Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What Disabled Pets Can Teach Us

Most people assume that having a disability tends to make someone unhappy. When a disabled person appears happy, the rhetoric about them tends to describe them as either 'putting a brave face on it' and acting happier than they really are, or else as choosing to be happy despite the disability - overcoming the disability, or 'not letting it slow them down'.

Well, those are testable interpretations. In particular, both faking emotions and choosing to consciously alter your emotions are cognitive skills. Developmental psychologists have documented the emergence of both skills in the late preschool and early school years.

And both, as far as we can tell, are uniquely human. Even chimpanzees tend to feel what they feel and show it outwardly, with only clumsy and ineffective attempts at disguising their true feelings. Even this rudimentary deception is a rare skill among non-human animals. For example, apart from instinctively hiding signs of pain, dogs and cats show virtually no ability to disguise or control their emotions (apart from the most basic emotion control strategy of 'go get what you want', of course). Dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves, and while cats can be fickle, they are never two-faced.

(Incidentally, for those of you who need to be told - dogs and cats do have emotions. As best I can tell, they feel them as strongly, if not more strongly, than humans do. In particular, it is entirely possible for a cat or a dog to show depression. It's also possible for them to feel joy.)

So, if happiness among disabled people is either feigned or deliberate coping, then disabled dogs and cats - who can't hide or control their emotions - should show obvious misery. Do they?

Watch these videos: - Wiggles, a dog with a spinal or neurological issue impairing his motor coordination, most likely congenital. He is unsteady on his feet and has poor bowel control. - Julia ('Wonky'), a dog whose front tendons were shortened, causing her to walk on her front ankles instead of her front paws. Physiotherapy improved her issue considerably, but we can see both before and after videos. - Emma, a dog with a severe physical disability, greeting one of her humans after he returns from military deployment. Her hind limbs are stiff and her tail doesn't seem to move, but she can drag herself around with her front paws. - A kitten, name not given, who lost the use of his hind legs after a car ran over him. - Chairman Mao, a cat born with cerebellar hypoplasia. He has tremors and poor balance. - Oskar, a kitten born without eyes, playing with a ball with a bell in it. - Faith, a dog born without front legs who walks on her hind legs.

To those who can read the nonverbal cues that cats and dogs convey, the answer is clear. These dogs and cats, though clearly disabled, seem reasonably happy. They show joy readily, in situations where nondisabled cats and dogs would show joy. They are curious and explore their environment to a similar degree as other cats or dogs of the same age. And while they may get upset at times, they don't seem predominantly unhappy. In general, they show similar emotion to what a nondisabled animal would show in the same situation.

Another explanation for being disabled and happy, often applied to cognitively disabled humans, seems more likely for these cats and dogs - maybe they 'don't know they're disabled'. But what does it mean to 'know you're disabled'?

Well, if you watch their actions, these cats and dogs - like nondisabled cats and dogs - show an implicit understanding of what they can and cannot do. For example, unlike humans with anosognosia*, they don't try to support their weight on paralyzed or absent limbs. Many of them have learnt strategies to do activities in a way that circumvents their disability, such as the dog with no front legs walking bipedally. So they know what they can't do.

Although it's harder to tell from their behavior, it's reasonable to assume that, if they interact regularly with other cats or dogs, they know these cats and dogs can do things that they can't do. After all, it wouldn't be any harder than knowing that humans can open doors - and obviously most cats and dogs know that!

So, in the most basic sense of knowing they can't do things that other members of the same species can do, it certainly is possible for cats and dogs to know they're disabled. But is there another meaning to that phrase?

Well, for humans, disability means more than 'I can't do something that other humans can do'. I mean, I can't speak fluent Mandarin. I also can't pee standing up. Both of those are things that many other humans can do easily, but my inability to do them is not considered a disability.

There is a social concept of disability. The idea that certain abilities are skills you are supposed to have, skills you are somehow entitled to have, is the essence of this concept. And the lack of any of these skills puts you into a social category we call 'disabled' - a category of people who are supposed to be inferior and unhappy.

Dogs and cats, as far as we can tell, do not have a social concept of disability. Maybe that's why they're so happy, even when they're disabled.

* A condition, usually due to acquired brain injury, where a person is unaware of an obvious disability. For example, they may be paralyzed on their left side, but insist they can walk and use both hands. Furthermore, anosognosic patients often attempt activities that are impossible given their disability.