange. It could be sarcoptic mange, transmissible to humans, but I do not see signs of scratching, which that skin parasite causes.

Either way, the dog should be taken to a veterinarian because this is an animal health and welfare issue: an evident health problem that the owner has a responsibility to address, and to possibly prevent the skin disease from spreading to others in the home.

Adolescent dogs act a lot like teenage humans: A study published in Biology Letters supports anecdotes that adolescent dogs behave differently than puppies or adult dogs — becoming recalcitrant, much like human teenagers do. Adolescent dogs that displayed stress when separated from caregivers were especially likely to disobey their caregiver but obey a stranger, and findings might mean that dogs are good models for studying human adolescence.

As a parent and animal caregiver, I have always respected the adolescent impulse for independence, encouraging freedom of spirit with boundaries that respect the rights of others. Such respect comes not from sheer discipline or moralistic indoctrination, but from awakening the empathy for others we — and our dogs and other social animals — possess. This is done through various games involving social play and learning to be gentle. Over-indulgence can lead to delinquent and irresponsible adolescents, be they dogs or humans who have not learned the nature of love.

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.

Visit Dr. Fox’s website at

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