Sensitive animal companions feel their guardians’ pain

All Laurie Losiewicz wanted to do was sleep. Feeling thoroughly rotten,

Canine and Feline Heroes Save the Day
she called in sick to work and prepared to spend the day in bed. But Newton, Losiewicz’s 17-year-old black Labrador, had other ideas. “He jumped on the bed and kept pulling on me and tugging on me,” says the Pontiac resident, who adopted Newton from the Michigan Humane Society. “He even pulled off my blanket and nipped at my ankles.”

Thinking the usually docile pooch needed to go outside, Losiewicz dragged herself downstairs and opened the door. But rather than making his usual dash out, Newton just stood there barking. Too dizzy to make it back to her bedroom, Losiewicz, 62, laid down on the couch where Newton continued his frenzied act.

“I thought, if I have to put up with this all day, I might as well go to work,” Losiewicz says, so she got dressed and headed out to do just that.

Losiewicz never made it in to her job as a chaplain at North Oakland Medical Center. She stopped at a party store to get some ice for the back of her neck, in hopes that might make her feel better. On her way in, she collapsed in the parking lot. After being taken by ambulance to the hospital, she learned she had a ruptured ulcer, and spent a week in the intensive care unit.

“I was internally bleeding, and they said if I hadn’t come in, I probably would have hemorrhaged to death in my bed,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for Newton, I would have stayed home that day.”

While all pets bring us comfort, companionship and unconditional love, some go even further, using an uncanny sense that alerts them to health problems in humans. Studies from places as diverse as the Amersham Hospital in England and the Pine Street Foundation in California show great promise in training dogs to detect tumors by sniffing a person’s breath or urine.

And that ability is apparently not limited to canines. Just ask Cindy Herzberg of Canton, whose 9-year-old cat, Seger (named for Bob) is remarkably tuned into her health. Seger always loved to knead

Canine and Feline Heroes Save the Day
Cindy Herberg and Seger
Herzberg’s neck in affection, but several years ago, she became obsessed with the practice.

“She became very insistent, to the point that it was starting to hurt,” says Herzberg, who runs the computer lab at the University of Detroit Mercy. “She just wouldn’t leave my neck alone. After a while, I was wondering what she was trying to tell me, so I went to the doctor.”

Since she had no symptoms and had been feeling fine, Herzberg, 45, was shocked to be diagnosed with papillary cancer of the thyroid. “The doctors said Seger was alerting me that something had changed,” says Herzberg, who has multiple sclerosis, and uses a wheelchair. “She was offered a job at the surgeon’s office.”

Seger only rested on her heroic laurels for a few years before she again alerted Herzberg to a problem. “In the middle of the night she would star hurling herself onto my chest,” Herzberg recalls. “She would get a full head of steam, and boom, I’d be awake. I said, something’s not right here what is she trying to tell me?”

A trip to the doctor confirmed a diagnosis of sleep apnea, a dangerous condition wherein a person stops breathing during sleep.

“Seger was offered another job at the sleep study center,” Herzberg says. “This cat could be making all kinds of money. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, she saved my life.”

While Newton and Seger are everyday pets, a whole other class of service dogs is specially trained to help humans with everything from guiding the sightless to alerting diabetics of low blood sugar.

When the Olsen family of Lansdale, Pa., visits family in metro Detroit, Thorndyke always comes along. The 5-year-old smoothcoat collie is sensitive to impending seizures in 25-year-old Lindsey, whose epilepsy has left her with severe brain damage.

“When she seizes, she falls instantly. Her seizures can last anywhere

Canine and Feline Heroes Save the Day
Lindsey Olsen and Thorndyke
from 30 seconds to 20 minutes,” says Lindsey’s mother, Kim Olsen, a native of Ferndale. “Lindsey has to wear an equestrian helmet all the time, and can’t be left alone for a minute, not even in the shower.”

Not all dogs are good matches for this type of work, but Thorndyke, who was trained by Cochranville, Pa.-based Canine Partners For Life, alerts Lindsey about 20 minutes before a seizure. “He makes a low, moany sound and uses his paw on her, or more often, he just stares at her,” Kim Olsen says. “If she doesn’t pay attention, he does it to her caregiver.”

Such warning allows Lindsey to activate a nerve simulator that shortens the length and severity of her seizures. It also gives her caregivers enough time to get her into a safe place where she can seize without hurting herself.

Thorndyke takes his responsibilities gravely. “When his harness is on, he knows he is working, and is a very serious dog,” says Olsen. “When we pull off his harness, he pops up and leaps and bounds, running around like a racehorse. But even then, he is still alert to Lindsey.”

Thorndyke has made a remarkable difference to Lindsey. “I can’t say enough about the way this dog has changed all of our lives,” says Olsen. “It’s amazing.”

As any companion animal guardian can attest, all animals are amazing in their own way. And who knows? That life you save by adopting a pet may turn around and repay the favor one day.

By Joyce Wiswell.
Photos courtesy of companion animal guardians


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