Archive for August, 2010

There is a cat lady in my neighborhood. And no, it isn’t me. Everyone on the street has reported her to the authorities, but they haven’t been able to do anything about her, because the cats only come out at night, and animal control doesn’t. So every evening as the sun goes down, she open her garage door about a foot, and starts pouring bowls of food. If you happen to walk by, you’ll notice two things. One, the smell of cat pee will burn your eyes at 50 yards. Two, if it’s dark enough, the sea of eyes glowing inside that slightly opened garage door will make you think Stephen King is filming a new movie.

My animal-loving friends joke that certain people among us (you know who you are) could grow up to be cat ladies. But it’s just a joke. Really. Because people like the Cat Lady are suffering from a disease: Hoarder’s Syndrome. The DSM-IV generally links animal hoarding with a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and authorities on the subject recognize that people who suffer from this illness operate under the delusion that they are “helping” these animals.

Our Cat Lady is a little non-standard, because as far as we can tell, her herd of cats are mostly ferals who run loose and show up en masse for meals. Of course, we have no way to know how many are in the house. There have been many documented cases in which hoarders have literally hundreds of cats or dogs in a space that would be appropriate for two or three pets. The saddest part is that most animals kept by hoarders are both profoundly unsocialized and ill from a variety of diseases spread by the unsanitary conditions; the animals largely end up having to be euthanized, which simply reinforces the hoarder’s delusion that he/she is the only true savior of the animals.

Many animal hoarders start as unofficial rescuers, bringing home abandoned animals in need of help. But somehow they can’t find suitable homes for the animals, because no one can take care of them as well as the “rescuer”. And one becomes ten, becomes twenty, becomes thirty…and as the numbers grow, sanitation, spay/neuter, and vet care fall by the wayside as the rescuer turned hoarder becomes overwhelmed by the numbers. And still they keep bringing them home.

The rule is simple: only bring home the ones you can afford to take care of. And if you know someone headed for this kind of trouble, notify the authorities, because it only gets worse.

Yesterday morning, Bumble refused to eat. If you know Bumble, then you know that turning down chicken is roughly equivalent to a chain smoker saying “No, thanks, I really don’t want any nicotine today.” Something was really wrong.

The most troublesome of Bumble’s many issues are his deformed hip sockets, which throw his skeletal alignment way out of whack. In turn, as the rest of his body compensates for his weak hips, he can stress or strain other body parts. Like people with damaged joints or serious arthritis, some days he feels fine, and some days he hurts. The last few days I had begun to suspect that he was feeling some pain, but it’s hard to tell during the intermediate phase between normal-for-him and really, really painful.

Since other dog owners have often commented on how difficult it can be to tell if their pets are in pain, here are a few of the signs to look for.

1. Stiffness or body soreness: An animal in discomfort or pain may be slower to get up or lie down. He may collapse stiffly into his bed, when he normally is loose and limber. Most tellingly, he may walk slowly, or be reluctant to walk. Bumble (who admittedly has the shortest legs in canine history) avoids walking on grass or uneven ground when he hurts, because he has poor balance and falls down.
2. Drinking more/panting more: These can be signs of other conditions as well, but animals in pain tend to pant or breathe more rapidly, which in turn makes them drink more.
3. Crankiness: Just like people, when animals feel bad, they may be less tolerant and just want to be left alone.
4. Apathy: Your normally playful pet may lose interest in toys, won’t play with his animal buddies, or suddenly seems quieter than usual. Some pets may even refuse to eat.
5. Tremors or muscle spasms: While I was sitting in Dr. Romero’s office with Bumble, I noticed that his left front leg had a faint but definite tremor. It was caused by pain coming from his neck and shoulders, which were out of alignment. A pain pill and a visit to his chiropractor later, no more tremor and a much happier little dog.

If you see behavioral changes in your pet, don’t assume he’s just “getting older” or just doesn’t feel as playful as he used to. Watch him closely, and if you see these signs or other significant changes, go have a talk with your vet. Pets can’t ask for help when they hurt, so it’s up to us to pay attention.

My neighbor told me recently that she has given up walking her young, active dog because she is afraid of all the loose dogs in the neighborhood.

Me too.

It is both frustrating and potentially dangerous to walk a dog on a leash in an area where careless owners allow their dogs to run loose. A confrontation between a loose dog and one on a leash is statistically more likely to end in a fight; since you’re on the other end of that leash, you may well get injured in the process. And then let’s think about the fact that children are often the ones to take the family dog for a walk, which means loose dogs can put children at risk. Not to mention that loose pets are at risk of injury from cars, humans, and other animals.

In my case, Bumble is so small that when a loose dog shows up, I just pick him up. He’s pretty quiet and not terribly observant, so I’ve never had a problem getting him away from a loose dog. But Bunny, his predecessor, would make so much noise that every dog on the street wanted to come see. There were occasional incidents, stemming largely from Bunny’s total lack of comprehension that she weighed 20 pounds of pudgy fluff. Of course, if the other dogs had been on leashes too, there would have been no problem.

So what can you do about loose dogs in your neighborhood? That depends on how hard a line you want to take. You COULD try having a friendly chat in which you remind the owner about the existence of leash laws. (Most places have them.) But to be perfectly honest, I don’t recommend that route. People who are careless enough to let a dog run loose in a neighborhood are unlikely to be responsive to that approach.

Here’s what I suggest:

1. Notify your homeowner’s association. Most neighborhoods with an HOA have strict rules governing pets running loose. Sometimes a nasty letter from the HOA is enough to make a careless owner comply.
2. Call Animal Control and file a complaint. (One family in my neighborhood suddenly developed the miraculous ability to confine their large, aggressive dog after receiving a fine of $100 for allowing the animal to run loose one time too many.)
3. If it’s after hours, call local law enforcement. They can write tickets to people who do not follow the law – even the leash law.

To get the best results, make sure you have a description of the dog, details of its behavior, and the street address where you believe it lives. Pictures or video of the animal running loose are helpful, too.

If this seems harsh, remember: loose dogs are a risk to you, your pets, and your kids, as well as a major liability to their owners. And even though those owners won’t see it that way, you’re doing them – and their dog – a favor.

In addition to the aforementioned unacceptable excuses, there truly are occasions when people cannot keep their pets. I will say up front that I believe most of those occasions could have been avoided with proper planning – either don’t get pets you can’t afford, or make sure you have contingency plans for how to take care of them if life gets complicated.

The current overpopulation crisis at shelters is a direct result of the current economic crisis. Many people have found themselves losing jobs or even homes. They end up moving into apartments that won’t take pets, or into the homes of relatives who insist that they make painful choices. First, let me address the issue of rental housing. If you look hard enough, you CAN find housing that allows pets. I have always been able to find apartments or rental property that allowed pets, simply because I did not accept any other alternative. Admittedly, pet deposits can be expensive, and the larger or more exotic the pet, the harder it is to find housing that will accept him. But your pet is part of the family, so you make the effort.

That said, I acknowledge that the OCCASIONAL situation does arise in which someone legitimately cannot keep a pet for reasons beyond their control. What should they do?

It is that person’s responsibility to find a safe and suitable home for the animal. Period. End of story.

Here’s what not to do.

Don’t offer your pet “free to a good home” in the paper or on Craig’s List. You do not want to know what happens to most of those pets. I don’t care if a sweet little old lady in a pink dress swears on her dead husband’s grave that she will take good care of your pet. You do not know her, and thus you have no way to know what will really happen to your pet. Think research labs, dog fight training bait, and worse.

Don’t drop them off at the local shelter “because they’re so cute they’ll be adopted right away”. Over 4 MILLION perfectly good pets are put to sleep in this country every year because no one adopted them.

Your job is to find a home for that animal. A safe home includes people who will take care of their pets, get them veterinary care, love them and pay attention to them. Call all your friends. Ask them to help. Send out emails, with pictures, to everyone in your address book, with permission to forward to anyone they think might offer a suitable home. Contact local rescue groups (which are different from shelters in that they usually keep the animal until they find him a home). Talk to people at your church. Talk to your vet. Check with local schools to see if they have animal welfare student groups that might be able to help you re-home your pet. When someone shows an interest in adopting your pet, unless you know them personally, ask for references, especially from a vet. Be proactive. Keep the commitment you made to that animal.

Rescues and shelters all over the United States are constantly inundated with pets surrendered by owners who “can’t keep them”.  The most common reason given is behavior, followed closely by “We have a new baby (or puppy)”.  To these people, I say this.  PETS ARE NOT DISPOSABLE.  If your child behaves badly, will you turn him in to a shelter for probable euthanasia as well? 

If your pet exhibits behavior problems, address the problems.  Yelling and whacking your pet with the traditional newspaper will not get you where you need to go.  If your pet has “accidents” in the house, then make sure your pet can go outside with adequate frequency, and make sure he actually takes care of business while he’s out there.  If necessary, keep him crated for a couple of weeks, so that he gets back in the habit of “holding it” until he is in an appropriate location.  Very young and very old pets need to go outside more often; make sure you take the animal’s age and health into account.  If that doesn’t do the trick, consult your vet, as a sudden onset of housebreaking issues can indicate medical problems, not a bad attitude. 

Likewise, if a formerly friendly pet suddenly shows aggression, try to figure out why.  Did something change in the household?  New boyfriend, new puppy, new baby?  Could your pet be in pain?  The most probable causes for sudden aggression are physical pain and stress due to change in circumstances.  Neither of these is the animal’s fault, and both can be addressed. 

If you suspect pain, head for the vet’s office; there are many safe treatments available, even for chronic pain.  If the problem is a change in circumstances, realize that your pet needs time to adjust.  New baby?  New puppy?  Introduce your pet to the baby (human or animal) under controlled circumstances, and above all, make sure that you still pay enough attention to the pet.  Many people get so caught up in the new arrival that they ignore their loyal pet.  Think how you’d feel – you’d be inclined to either act out to get attention, or else you’d resent the intruder.  It’s so easy to prevent this disaster, with a little forethought, a couple of baby gates, and some supervision.

Pets are a lifelong commitment; let’s treat them as such.

One of the more interesting challenges facing educators is the teaching of ethics.  As the faculty sponsor of a student group dedicated to animal welfare, I suggest that animal welfare is the perfect vehicle for teaching ethics.

Let’s take a look at what students learn when they take an interest in animal welfare. 

Compassion, empathy, responsibility, patience, charity, respect for law…these are just a few lessons that come to mind.

The first four are inherent qualities necessary for those who work directly with any animal.  If you’re working in animal welfare, you will be handling animals that have been abused or neglected, and consequently may have behavioral or medical problems.  Students will learn both compassion for their suffering and empathy for their needs, as well as responsibility and patience from the day to day demands of caring for them.

Responsibility carries over to the charitable aspect as well.  My students learn to plan fundraisers, research charitable organizations, and choose where to donate the money they raise.  They also donate their time at local events that raise money and awareness for animal welfare organizations.

Respect for the law is of tremendous importance here too.  Many rescuers inadvertently make the situation worse by “rescuing” animals illegally.  Unfortunately, many people call that stealing.  My students learn what the law allows and requires, and they learn that if you want to make changes, you have to work within the system to do so.  Part of being a socially aware, responsible adult is knowing how the system works, so that you can use it to your best advantage.

All of these are lessons of vital importance to our kids, and let’s face it…cute furry animals in need will hold the average kid’s attention much more easily than abstract philosophical lessons on ethics.

If you watched the Houston news this week, one of the leading stories is the theft of three English bulldog puppies, valued at $5000 apiece, from a local pet store.  $5000 apiece???  In the Houston Chronicle’s classified ads today, English bulldog puppies range in price from $400 to $2000.

When I was younger, going to the mall meant going to the pet store to see all the cute fuzzy puppies with ridiculous price tags.  I could spend hours playing with the puppies of all breeds and descriptions.

All I can say is that I didn’t know any better.  Now, as a member of the rescue community, I know all too well that many pet stores get their animals from puppy mills.  They charge those high prices and offer those money back guarantees because they expect a certain percentage of the animals to get sick and die.  And if you take a sick puppy back to a pet store for an “exchange”, you don’t want to know what the “returned” puppy’s fate will probably be.

If you walk into many pet stores, you will see that some of the animals look weak or listless, that some of them are shivering, that many of them are in cages or enclosures with no blankets or bedding.  You should also notice that there is a communal air supply for all the animals, which means that if a sick one is present, all the others have been exposed.  And it is not uncommon for the puppies and kittens on display to be as young as five or six weeks old – ie, really too young to be away from their mothers, and thus even more vulnerable to illness.

So about those puppy mills…recently someone whom I thought of as an educated, informed person admitted to me that she didn’t really know what a puppy mill was.

Basically, a puppy mill is the term we use for a breeding facility in which the animals are bred as often as possible, to produce as many puppies for sale as possible, without any particular attention to the health, wellbeing, care, feeding, hygiene, or socialization of the animals.  It is not uncommon to find the animals crammed by the dozen into filthy runs or cages, with contaminated water and food (or none at all).  It is not uncommon for animals to have longstanding untreated illnesses, injuries, even congenital deformities caused by unchecked inbreeding.  Respiratory illness, distemper, even ammonia blindness (caused when the fumes from the accumulated urine burn the eyes of the dogs) are all typical findings in puppy mills.

I’ve been inside a puppy mill.  The sights and smells…you never forget.

Common practice in these mills is to take the puppies away from the mothers as quickly as possible so that the puppies don’t have time to manifest any of the illnesses present in the mill before being sold. 

The next time that you find yourself tempted to pay the absurd prices in a pet store, think twice.  Don’t buy from the side of the road either, as those animals are even more likely to be sick or have congenital problems.  If you plan to avoid these problems by buying from a breeder, ask to see the facility and the mother dog, so that you can see the conditions in which the puppies and mother dog have lived.  Do your homework. 

Or better yet, adopt a rescued animal.