Can cats be sad, I asked? Allen Schoen, DVM, looks at me quizzically. It’s a good question all right — but Schoen came up with the answer years ago. Long before herbal treatments and nutritional supplements were considered a logical adjunct to conventional medicine, and long before veterinarians steeped in science would allow themselves to consider pets as emotional beings with real feelings, Schoen was dancing on a high wire between science and spirit.

As he usually does, he begins to answer my question with a safe, slow reply using scientific evidence. “Our dogs and cats have the same neurotransmitters we do, and the same neuro-hormones — and at the same parts of the brain. Why shouldn’t they feel emotions?”

As he continues, his answer subtly shifts from science to spirit, yet he never completely veers from his roots as a scientist. “For example, pets feel jealously,” he says. “Just a few minutes ago, I was petting Chi [his 14-year-old cat], who was just purring in my lap, when Shanti [his 13-year-old Golden Retriever] comes over. Then there’s this big paw in my lap, and he places his muzzle carefully under my arm to steer my hand to pet him. You don’t need to be a scientist to see that Shanti wanted to be petted. What would you call this? I can’t see how it’s anything but jealousy.”

There aren’t too many vets who can pull this dance off. His books include veterinary texts about acupuncture and popular works such as Love, Miracles and Animal Healing (Simon & Schuster, 1995) and, most recently, Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans & Animals Can Change the Way We Live (Broadway Books, 2001). Schoen is on faculty at the prestigious Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine in Ft. Collins and at the alternative Chi Institute for Integrative Animal Health, where he teaches Traditional Chinese Medicine. He’s founder and director of the Veterinary Institute for Therapeutic Alternatives in Sherman, Texas, and the founder and director of the Center for Integrative Animal Health in New York City.

Schoen is delighted with the increasing number of medical doctors, psychologists and veterinarians who are all hopping on board the “pets are good for us” bandwagon. However, as is typically his way, he goes a step further. He maintains that companion animals can be so empathetic, so entrenched in our lives, that they can actually pick up our diseases. Examples in Kindred Spirits include the story of Tom and his Scottish Terrier, Taffy. Oddly, they both suffered from the same exact kind of heart condition — a kind of problem rarely seen in dogs. Whenever Tom became ill, so did Taffy. When Taffy was “smuggled” into the hospital to see Tom, Tom would rally. If Taffy became ill, Tom would get so upset that it adversely affected his physical condition. As Taffy’s condition improved, so would Tom’s. This cycle repeated itself many times.

“I make no absolute conclusions, you decide for yourself,” says Schoen. “Coincidence–sure, it might be. To me, these stories are so commonplace, the connection seems obvious.”

Schoen says that there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that companionship with a cat or dog is healthy for people. What’s more, your companionship may also be healthy for your pet; that is, as long as you’re a pleasure to be around. If you’re an old grouch, your dog or cat probably won’t benefit.

According to pet owner surveys (the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Pet Product Manufacturer’s Association), there are more pets in America than ever before. What does Schoen think about this? First, there’s his standard logical and scientific reply. “Well, there are more people in America,” he says, “so, it’s no surprise there are more pets.” Next, he dances to the spiritual side, “Anyone who has ever experienced even the slightest relationship knows that it feels good to have a pet. We’re unconsciously self-medicating ourselves. We need to. Also, in our ever-changing world, our pets are a constant — they’re always there for us. Sadly, in society your pet may be the only one who will always love you no matter what. Yes, we do have a lot we can learn from them.”