Look What the Cat’s Dragged In…

Birds…baby squirrels…voles…crickets…usually intact, the warmth draining from them as they lay next to a hairball. I think it was the beautiful red cardinal that upset me the most, and that stiff body by the door was but a fraction of what Cleo caught or maimed during her periodic outings.

A study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (published January 2013) now show that Cleo and her fellow felines – housecats with outdoor privileges and feral cats – kills up to 3.7 billion birds a year in the United States. Wild mammals fare worse, with numbers estimated between 7-21 billion. You must admit: very large numbers to swallow.

Most of these “prey” go uneaten. Even well-fed cats kill out of sheer instinct, so their hunting doesn’t exactly fall into the “circle of life” narrative we might want to believe. Even belled and declawed cats kill with equal success. They’re predators par excellence.

But back to the numbers. I’m still chewing on them.

Cat hunted a birdApproximately 114 million cats live in the continental United States. Eighty-four million live in households, and up to 70 percent of those roam outdoors at least part time. They’re not just sunning themselves. Up to 80 percent hunt, and they hunt a lot.

Cats are not subject to the same laws of predation as are native predators, such as hawks and foxes. Household cats have the advantage of protection from diseases, competition, and starvation. They are not vulnerable to changes in prey population. Cats are not strictly territorial and can co-exist at much higher densities. Being non-native (i.e., introduced by humans), cats also have an advantage over animals that didn’t evolve with their threat.

Of course, these deaths are compounded by wild animals losing habitat to human encroachment, moving into smaller pockets of land that essentially corral the animals for easier pickings. Wild animals are also dying from air and water pollution, pesticide poisonings, and collisions with cars, windows, and communication towers. Still, by some estimates, deaths by cat outnumber the deaths by these other causes.  As a result, some of these animals are endangered. The loss of one of these can have serious consequences to the species’ survival.

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The cats also suffer. While they may “enjoy the freedom” of being outside, outdoor cats gets hit by cars; attacked by dogs, other cats, and wildlife; get lost or stolen; contract fatal diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus and feline distemper; get poisoned; or, suffer during harsh weather conditions.

The answer – at least for indoor cats – is to keep them indoors. They needn’t be bored. Animal companions, interactive toys, cat perches, and scratching posts can provide stimulation in a safe environment. They also have you for loving attention.

Feral cats pose more complications. Abandoned, lost, or descendants of strays, these cats are ultimately victims of human irresponsibility and the failure to neuter and spay. These poor animals endure short, miserable lives, while producing three litters a year that average four to six kittens at a time. Homes are in short supply for these wild felines. However, trap-neuter-return programs can curb their population growth. It’s a tedious process, but if it boils down to loving both cats and the wildlife around us, perhaps it’s one that more of us should actively support with trapping or helping finance. Spaying one female will save thousands of wildlife from one year’s worth of litters alone.

That translates into more bird song. Food all around for other wildlife. More flashes of brilliant colored feathers in the trees. More squirrel chatter.

Humane animal care shouldn’t be limited to our domesticated friends. It should extend to the needs of wildlife too.

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First published in Pets in the City Magazine, August 2013

Wagging A Finger So Dogs Can Wag a Tail

Doberman, 5 months old, sitting in front of white background

A natural-eared Doberman Pinscher with his tail intact

Imagine having to cut off a pinky finger because 1) it’s unnecessary, 2) it might get injured during your lifetime, and 3) a four-fingered hand is the height of beauty. No? At least you have some choice in the matter.

Now imagine newborn children must have a pinky cut off within a few days of birth. With no anesthesia. Without pain medication afterwards.

Little imagination is required. Only 25 years ago, doctors performed surgeries on newborns without anesthesia, believing their nervous systems were too immature to sense pain. We don’t believe that today but persist in believing it true for other animals, such as puppies…even though the number of nerve endings may exceed those of an adult.

Over 130,000 newborn pups are subjected to unnecessary cosmetic surgery in the U.S. each year, including docking. When only two to five days old, their tails are amputated,removing nerves, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, sections of arteries, spinal cord, and a good portion of backbone (6 to 23 vertebrae) which comprises one-quarter to one-third of their total length.

Some bleed out or die of shock. Even if the docking is done “properly” (many aren’t done by veterinarians but by breeders and puppy mills), the pain may not diminish with time. As with any amputation, there is serious risk of infection and swollen growths of nerve bundles in scar tissue that may cause chronic pain for life. The compromised back muscles (that were attached to the tail and still anchor to the pelvic area) can lead to urinary or fecal incontinence and perineal hernias.

The loss of the tail affects the dog’s balance and agility too, as well as its means of expression with other dogs and humans, conveying its mood and intentions. A docked tail can’t clearly be seen tucking under when fearful or raised high when aggressive. Lack of a tail can lead to misunderstandings.

So why, oh why do it? Most depicture1veloped countries (e.g., bulk of Europe, Australia, Israel, and Brazil) ban docking altogether or, in a few cases, permit with restrictions. Veterinary associations declare docking to be painful, unnecessary, and unethical. Many veterinary schools no longer even teach how to perform docking. However, in the United States, with the shameful influence of the American Kennel Club (AKC) mandating artificial breed standards for its canine beauty pageants, docking continues to be standard procedure for some breeds.

“Tradition” is one argument the AKC uses to justify docking, although the original reasons for amputation are antiquated. Docking fails to prevent rabies or increase a dog’s speed, as once believed. Since most dogs are pets now, docking is unnecessary to remove possible grips in dog fighting or when cornering a cougar during a hunt.

Some claim docking prevents tail injury. However, statistics do not support this. In multiple reviews of veterinary records, serious tail injuries are rare. In the largest study yet, the incidence of tail injury was 0.23%. Infection and mangled tails are more common with docking.

Even for working dogs supposedly “prone to injury,” the argument falls flat because of the inconsistency among breeds targeted for docking. For example, among the similar Pointer, German Longhaired Pointer, and German Shorthair Pointer, only the Shorthair is routinely docked. Plus, many hunting and working breeds, such as Labs, Border Collies, and Shepherds, keep their tails.

Others argue docking is hygienic, so hair won’t trap fecal matter. Again, the inconsistency among targeted breeds poo-poo’s this claim. Short-haired breeds (e.g., Dobermans) don’t have this issue, and many long-haired ones are undocked and proper grooming addresses hygiene.

Ultimately, the reason dogs continue to be mutilated is for cosmetic reasons, to fit some “ideal” propagated by the AKC since the mid-1950s for some breeds. Isn’t it time we caught up to the 21st century and recognized the blatant cruelty of chopping off dogs’ tails? Dogs should be able to wag more than a stub.

*****

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First published in Pets in the City Magazine, July 2013

Of Mice, Rats, Birds and Men

Facts are often stranger than fiction.

A case in point: The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) that provides basic protections for animals used in laboratory research doesn’t cover 95% of those animals, including mice, rats, and birds. While dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits, and nonhuman primates must receive appropriate food, shelter, and medical care, the majority lack any such consideration. Instead, researchers can subject them to excruciating procedures without anesthesia, house them in overcrowded conditions or in isolation, and dispose of them as they see fit.

It verges on a horror story.

picture3What is the Animal Welfare Act?

The AWA is the federal law that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers by setting minimum acceptable standards. In regards to research, the AWA requires suitable housing, veterinary care, and research being conducted in compliance with the “three R’s”: replacement, reduction, and refinement.

Replacement: Where possible, researchers should perform experiments on a replacement, such as computer simulations, mathematical models, and in vitro.

Reduction: Researchers should reduce the number of animals used to the smallest amount possible.

Refinement: Researchers should design experiments to minimize the animals’ pain and suffering.

A 1970 amendment to the AWA covered all warm-blooded animals. The federal anti-cruelty law did not specify protections but directed the USDA to adopt regulations to protect the animals.

Follow the Money

Despite direction from Congress, the Secretary of Agriculture promptly excluded the majority used in research. In 2002, the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-NC, amended the Farm Bill (H.R. 2646) to legally seal the deal to exclude these animals. Why? His top contributors included tobacco companies that experiment on these animals.

So, USDA veterinary inspectors do not oversee their care. Their numbers are not even reported (though estimated to be up to 100 million).

The economics also make the circumstances worse for these animals. Cheaply bred and sold by laboratory supply companies, they’re used en masse. With higher priced animals – say rhesus monkeys – the ledgers require more carefully designed research methodology to minimize variables. The higher costs of these animals also ensure they’re better treated because, by golly, they’re more expensive to replace.

Cheap animals are disposable. You can have a study involving a thousand mice with fewer controls for variables, because the large numbers themselves will ultimately bear out statistically significant results. (Apparently, some studies are so unconstrained that they cannot be replicated in different labs.)

“Ethically Indefensible”

Many researchers themselves, including the American Association for Laboratory Animal Sciences and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, say the treatment of these animals is “ethically indefensible.”

The lack of regulation even goes against the intent of Congress. Former Sen. Bob Dole, R-KS, has stated, “When Congress stated that the AWA applied to all warm-blooded animals, we certainly did not intend to exclude 95% of the animals used in biomedical research laboratories.”

The current law is even out of whack with the National Institute of Health’s voluntary industry standards to consider alternatives and minimize and avoid pain for all vertebrates (including cold-blooded animals, such as fish and frogs), as well as the National Academy of Sciences’ Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-VA, introduced a bill (H.R. 6693*) last year to include rats, mice and birds under the AWA, basically restoring it to its 1970 scope as the bipartisan framers intended. Unsurprisingly, the bill now lingers in the Committee on Agriculture.

While Utah does not have a representative on that committee, petitions are available on the internet to weigh in on the issue and help bring it to a vote. Don’t let Congress Mickey Mouse around on this.

*UPDATE: This bill died in Congress. Of course.

*****

picm_oct2013First published in Pets in the City Magazine, October 2013.

In Our Sights: Police Dog Shootings Every 98 Minutes

In mid-July*, a Salt Lake City police officer encountered a family dog in a fenced backyard. When the dog, Geist, approached—presumably to defend his property from a stranger—the officer shot and killed him.

While dog shootings often receive little attention, the dog’s owner, Sean Kendall, recorded his initial encounter with the police. The posted video went viral, and the pet community rallied.

picture4The SLC police department defensively reacted with arguments that the dog was “extremely close,” “the officer felt threatened,” the officer was “a hero” on another case, they were searching for a child, and—my favorite irrelevant red herring—that they’ve seen less public outcry “when certain human beings have lost their lives” (which simultaneously implies that the dog’s life was not valuable).

No apologies. No condolences.

Turns out that police shootings of pets are common. No government agency keeps statistics on such, but the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledges that the majority of intentional firearm discharges involve animals, with dogs being the primary victims. According to the ASPCA, most reports involve family animals in their own yards.

Animal abuse activists have tallied a conservative count by tracking news stories: a pet is killed by law enforcement every 98 minutes in the United States. Often those animals are lying down, wagging a tail, or running away. Their owners are also prevented from intervening. The officer only has to “feel” threatened, a low bar for justifying lethal force.

The prevalence of the problem across the U.S. is quickly illustrated with a Google search (see inset).

The standard, consistent reasoning behind these shootings: the dog was “aggressive.” This is where we, the public, are supposed to roll over and blithely accept the “necessity” of killing the animal.

Sorry, not buying it.

While some of these cases may have been justified, the majority of these killings reflect ignorance about dogs, at best, and cruelty at worst. Basic training and revised policies and procedures concerning dog encounters would have avoided most of these incidents. Even if a dog barks, snarls, and even postures to intimidate, danger is not necessarily imminent and can be mitigated. Postal deliverers deal with this issue all the time, and they aren’t killing off dogs on their routes. Alternatives are available if an officer is nervous: yelling, backing up slowly, tasers, batons, pepper spray, and, as a last resort, a shooting a leg.

Some police departments and officers, like “Cops for Canine Compassion,” are recognizing the issues and stepping up. However, the momentum seems to be building too slowly. Just the sheer number of potential animals in officers’ sights, let alone the changing attitudes toward animals, should incite all police departments to revise their tactics. In the United States, 37-47 percent of households have canine companions, numbering 70-80 million dogs. That’s a lot of dogs, and that’s a lot of people who care.

Back to Geist. It’s doubtful that the officer will be held accountable. However, at a minimum, the SLC police department needs to implement the training tools already provided by the Community-Oriented Policing Services within the Department of Justice. Their printed materials and free video training services, entitled “Police and Dog Encounters: Tactical Strategies and Effective Tools to Keep Our Communities Safe and Humane,” address, among other topics:

  • Assessing the Situation
  • Communicating with Dogs: Police and Dog Body Language
  • Using Force Considerations

An apology would be nice too.

Our dogs are more than “personal property,” despite the legal definitions. We emotionally connect with them as we would a friend or family member. And, unlike an inanimate couch, when destroyed, a life is gone. A dog’s death hurts us to the core.

The SLC Police Department, as well as departments across the country, need to recognize this. Otherwise, they will continue to face increased scrutiny, litigation, and loss of community trust.

*****

picm_aug2014First published in Pets in the City Magazine, August 2014

Disposable Love

Ah, disposable pets…or should I just say “pets” as the terms seem interchangeable for so many? After all, they’re cheap and easy to dispose of when no longer cuddly or too much a “chore.”

First, pity the goldfish bought to “teach children a valuable lesson,” only to be flushed within the month, and perhaps replaced with a lookalike, so no one is the wiser. Then, the hamster, a fluffy interactive handful, soon relegated to a corner and ignored, until found stiff as a board. Next, maybe a floppy-eared rabbit, a colorful bird, or an exotic reptile. But, more likely, a cat or dog is next on the shopping list.

Unfortunately, that purchase is often impetuous. Many are bought on whim – oh, it’s so cute! – with little thought to the commitment involved, until Fluffy soils the carpet, chews on a shoe, or shreds an armchair. Or, Max needs more exercise and attention than is convenient.  Or, gosh, time to move and taking Buddy is such a hassle.

depositphotos_48363515_originalThen the unsuspecting animal ends up cycling through homes and shelters, abandoned roadside, or dead.

Flushed like the goldfish. Dumped like the trash. At best, recycled like an aluminum can.

I’m not talking about cruelty but about the casualness in which many view animals as consumer goods. No animal is disposable. As in having a child, you make a commitment to its well-being. Fluffy and Max are relying on you for food, water, basic care, and training. And cats and dogs are as innocent as any child, adoring you from the first moment, loyal, trusting, and ever so dependent on your good will.

Doesn’t a child require attention? Would you toss aside a child for misbehavior? Would you leave a child behind because you were moving and the potential new landlord didn’t like children?

So, what about that list of complaints?

One, be aware upfront that animals take time and patience to train. With the right approach, an animal can be trained within hours, if not days, to behave as desired. Need a little direction? Do a Google search on correcting a behavioral problem, or sign up for a training class to train you. It’s all about positive reinforcement.

Two, set aside a half-hour a day for your pet. Skip a TV show and go for a quick walk or toss a ball around the yard. We all have time; it’s just a matter of how we use our time, which reflects our priorities. If not for your pet, do it for yourself per the American Heart Association’s 30-minute recommendation for daily exercise.

Three, find a home that accommodates all family members. Take the extra time, if needed. Also, consider that a cross-country road trip is less traumatic to your pet than a kennel at the shelter.

Make it work. Your pet would never abandon you, even if you didn’t flush the toilet or became sick. You’d be hard pressed to match such adoration. Be worthy of their love and give it back.

*****

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First published in Pets in the City Magazine, January 2013