“Often, our fear of the virus seems more paralysing than the disease itself”

01 October 2020, at 7:55am

“Could you please look at the dog in cage 43?” came the text message. And so I popped along to the kennel suite to give a quick ophthalmic examina­tion of the Chihuahua in the relevant enclosure. In for BOAS surgery, it had the classic pigmentary keratitis we often see in pugs but here it was in a Chihuahua cross. Interesting! You could see that through the cage door but I opened it, stroked the dog and chatted to him for a moment before getting out my ophthalmoscope and taking a closer look. No entropion to see, nor distichia or ectopic cilia that might account for the pigment on the cornea. “Probably just corneal exposure that accounts for the pathology” I scrawled on the case notes with a quick drawing of the lesion. Thank goodness we still work off hard-copy records to allow a quick picture of a corneal ulcer or a cataract! I found the resident who had asked me to look at the dog and reported my findings. “You’ve looked at him already? On your own? Did you muzzle him? Did he bite you?” My answers were yes, yes and no, no, in that order. Did I see the sign saying “CARE!” on the kennel door? No, it must have fallen off – the dog seemed fine to me. It turned out that he has tried to bite everyone else who had examined him. But somehow not being at all concerned and approaching the dog with a stroke and talking quietly seemed to do the trick!

Do dogs react differently to people who are fearful of them compared with people with no such anxiety? Normally at this point I’d zip onto Google Scholar, find a few relevant papers and then tell you about them as if I were well up on the liter­ature. But I really can’t find much when searching this time. For sure we know that dogs can differentiate between differ­ent behaviours in their handlers. Buttelmann and Tomasello (2012) showed that dogs chose containers over which their owners appeared happy compared with ones that elicited an appearance of disgust. But they couldn’t distinguish between happy and neutral emotions, so maybe this was just avoid­ance of disgust. Merola et al. (2014) investigated dogs’ under­standing of people expressing happy and sad emotions and noted that dogs could differentiate these in their owner but not in a stranger. But how do dogs behave towards fearful or unconcerned individuals? We just don’t seem to have any clear evidence on this – a student project on the way maybe!

I must admit that this has gone off on somewhat of a tan­gent compared with where I was heading. What I was aiming for was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Without fear of that dog, I went to the animal and examined him without a second thought. Maybe you can see where I am going. COVID-19 is certainly a virus worthy of our concern, but my real worry is that often, our fear of the virus seems more paralysing than the disease itself.

Today, I had to console an owner over the permanent sudden loss of her dog’s vision. I told her that in any normal time I would have given her a hug… but she seemed incon­solable and merely telling her I was giving her a virtual hug was ineffective. Hugging is something I regularly did and now hardly do at all. But maybe sometimes, just occasionally, can humanity overlook epidemiological concerns of potential viral transmission? I hope so!

Author Year Title
Buttelmann, D. and Tomasello, M. 2012 Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Animal Cognition, 16, 137-145
Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., Lazzaroni, M. and Marshall-Pescini, S. 2014 Dogs’ comprehension of referential emotional expressions: familiar people and familiar emotions are easier. Animal Cognition, 17, 373–385

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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