When I first started writing about animal issues more than 20 years ago, I went to a conference for shelter workers put on by the Humane Society of the United States.
One of the seminars was on shelter housing for cats. While I have long ago forgotten the speaker's name and the name of her shelter, I have never forgotten my horror at the conditions she described as once being normal at her facility -- conditions she changed within days of her arrival.
When she took over management of her shelter, cats were housed together in a run at the end of a kennel row for dogs. The only special accommodation that had been made for them was to put a chain-link roof over the run to prevent escapes. All the cats were thrown into that same run, in full view of neighboring dogs. Every few days they'd all be killed, sooner if disease broke out.
Very few people came to adopt from this shelter, and when on rare occasion someone did, the adopter would point to the cat he or she wanted, and the animal would be snared like a wild animal and dragged out by the neck.
The lack of shock on the faces of shelter workers around me in that conference room told me that this horror chamber of a facility was not alone in its treatment of cats at that time.
Most shelters have come a long way since, and the trend these days is toward so-called "colony" housing, keeping small groups of cats in large, feline-friendly enclosures. Popular with human visitors and less stressful for resident felines, colony housing has caught on in both small community-based rescue groups and large urban shelter organizations.
"It's much more sociable for cats and the people who visit," says Melinie diLuck, founder of Happy Tails in Sacramento, Calif. The small non-profit opened up a storefront adoption facility in 2000, colony-style from the start. "People don't like seeing cats in cages. This way, they can see a cat's true personality."
The Hawaiian Humane Society, in Honolulu, has to be one of the pioneers in colony-style housing, which the organization put in place more than 30 years ago.
"We have four separate rooms in our Cat House," says Marty Hutchins, the society's animal-behavior program coordinator. "Three are colony rooms, and one has individual housing for 16 cats ... mostly for those who do not like other cats, are shy or need a more private space. Often after a few days of adjustment, our cats seem to enjoy being in our colony rooms."
The Denver Dumb Friends League is a more recent convert to colony housing -- the new cat rooms are about a year old, and the old individual cat spaces are still in use. The DDFL's president, Robert Rohde, is enthusiastic about the changes at his shelter.
"In my experience, over the past 31 years many positive changes have occurred in the way shelters care for cats. More effort has been placed on relieving stress on cats while they are in shelters," he says. "Happy, active cats are much more interesting to watch. You'll often see a patron outside the building flirting with a cat through the window."
A visit to the shelter verifies the claim -- the cats in Denver's colorful colony rooms are relaxed and comfortable, putting their best paws forward while hoping to be adopted. In this shelter as in others, colony rooms are harder than individual cages to manage when it comes to controlling the spread of disease from cat to cat and smoothing introductions between them, but they're clearly a success overall with cats and people alike.
On a recent afternoon in Denver, little girls flirted with playful kittens while a young woman considered an older cat who seemed to be considering her just as thoughtfully. The relaxed attitude of humans and cats made me think back to that conference all those years ago, and the stories of those poor cats whose last few days of life were spent in terror in a place that should have treated them with kindness.
Sometimes it seems we don't make much progress when it comes to the humane treatment of animals. But sometimes, it must be noted, we do.
Milk is fine for some cats
Q: I was recently adopted by an older cat I've named Lee. She didn't have a collar or tag, and no one answered my "found cat" ad. But she is very affectionate and clearly was somebody's pet once. I give Lee the little bit of milk at the bottom of my cereal bowl. She loves it, and I thought it was OK for her. Cats love milk, right? But my friend says milk is bad for cats. Do I have to deny Lee her occasional milk treat? She's not going to like that! -- J.P., via e-mail
A: No adult cat needs milk to survive, and some cats, like some humans, cannot handle milk without ending up with diarrhea. For those cats who can handle milk and like it, it's a fine treat and good source of protein.
If Lee isn't experiencing any stomach distress, then it's perfectly safe to give her milk as a treat. Feel free to indulge her just as you have been.
Q: Would it be a good idea to get two puppies at once? I'm in and out a lot and worry about leaving a puppy alone. Would getting two at once help to ease the loneliness, or would it create problems? -- L.E., via e-mail
A: Most people haven't the time to raise one puppy right, and trying to raise two at once can be setup for disaster.
Two puppies who are raised together will often bond more tightly with each other than with the human members of the house, especially if the pups are from the same litter. Experienced show breeders, who often "grow out" a pair of promising puppies, often get around this problem by sending one of the youngsters to be raised by another breeder.
House-training can be a challenge with two puppies, because one may not get the concept as quickly as the other. Fresh messes from the one who's not getting it may prompt backsliding in the other pup. Obedience training and all-important socialization can also be hard, since you have to find the time to work with each puppy individually.
If you wish to have two dogs more or less instantly, I'd recommend adopting an adult dog and then a puppy. Give the adult dog a couple of months to settle before bringing in the pup. You'll still need to take time to work with both individually, but if you choose properly, the adult dog should slide easily into your life, giving you ample time to work with the puppy.
You should also consider adopting two adult dogs. Puppies are wonderful, but there's a lot to be said about skipping those crazy first months of their lives. For many families, an adult dog is flat-out a better match.
Q: Can you please explain how to put on a choke collar properly? I'm tired of seeing people walking their dogs with it on wrong. -- C.N., via e-mail
A: With the dog sitting on your left, make a downward-facing "P" out of the collar, with the base of the letter on your side. Then slip the collar over the dog's head. The moving end of the collar should go over the dog's neck, not under it. If it's put on incorrectly, the collar will not release easily when the leash is slackened.
The choke collar is one of the most difficult pieces of training equipment to use properly, which is why I have in recent years discouraged its use. Newer products such as head halters and no-pull harnesses are easier to use and provide control with less strain on the dog.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ON THE WEB
Are you a collie or a basset hound?
If you were a dog, would you be a clever, intense border collie? A laid-back basset hound? An energetic fox terrier or an elegant Afghan hound? If you've ever wondered -- or even if you haven't -- you'll surely get a smile out of the Gone 2 the Dogs Web site (www.gone2thedogs.com). Click on "What dog are you?" to play.
Answer a few questions, and the site will tell you what breed of dog you'd be. I came back as a large Munsterlander, which is not a kind of cheese but rather a German hunting dog that's a fair amount like an English setter. The result surprised me, because the first time I ever saw a Munsterlander in person was last spring at England's Cruft's dog show, when I fell utterly in love with the breed.
Could it be I was recognizing myself in a furry coat? The mystery remains.
Recycled covers for cat beds
Cats crave warmth, which is why they're wonderful bed companions on a cold night. But when you can't be there to provide snuggle-space, your cat will appreciate a soft bed to sleep on.
The Denver Dumb Friends League uses old toilet-seat covers to cushion cats waiting for adoption. The covers are the perfect size for most cats and provide a perfect option to throwing out old covers when they're worn or your décor changes. (If you have extras, check and see if your local shelter will welcome the donation.)
Since covering upholstery is one way to protect it from cat hair, you might put a seat cover or two in places your cat loves to nap, such as the couch or a favorite chair. Whatever hair ends up on the seat-cover won't get on your upholstery and will easily come out in the wash.
Shelter goes high-tech with pet selection
Most people have an idea what kind of pet they want before they head out with the intention of adoption. Problem is, many times they're not on the right track. They may have fallen in love with a large, active breed of dog when their lifestyle is more suitable to a mellow older cat. Or they may not even be aware of the charms of other pets, such as birds, reptiles or rabbits.
This lack of education leads to a lot of disappointment. The person who makes a bad match when it comes to choosing a pet is at high risk for giving up the animal later. And every time an animal comes in through the shelter door, there's less of a possibility for that animal to go out again with another family.
Shelters have long recognized that education is key to successful pet placements. And in Denver, the pioneering Denver Dumb Friends League has taken its already robust educational efforts in a decidedly high-tech direction.
As part of a larger renovation of the organization's main shelter, 13 interactive kiosks were installed at the beginning of 2004, offering more than 1,000 users a month the chance to learn about choosing the right pet and properly caring for a new companion. The kiosks are equipped with bright graphics, crisp writing and touch screens that allow pet-lovers to move through the information in a way that's both educational and entertaining.
"People like them," says Corey Price, the DDFL's manager of humane education, who wrote the text and oversaw the installation of the kiosks. "Playing with the interactives is fun, better than watching TV."
Price says the kiosks are aimed at an audience of 8-year-olds and up, and offer people another reason to come to the shelter.
"It's free to come down and learn about the animals, and we don't mind if they adopt," says Price.
BY THE NUMBERS
Don't forget shelter pets
Exact numbers are impossible to come by, since no one even knows how many shelters there are in the United States and Canada. But using a survey of 1,000 shelters in 1997 as a base, it's estimated that 9.7 million animals a year are euthanized in shelters. While some animals entering shelters are not considered to be adoptable, many would be wonderful companions if only given a chance.
More shelter stats:
-- In 1997, roughly 64 percent of the total number of animals entering shelters were euthanized.
-- 56 percent of dogs and 71 percent of cats entering animal shelters are euthanized.
-- 15 percent of dogs and 2 percent of cats entering animal shelters are reunited with their owners.
-- 25 percent of dogs and 24 percent of cats entering animal shelters are adopted.
Source: American Humane Association (www.americanhumane.org) and the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (www.petpopulation.org).
Figuring out dog's age in "human years"
According to the American Animal Hospital Association, the first eight months of a dog's life equals 13 years in human terms -- birth to puberty, in other words. At a year, a dog's a teenager, equivalent to a 16-year-old human, with a little filling out still to do. After the age of 2, when a dog's about 21 in human terms, every dog year equals approximately five human ones.
These are ballpark estimates, however, because different dogs age at very different rates. Giant breeds such as Great Danes are senior citizens at 6; a Labrador may be considered old at 8. A little dog like the Pomeranian, however, could behave like a healthy adult into her teens.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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