DEAR READERS: Annually, an estimated 7.6 million animals enter shelters in the United States; some 2.7 million of them are destroyed. Some shelters have a holding time limit because of the high numbers of animals coming in on a daily basis. This situation would be best remedied by subsidized spay/neuter and public education campaigns. The central role of animal shelters is acting as an exemplar of compassion in action. Education should be recognized and supported rather than being marginalized.
Many municipal shelters, operating under public funds and public trust, and privately operated shelters, supported by donors, are embracing the no-kill philosophy. Ideally, this means all but the most physically and emotionally incurable animals are saved from euthanasia. Shelter staff and volunteers will need basic training and protocol to follow in socializing the incoming animals, helping them overcome their fear so that they are responsive, trusting and adoptable. Many shelters use calming music, pheromones, oxytocin and lavender oil to facilitate animals' ability to cope with fear and establish trust.
The worst no-kill facilities incarcerate unadoptable animals, which can mean a life sentence of going crazy confined in a small cage -- a fate surely worse than death. Some shelters use trap, neuter and release (TNR) as an umbrella to dump cats outdoors with inadequate care rather than taking them in, often because they have no room.
Most dogs and cats coming into shelters are stressed out and need tender loving care. They should first be held in quiet quarantine rooms where they can feel safe and settle down. Many will have post-traumatic stress disorder, and a number will be traumatized from human abuse, the terror of being lost/abandoned, and possibly starved and exposed to the elements. If there is no real effort to help animals coming into shelters to overcome their fears and trauma -- for dogs this must include outside walks for at least 10 minutes once a day, and encouragement to playfully interact with caregivers -- then what chance do they ever have of being adopted? They are more likely to succumb to stress-related infectious diseases if they are kept in the shelter for more than a few days.
Also, when incoming animals' emotional states are ignored and adoptability tests are given to them in the stressful new environment, many who might eventually have been rehabilitated fail and are killed. This is a nationwide tragedy. Temperament tests have many limitations, both situational and in terms of those administering them. They can be of value but should not be used as a cover to justify killing any and all animals on a pass/fail basis.
The rampant euthanasia is a violation of the public's trust and support, as is the shipping of animals to class-B dealers who supply the biomedical industry and universities with live animals. The throwaway mentality of our consumer society with its disposable pets is a convenient myth used to justify the cruel, temporary incarceration of cats, dogs and other species kept as pets, and their continued wholesale slaughter.
The nationwide epidemic of animal shelters killing pit bulls, and municipalities even outlawing people keeping them because of the "dangerous breed" hysteria, is at last subsiding. Thousands of adoptable dogs have been destroyed because of this unfounded and discredited breed prejudice. Bad dogs come from bad people.
Animal shelters should be just that: Providers of shelter, security and proper care by appropriately trained, paid and respected staff to give all incoming animals a chance of recovery and adoption through socialization, community outreach and volunteer assistance. We owe no less to the animals who provide inestimable benefits to people of all ages -- emotionally, health-wise and spiritually -- and to the majority of people who do care about the sad fate of millions of animals still being mistreated and killed in our shelters today.
DEAR DR. FOX: I wanted to share our experience with animal bereavement.
We had two Yorkies, brother and sister. They slept each night at either end of our couch. The female died at age 16 1/2. The night after she was gone, I was turning out lights and there was Toby, by himself at one end of the couch. I was struck by his aloneness. I had bought a stuffed animal in the shape of a dog. I put it on the couch where Holly used to sleep, and in the morning, Toby was wrapped around the toy and sleeping deeply. For the rest of his life, he slept with his soft companion. He lived to be 17. -- J.H., Annandale, Virginia
DEAR J.H.: I appreciate your account of finding how a stuffed doglike gift for your grieving dog worked so well in helping him cope with the loss of his sister. Skeptics may dismiss this as mere sentimentalism, but your foresight is a credit to your ability to empathize with others, be they human or nonhuman. This world would be a better place if there were more empathy and compassionate action.
I have been deeply moved by the many accounts that readers have sent to me over the years giving details about how their animals have responded to the death of a loved one in the family. I would be happy to hear more from readers on this subject. I'd also like to hear about the remarkable phenomenon of "empathosphere," where animals seem to have some remote empathic connection, as when the family dog begins to howl at around the same time a family member dies in a hospital miles away.
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.com.)