Financial Safety Nets for Pet Owners

According to a study by the Open Journal of Animal Science called The Re-Homing of Cats and Dogs in the U.S., one of the top reasons for a pet owner to relinquish a pet is their inability to afford veterinarian costs, especially when household income is less than $50,000 a year. I interviewed a local veterinarian and a practice manager about this topic and both noted that money problems are a frequent topic of conversation between pet owners and veterinarians. The most often recommended solutions to unaffordable veterinarian costs include: preventive care, an emergency fund and/or pet insurance, CARE credit, discretionary veterinarian discount, and assistance from animal welfare groups.

PREVENTATIVE CARE

Many pet owners choose foremost to practice preventive care. They provide their pets with basic health care such as keeping their pets’ hair groomed and their teeth cleaned, research into and purchase of the best foods for their pets, showering their pets with playtime and enrichment, and keeping their pets indoors except on supervised outings. In addition, they ensure that their pets remain current on wellness exams and vaccinations. These things promote good health and ensure that any health problems are caught early, thereby minimizing vet costs.

Dr. Amy Walton believes that Pet Care Center’s emergencies would be cut in half if all their clients would bring their pets in for regular exams. “Many diseases such as heart disease or kidney disease can be caught early and managed before a pet enters later stages and becomes extremely sick. While it’s beneficial for young and middle-aged pets to have bloodwork, it’s even more important that senior pets have regular bloodwork and health screenings. Animals are very good at hiding signs that something is wrong, and they can’t tell you if they feel a little off every day.”

REDUCED MEDICATION COSTS

A pet blogger in the BlogPaws News and Boost Group shared an article with me that she wrote about cutting medication costs. The catalyst for her article arose from her personal experience with her dog who underwent two separate bouts of chin acne and then a lump on his shoulder. Big Pet Mom offered these four tips:

  • Ask for a Prescription, Check Prices, and Shop Around: Big Pet Mom noted that prescription drug prices vary widely from pharmacy to pharmacy and so shopping around is critical. She also advised that when faced with needing pet medication, inquire about a less expensive, but just as effective human equivalent for that medication.
  • Inquire About Price Matching: Big Pet Mom said that many veterinarians will match the prices offered by pharmacies to retain a pet owner’s business and to become more competitive in the marketplace.
  • Take Advantage of Discount Programs: Big Mom Point advised pet owners to ask about discount programs offered by local retail pharmacies.
  • Explore Online Pharmacies: Through her personal experiences, Big Pet Mom discovered that online pharmacies can be valuable for pets that have chronic conditions for which medication is needed on an ongoing basis.

PET INSURANCE AND/OR EMERGENCY FUNDS

According to Insurance Information Institute, “the pet insurance industry got its start almost a century ago in Sweden where about half that country’s pets are now insured.” In North America, Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. sold its first pet insurance policy in 1982 to television’s Lassie Today there are 13 major pet insurance companies in North America. Pet Insurance Quotes provides a list of these companies and an overview of the type of coverage they offer. Insurance Information Institute states that the total number of pets insured in the U.S. and Canada reached 2.1 million by the end of 2017.

Both Carrie Johnstone, Practice Manager at Pitts Veterinarian Hospital, and Dr. Walton recommend that pet owners buy pet insurance. However, they cautioned that while pet insurance can be a huge help, it works differently than for people. Owners have to be able to afford the care up front and then wait for reimbursement from the insurance company.

Whether or not a pet owner elects to buy pet insurance, both Johnstone and Walton recommended having an emergency fund. According to them, putting aside a small amount of money each month essential. Walton pointed out, “We always hope that nothing happens but hoping only gets you so far. You must be prepared.”

CARE CREDIT

Yes, I said in the introduction of this article that I would be talking about alternatives to personal finances and credit,but Care Credit is a little different from typical credit cards. It’s a healthcare credit card which allows pet owners to break their bill into monthly payments. In addition, amounts over $200 do not have interest for 6 months. According to the Care Credit site, there are only three steps involved to applying for the health card, at the end of which an instant credit decision is issued.

DISCRETIONARY VETERINARIAN DISCOUNT

Many veterinarians are happy to offer discounts or payment plans to regular clients with good payment histories. Walton and Johnstone stressed the importance of pet owners establishing a trusting relationship with a veterinarian. According to the two ladies, this trust is best built by pet owners showing themselves responsible by paying for wellness exams and elective care, taking preventative care measures, preparing for an emergency, and being honest with and respectful of their veterinarian.

Walton also emphasized the importance of pet owners simply being nice to their veterinarians. She explained that, “Many vets will be much more likely to work with you if you’re nice and show gratitude for them helping you. If you’re rude and get angry with the vet and staff because you cannot afford treatment, most vets won’t go the extra mile and make exceptions, change prices, or reach for those medications in the donation drawer.”

Johnstone advised pet owners to be open about any financial constraints at the start of an exam. “The most frustrating situation for a vet clinic,” Johnson said, “is when a client says in the exam room that they can or will do anything for their pet and okay all treatment options, but then get to the front desk and say they have no money. It puts the clinic in a very difficult situation. Please, be honest from the start. Most veterinarians will do their best to find a treatment option to work within their clients means.”

Johnstone said that Pitts Veterinarian Hospital works with some clients to help them pay veterinary bills. According to Johnstone, Pitts has long-term clients who have earned the option of financing plans for major expenses. She noted that other times staff have worked with people by helping them find a lower cost medication at a human pharmacy when appropriate.

LOCAL FINANCIAL NETS

According to the Open Journal of Animal Science study about rehoming cats and dogs, pet retention is more likely to happen when pet owners are provided with financial safety nets. Johnstone said that When a client can’t afford to pay the cost of diagnosis, she often encourages them to ask a family member or friend for help. “That way we can get their pet in with a veterinarian to get a better idea of what exactly is going on and what treatment recommendations might be,” Johnstone said. “From there, the client at least knows what is going on and what is needed next.

Members of the Best Friends Network’s Facebook group advised that pet owners in need of financial help should turn to an organization that can provide them with pet supplies and/or medical assistance. If a pet owner is able to obtain free food, treats, poop bags, litter, towels, shampoo, and other basic supplies, that will free up money for veterinarian costs. Medical assistance might also increase the likelihood that pet owners can afford pet emergency care.

In Lincoln, several organization exist to provide the following financial safety nets: pet food and supplies, low-cost spay/neuter and vaccinations, and medical assistance.

Pet Food Banks (and Supplies)

According to the Humane Society of the United States, an estimated 23 million dogs and cats live in poverty with their families in the United States. In addition, financial hardship accounts for 25% of the pets that are surrendered to shelters. Across the nation, there are 150 pet food banks, including the three listed above for Lincoln. “I know Lincoln Animal Ambassadors only has so much money, and is all run by volunteers, but I appreciate that they buy food from the vet office for me,” said Lynn, a pet food bank recipient.

Low Cost Spay-Neuter:

Twenty-five percent of pets in the United States have not been spayed or neutered. Cost is one major reason. The good news is that there are animal welfare groups in every state that offer low-cost spay/neuter services, including those listed above for Lincoln. The greatest joy for Pauline Balta, the spay/neuter coordinator for Lincoln Animal Ambassadors, comes from realizing the efforts that pet guardians will go through to keep their pets and keep them healthy. Balta gave the example of one pet owner who was helped by LAA: a young woman came to the organization for help because she struggled financially despite having multiple jobs, but couldn’t resist taking in a mother dog in need.

Medical Assistance:

Both the Coalition for Pet Protection and the Sadie Dog Fund offer financial assistance for emergency vet care. CPP relies on donations via its Paypal account and fundraisers to cover emergency costs, and typically offers up to $100. SDF relies on donations, fundraisers, and grants to cover emergency costs, and works closely with the dog owner’s veterinarian to determine how much to finance.

NATIONAL FINANCIAL SAFETY NETS

Although local financial safety nets exist, they aren’t always enough, especially if a pet will need ongoing medical assistance due to special needs or a disease. Several pet bloggers in the BlogPaws News and Boost Group recommended Waggle, which describes itself as “a pet-dedicated crowdfunding platform that partners directly with leading veterinary providers to help pet.” According to the website, for the families of more than 500,000 pets, the inability to cover the costs of treatment results in the decision to relinquish or euthanize a pet with a positive diagnosis. To use Waggle, follow these steps:

  1. Submits your pet’s profile to Waggle.
  2. Its team of professional writers will then create your pet’s story using information submitted.
  3. Waggle’s network of donors become involved in raising funds. 100% of donations are used to fund the patient’s care.
  4. You submit post-treatment updates, so Waggle can share it with donors.

Here is a graphic (source unknown) that is well-circulated in animal rescue circles. The graphic lists organizations that provide financial assistance to those that qualify and meet their criteria.

In addition, I’ve started a page at LAA Pet Talk that lists national financial safety nets. At the moment, it’s bare-bones and far from being exhaustive. Please check it out at and, if you know of financial safety nets, please tell me about them in the comments.

OTHER SAFETY NETS

At the beginning of this article, I referred to a study by the Open Journal of Animal Sciences, which found that one of the top reasons for a pet owner to relinquish a pet is the inability to afford veterinarian costs. This study also discovered that 88% of these owners, when told there may be financial support available, chose to keep their pet.

HuffPost reported that in 2014 the ASPCA started addressing pet relinquishment due to the inability to afford vet care by establishing and supporting “safety net” programs in communities across the country. One such program was launched at two of the highest intake Los Angeles County shelters. Since its launch, the program has assisted over 4,100 animals that were at risk of entering the shelter system. Early follow-up with a small sample of clients has reported that over 80 percent of these pets still remain in their homes.

The ASPCA cited all of the below as examples of safety net programs that can help keep pets in their homes, several of which I’m pleased do exist in Lincoln.

  • Assistance with housing issues, such as helping to pay a pet deposit fee
  • Pet food banks (and supplies) *
  • Spay/neuter services *
  • Temporary housing for animals whose pet parents faces crisis situations
  • Vaccination clinics *
  • Behavior classes and/or behavior help lines *
  • One-on-one counseling
  • Pet help lines (via phone and online) *

* Available in Lincoln to some degree.

More than one pet owner whom I talked with said that they’d use up their savings to pay the costs of emergency care for their pet or that they’d maxed their credit cards or increased their credit limits to care for their sick pet. Obviously, many pet owners wish to keep their pets in the family. My hope is that this article will provide them with a greater awareness of the financial safety nets that exist to help them.

Inspired by Their Spouse

You never know who your passion for animals will inspire. It could even be your spouse.

Matt Yank has always loved animals but says his biggest inspiration to volunteer in animal welfare” came from his wife. Megan helped Matt realize that animals, “don’t have a voice and we owe them the respect and love that they show us unconditionally.”

Since 2010, Matt has spent his Fridays cleaning cat rooms and caring for cats at The Cat House. He has also helped with special tasks such as “hauling the pallets worth of cat litter that needs to be replenished once a month” and “locating and wrangling kitties that don’t want to be placed in kennels or have found themselves in precarious situations or locations.”

Andy Frederick has always loved animals but credits me tongue-in cheek his involvement with animal welfare: “I’m not technically a volunteer. I was conscripted by my wife.”

Since 2005, Andy and I have helped a variety of animal welfare groups. For several years, we sponsored high-needs dogs at Hearts United for Animals and visited them to help with their socialization. In 2012, we fostered (and later adopted) a happy-go-lucky senior silky terrier named Gizmo through Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue. For the three years that I volunteered with Husker Cats, Andy helped me during bad weather to feed community cats and clear snow from their outdoor homes. Since I began blogging for Lincoln Animal Ambassadors in 2015, he’s served as my editor and occasional photographer. This spring, we started fostering kittens for The Cat House.

Those years of helping animals have given both men moments in which they can take pride. For example, Andy cited the challenge of the challenge of finding a workable sleeping arrangement for Gizmo. “We’re pets-in-our-bed people,” Andy explained. “If a pet wants to sleep in our bed, that’s where the pet sleeps. And at the time we had Gizmo, we also had our toy poodle and a cat, both of whom slept in our bed. But Gizmo didn’t see well and didn’t understand that he shouldn’t go stumbling around in our bed, because eventually he would get too close to our cat and the fur would fly.” The solution? Andy initially tried dividing our bed with a sheet. He strung a rope above the bed and down the middle, and then draped a sheet over it, so that Gizmo was on one side and our cat was on the other side. “It worked,” Andy said, “but we didn’t like sleeping in a divided bed. Then I built a bed for Gizmo on my side of the bed. It was low enough that he couldn’t climb out of it and into our bed, but it was high enough that I could easily reach him to pet him.”

Another memorable experience for Andy was serving as my photographer when we visited the Nebraska State Penitentiary to do a series of articles about the Second Chance Pups program. Andy said, “I’ll never forget walking through the prison yard to and from the kennels; it’s a completely different world. I’ll also never forget how strongly the inmates care for their dogs, and what skilled and patient trainers they are. Of all the photos I’ve taken in my life, I’m proudest of the photos I took of the Second Chance Pups program.” One of those photos even took on a life of its own. Someone took one of the photos that Andy had shared on Facebook and uploaded it to Imgur, where it was viewed by 1.5 million people and resulted in unexpected donations to the Second Chance Pups program that day.

Some of the moments the two men have experienced as volunteers give them cause to look back on and laugh. For example, Matt was once asked to help catch a cat that had escaped while a foster pet parent for The Cat House was doing an interview at a local TV news station. “The kitty had been loose for several hours,” Matt said, “and staff at the news station had no clue where she was. All they knew was she was in the studio somewhere.” A volunteer at The Cat House called Matt to ask him to help find and secure her. “I walked around the studio for ten minutes,” shared Matt, “and found her immediately. The look of shock on the staff’s faces was priceless.”

In another incident involving a cat, Andy shared his story of the door dasher from the first litter of kittens we fostered for The Cat House. While the kittens were with us, Andy prided himself on being quick enough to nab the door dasher whenever he tried to dart out of our spare room. Every time Andy would tease him: “I’m faster than you!” Flash forward: The kittens graduated to a room at The Cat House and Andy and I went to visit them. A family was with the boy kittens, so we occupied ourselves by visiting other cats. Later while Andy was taking a break on a bench in the hall, he heard the family prepare to leave. “The door opened,” Andy said, “and–whoosh–there went the door dasher! The hallway goes in a rectangle around a block of inner rooms. The door dasher went counter-clockwise, away from me, so I went clockwise. I got to the next corner over a split second before he did, and the instant I saw the black blur I put my hands down and he ran right into them. Then I lifted him to my face and said, ‘You’ll never be faster than me!’”

Then there are the life-changing moments. Matt and his wife Megan have fostered many kitties. Every time he hears that they’ve found a permanent home Matt is very proud of them, but fostering can also bring grief. “On a couple of occasions, we have had fosters that had terminal illnesses that gave them very little time to live,” Matt shared. “In these instances, we took in the cats as if they were ours and gave them the love they deserved. And when the time came for them to cross the rainbow bridge I stayed with them so that they weren’t alone.”

Both men have both grown in their volunteer abilities. Matt pointed to a dramatic increase in how much he can contribute to The Cat House, while Andy noted that his editing abilities (and maybe his photography skills) have improved.

The two men have also learned more about animals from caring for them. Matt praised his wife’s gift for knowing when animals are sick, and said that thanks to her he’s better able to “identify when an animal is in distress and in need of medical attention.” Andy expressed amazement at how “even young kittens can have distinct personalities” and said that “it’s fun watching their individualities emerge.”

Matt and Andy both offered encouragement to animal lovers who are not yet involved in animal welfare. Matt shared a quote that’s a favorite of his and his wife: “You haven’t lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” His advice to new animal welfare volunteers is to not view their contributions as work. “It should never be seen as a job but more as a fun and fulfilling activity.” Andy has some tongue-in-cheek advice for people who are married to animal welfare volunteers: “Support your spouse in his or her volunteer work if you’re too unmotivated to find volunteer work of your own. Your life will be richer for it.”

What do the wives of these men think about their husbands’ support?

Megan wrote, “I couldn’t ask for a better person who supports and contributes to my passion for animals and cats especially. A lot of people ask me if my husband likes cats too and I wish to emphasize how much Matt truly loves animals and most importantly cats. Some days I think he likes cats more than me, but I doubt it!”

As for me, I feel blessed every day that Andy encourages me to rescue cats, foster cats, buy stuff for cats, and train cats to do tricks, agility, and therapy. I might inspire him, but he also motivates and challenges me, and as such our lives are all the more enriched.

Adopting The “President” Dogs

A week ago today, I was giving Cabot, my precious old Shiba, all the love and comfort I could through his last day. Three weeks ago, I was trying to deal with the post-surgical loss of Ursula, my soul-mate Eskie. Except for the time after my mother’s death, this was the saddest time in my life. That’s why I had to get my mind off things by giving some love and good times to the HUA Eskies this week.

Every time I met Laurie at Hearts United for Animals (HUA) in 2014, I hugged her. It had been a tough year for her. She’d lost six dogs in eleven months through illness and old age. She was drained emotionally and financially. On Facebook, in the fall of that same year, Laurie called herself a “survivor.” In response, a friend encouraged her to rest and take care of herself—not only for her own sake, but also because “sometime, somewhere, there will be another special dog that will need you”.

Indeed, there was already a special dog that needed Laurie. Make that four special dogs. Known as the president dogs because they’d been named after four American presidents, they were a major reason that Laurie continued to volunteer at Hearts United for Animals throughout 2014 despite having sick and dying dogs at home. The president dogs were the surviving four brothers of an American Eskimo that Laurie had lost due to illness earlier that year. Laurie had spent six years getting to know the American Eskimo Dogs (“Eskies” for short), a medium-size Nordic breed known for its white coat, jet black points, and erect triangular ears. The brothers had come to love and trust her, and she wasn’t about to desert them. From November to December, without mentioning anything to friends for fear of failure, Laurie begin to act on a plan that she’d been formulating for many months:  the adoption of all four president dogs.

Early in November, Laurie shared on Facebook that she had a shy dog sitting on her lap. That dog was Roosevelt. He was the first of the dogs to benefit from what Laurie and her vet were referring to as “Eskie-Visit-A-Day.” At first, Laurie brought each dog to her home for a few hours. Then she brought them for overnight visits. She started with one dog at a time, then two at a time. Her goal was “to try to get them used to the house and give them some clue about not peeing inside.”

Roosevelt’s First Visit

The first to see Laurie’s home was Roosevelt. He was a wreck. He and his brothers were puppy mill survivors and had never been inside a house before. Although he panted nervously during his entire visit, he did eventually stop shaking, and he fell in love with Laurie’s big fenced yard.

The second to see Laurie’s home was Lincoln. He handled the visit much better than Roosevelt. He was alert and curious during the car ride, and made himself comfortable not only in the back yard but also on her couch and her bed. The first time Laurie took Lincoln outside to potty, he was afraid to come back inside, and Laurie had to carry him. After that he was able to come inside on his own.

Lincoln’s First Visit

The third to see Laurie’s home was Jackson. When he wasn’t following Laurie, or snuggling against her on the couch with his chin on her leg, he was running around the yard and sniffing every fence post that had been marked by his brothers.

The final brother to see Laurie’s home was Jefferson. Sadly, Laurie explains, Jackson was shortchanged on his first visit. Laurie wrote on Facebook: “I’ve been trying to get my roof done for weeks, and the roofers finally showed up this morning. This was Jefferson’s first day in a home in his nearly seven years of life, and the house was constantly being shaken by scary, deafening noises.” But Jefferson surprised Laurie with his bravery. While he did jump and shake in reaction to the loud noises, he was calm otherwise throughout the visit. Like his brothers, Jefferson enjoyed both the outside and inside of Laurie’s home. Whenever Laurie patted her couch, Jefferson hopped up and curled up tight against her. Laurie noted that of all the Eskies, Jefferson most loves physical contact with the few people he trusts. During his visit, he followed Laurie closely. When she ate, he lay next to her—not to beg for food, but simply for company.

I had the loveliest realization when I was visiting the Eskies at HUA today. Lincoln’s five and a half hours one-on-one with me at my house last week made a difference in his ability to enjoy love and human contact. He has always been content to greet me and get some loving and then spend most of my HUA visit a few feet away from me. Today he spent my whole visit to his pen lying on the couch next to me. It’s so beautiful what magic those five and a half hours last week accomplished.

Jackson’s First Visit

In the middle of November 2014, Laurie repeated her “Eskie-Visit-A-Day” experiment. Once again, she brought Roosevelt home first. While he remained too timid to come back inside on his own or to explore, he did enjoy being on Laurie’s lap both during the car ride and his visit. Lincoln was the second invited. He was able to came back inside on his own, spent some time in Laurie’s lap, and discovered the joys of sofa pillows. “He arranged one carefully, so he could lie with his paws and face on it. He’s always been an observer and a contemplative type, and he liked just lying there watching me.” Jackson was the third invited. During the ride to her home, Laurie says, he quit shaking and stared at her with the biggest and sweetest smile on his face. Once at her house, he was brave enough to explore the house, but also stuck to Laurie like glue. His favorite spot was the living room couches. When she sat, he would join her. “He lay between my legs with his head on my knee while I made a grocery list, and then we both took a little nap. He spent the last couple of hours curled up next to me while I petted him and read.” Jefferson was again the final dog to visit. Being the dominant brother, his first action was to mark every foot of the 300 feet of fencing. He also wanted to mark inside, but Laurie had the foresight to put a belly band on him, and once he realized that marking wasn’t an option he was content to spend time with Laurie. She put her reading pillow on the bed, and the two spent a few hours there together. Jefferson laid his head on Laurie’s leg and cuddled up against her side while she petted him, completed crossword puzzles, and napped.

Jefferson’s First Visit

All these updates Laurie had been sharing on Facebook with her friends. In response, more than one friend encouraged her to adopt the four brothers. While Laurie wasn’t ready yet to reveal that this was her hope, she did acknowledge the positives and negatives of such a decision. For example, if the dogs were to live with Laurie, her house would no longer feel “heartbreakingly empty”. Laurie could also guarantee that the Eskies would live happily ever after. However, there were still major obstacles to overcome, including a vet bill that had soared into the thousands during the past year. For the time being, the visits would have to be enough.

The next visits were routine, apart from the week before Christmas. One at a time, the four brothers got to spend the holiday season with Laurie. Throughout his visit, Roosevelt enjoyed watching Laurie put up Christmas decorations. Laurie’s Christmas tree was already up when Lincoln visited, and this caused a significant reaction. “He’s such a quiet little gentleman that his reaction to the Christmas tree was a hoot. He knew that this tall green thing HAD NOT BEEN THERE on his other two visits, and so he immediately hopped up on the love seat opposite the tree and didn’t take his eyes off it for at least twenty minutes. I could see his mind working: ‘Is it alive?’ ‘Does it bite?’ “Is it an alpha?’ After he finally determined that the tree wasn’t a threat to him, he relaxed on the loveseat and watched me make Christmas cards.” In contrast, other than once trying to pee on it, Jackson had no reaction to the Christmas tree. He simply lounged on the living room couch watching Laurie make Christmas cards. By the time Jefferson’s turn for a visit arrived, Laurie had completed her Christmas preparations; The two of them spent time cuddling and playing with dog toys. When the Laurie brought him back to HUA, Jefferson had a forlorn face. He even pulled away from Laurie and braced himself behind the steering wheel to make it hard for her to lift him out of her car and bring him in his kennel.

By the new year, with the “Eskie-Visit-A-Day” experiment clearly going so well, Laurie was finally ready to discuss the practicalities of their adoption with her friends. First, the dogs all had issues that she needed to deal with individually, and so she feared that taking them home all at once would result in a failed adoption. Second, she felt that because the dogs hadn’t been living together at Hearts United for Animals, she needed to get them used to one another if there was to be a chance that they could be one big happy family. After noting these concerns, Laurie announced that she’d soon start bringing the dogs home in paired visits.

To prepare for this step, Laurie brought Roosevelt to her home for an extended stay. She had a couple of reasons for this decision. Roosevelt was the one who had lived apart from the others at HUA, and this meant they’d probably forgotten he was their brother. In addition, Roosevelt was the smallest, and so in most need of time to get comfortable and feel as if Laurie’s house was his home.

The good news is that when I took Roosevelt to HUA today for a supervised visit with his brothers, John said that was the most confident he has ever seen Roosevelt! After watching them interact for a while, John said it was time to bring Jefferson home with Roosevelt, since Jefferson is the alpha; if Jefferson and Roosevelt can coexist peacefully, then there’s a good chance Lincoln and Jackson will follow his lead. If they can’t, then I’ll be devastated because that will mean I can’t take the big three. Please send lots of peaceful vibes to my house this week! What I’m wishing for may require a miracle.

Multiple miracles lay ahead. On January 28, 2015, Laurie reported on Facebook that Roosevelt and Jefferson had survived five days together at her house. The first night had been rough with Jefferson putting on a dominance display through humping and otherwise intimidating Roosevelt. After that, other than some growling, the dogs stayed calm. In fact, they began to hang out together. Laurie said that when she tried to get them interested in coming inside, “They both just lay outside looking at me as if to say, ‘No way, Mom. I’ve got my buddy with me and we’re having fun out here.’” When Laurie updated John (manager at Hearts United for Animals), he expressed the view that the dogs were almost at the point where Lincoln and Jackson could be added to the mix.

Just a few days later, a blizzard kept Laurie from driving back to Hearts United for Animals with Roosevelt and Jefferson. The storm turned out to be a blessing. You might remember that most of the dogs had been afraid to come back in the house on their own. On February 1, Laurie posted to Facebook: “I’m still shaking my head because I can hardly believe it’s true!” On this noteworthy day, Jefferson came up to the door as usual and, as Laurie carried him inside, she heard Roosevelt’s “wet little feet scurrying” past her.

Not long after that momentous weekend, for the first time Laurie brought all four dogs home at the same time. To her immense joy, the breakthroughs continued. There was the moment that Jackson decided to “refine his begging techniques” by putting his chin on Laurie’s leg during a meal and staring up her soulfully. And there was the moment Jefferson allowed Laurie to wipe rain off him and he began kissing Laurie’s hand; showing amazing vulnerability for a dog that had grown up unsocialized and fearful of people. Then there was the moment when the Eskies got into their first mischief. Laurie had neglected to put her flip-flops in the closet the night before. She heard some thumping in the living room and went to check on the brothers. “Roosevelt was sitting on the couch like an angel, but the other three were trying to work out how to share the two flip-flops, which they had carried from my room. When I came back from taking my tooth-marked flip-flops to my closet, Jefferson was consoling himself by chewing on the corner of a sofa pillow.” Over all, the dogs were soaking up the loving environment, causing Laurie to feel happier than she had been in months.

Some puppy mill survivors have had so little socialization and have learned so much fear of humans that they never do start giving doggy kisses, not even after years in a loving home. It’s been a rare thing during my six years of volunteering with the Eskies for them to give kisses. Mostly, they just smile and wag their tails to show affection. Now they’re gradually adjusting to life in a home, and seeking out petting from me.

On February 15, Laurie’s ambitious plan came to adopt the Eskies came to fruition: the dogs were finally hers. Two weeks later, she shared on Facebook that her house was beginning to feel like a home again. For years, her house had been one where, before Laurie could even open the door, one dog’s “alto would become a dramatic soprano” and another dog would join in with a scream. But when one dog after another that past year had died, the house had become deafeningly quiet. Then the Eskies came into her life. For a time not a lot changed, because the four brothers needed time to adjust. Then one day in late February, Laurie returned from errands to find a welcoming committee. “Four smiling faces, four wagging tails, four wiggling, prancing bodies surrounded me for some loving—to the sound of some squealing from Jackson, the drama king. It’s been a long wait.”

Anniversary_LauriesFourDogs

Fast forward two years. On February 15, 2017, Laurie and the Eskies celebrated their two-year anniversary together. When she brought the brothers home, she knew they were probably the most deeply traumatized of any dogs she had adopted. Indeed, the decision to adopt them turned out to be life-changing for Laurie in some very unexpected ways. Laurie must be careful to avoid changes in their environment or the dogs will get frightened. She regularly needs friends to call ahead, which allows her time to get the dogs inside, because they still won’t come inside if anyone else is in the house besides Laurie. And since adopting them, Laurie’s social life has been greatly limited, because she can’t leave the dogs alone for very long. Without her, they won’t eat. While Laurie acknowledges that some people may consider the dogs “ruined” and even wonder why she bothers, Laurie sees their lives as having value.

Laurie also recognizes that the Eskies have given her as much as she’s given them. After a year of loss in 2014, she had turned into “a walking shell with nothing but grief inside”. The Eskies gave her a purpose. Despite the challenges of her daily routine, Laurie can’t imagine her life without the Eskies. Thanks to them, Laurie has become more than the survivor she labeled herself in 2014. Fighting both Influenza B and severe pneumonia from the last week of December to the middle of February, Laurie had a reason to get up each day and to stay healthy thanks to the dogs. “My boys gave me back my energy for tackling life AND, eventually, my love of life.”

Surrounded by my four beautiful, furry darlings, how can I not feel happiness? Jefferson groans and rolls and snuggles until he’s right up against me at night–and follows me around all day. Roosevelt curls up by my pillow, oftentimes just standing and looking lovingly in my eyes for a while. Jackson never lets me feel lonely at mealtimes, sitting right by my chair communicating powerfully with his big eyes. And Lincoln, the cuteness champion, brings charm and laughter to each day by crossing his paws across his face and peeking at me from behind his paws. I am crazy-in-love with all four of them…. Thank you, my sweet boys, for years of joy!

September 22: Puppy Mill Awareness Day

puppymillawareness_banner

The goal behind Puppy Mill Awareness Day is to draw attention to the poor conditions found at many commercial breeding facilities: overcrowded kennels, inadequate supply of clean water and healthy food, and the lack of veterinarian care. On the Puppy Mill Awareness Day site, you can find a list of ways to help animals in this condition including:

  1. Educate family and friends by informing them that adoption is a better option than buying a pet from a store.
  2. Hold a fund-raiser to contribute towards the medical bills of puppy mill rescues.
  3. Donate regularly-needed pet supplies, such as blankets, towels, food, and treats, to groups such as Hearts United for Animals that specializes in rescuing puppy mills dogs.
  4. Get involved at a local shelter or rescue.

For more local information, read these two articles:

The Cat Training Series: Catching up with Rainy

RainyTraining rule number eight: Figure out the source.

Training rule number nine: Maintain a routine.

August was a chaotic month. As a result, Rainy and I got less training done. We took another trip to Hearts United for Animals, returned a couple of times to the local rose garden, and met that puppy again.

What’s most rewarding about our visits to Hearts United for Animals is that they’re always an adventure. The first Sunday of August, Andy and I packed food, water, and a litter box. Then off we drove with Rainy to Auburn. As soon as we entered the agility building, we heard shelter dogs barking in the next room. I immediately pulled out high-incentive treats. Rainy gobbled them up but remained vigilant. I didn’t push her to perform. Instead we strolled around the building and, as we encountered obstacles, I encouraged her to try them. She agreed to do the table, the tunnels, and the dog walk. When we figured out that she felt most comfortable in the tunnels, we used them to our advantage. I’d face her in the direction of a tunnel, direct her through an obstacle, and then allow her to retreat to the tunnel. After doing this a few times, Andy had a different idea. He carried her over to the next room and lifted her up so she could see the dogs through the window. After a minute, she seemed calmer, as if simply knowing the source of the noise was enough. She was now willing to tackle obstacles closest to the door, such as the A-frame, weaves, and teeter. Once she had run a few courses, we allowed her to explore, and she discovered spider egg sacs. Our trips are always an adventure!

Sometimes the lesson I learn from repeating an outing is all the things Rainy doesn’t like about a certain location. The rose garden is an example. It’s located next to a main street. Even when traffic on it is light, what traffic there is still whizzes past, and this puts Rainy on edge. While I do enjoy seeing the varieties of roses, they’re of no interest to Rainy. She sniffs the grass and no doubt enjoys the smells. She sits on my lap and soaks in the sun. But that’s it. To date, Rainy’s favorite places seem to be the indoor ones.

My in-laws have a toy poodle puppy. Andy and I first took Rainy to meet him in July. During that visit, we took precautions, and placed on Rainy on one side of a baby gate and Toby on the other. Everything went well! During our second visit, I kept Rainy in her carrier until after dinner but then leashed her and let her out. It only took only a few seconds before Toby barked and bounded right up to her face, ready to play. Rainy immediately hissed and swatted him. He backed away but didn’t flee. Instead he tried approaching her from behind. Again, Rainy hissed and swatted him. This time Toby’s demeanor changed. He grew quiet and his tail went still. While he didn’t flee, he opted to seek refuge with his owners. At our third visit, Toby barked and jumped, ready to play—from a safe distance.

When life gets busy, I can easily let routines slip. That happened in August. At first my plan was to just skip one day. Unfortunately, all too soon that one day becomes two or three days. Before I realized it, a week has passed. Thankfully, Rainy is forgiving. When I finally rolled out the stroller, she was eager as always to train.

My “Fishing Trip” with Nebraska’s Pet Shelters and Rescues

This past spring, two things in my life led me to email shelters and rescues across the state. First, I’d been training my youngest cat in agility but failing to generate interest with pet organizations. Because I knew that some shelters were doing agility with dogs, I considered approaching shelters about the idea of cat agility. Then, around the same time, I attended an Animal Welfare Summit led by Best Friends Animal Society, where the focus was on animal welfare groups networking with one another. At the end of the day, I found myself wanting to know about the condition of animal welfare in Nebraska.

And so, I emailed a list of basic questions to over forty of our state’s animal shelters and rescues. I asked them two types of questions: what do they want the public to know; what and how are they doing? In other words, I went on a fishing trip for animal welfare info. And, rather than keep my “fish” to myself, I decided to share the results here. This article won’t have a great deal of focus, but rather shares some raw information that I expect to lay the groundwork for future articles.

My utmost thanks to the five shelters and five rescues that took the time to respond to my somewhat random questions. Those shelters and rescues are as follows:

  • Blue River Pet Rescue, Seward, has “the overall goal of being able to provide care and shelter for homeless animals”. The rescue is run by Karen Winney and serves mostly dogs.
  • Capital Humane Society, Lincoln, “shelters animals, protects animals and teaches compassion and respect”. I spoke to Charleen Enger, Director of Volunteers and Education.
  • Coalition for Pet Protection, Lincoln, seeks to “reduce pet overpopulation and animal abuse in Nebraska by supporting the promotion of basic humane care and placement of animals, responsible pet ownership, prevention of animal cruelty and neglect, and public education. I spoke to Traci Cameron.
  • Dolly’s Legacy Animal Rescue, Lincoln, has the goal to “save orphaned and abandoned pets from overcrowded shelters and find them loving, forever homes”. Its emphasis is on pulling animals from high-kill shelters. The rescue is run by Kerri Kelly and serves dogs and cats.
  • Hearts United for Animals, Auburn, is a “national no-kill animal shelter, sanctuary and animal welfare organization”. The shelter serves dogs and cats with an emphasis on puppy mill dogs. The manager is John Adams.
  • Jeanette Hunt Blair Animal Shelter, Blair, has the goal of “promoting the humane treatment of companion animals, helping reduce the number of injured and euthanized animals, minimizing the feral cat population through sterilization, and increasing pet adoption”. The manager is Krystal Hilscher.
  • Muddy Paws, Omaha, “rescues, rehabilitates, and rehomes homeless animals”. It also runs a food pantry, offers free or discounted training services, and helps pet owners pay for emergency veterinarian vet care. The rescue is run by Terri Larson. I spoke to her and a volunteer, Heather Heald.
  • Paws and Claws Adoption Center, Columbus, has the goal to “promote education for the humane treatment, care, and adoption of animals; and to obtain joint efforts from all to aid and protect animals”. The manager is Jan Berry.
  • Paws Up of Nebraska, Wymore, is “committed to providing resources and education regarding the ever-growing pet population problem”. The rescue serves dogs. I spoke to Traci Cooney.
  • Town and Country Humane Society, Papillon, is a non-profit, no-kill shelter “dedicated to providing a safe and caring living facility for pets in need until a loving home can be found, as well as helpful information for those wishing to re-home or adopt an animal. The director of operations is Craig DenHerder.

What are the most common reasons an animal is relinquished to you?

In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) and published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS), researchers went into 12 selected animal shelters in the United States for one year to learn why people relinquish their pets. Five of the top reasons fall under the category of “life changes” and were also cited by the shelters and rescues I contacted in Nebraska.

  • moving
  • landlord doesn’t allow pet
  • too many pets
  • not enough time
  • owner having personal problems
  • cost of pet maintenance
  • pet not housebroken

The survey didn’t elaborate on the nature of the personal problems, but the animal welfare organizations I contacted for this article most often pointed to declining health or death. There’s a growing call for pet owners to have back-up plans and even pet trust funds, but also for nursing homes and hospitals to allow pets.

Muddy Paws cited one reason for relinquishing pets that wasn’t mentioned by the study: potty training; it takes a lot of work and therefore proves too much for some people to handle. “If you aren’t willing to put in the effort, then don’t get a puppy! Or if you know that you don’t want to deal with potty training anymore, the easiest solution is to adopt an older dog that’s already house trained.” Another reason for relinquishment mentioned by the Coalition for Pet Protection was allergies.

In addition to relinquishment on purpose, there’s relinquishment by unknown causes. In a word: strays. Capital Humane Society explained writing that “most arrive as lost animals brought in by Animal Control, other law enforcement, and Good Samaritans. Many lost dogs are reclaimed by their owners; most cats are not.”  Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue noted that they primarily take animals from rural shelters where there are no adoption programs; rescue is the only way for an animal to make it out alive. The group said that most animals at these facilities are unclaimed strays.

People go into pet ownership with unrealistic expectations, and when reality hits they give up and the pets get relinquished. People need to have a list of do and do-not wants when searching for a pet. Not that all people would adhere to the list, but I believe the majority would and that would significantly decrease our numbers of homeless animals.—Muddy Paws

What are the most frequently asked questions from potential adopters?

The answers to this question can be separated into two parts, one being before an adoption and the other being after an adoption.

BEFORE

  • Where do you get your animals from?
  • How does the animal get along with other animals and with children?
  • What are some tips for introducing an animal to other family members—including pets?
  • Is the animal housebroken?
  • Does the animal shed?
  • How long before an animal can be adopted?
  • When can I meet with fill out adoption paperwork?

AFTER

  • How do I keep an animal from marking in the house?
  • What’s the difference between marking and using the bathroom in the house?
  • How do I potty train my dog?
  • Why is my pet not eating?
  • My pet is being naughty? How do I change its behavior?
  • Where can I get financial support?

Based on these frequent questions, Muddy Paws feels strongly that adopters should spend more time researching species and breeds before adopting. For example, it’s important to know what breeds tend to have the adopter’s preferred temperament and energy level. “Don’t just fall in love with the pretty face or the pet’s story. Make sure the dog is the right fit for your family and your family is the right fit for the dog.”

Just as some people will rush the decision-making process when choosing a pet, Paws Up notes that some people think the adoption process can be rushed That doesn’t happen due to the paperwork involved, but also because any health of behavior issues will want to be handled prior to an adoption.

What are the best ways the public can help you?

The two greatest needs are volunteers and donations. Volunteers might take the form of shelter workers, foster caregivers, handypersons, fundraisers, grant writers, and educators. Donations might take the form of money or wish list items.

The Capital Humane Society welcomes public assistance in two more ways:

  • Make items for the animals in its adoption program, such as toys or beds. See directions at Enrichment Items.
  • Hold fundraisers to support its programs. “For example, a local business recently let us know we were chosen for their Jeans Day event. Their employees get to wear jeans in exchange for a donation to Capital Humane Society.”

Muddy Paws sent me an extensive list of all the ways it utilizes volunteers:

  • web design volunteer
  • photographer for our dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds, etc.
  • supply and food team
  • transport team called Muddy Rides
  • event-planning team
  • adoption coordinator
  • volunteer coordinator

The Coalition for Pet Protection similarly had a lengthy list of volunteer needs:

  • advertising and marketing
  • newsletter design
  • photography and photo archiving
  • recording secretary
  • designing images for its Cafe Press store
  • seamstress for pet bandannas
  • sitting at an event table
  • assisting with pet food pantry deliveries

All the person wanting to get involved just needs to say is, “I want to help in some way and here are my talents and could you do something with that?” The good ones are going to help a person find where they fit. A rescue is not going to turn away help!—Muddy Paws

What are the best ways the public can help homeless animals?

Number one answer? Spay and neuter! (This includes the establishment of trap-neuter-release programs for cats.) After that, answers included: adopt; microchip and train their pets; educate the public; volunteer; and give a lifetime commitment to their pets.

Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue called for bringing more awareness to the public of our pet crisis and how it impacts shelters. Across Nebraska, more and more animal shelters are responding to the call to become no-kill. Unfortunately, many are still too limited in resources to handle the numbers of animals brought daily to their shelters. Cats are at biggest risk; their live-release rate is substantially lower than dogs. “If people realized that the pets they surrender to shelters are killed, perhaps they’d be more committed to keeping them.”

Muddy Paws emphasized that one of the best ways to help the homeless animal population is to realize that pets are a LIFETIME commitment: “Not just until I get married or have children.” What if a pet is misbehaving? Muddy Paws advises pet owners to get help! If you can afford it, you can take your pet to “a positive reinforcement trainer to work through any issues you might be having.”

If you can’t afford a trainer, there are three local organizations that offer free advice online and over the phone: Capital Humane Society, Coalition for Pet Protection, and Nebraska Humane Society. Over the months ahead, LAA Pet Talk will carry articles specifically addressing pet owner concerns according to Nebraska’s animal welfare organizations. What if a pet has health issues? Lancaster County (Nebraska) Ask a Vet- Veterinary Advice Forum is a free online service; LAA Pet Talk will carry an interview with one of its veterinarians next week.

What kind of support do you provide to fosterers and/or pet owners?

The most typical forms of support are provided through handouts given to new pet adopters, and phone calls and emails. Some of the other types of support are:

  • Encourage visits to ensure the animal will be a good fit.
  • Place dogs as a “Foster to Adopt” for the first two weeks gives both the family and pet a time to adjust. For Blue River Rescue, this policy means that if after this allotted time the family decides the adoption isn’t going to work, the rescue will take the animal back and refund the adoption fee.
  • Host a Facebook group specifically for fosters.
  • Dedicate a newsletter to new owners.
  • Offer free training consultations to help the family and the new pet adjust to each other.
  • Provide obedience and agility classes for dogs.
  • Offer emergency boarding of dogs.

For those shelters and rescues that offer handouts, the information might cover introductions of a pet to its new home and to other family members, and typical behavioral issues.

For those organizations that have a foster coordinator, that person typically conducts home visits for foster care volunteers to explain the program and provides support and information as needed. For example, new fosterers are often trained how to give medication.

The Capital Humane Society has an animal behaviorist on staff. Its behaviorist noted that some behaviors are misunderstood and that people may take the wrong approach when working to solve them. For example, what is thought to be a house-training problem may be fear or excitement-based urination. The behaviorist will help adopters understand their new pets so that they don’t waste time or even cause harm treating the wrong problem.

The Coalition for Pet Protection provides adoption support, a food assistance program, and veterinarian emergency care. Although the organization currently does not offer foster services, it will help pet owners locate a new home for their pet. Support includes making phone calls, taking pictures, performing home visits, and social media promotions. In 2015, the coalition helped 250 families and 400 pets by giving food and supplies to animals in need.

We provide any support they need! It’s not up to what we do or don’t want to do; we do what’s needed!—Paws Up of Nebraska

What is your live release rate?

The norm for animal shelters is that they are an open admissions facility. This means they never refuse animals or have waiting lists. Every animal that arrives at their door receives shelter, food, and care. Unfortunately, it also means that when the shelter is full, animals are euthanized to make room.

I have no idea what the true picture of shelters across the state is, given that I heard from a fourth of them. Still, I was pleased to hear two were 100% no kill, one was “low no-kill,” and two were working towards the goal of a 90% release rate goal. Where the numbers were most disheartening were for the cats. The two shelters that had achieved a 90% release rate for dogs were nowhere near this rate for cats.

What programs do you have in place for cats?

The types of programs for cats in shelters varied from the simple to the complex. One shelter offered various rooms based on cat needs: quarantine, main, boarding, senior. Another had volunteers who came to play with the cats to socialize them and get them out of their cages. Here in Lincoln, the Capital Humane Society offers the following:

  • Spay/Neuter: In 2016, most of the cats that arrived at CHS were not altered. Nearly 1,400 were spayed or neutered before they were placed in the adoption program. The Low-Cost Feline Spay/Neuter Program is for cats owned by people who fall under federal poverty guidelines. The program provides low-income families the opportunity to have their cats sterilized so their pets are not adding to the overpopulation problem. CHS has also provided Trap-Neuter-Release assistance to Lancaster County farmers.
  • Foster Pet Parents: In 2016, 446 felines benefited from a stay with a foster family, and more than 1,650 cats were adopted from the Capital Humane Society.
  • Working Cats: This program started in April 2016, and to date 25 cats have been placed. It’s an alternate placement program for cats unsuitable for the traditional adoption program due to behavior issues or temperament.
  • Humane Education: Each year, CHS provide tours and presentations to hundreds of children. Topics discussed include responsible pet care and the role of the Humane Society. CHS uses educational books such as The True or False Book of Cats. “By teaching children facts about cats, they can be more informed and respectful caretakers of their own pets.”

While it’s good that several shelters have cat programs, one shelter’s response shows that there’s room for improvement: “For cats, we have no programs.”

Society needs to put a higher value on cats. There are some out there who hurt and kill cats because they consider them a nuisance. There are some who hurt them simply because they don’t value life. Some people let their cats wander outside. These people need to be educated about the hazards of being an outside cat: the threat of other animals, the elements, illness, lack of nutritious food, and the threat of humans. —Coalition for Pet Protection

What do you think needs to be done for a community to become no-kill?

The Best Friends Animal Society, the largest no-kill sanctuary in the country, has the goal of all fifty states reaching no-kill by 2025. When I asked rescues how a community can become no-kill, the number one suggestion was education: people need to know that shelters are overburdened and don’t have the room to keep all animals, and that the result is euthanasia. People also need to know the alternatives to surrendering their pet.

A second suggestion was low-cost spay/neuter services. While Lancaster County offers a few choices, the organizations offering them typically have waiting lists due to the need for more resources. These organizations may or may not work offer Trap-Neuter-Release programs. Across the state, there are minimal options.

Hearts United for Animals recommended stricter laws for owning pets and penalties for mistreating or abandoning them. As example of the importance of spaying and neutering, Hearts United for Animals said it should be a requirement for all except those licensed to breed.

Muddy Paws offered a detailed plan that, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, includes the following:

  • Help people whose pets have behavior problems. This should reduce the number of pets being relinquished.
  • Provide behavioral and medical assessment training for shelter workers. These should reduce the number of animals put down that don’t need to be.
  • Partner with rescues which take animals into foster care when the shelter becomes full or when animals need extra training or time to recover from a veterinary procedure.

For a community to become no-kill, education, financial backing, and a group of people of similar mind who shout loud enough for a long enough time is needed.—Muddy Paws

Conclusion

I began this article by saying it would lay the groundwork for future articles. One thing that stood out to me in my research is how many dedicated animal welfare organizations we have in Nebraska, but how all of them could use more support. Another thing I realized is that I don’t know how much cooperation and sharing exists between these organizations. I’ve already been informed of some of their educational needs, and so plan to address those in upcoming articles. I’d also like to continue to build my own connections with the state’s animal welfare groups, and to explore what volunteer needs they have, learn about the statewide feral cat situation, and get a better idea of rural Nebraska’s attitude towards animal welfare. With what goal in mind? To improve dialog among Nebraska’s animal welfare groups.

The Cat Training Series: Rainy Returns to Hearts United for Animals!

It was a perfect agility outing. On June 4, Andy and I made our second drive to Hearts United for Animals to train Rainy on the shelter’s agility equipment. Other than facing the humidity of a hot spring day, everything went well.

In contrast, when we first visited back in early May, pretty much everything had gone wrong. Rainy is a curious cat, but she still gets nervous around new people and places. On our first visit, she encountered sensory overload: We visited on a stormy day despite knowing that noise frightens Rainy; we brought her into the agility room normally used for dogs; we invited her into it while a dog and three people were still in the room; and we encouraged visitors to come by and watch her. There was no way she could feel comfortable or concentrate while all that was going on. To make matters worse, I made the mistake of bringing low-incentive treats (ordinary treats she received every day) instead of high-incentive treats (such as cheese or meat)”. Rainy therefore had no reason not to simply retreat instead of choosing to explore. And finally, although cats can go without water and litter box for several hours, I realized that bringing these might have added to her comfort. That first day was quite the learning experience!

On June 4, we were so much better prepared. We brought water, litter box, and goat cheese. We visited on a day when clear skies ruled. We ensured there were no strangers or dogs in the agility room. Rainy showed her appreciation. She didn’t try to retreat to the nearest wall or tunnel, but instead rolled around on the floor to leave her scent. Positive start!

Andy and I then allowed Rainy time to get her bearings. With Rainy in a harness and on a leash, I encouraged her to sniff tunnels, weaves, and other obstacles. When Rainy ducked into a tube and exited on the other side, I immediately gave her goat cheese. Even if she might not have been trying to do agility, I was going to reward Rainy for being inquisitive rather than afraid.

Then, like a mother bird pushing her young to fly, I pushed Rainy to try some of the contacts. I carried her to her favorite obstacle—the dog walk—positioned her at one end, and stuck a container of cheese in front of her. As soon as she moved forward to sniff the cheese, I began walking along the dog walk while holding the cheese in front of her. Happily, Rainy followed. All the way to the end!

From there, I led Rainy through a series of other obstacles. We tried the table and a jump. I got her to do the tube again by throwing cheese through it to the other side. By now, the dog walk was nothing, and so getting her to “Walk It” again was not a problem.

After doing these obstacles a few times, I once again pushed Rainy to new heights. I brought her to one of her least favorite obstacles—the A Frame—positioned her at the start, and stuck a container of cheese in front of her. Except I didn’t simply lure her by holding cheese in front of her. Instead I sprinkled cheese at the start, on the up side, on the down side, and at the end. After she successfully completed it, I brought her to another of her least favorite obstacles–the tunnel, and positioned her at the start. Here, I got her started by going in a few paces with her. All the while, Andy stood on the other end and called to her. As soon as her ears perked at his voice, unlike our previous visit, I stopped and let her finish on her own.

Once Rainy had attempted all obstacles except the weaves, Andy advised: “Let’s end on a positive note.” We’d been at it for less than 30 minutes, but that was enough for her second time. To wrap up, I ran Rainy through a mini-course. When she refused the A-Frame and tunnel, I didn’t push her but simply let her proceed to the jumps. At the grand finale, I rewarded her with plenty of goat cheese, praise, and caresses. We loaded everything into the car and began our one-hour drive back home where Rainy could look forward to a well-deserved nap with her sisters.

The Cat Training Series: Rainy Visits Hearts United for Animals

Rainy is training to become an agility cat! Ever since Andy and I adopted her in the fall of 2015, she’s been exposed to agility in our house, and shown herself a natural at it. Of course, it is one thing train your cat in your own home where she feels safe; it’s an entirely different thing to train your cat in an alien environment. But this is what Rainy did this past Sunday. The experience increased my belief that Rainy enjoys a life of adventure, and it gave me insights our next steps.

Huge thanks goes to Hearts United for Animals, the no-kill shelter we visited last Sunday. Not only did Carol Wheeler respond enthusiastically to my request to let Rainy use their equipment, but she and others showed up with cameras. Big appreciation also goes to my husband, Andy, who provided transportation and shot video, and to Kathy Z, who is Rainy’s godmother and co-trainer. Now on with Rainy’s story!

As soon as Rainy stepped out of her crate into the indoor agility building, she immediately turned around and tried to retreat into her carrier. I closed the carrier door, and encouraged her to instead walk with by my side on leash. She instead plastered herself to me. In the past, I’ve taken Rainy to visit my-laws and for stroller rides. Why such an adverse reaction now? Many reasons stand out. The most obvious problem was that we were in a scary new place. There was also a couple walking around with a dog, rain and wind pounding on the roof, shelter dogs barking in the adjoining room, and strangers taking photos.
Nothing we did could calm Rainy’s nerves. She refused cat treats and even cheese. She ignored the friendly outstretched hands of strangers. And when she could, she hid deep inside an agility tunnel. When I carried her to an obstacle, she dug her claws into me. When I placed her onto an obstacle, she scampered down as quickly as possible.

What eventually helped calm her? When the couple left with their dog, Rainy’s panic finally somewhat diminished. It also helped that the weather quietened, and so did the dogs. That just left Rainy’s apprehension about being in a new place, and her paranoia about being watched by strangers. I walked her on leash around the cavernous room to let her explore the sights and smells. That helped, but the strangers still made her nervous.

I allowed Rainy to dictate where we’d explore, but at times also encouraged her to try some of the agility obstacles. Her favorite was the cat walk. She trotted back and forth over it a few times. I also got her to agree to try the teeter-totter. She was startled when the raised end hit the floor with a thud, but she shook off her fear and agreeably leaped over a few jumps. To my surprise, she then bounded up the A-Frame. She also climbed onto the table and through a tube. Pretty good for her first time here!

At this point Rainy decided she had enough new adventures for one day. She plunked herself down and refused to do anything until I opened her crate. Immediately, Rainy climbed inside and curled up for a nap. Since then she’s enjoyed more agility at home, and her owners have done some thinking about what training steps are next.

The most obvious next step is that Rainy needs exposure to lots of new situations. At heart, Rainy is a risk-taker. As a homeless kitten, she’d walked up to Kathy and meowed for rescue, even though Kathy had dogs with her. Since becoming ours, Rainy has shown little fear of anything except loud noises. She doesn’t even mind the vacuum cleaner. Rainy also gets into absolutely everything. She knocks things over and likes to eat our plants. She’s eager to welcome guests into our home, and she goes with us to visit Andy’s parent. But to become an agility cat, she’ll need to be exposed to LOTS of new people, places, and events, and in the coming weeks it will be my job to help her become less nervous. Stay tuned, as I share those adventures in the weeks to come!

 

What to do About Puppy Mills

As part of reading A Rare Breed of Love by Jana Kohl, a book which I featured this week, I researched into puppy mills. A basic dictionary definition would describe puppy mills as “a commercial farming operation in which dogs are raised in large numbers.” Animal welfare organizations such as Prisoners of Greed would emphasize that puppy mills are distinguished by their inhumane conditions and the constant breeding of dogs solely for profit.

Puppy Mills Wikipedia Commons

Puppy Mills
Wikipedia Commons

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)elaborates on the latter two points. Puppy mill dogs face inhumane conditions, being kept in small wire cages for their entire lives. They do not receive adequate veterinary care, food, or water. Kohl notes these dogs often develop a host of crippling diseases and illnesses, along with heartworm, ticks, and broken limbs. Her own puppy mill survivor lacked vocal cords, due to their being cut so that the breeder wouldn’t need to listen to her bark. Nor do puppy mill dogs receive basic grooming. Kohl talks about how in puppy mills, cages are stacked upon one another, the urine and feces dripping onto one another. Is it any wonder the dogs are covered with matted, filthy hair? Nor do puppy mills dogs receive exercise, treats, or toys. Kohl shares how in 2007, there was an effort in Pennsylvania to require dogs be given twenty minutes a day outside of their cage for exercise. Unbelievably, the proposal met with resistance.

Puppy mills dogs are bred for profit. For that reason,  puppy mill owners breed their female dogs at every opportunity with little to no recovery time between litters. One article included in A Rare Breed of Love provided the statistic that there are over 150,000 breeding dogs in puppy mills and that these dogs produce two to four million puppies each year. When breeding dogs are physically no longer able to reproduce, they are often killed. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) emphasizes how the parents of the puppies who are sold are unlikely to make it out of the mill alive. Nor will any of their puppies who are born with overt physical problems that make them unsalable.

As part of my research, I also talked to a representative at a local no-kill shelter, who has been involved in trying to shut down puppy mills. Since 1996, one main mission of Hearts United for Animals has been the rescue and rehabilitation of puppy mill dogs. The organization has rescued over 5,000 dogs from puppy mills.

ALLISON: Why did you get involved with trying to close down puppy mills?

LORI: I got involved about 12 years ago when I adopted my first puppy mill dog from Hearts United for Animals. She was obviously terrified of humans and had been abused. I decided that was unacceptable.

ALLISON: What are some some of your experiences in visiting puppy mills?

LORI: Generally the puppy millers do not let you in, they insist on meeting at a gas station or some remote location. The ones I have been to have been atrocious. The dogs are always in small cages, multiple dogs to a cage, often quite filthy. The puppy millers pick up the dogs and swing them in the air by the scruff of their neck or only a front or back leg. Sometimes they scoop them up with a shovel because the dogs will fight them because they think they are about to be handled roughly. They know that from experience.

ALLISON: What are some of your experiences in rescuing dogs?

LORI: The puppy mill auctions are awful. There are so many puppy millers in one place. Watching dogs thrown six at a time on an auction table in either heat or freezing cold and be sold off to other puppy millers is just the worst. They brag that they are bred or heavy bred and that people can double their money overnight. They talk about how they may have no jaw but “that’s not where she breeds.” Dogs collapse from heat exhaustion on the tables. Moms with new born puppies are handed off to the highest bidder. The dogs all look terrified, as they should be.

ALLISON: What has been one high? One low?

LORI: A high recently was being able to get several dogs out of a puppy mill that was going out of business and having an auction. We took the ones who had prior c-sections to save them from future lives of surgery after surgery. Getting them so they weren’t sold into slavery yet again and could lead happy lives was great.

A low would be recently rescuing dogs from a puppy mill that the state refuses to shut down. The dogs were in hideous condition. We saw two broken jaws, dogs who are heartworm positive, had hookworms, giardia, severe heart problems, couldn’t eat because mouth and teeth infections were so bad, one turning blue from lack of oxygen from pneumonia. Knowing that it has been going on for years and continues to go on there is almost too much to bear.

ALLISON: How can others support the cause of shutting down puppy mills?

LORI: They can donate to organizations like Hearts United for Animals that help rescue puppy mill dogs and fight puppy mills and also let their legislators know it is a concern. Most importantly they should never buy a puppy from a pet store and should spread the word to their friends that buying pups from pet stores keeps this cruel industry in business.

ALLISON: How would you explain puppy mills to young people?

LORI: I would say that dogs are kept sometimes hundreds at a time in small cages and are used only to breed puppies so those puppies can be sold to pet stores who sell them to the public. I would tell them that they don’t get good food or medical care and the people who do it only care about the money they get from the sale of the puppies. I have spoken with 7th and 8th graders and they seem to understand it well.

Pet Shop Puppies, a non-profit organization based in Missouri, calls the pet industry is a multi-billion dollar one that depends on the mass production of puppies for America’s pet stores. It encourages anyone who has purchased a puppy from a pet store to request your free “puppy report.”

It also provides a history of puppy mills. Briefly, in 1966, Congress passed the federal Animal Welfare Act, after public outrage at a growing business of stealing dogs and selling them for research. The original Act only regulated animals being sold to research, but as the media began to focus on the way dogs were treated in wholesale kennels and the way puppies were shipped from coast to coast, the public again asked Congress to address the situation. The 1970 amendments to the Act began the licensing and inspection process of anyone wholesaling puppies. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is now responsible for ensuring that the puppies sold to consumers come from a healthy environment where the adult dogs are housed and cared for in a kennel that meets “minimum standards.”

The problem is what constitutes minimum standards. The videos in the below links are disturbing, but you owe it to all animals to educate yourself about puppy mills. And then to lend your support to the fight against puppy mills.

10 Lessons I Learned About Volunteering

I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been involved in volunteer work. Yet in 2008, after I got married and moved to Lincoln to be with my husband, I found myself struggling to figure out how to fit into the volunteer world. This struggle led me on journey of self-discovery as a volunteer.

huskercats_logoWhen I started to research local non-profit organizations, I hit unexpected roadblocks. Some groups, because of the expertise needed for their volunteer roles, demanded a lot of training hours. Being just three years out of graduate school, and in a job where my contract renewal depended on X amount of hours of employee development training, I wasn’t ready to put myself back into a classroom environment. There were groups I could start with almost immediately, but they still required a year-long commitment of a fixed number of hours per week. Being relatively new to my teaching profession, I didn’t feel capable of committing to a second rigorous schedule. Finally, there were groups that didn’t require a lot of training or a big time commitment, yet presented the biggest roadblock of all: they wanted me to talk to strangers. Being an introvert, I felt this was a deal breaker. And so for the next few years I had no outlet for my desire to serve my community until I discovered my niche with Husker Cats and Lincoln Animal Ambassadors.

cropped-laa1024.png

While I love working with these two groups, this article isn’t about them. Rather, it’s about what others have taught me about being a volunteer. You see, several months ago, I decided to try and make the volunteering process easier for others who might like me end up wondering if they actually have anything besides money to offer. And so I talked to animal welfare volunteers about how they got started, what individual skills they brought to the table, and their advice for aspiring volunteers. Over the past six months, LAA Pet Talk has run numerous profiles of volunteers. While we’ll continue to run ones in the future, this article collects what I’ve learned into one place.

  1. Volunteers are essential.

Despite the time it might take to find an organization where you best fit, you shouldn’t give up. As various members of LAA told me, their programs depend on volunteers to survive. Donna Kavanaugh stressed that LAA wouldn’t be able to grow without volunteers. “The more volunteers we have, the more we can do.  There’s never a shortage of things to do.” And, as Mary Douglas pointed out, “We’re all in this together.” Or, in other words, it takes a village to accomplish the goals of volunteer groups.

  1. Start with a need.

When I began to volunteer with Husker Cats, I felt that writing educational articles would be the best way to help. When that didn’t pan out, I considered quitting the group. Yet I felt intrigued enough by feral cat colonies that I took a stab at being a caretaker. Because I was open to filling that need, I discovered the great joy of having cats show up at the feeders because of their dependence on me for food and water. I also had the great privilege of opening up our home to a feral cat and seeing her learn to adapt to indoor life and to the companionship of people.

One of the first volunteers I interviewed, Mindy Peck of The Cat House, recommended for prospective volunteers to just get started. “There is always some chore that needs to get completed.” And one of the last volunteers I interviewed, Ron Stow of LAA, responded tongue-in-cheek to my questions with the comment: “What qualifies me for throwing 50-pound bags of food around?  Well, I went to the gym in my younger days.  I’ve been an avionics mechanic in the Air Force and a mechanic at home.  I’m really just trying to fill in where there seemed to be a need.” Both Mindy and Ron are happy with the niches they’ve filled. As for me, I don’t even want to imagine what my life would’ve been like if I’d refused to simply “start with a need”.

  1. Find your passion.

The beauty about starting with a need is that you might end up igniting a new passion or rekindling an old passion. Through Husker Cats, I found a love for feral cats, which in turn reinforced my love of all cats. Kim Ostermann of Second Chance Pups emphasized, “Get involved. Dig deep and find out what inspires you. What makes you motivated to volunteer? You have to do it without expecting anything back. You have to be motivated enough to do this even though you’re not getting any recognition.” Husker Cats is relatively quiet about what it does, but boasts many dedicated cat lovers.

  1. There’s room to use your strength.

In talking with me about the ways that Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue can use volunteers, Holly Harpster said: “We do have volunteers with special skills. One takes care of our website and will be training a couple of us how to also do that part. Others are skilled in photography and take pictures of our dogs and are able to bring out some of their personalities in the photographs. Some have baked home-made dog cookies to give away or sell at events. Others find a super deal on something dog related and ask us if we want to buy the item(s) and resell them at an event.”

Years ago, when I lived in Beatrice, I used to help out at Hearts United for Animals. Andy and I spent the occasional Saturday helping to socialize the dogs and the cats. As we became more comfortable, we also sometimes groomed them and even took dogs out to the play areas. Then one year, Hearts United for Animals decided to develop an educational curriculum, and I was asked to create plays to package with their lessons. As a side note, those plays are what alerted Mary Douglas of LAA to my creative talent, which eventually led to my becoming their blogger.

  1. Develop who you are.

Once you find your place in the volunteer world, the next step is to develop your identity. As with any job, if you find that there’s no room to grow, maybe that’s a sign that you need to keep looking for another group. In contrast, everyone I talked with referred to ways that they’re using the skills they brought to the group and developing new ones. One of the greatest delights for me in being part of LAA is how much freedom they’ve given me with the blog and consequently how much I’ve been able to grow as a writer. In addition, I’ve begun taking on additional duties that include ones I used to think I couldn’t handle as an introvert.

The main thing is, said Dina Barta of Dog DB, to not compare yourself to others. “Let who you are develop. Do not try to be someone else. Do not copy a style that is uncomfortable for you.” Jodie Lee of The Cat House also encouraged, “keep creating and exploring new ways to create.” Their advice makes me think of my interview with Tina Lassley, of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue, who came up with the fund-raising idea of offering pedicures to dogs. She used a skill she had as a pet owner and re-imagined it as a way to make money. As Holly Harpster of Nebraska No Kill Canine Rescue concluded when talking to me about volunteers, “It’s wonderful that people are always thinking about how to help these dogs and you just never know what they will come up with!”

  1. Helping animals is a rewarding experience.

This one is almost a no-brainer, but I can’t ignore it because animal welfare workers expressed this to me time and time again. One young volunteer shared, “Other people should help pets because they are so much fun to be with and they are such good friends.” Tina Lassley of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue aptly noted, “You play an integral role in the life of a dog. You save a life!”

  1. Volunteering is a way to give back.

Lucy_WindowAnother reason for volunteering is that it’s a way to give back. In the words of Ron Stow, “At some point, someone has helped you out.  Help others!” Jenna Rifer further explained that animals give and teach us a lot and so she wants to give back to them. As for me, although I’ve been helped animals on and off my entire life, my first cat is the reason for now dedicating so many hours to animal welfare. Lucy loved me before I even knew that cats could show affection, and giving back is a way to honor her eight years with me.

  1. Volunteering is about helping a cause.

While your volunteer work will benefit you, it’s essential to remember that you’re helping for the good of the organization and its causes. As Melissa Ripley of Second Chance Pups pointed out, you’re not in it “for the glory or the credit. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the focus of the program! It isn’t about YOU, it’s about your program and about helping!” One of the youngest volunteers I talked with expressed this sentiment so wonderfully when he said, “We’re able to put the Big Dogs Huge Paws name out so people will know what and who we are so that they can hopefully adopt a big dog from us.”

  1. Know your limits.

All of this is well and good, but you also need to set boundaries. Otherwise, you might burn out. Tina Lassley of Dolly’s Animal Legacy Rescue will sometimes lessen or diversify her commitments. Kim Ostermann of Second Chance Pups suggested, “Focus on the positive. You’re there to make a difference and to make a better quality of life.”

  1. Volunteering will change you. Forever.

Volunteer_HandsAs I said at the start, I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been involved in volunteer work. Every time I’ve volunteered with an organization, I’ve felt that it was (in the words of Jeannie Imler of LAA) ‘a win-win for everyone! My most recent ventures might turn out like that of Kim Ostermann described her work with Second Chance Pups, “It was the last thing I was looking for, but here I am eleven years later. I love what I do.” Volunteering with Husker Cats and with Lincoln Animal Ambassadors wasn’t on my radar, but they’ve given meaning to my life and helped me feel part of Lincoln.