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Published June 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Canine plays ‘nurse’

Dear Dr. Fox: Our family adopted a 2-month-old mixed-breed dog, Sandy, from PetSmart more than 11 years ago. She has always had a sweet temperament, and we knew she was intelligent when it only took two weeks to housebreak her.

By: By Dr. Michael Fox, INFORUM

Dear Dr. Fox: Our family adopted a 2-month-old mixed-breed dog, Sandy, from PetSmart more than 11 years ago. She has always had a sweet temperament, and we knew she was intelligent when it only took two weeks to housebreak her.

I took my father in to my house several months ago due to illness. He is completely bedridden and on oxygen therapy 24 hours a day now. A few months ago, our dog insistently woke me up during the night when he was calling for me. I had not heard him, nor did anyone else in the family. She went upstairs (my father sleeps downstairs) and was pawing at me while I slept. He needed my assistance and I tended to his needs. I praised her for her attentiveness. Since then (although it is tiring), she wakes me up if he is calling me, if he becomes confused, if his blankets fall off, etc. About a month ago, she was more insistent and would not allow me to take my time getting up. It turns out that our carbon-monoxide detector was beeping. Luckily, it was only due to a low battery! We feel truly blessed to have her as part of the family.

Whenever she met strangers (at the children’s softball games or similar events), she always sat next to them and loved the attention they gave her. She loves people, and the unusual thing is that she greets everyone in our home but isn’t close to my father. She keeps her distance from him. I believe she is fearful or concerned about him. Do you know of similar cases of dogs’ reactions to a sick person in the house? She seems stressed or “on guard” at times, especially at night. My father’s hospice physician feels we are truly lucky to have a dog so attuned to the family. He said he has heard of stories like this, but only from cat owners. Your input would be appreciated. – D.L., Chantilly, Va.

Dear D.L: Thanks for the account of your “nurse dog.” Some dogs are highly empathic to the point of taking on the role of protector – a caring presence when a family member is bedridden. Like yours, they let others know when help is needed. Several dogs have made the news helping their owners in dire straits who needed emergency care. Dogs serve as assistance aides for people suffering from various chronic maladies like diabetes and epilepsy, and can sense – before their owners – when medication or other preventive measures are needed. Some dogs become fearful rather than more caring when a family member becomes physically handicapped or develops dementia. They seem to recognize that something is wrong with the person even before other members of the family do.

Dear Dr. Fox: We read your column in our local paper that stated that old dogs do not need “vaccine cocktails.” Thanks for that information. But how old is old?

Our 11-pound Maltese poodle is going on 11 years old. She had a heartworm test last year. In 2007, she had a rabies shot, fecal exam, Bordetella chemistries, T4, fructosamine lab test and titer canine distemper/parvo. Should she continue to get all of the above? How often?

She was diagnosed with diabetes three years ago. We give her Vetsulin insulin (10 milliliters) shots once in the morning after she eats and once in the evening after she eats. Will this have to continue for the rest of her life? Thank you for your help. – R.B., Naples, Fla.

Dear R.B.: I am glad your dog is not going to a “McVeterinary” hospital that may be excellent technically and scientifically, but puts the promotion and sale of pet-care and health products (including annual booster vaccinations) before the best interests of their patients. Adverse vaccine reactions are widespread in both dogs and cats.

Old dogs with a sound vaccination history may not have to be revaccinated. Being diabetic means she is immunocompromised, and therefore at greater risk from vaccination. To be certain that revaccinations are needed, blood titers should be taken – see my Web site,, for details. This should be done annually. Generally, these vaccines are good for five to seven years. While the costs may be comparable, the risk to cats and dogs of titer determinations are minimal compared to adverse vaccination reactions.

Calling all animal and nature poets

Dedicated space on my Web site (where this column is archived) has been set up for the many readers who often send me their poems about animals and nature, sometimes in memory of a recently deceased animal companion or in celebration of the natural world or some wild creature who crossed their paths. Send your poems to be selected for possible online publication to poet-in-residence Marcel Toussaint (e-mail:

Send your questions to Dr. Fox in care of The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns