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Cat to Self: The Conversation by Anita Schnee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Animal Bill of Rights
“Neuroplasticity” is an umbrella term for the revolutionary discovery that the brain has, in the words of psychiatrist Norman Doidge, “the ability to change its own structure and learn to replace lost functions.” The brain is resilient, in other words. Adaptive. Creative.
You can, too, teach an old dog new tricks.
Read an amazing tale of brain-recovery here. Dr. Doidge recounts of a “hopeless case” who, through neuronal input through her tongue, of all things, recovered from a life-destroying loss of balance function caused by maladministration of antibiotics.
But neuroplasticity doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Anytime we learn something new, we are drawing on our neuroplastic abilities.
We can learn – by books, by others’ modeling conduct we admire, by travel, by experience, by FELDENKRAIS®.
Cats can learn. Bugs learned. He and I started out life together in an uneasy truce. We both grew up. Here is an intermediate stage of our progress, which I re-post with apologies for a wise-ass writing style I hope I’ve grown out of. Plus I was still benighted enough, at that time, to think that a squirt-bottle would be a legitimate peace-keeping tool.
Here Bugs shows how he has grown into his essential sweetness.
Barney has learned. It used to drive me nuts that to get to kitchen-bed, he would jump up from the floor, hurtle across the stove-top – the stove-top, right? – and thus land in the bed. He hasn’t pulled that caper in ages. I think he learned not to from a combination of freak-out from me, plus the burners rattle when his impressive weight hits the surface and he’s probably not overly fond of that noise. Who cares why, really. The thing is, he’s learned not to do it any more. So far.
Here’s Barney, always sweet even when he was jumping on the stove.
So, cilantro. Did you know that a taste for cilantro apparently depends on genetic factors? And those who hate cilantro might have a genetic make-up that affects taste and smell to the extent that those poor souls think cilantro tastes like soap, or smells like bed-bug-infested sheets?
One of those poor cilantro-hating souls actually learned to appreciate the herb (from which herb, incidentally, the excellent coriander also derives. Who knew?).
Though the word “neuroplasticity” doesn’t feature prominently in a New York Times article about this cilantro enlightenment, here is neuroplasticity at work, in a less-dramatic fashion than loss of balance but still pretty impressive. Neuroscientist Jay Gottfried was originally a cilantro-hater. He explains why this experience was one of survival: “If a flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the . . . potential threat to our safety. We . . . throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs. . . . When your brain detects a potential threat, it narrows your attention. You don’t need to know that a dangerous food has a hint of asparagus and sorrel to it. You just get it away from your mouth.”
But Dr. Gottfried learned to like cilantro. He explains: “My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from . . . experiences [including] . . . the sharing [of food] with friends and family. . . . So I began to like cilantro. It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”
So let us never be too quick to dismiss that which we interpret as a threat to our safety. Miracles can happen.
Of course, miracles could be maladaptive, too. I’d just as soon not learn to love the sassy, astringent notes of, say, arsenic.
Life. A balancing act between adventuresomeness tempered by caution. A complicated business.
Excellent readers, my dear friend’s cat Maximus has just been diagnosed with anemia and feline leukemia. Can anybody help?
Here’s Max around two years ago, at six months.
Here is what I wrote about him then.
Here’s what my friend writes:
“I took Max to our vet and had a complete blood panel and found out he has anemia and feline leukemia. There were suggested and expensive interventions available that would make him feel better awhile. However, I brought him home to die where he’s happy rather than hooked up to expensive interventions that won’t save his life anyway. It’s sad and a hard decision but that’s what I can afford to do and seems most humane ultimately. He’s a great guy and I’ll truly miss him. If someone knows of a herbal sedative/pain reliever for cats that would be nice. For the most part he sits around very peacefully. I coax him to eat a few bites of food every few hours. However he does have pain at times and yowls in a most frightening manner. Your concern is appreciated.”
Any ideas, please?
Well, that was a change! Ordinarily I prefer to spend the Fourth of July hunkered down with the air conditioner on high, doing my best to comfort the cats while mentally snarling at the yahoos all around with their pointless bottle-rockets and cherry-bombs. One year I even wrote a pretty dark poem about it. But this time good old friends called at the last minute and transported me to the art museum at Crystal Bridges, where we caught the last chance to admire the William Paley Modernist collection. Followed by a fireworks display; one friend said it was “eyegasmic.” In a gentle sweet evening that could have been summer in New England, instead of a typically brutal Arkansas July. And then, instead of wasting an hour gridlocked in traffic, we spaced out, mesmerized, under the BuckyBall. My dad would have loved this. He was a great fan of Buckminster Fuller. The cats? I left my i-Pod on for them. When I got back they greeted me cordially enough. So I guess / hope they were OK.
So, this morning, a happy household. The good friends, and all that beauty and splendiferousness . . . and one more thing. It can be mighty lonely, marooned as we are in an outpost college town in Arkansas, enjoying this world-class art museum but otherwise surrounded by an inland ocean of militarism, jingoism, and intolerance. Last night the announcer repeatedly asked those who had served in the armed forces to stand and be honored; played the signature tunes of the five branches of the military; and there my friends and I were, remembering Vietnam and how all this July 4th firepower catapults into PTSD many of those who have served in active duty, all through this current agony in which we have been bleeding since September 11th. And I did not appreciate the country music blasting at blow-out decibels, one particularly violent number especially not. My friends missed the lyrics, good for them. Unfortunately I caught them. So the good in all this?
Well for one thing, by amazing chance I ran into another close friend, in all that crowd. And this reminded me that I have friends who have family in the military, and they are proudly serving in quite interesting ways that are not reflected in the prevailing culture. And for another, a little mental gymnastics. I imagined that those veterans who did stand up at the fireworks, who weren’t catapulted into PTSD, could stand in for those who have suffered. Those who were not there, possibly somewhere else with the air turned up high to drown out the assault. Those who were there, standing up for those who could not be there. And as for the offensive music – and really, by the way, what is with playing music over fireworks?? you’re supposed to feel the blast in your diaphragm, and hear the roar of the crowd over all that – Healed, this morning. See why, with this wonderous clip on YouTube . . . . fireworks filmed from the inside, shot by a drone, accompanied by Andrea Bocelli singing Con te Partiro. Now this is what drones should be for. Thank you, Andrea.
When you are far away I dream the horizon and words fail me And yes, I know that you are with me, with me You, my moon, are here with me My sun, you are here with me, with me, with me, with me.
P.S. Oh dear . . . Andrea is gone, replaced by some tekno-rock. Too bad!! I’m guessing copyright problems, because the version with Bocelli seems to have been taken down altogether. I wish this hadn’t happened, because it was SO glorious with Andrea . . . Try watching the video muted, and opening Andrea in a separate tab, here.
Friends, I’m so happy to tell you that my friend Kim’s cat Stewie continues to improve. Vitamin B-12 seems to have done the trick, thanks to our reader Mel’s recommendation. Kim believes the B-12 has been the decisive factor (along with a little bit of raw milk).
Kim tells me that since the B-12, Stewie’s got stronger and has put on much-needed weight and muscle. The neurological involvement that caused loss of control of her tail is subsiding, which means she can move around with more balance and ease. She still shows some seizure activity, but it’s quieting down now.
B-12 really does seem to be an all-around miracle. It’s reported to support adrenal function, maintain a healthy nervous system, and aid in the production of DNA, RNA, and neurotransmitters. It assists in development and maintenance of red blood cells, nerve cells, and normal myelination (production of the fatty sheaths that cover and protect nerve endings). It’s needed for proper digestion and absorption of food, metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, and to prevent anemia. To use it in treating inflammatory bowel disease, read here and here. For neurological conditions, read here.
So always remembering to include a consult with a vet, B-12 looks like an important tool in the treatment arsenal.
Kim began by treating Stewie with B-12 subcutaneous injections. Now she’s administering orally, using this product. It’s flavorless, which she tells me is hard to find.
I myself have started taking B-12 too. My version is raspberry-flavored, unfortunately, but it’s over quickly.
Hearing this news, Barney can sleep more easily.
Turns out we need to love our cats not just for their beauty, grace, and affection. Cats are also brainier than they’re often given credit for.
Their cerebral cortex is comparable to ours. The cortex is the seat of reasoning, problem-solving, planning, and memory. The cortex also interprets sensory information and emotional input received from subcortical areas.
Cats’ cerebral cortices contain almost twice as many neurons than dogs. And in the area of the cortex devoted to visual processing, cats have more neurons than humans and most other mammals.
Also, cats’ brains contain ninety percent of the folds in the human brain. Brain-folds maximize the amount of surface area.
But in the end, it all seems to come down to personality and character. Cats are less patient than dogs. They are less socially connected. If there’s no obvious or immediate pay-off, cats would rather do something else.
So – we are very smart. But only if we feel like it.
That’s how many people have signed the Animal Bill of Rights. The veteran animal-law advocates Animal Legal Defense Fund want to collect one million signatures, to present to the United States Congress to lobby for federal legislation to protect animals. They were up to 309,895 when I signed today.
Bugs and Barney are searching for their rights . . .
Surely every reader of this blog believes that animals have the right to be free from exploitation, cruelty, neglect, and abuse. That companion animals have the right to basic sustenance and medical care. That wildlife has the right to self-sustenance in natural habitat. That animals have the right to be represented in court.
. . . but they are looking in the wrong place.