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feral cat blog pictureYou see them lingering near trash, running from humans or cars, and gathering for warmth in the winter: the feral cats. But what is a feral cat? Are they truly wild? There are many definitions, but I think the domestication amount of an animal is on a scale. Truly feral cats are free-living and have little to no dependence on humans. They will avoid humans because they see them as a threat. Street or community cats will have a little dependence on humans, usually living near them for shelter, and eating food that has been set out. They avoid human contact and cannot be handled easily. A stray or abandoned cat was once in a home with humans, but has been lost or abandoned. They are mostly dependant on humans for survival as they are not used to living in the wild. They may or may not be friendly to people. On any spectrum (feral, street or stray), these felines present an issue for many communities. Groups that are mating can be excessively noisy, the hunting can disturb other animal populations (like rabbits and birds), and they can be dangerous to the humans living nearby. Cat feces and diseases carried by felines can cause great illness in people, and a simple bite or scratch may require weeks of antibiotics. The feral cat issue spans time, socioeconomic status, countries and culture. Those of us who live in urban or suburban areas often see and are well aware of these cats, but they are present in rural areas as well. So what is the best solution to help keep communities and cats both happy and healthy?

Many years ago, before the humane treatment of animals was a common value, people would poison, drown, shoot, or otherwise kill these feral cats. While this is still done by some, is not an acceptable solution. Euthanasia has also been used to reduce feral cat populations, but should only be considered if the animal has debilitating injuries or illness. Removing or relocatiing the entire cat colony is also not an answer, as new felines simply move to the vacated area. It is human nature for us to want to feed and care for these animals, after all, humans domesticated them. In the wild, a cat population is limited by food and space, but providing them with food and shelter eliminates this. Therefore, simply feeding ferals and strays in your area is not a solution. After years of research and documentation, the best option for most areas is the trap-neuter-release (TNR) program. This means that a feral cat is captured in a humane trap, neutered by a veterinarian or qualified individual in a sterile setting, and then released or returned to its original environment (provided it is a safe one). The cat should also be marked in some way, the most common is ear-tipping while the cat is under anesthesia for the surgery. The tip of the left ear is clipped, which heals quickly and the cat is easily identifiable from a distance, preventing additional trapping. Research has shown that TNR is effective in reducing feral colony populations, but only when used widely and done on a large scale. Communities with appropriate and successful TNR have shown a reduction in animal control complaints, reduced amounts of cats at animal shelters, and less operational costs of sterilization programs. Is TNR humane? One study that researched TNR programs found the feral cats to have an increase in body weight and body fat content after sterilization, much like their domestic counterparts. The risk of unexpected death is very minimal (less than one percent), and those that are at risk with anesthesia use (respiratory or autoimmune issues) are not fixed until healthy.

The TNR program is not without faults, but great strides have come in recent years. Some TNR programs do not give basic medical care, like rabies vaccines or parasite treatments. A good TNR or sterilization program will provide a sterile pack for every surgery, adequate anesthesia, post-operative pain relief and treatment for other medical issues (fleas, parasites, injuries, etc). Simply fixing a cat and releasing it may not be viewed as humane by some. PETA advocates for TNR only if the people who are feeding them also provide medical care (vaccines, injury treatment, etc) and prevent further problems. Often feral cats are captured and injured by children or adults, and maimed by other animals. A small bite can lead to raging infection and abscesses, causing the animal pain. Those who feed the feral cats should not only take them to a TNR program, but make sure that they are released into a safe area (no dangerous people, away from roads, etc), and monitor their presence and condition if possible. Not every feline can be adopted, and many are happy and healthy in the wild environment. Each cat should be evaluated individual for the amount of human contact appropriate. Strays who are friendly should try to be given a good home after they are fixed and treated. Caging is not appropriate and will not domesticate a cat. Not every animal can be placed in a home; often feral cats are terrified and not used to humans. The process of being re-homed can cause more stress and illness then keeping a feral cat feral, and present health risks to the human.

feral cat blog info

So what can YOU do? Education is most important! Talking to those around you and spreading the word about appropriate trap-neuter-release procedures will help them stay effective and become wide-spread. Look for good TNR programs in your area that you can advocate, donate or volunteer for (if you’re in the West Michigan area, I recommend Carol’s Ferals). The culture of abandonment is also an important topic to educate others on. You should not adopt or take in a cat unless you are prepared to care for it for life. Too often kittens are adopted, and then discarded as cats. Do you have ferals or strays in your area? Simply feeding them is not a solution to the problem, it can even make it worse (more cats may come for food, and then fight for space). Trapping them humanely, getting them fixed and healthy, and returning the wild ones to a safe area with shelter is the best option. The feral felines are not just one person’s problem. They affect entire communities and people who may not even see them. We all need to work together to improve the lives of these animals, not make the problem worse.

For more information on Carol’s Ferals, their TNR program and medical care, their adoptable cats, and how to help their program or ferals in your area, visit www.carolsferals.org.

For more information on humane traps and PETA’s stance on TNR, visit http://www.peta.org/issues/companion-animal-issues/companion-animals-factsheets/feral-cats-trapping-kindest-solution/.

Sources: Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, Australian Nature Conservation Agency, Shelter Sense, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Carol’s Ferals

canine clock blogIt’s 6:00AM on the dot, and your dog is waiting at his bowl for his morning breakfast. At 6:02, he will be in your face, because duh, you’re late to breakfast. How is it that our pets seem to know exactly when they will be fed or walked? Can they tell time? Think about the last instance you went on vacation and left your dog at home. Was it a day or two? A week or more? Many dog owners think that their dogs notice the longer they are away, but how can they? The idea of dog years simply relates how a dog may age compared to a human, but is inaccurate to the passage of time. While individual pet parents may disagree, animal psychologists and a few scientific studies point to the fact that animals perceive and experience time differently from us humans.

The first thing to understand is that time is relative. This means that even for us humans, we experience the passage of time differently depending on what we are doing. For example, your time on a fun outing feels too short, but a one-hour lecture seems to last days. While we can willfully think back on past memories and experiences, animals are thought to be “stuck in time”. Animals cannot reflect and re-imagine the past, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a memory of it. A dog can know the “sit” command without remembering the instance he learned it. Animals also don’t seem to be able to anticipate the future. A study done on pigeons and rats showed that the animals always chose a smaller immediate reward (food), rather than a larger future award. They were more concerned with immediate sustenance, rather than waiting for more. Studies have also found that those animals who hoard food, like squirrels, don’t stop when they have enough, but rather when the food supply runs out. While humans can plan their grocery trips anticipating future hunger, animals seek to fill present needs.

So if animals don’t perceive time like us, then how is it they know exactly when they will be fed or walked, or need to start migrating? Biologic signals, such as hunger, circadian rhythms, or fatigue help animals know the time of day and when their needs may be filled. They are also cued by external signals from their environment, such as temperature changes, the sound of an alarm, or you arriving home. But what about time spent away? Many of us wonder if our pets notice how long we are gone. One study videotaped 12 dogs that were left in their homes for periods of 30 minutes, 2 hours, and 4 hours. The results showed that there was a difference in behavior between the 30 minute separation, and the 2 and 4 hour separations. When reunited with the owner, the dogs showed more tail wagging, increased interaction, higher frequencies of lip licking and body shaking, and a higher heart rate after being separated for longer periods of time. However, the researchers stated that they couldn’t distinguish whether the dogs were aware of the length of time they were alone, or if they were simply unaware until the return of the owner reminded them. Dogs are affected by the length of time they are separated from you, but they just might not be aware of it. I personally think that routine for an animal is best, and if you keep a similar schedule (or have a great pet-sitter keep it for you while you’re away!) your pet will handle separation better.

There have only been a few scientific studies on dogs and time, and animal behaviorists are still looking to understand their minds better. So while animals may not experience the passing of time like we do, they still are affected by it. They know when they need to eat, or what part of the day you come home. They may not be able to think back on past memories or plan for the future, but they let us know when we are late and miss us when we are gone.

Sources: Psychology Today, Animal Learning & Behavior, Psychology Bulletin, Animal Planet

pic for autism blogThere has been an increase in news stories about kids with autism (or a similar disorder) and their pets. You may have seen viral videos about a rescued cat named Billy, who was a lifesaver for four-year-old autistic Fraser. Billy helps Fraser stay calm instead of throwing tantrums, is teaching him to be social, and is a great comfort to the family. There are countless stories like this one, where an animal provides unintentional but incredible improvements to a child with developmental delays. But are these one-time stories, or is there a science to pet therapy?

Many of the cases we have seen feature a child with autism. Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) cause difficulty in social interaction and communication, as well as behavioral and developmental issues. Asperger’s syndrome (commonly seen in pet therapy research) falls into this spectrum, but is unique in that it preserves cognitive abilities. Kids with an ASD often have naive social interactions, with can lead to introversion and a lack of friends. Many do not like physical contact and struggle to communicate effectively, but still desire social interaction. This is where the pet comes in. A cat or dog (or other animal) provides a child with easy physical contact, simple clear communication, and an opportunity for friendship and nurturing.

Several formal research studies have been done on this topic, to directly compare the improvements that a pet may make. In therapy, having a dog present caused increased laughter, increased interaction time, and an increase in the child talking. Children needed less direction from the therapist for a simple task, and did not need to verbally explain a task as much before completing it. Other research has shown a decrease in anxiety and an increase in attendance (both in and out of therapy sessions). Children showed less autistic behaviors (humming and clicking noises, repetitive motions, jumping, roaming) when an animal was present, both in therapy and afterward. But this wasn’t because there was just something fun there. The same children were also tested with a stuffed animal present, and the same results were not seen. Unlike other companions, the improvements from an animal are consistent no matter the culture, gender or individual. A therapy animal or pet can provide a catalyst for learning, and a transition for social bonding. First the child learns to love, interact and depend on the animal, and then they can transition to doing the same with a person. Pets have also been seen to be an outlet for a child to care and nurture. While they may not be able to boss around a classmate or lay on a stranger, a dog will happily fetch and a cat is a great pillow. The child can learn to do simple tasks to care for the animal (feeding, brushing, etc.) that will help them to accomplish other tasks in life. A therapy animal can also be used as a great model of behavior. One study found that a child was more likely to mimic good behavior after an animal rather than a human, with prompts like, “Can you sit calm like Lucky?” etc. Some autistic children have low sensory levels, and an animal provides a powerful sensory experience, with touch, smell, sound and sight. But one of the most important benefits of an animal is the companionship. Children with an autism spectrum disorder require much more attention and assistance, which can put large amounts of stress on the family. A pet provides almost endless attention and friendship to the child, which removes some of the pressure off of parents or siblings.

Domestic animals have been used to assist developmentally-challenged children since the 18th century. We know of the benefits in small stories that scatter our news pages, but the hard science aligns with the incredible therapy that a pet can give to a child with an autism spectrum disorder. I believe that Parker Weisharr summed it up best in his interview with CBS news.

“She helps me, she calms me down, she lets me know she’s there when I’m about to have a meltdown. Anybody who has autism, anybody in the world would just benefit from this. She’s just like a healing dog.”

-Parker Weisharr, an 11-year-old boy with Asperger’s.

Photo Credit: Bruce Adams/Daily Mail

Sources: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Center for Interaction of Animals and Society, Western Journal of Nursing Research, Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, Daily Mail, CBS News

For more info on Fraser and Billy: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2160079/How-love-Billy-stray-cat-finally-brought-year-old-autistic-boy-shell.html

For more on Parker: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/an-autistic-boys-best-friend/

pic for frostbite blogAlthough our pets may be furry, they are still capable of getting frostbite in these cold temperatures. Frostbite is “injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting the nose, fingers, or toes and sometimes resulting in gangrene”. With all the low temperatures, snow, ice, and high winds, our pets’ extremities are at risk for frostbite. Their feet, especially the pads, are the most affected area, but it can also strike their lips, ears, face, scrotum, and end of the tail.

Frostbite is classified in three categories or stages. Stage 1 frostbite is the least harmful, and often has minimal or no lasting damage. Look for pale or blue skin on the areas prone to frostbite (feet, ears, face), and gently feel to see if it is exceptionally cold or hard. If the skin has already been warmed, it will appear red and swollen, and may peel. Your pet may feel pain in the affected areas before, during or after the process of frostbite, so also watch for limping or licking of the area. During Stage 2 frostbite, skin blisters will appear, along with color change and peeling. Stage 3 frostbite is the most severe and often causes gangrene. The skin will be dark or even black, and there is often a clear line of color change that indicates where the damage has occurred. Stage 3 frostbite can sometimes lead to amputation of the affected areas.

If you suspect your pet has frostbite, you should seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. Don’t be tempted to crank up the heat on the car ride over though, slightly cool or barely warm air is best. Treatment at home should consist of warming and protecting the frostbitten skin. Soak the affected areas in room temperature or slightly warm water for 20 minutes or until flushed (pink color returns). NEVER use very warm or hot water! This is too sudden of a change and can cause further damage. Do not rub or massage the skin, it may be peeling or painful. You may also use slightly warmed Vaseline or ointment if available. After warmed, the skin should be kept dry and free of licking or biting. Watch for damage for several days after, noting color, texture, and your pet’s response. Many pets will need pain medication or antibiotics, so it is important to get them to a vet as soon as you can. Note: Frostbite is may be accompanied by hypothermia, which should be treated first.

The best treatment for frostbite is to prevent it! Keep your dog inside with you, and limit time outside for walks, play time, and bathroom trips. If for some reason your animal must be outside, consider heated shelters, raised platforms (off the ground), heated mats, and heated dishes. Their bodies will use more energy trying to stay warm, so they may need more food and water than usual (make sure any outdoor dishes are not metal, as your pet’s tongue can stick to it). A dog’s feet are prone to frostbite as they become wet in the snow, ice and slush. Wearing boots or using a protective wax (like Musher’s Secret or Nutri-Vet’s Paw Guard) can provide a small barrier from cold, prevent salt irritation and reduce cuts from sharp ice, but are not a fail-safe from frostbite. The best way to keep your pets warm is to keep them indoors. On extra cold or windy days, they may not be able to go for their long walk, but you are keeping them safe. Stay warm everyone, and think spring! :)

Sources: National Library of Medicine, The Humane Society of the United States, www.pets.webmd.com, Agway, Petfinder.