Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Doorway to Heaven

Shelters used the pandemic shutdown time to improve living areas for cats

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

What a difference a door can make! A portal, a little round doorway between two small cages, separates a shelter cat’s eating and sleeping areas from litter box spaces. When already stressed cats have more space and less odor to contend with, they stay happier and healthier. And happy, healthy cats are more likely to be adopted quickly.

“Multiple studies have looked at the effect of poor housing on cats and have linked it to a high incidence of stress-related illness, particularly upper respiratory infections,” says Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Endowed Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. “Shelters frequently assume this condition is simply being spread from cat to cat like the flu, but what’s really happening is the cats are so stressed out, they become ill.”

Dr. Levy is a co-founder of the Million Cat Challenge, an initiative launched in 2014 with the goal of saving the lives of 1 million shelter cats over the next five years. After exceeding the goal in only four years, the Challenge looked for other ways to help shelter cats. The pandemic offered them the perfect opportunity to help upgrade shelter cat housing, a program they called Portalmania 2020.

With the help of sponsors, Portalmania raised enough money to place 2,685 portals in 82 shelters that applied for the grants.

“This will be a game changer for us and for the cats we care for,” says Monica Wylie, executive director of Animal Friends of the Valleys in Riverside, California. “With this setup, we will be able to reduce the likelihood of stress-induced illness and euthanasia for our feline friends.”

Portals are also important for feline emotional and mental well-being. We all know how finicky cats are when it comes to cleanliness. They have a keen sense of smell -- as good as or better than that of dogs -- and they don’t want to have to hang out next to or on top of a stinky litter box. Anything that protects their sensitive noses from the odor of urine and feces -- especially while they’re eating or resting -- contributes to their emotional health and is an important part of providing them with adequate care in the shelter.

Another 4,835 requested portals have not yet been funded. Sponsor Shor-Line is matching all donations made through’s Jackson Galaxy Project at That match will bring the cost of purchasing and installing portals to $40, half the normal $80 cost. Other supporters of the initiative include the Joanie Bernard Foundation, the Banfield Foundation, ASPCA Northern Tier Shelter Initiative, Petfinder, Virox Technologies, The Dave and Cheryl Duffield Foundation, Team Shelter USA and the Ontario Shelter Medicine Association.

While many cats found foster and adoptive homes as shelters scurried to find caretakers for them during shutdowns, some are still being brought to shelters, especially as more communities open back up. Access to cages with portals will help those cats better adjust to their surroundings until they can get into a home.

“As a veterinarian, little did I imagine that one of our most powerful tools to keep cats healthy and save their lives would turn out to be basically a round hole between two cages,” says Dr. Kate Hurley, director of the University of California, Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and co-founder of the Million Cat Challenge. “By reducing stress and keeping cats’ living spaces clean and separate from their toilet area, portals turn out to be one of the very most important things we can do to keep cats safe and happy and help them get out the shelter door quickly into their forever home.”


What to do with a

problem like diarrhea

Q: My dog frequently has diarrhea, and the vet and I can’t figure out why. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him. What can we do?

A: It’s often tough to figure out what’s causing diarrhea. Loose stools can occur when pets get into the garbage, eat something toxic or eat too much. It can also happen when their regular food changes suddenly, as a result of internal parasites, or because they have a foreign body obstruction. Diarrhea can signal certain diseases, and it can be a sign of stress.

Because there’s such a wide range of potential causes, it’s something you want to get checked out. But if you and your veterinarian have ruled out medical causes and your dog still has diarrhea on a regular basis, it’s possible that something is stressing him out or that he has a super-sensitive stomach. He may also have an imbalance in his gut microbiome: the collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that normally live in the body and serve a beneficial purpose, aiding in digestion, metabolism, immune function and even brain health.

Do some detective work. Have there been any changes in your household routine that could have upset your dog? Call the company that makes his food and ask if ingredients have changed recently.

You can also try to enhance the gut microbiome with probiotics and prebiotics, which can help to rebalance intestinal flora. Your veterinarian can recommend some. I have had success with a prebioticlike product called DoggyStat. It stops diarrhea in a nonpharmaceutical way and can be a good fit for dogs whose bowels seize up in stressful situations such as going to the veterinarian, groomer or boarding kennel. Full disclosure: I’m a member of their advisory team.

Most important: When in doubt, call your veterinarian. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Spending on pets

rises higher

-- Pet parents spend more on food and treats than any other category, with 2019 sales reaching $36.9 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association. Contributing to increased sales were pet food mix-ins and toppers and subscription pet food delivery programs. The second-highest category was veterinary care and product sales, at $29.3 billion. Spending on supplies, live animals and over-the-counter medications reached $19.2 billion last year. The live-animal category included only fish, reptiles, birds and other small animals -- not dogs, cats or horses. Finally, pet owners spent $10.3 billion on services such as boarding, grooming, pet health insurance, training, pet sitting and dog walking.

-- Help me, Rhonda. That’s what Santa Barbara, California, firefighters are singing to their new emotional support dog. Rhonda, the first dog to be hired for this job at the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, can recognize signs of agitation, anxiety and stress and is trained to interrupt those signs with affection. Her job is important for firefighters, who must deal with emotionally challenging situations and face depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at rates five times higher than the general population. Having an emotional support dog can help them carry on during stressful times -- like California’s upcoming fire season.

-- The pleasant and sociable English coonhound, also known as the American English coonhound, descends from dogs of the type kept by George Washington and other Virginia planters, originally to hunt foxes. Those early Virginia hounds were brought from England, hence the “English” part of the name. Their voice is described as a “good hound bawl,” so be prepared for them to “talk.” They aren’t typically nuisance barkers, though. The large, handsome hounds have smooth coats that come in redtick, bluetick, tricolor with ticking, white and red, white and black, and white and lemon. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.