Book Review: If Only They Could Speak

A pioneer of behavioral medicine evokes James Herriot with these remarkable stories of distressed pets and their (often) equally troubled owners. Did you hear about the dog who always arranged exactly six pieces of kibble in buttonhole depressions in the couch before he could lie down? Or the cat who compulsively hoarded shiny objects? In If Only They Could Speak, Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, a renowned animal behaviorist, presents fourteen true stories about troubled pets and their distressed owners, revealing that the emotional problems of animals are often as complex, heartrending, and treatable as those of their human counterparts.

Sadly, just fifteen years ago, euthanasia, which still today remains a so-called "solution" for millions of pets, was the only way to deal with a pet who was untrainable or unresponsive to human commands. A dog with a propensity to bite or a cat who urinated indoors constantly would have been sent to the proverbial pound, and almost always to a premature death. Dodman, believing that animal psychopharmacology could yield results as promising as those experienced by humans, began studying a wide array of psychological maladies that afflict pets, believing that careful drug use, be it Prozac, Valium, or newer psychiatric medications, could help save the lives of even the most profoundly troubled dogs and cats.

These poignant, emotional stories reveal the fruits of Dodman's research, which he has carried out as the founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts Veterinary School in Grafton, Massachusetts. With characteristic humor, compassion, and a profound understanding of the way animals think and feel, Dodman explores how separation anxiety, jealousy, fear, and death all affect the lives of the animals he has treated.

In "Second Chance," Dodman describes a cat named Pia who grew so anxious when her owner went away that she began to pull her hair out in clumps, while in "Menage-a-trois," the arrival of a new man, soon to become a husband, threatened the intimate relationship that had previously existed between a businesswoman and her formerly affectionate cat named Pumpkin. In "Life with Lenny," an owner's physical ailments were so profound that they affected the emotional stability of his faithful Rottweiler, and in "The Two Dogs of Mrs. Spinelli," an owner's love of one dog over the other leads to dire consequences for all three.

The stories in If Only They Could Speak are memorable in their portrayal of the powerful emotions of pets and in demonstrating how far veterinary medicine has come in the last fifteen years in bringing about an end to animal suffering. Echoing Albert Schweitzer's belief that, "until he extends his cycle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace," Dodman has written a deeply humane book that promises to become a classic of animal literature.

"Nicholas Dodman may very well be the best thing that ever happened to domestic pets. . . . This book is a collection of stories that describe his efforts and should be required reading for anyone who even thinks about getting an animal. What's more, the book is skillfully written, very exciting, and highly entertaining to read, even for people whose pets do not have problems." – Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Social Lives of Dogs and The Hidden Life of Dogs.

"Dr. Dodman is a master storyteller and a wry observer of both human and animal behavior. The dogs, cats, and people who leap off these pages are unforgettable." -Franklin M. Loew, DVM, PhD, former dean of veterinary medicine at Tufts and Cornell Universities and president of Becker College.

Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman is a 1970 graduate of Glasgow University Veterinary School in Scotland and practices at Tufts University. He is the author of five books and appears regularly on national television and radio shows.