Friday, February 27, 2015

Protect Your Pets Before Disaster Strikes

Guest blog by ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker, originally posted on

Just because most disasters strike with little or no warning doesn’t mean we can’t effectively prepare for them. But while a lot of attention has been devoted to disaster planning for people, disaster planning for pets is all too often left out of the conversation, with tragic results. September may be National Preparedness Month, but the truth is we should always be preparing –with both ourselves and our pets in mind—so we can always be ready.

As experts in both disaster preparedness and response, the ASPCA is very aware of this peril. Following Hurricane Sandy, we assisted more than 30,000 pets in New York and New Jersey, distributing nearly 40 tons of pet supplies to impacted pet owners, and sheltering nearly 280 displaced pets. This summer, we released our first-ever ASPCA smartphone app, which includes disaster preparedness and pet survival tips, a tool to store and manage your pet’s vital information, as well as practical tips and a customizable kit for recovering lost pets.

We put a lot of effort into keeping pets safe, but the biggest role belongs to their owners. Yet, according to a national ASPCA poll, more than one-third of cat and dog owners don't have a disaster preparedness plan in place, and only one-quarter say their animals are micro-chipped. In the Northeast, nearly half of dog owners and cat owners say they don't know what they would do with their pets in an evacuation, while slightly more pet owners in the South – where hurricanes are more common – are aware.

This lack of preparedness can have dire consequences. During Hurricane Katrina, approximately 10,000 animals were evacuated, but less than half were reunited with their families, according to Dr. Dick Green, our senior director of disaster response.

These outcomes aren’t inevitable. Let’s work together to share and take advantage of these valuable suggestions from our veteran rescuers:

  • Make sure all pets wear collars and tags with up-to-date identification
  • Microchip your pets and register the chip. It may be their ticket home if they become lost
  • Build a portable pet emergency kit with items such as medical records, water, pet food, medications and pet first aid supplies
  • Affix a pet rescue sticker to your windows (Get a free one here)
  • Have current photos of your pets on hand
  • Arrange a safe haven for your pets in the event of evacuation, and never leave them behind
  • Identify ahead of time where you’ll bring your pets -- whether it’s a relative’s house or a pet-friendly hotel -- because not all emergency facilities accept animals
  • Remember: any home unsafe for people is also unsafe for pets

Here’s a list of items pet owners should include in their pet preparedness kits:

  • Pet first-aid kit (ask your vet what to include or click here for a list from the Humane Society of the United States)
  • 3-7 days' worth of canned or dry food
  • Disposable litter trays (aluminum roasting pans work well)
  • Litter or paper toweling
  • Liquid dish soap and disinfectant
  • Disposable garbage bags
  • Pet feeding dishes
  • Extra collars or harnesses, as well as an extra leash
  • Photocopies of medical records – or you can store them on the ASPCA App
  • A waterproof container with a two-week supply of any medicine your pet requires (make sure to regularly replace expired food and medicines in your kit)
  • At least a week’s worth of bottled water for you and your pet (store in a cool, dry place and replace every two months)
  • A traveling bag, crate or sturdy carrier, ideally one for each pet
  • A flashlight
  • A blanket (for scooping up a fearful pet)
  • Recent photos of your pets (in case you are separated and need to make "Lost" posters)
  • Especially for cats: A pillowcase as a crate alternative, and large bags for supplies, toys, and scoopable litter
  • Especially for dogs: Extra leash, toys and chew toys, a week's worth of cage liner

Even if conditions are safe enough to stay home, you may still need to calm pets scared by lightning and loud noises. Prepare a small, safe space in which they can be comfortable, consider closing curtains and shades, play classical music or white noise to muffle the sounds, and most importantly, keep them inside.

Like most humans, animals don’t respond well to chaos. With hurricane season not ending until November, it’s critical for pet owners to be the true “first responders”— knowing just what to do when their beloved companions need them most.

For Pennsylvania-centric links and information, please click here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mondays with Myrtle: The fifth in an occasional series

It's been a while since we've checked in with Myrtle but today's update comes straight from the cat's mouth!  Myrtle (with the help of her foster mom Katie) wrote to us recently to update us on how she's doing!

Hi everybody!   Just wanted to let you know how things are going!

I have been in my foster home for about 3 months now and things have really changed.  I am no longer in my “foster room” and I have free roam of the whole downstairs!  It was a little scary at first, but now I know every nook and cranny and it is nice to be able to neb around and go wherever I want.   My 2 favorite spots are the heating register (boy, it is cold in Pittsburgh!) and wherever my foster mom is. I like to follow her around and check out what is going on - and she always stops whatever she is doing to give me little head rubs and chin scratches.  It took me a while to realize that she wasn’t going to hurt me, but now I even let her kiss me on the forehead and I don’t squirm too much when she picks me up.  

I had a lot of brothers and sisters to get used to and at first I didn’t know what to think of them.  But now I know they are really pretty nice.  I like to watch them - especially crazy Whiskey - and I even let Ginseng share my heat register.

Even though I can’t hear my foster mom when she comes homes, everyone else can, and I just follow them and I greet her at the door every evening.  My belly tells me when it is time to eat in the morning and I am always waiting at the bottom of the steps for her to come down. My foster mom says I am one “Smart Little Squirt”.  At feeding time, I have my own special bowl and my own special spot in the kitchen with everyone else! My mom is always sneaking me extra food because she says I am still a “skinny minnie” and need to get a big fat belly like Mr. Simon Cat!  

So, everything is going great and I am getting braver every day! I can’t believe how much better things have gotten since I came to Animal Friends! The medical department is still keeping an eye on me to make sure I am doing okay - and even though I really don’t like going to visit them and give them a hard time, I feel very lucky to know that they love me and care about me.

Maybe I’ll have that big fat belly with my next update!
Thanks Myrtle (and Katie)!  We've very glad to hear you're doing well and that you're on your way to finding a forever home to call your own!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Enrichment Fun with your Rabbit

Guest Blogger: Suzanne Denk, Animal Enrichment Specialist       

Here are some great ideas to keep your hopper happy and mentally stimulated.  Enrichment isn't just all fun and games!  Keeping your rabbit's mind working is an important part of owning a rabbit.
•  Hide treats or hay in a cardboard egg carton
•  Weave newspaper strips or sisal through the bars of his pen
•  Make a tunnel with a cardboard box by cutting off the ends

•  Free form craft paper or newspaper into a tunnel. Roll edges of tunnel to secure.


•  Fill a paper lunch bag with hay
•  Give a small towel for bunching and tossing
•  Read a story to your rabbit
•  Toilet paper tubes with fringed edges are fun to toss and tear
•  Make a paper fan and clip to the bars of his pen
•  Make a pellet pierogi:  Using the paper liner from the timothy pellet bag, cut a circle from brown craft paper or newspaper.  Fold the circle in half.  Place pellets, hay, or a treat along the fold.  Roll the edges of the paper to seal and form a pierogi.   
• Challenge him with a puzzle feeder.  Puzzles are not just for dogs & cats!
• Give your rabbit a small sandbox filled with a deep layer of shredded newspaper for digging.
• Provide balls with bells, baby key rings, a plastic slinky, or wooden blocks.  Rotate toys regularly to keep them new and interesting.  

Foraging game:  A rabbit in the wild must hunt for his food.  This little game will encourage a rabbit to exercise while searching, sniff to follow the trail, and think to find the treat.  Stimulating the olfactory sense stimulates the brain.  

• Show the rabbit the treat then hide it: in your hand, under your leg, behind a toy.  Let them sniff out the treat. 
• Make a trail of fresh greens across the room, hiding some of the pieces.  You may use a Romaine lettuce leaf, parsley leaves, or a few pinches of dry organic botanicals.
•  If the bunny makes quick work of the trail, you can take one leaf and slowly drag it along the floor to leave behind its smell.  Hide the treat at the end of the line and see if the rabbit will use its nose to follow the treat.  Too easy?  Hide the treat in a paper lunch bag. 

 Enrichment activities…
•  Reduce stress
•  End boredom
•  Give the opportunity for the pet to think and use his mind
•  Direct a pet’s energy to appropriate activities
•  Provide a chance for the pet to use all of the senses
•  Improve quality of life with variety and mental stimulation
•  Benefit physical and behavioral health
•  Build confidence
•  Only take a few minutes each day
•  Are fun for people and pets!

Note: Always supervise your pet so you know he can play safely with a new item

Rabbit Enrichment with Behavior Training

Guest Blogger: Laureen Dzadovsky
Originally published in a Chicago House Rabbit Society newsletter

Rabbits are quite fascinating. As we learn more about them, we find ways to enrich their lives as well as enriching our own. Bunnies respond very well to positive reinforcement - typically in the form of treats although your rabbit might respond to being petted, pellets, lettuce or some other type of treat. You may have heard it said that bunnies need playtime not only for the physical exercise but also for mental exercise. Another way to exercise their minds is through behavior training (aka clicker training) to challenge and stimulate them. Spending time with your bunny while working on behavior training can be a wonderful bonding experience for you both.

Behavior training can take on many forms and can be geared towards your bunny’s personality. A very active rabbit might do well with jumping on and off a box or back and forth over a jump. A more timid rabbit may respond well to a desensitization type of training where you would use the training to get your rabbit used to being groomed or having his nails clipped or going in and out of the carrier.

I have begun the process of training my bunny to help him out of his comfort zone and get him out playing a little more. It takes a combination of clicking and treating that is quick and requires some coordination but after a few tries it can be just like second nature. Since I’ve started working with him, he has decided to add in his own extra behavior (which I now make sure he does fully before I give him his treat!) of turning in 2 circles when I close his play area for the night. I look forward to future training with him because it’s been such a rewarding experience for us both. And who knows, maybe he’ll be doing obstacle courses next!

There are so many other aspects to behavior training other than targeting. Bunnies can recognize cues, they can be lured with a treat, they can learn to discriminate between objects and plenty more. It just takes a little time, a little patience and an interest in enriching your bunny’s life (as well as your own!) to see progress.

For more information about rabbit behavior training visit:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Happy World Spay Day

On this, the last Tuesday of February, World Spay Day shines a spotlight on the lifesaving power of spay/neuter and the need for affordable services, particularly in under served communities.

Nearly 3 million healthy and treatable cats and dogs are put down in U.S. shelters each year (including nearly 20,000 right here in Allegheny County). That’s one every 12 seconds. These are sweet pets who would have made great companions. Internationally, millions of stray animals roam the streets. Too often, governments deal with this overpopulation through cruel means, such as poisoning, electrocution and shooting.

We at Animal Friends know the only way to end unwarranted euthanasia of companion animals is through aggressive spay and neuter programs. Spay/neuter is an effective and humane way to save animals’ lives. Spaying (for females) and neutering (for males) are common surgeries veterinarians perform to stop animals from having accidental, surplus litters. 

Our Low-Cost Spay/Neuter department works with our community to offer affordable spay and neuter surgeries. In addition to offering low-cost surgeries on-site at our shelter, we partner with many community veterinary clinics. Last year, Animal Friends altered over 10,000. We hope to alter another 10,000 in 2015.

Together we can solve the problem of pet overpopulation. If you know a friend or family member that could benefit from our vaccine clinics or spay/neuter services, please tell them to visit or call 412.847.7004.

Thank you to for information found in this blog.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Psychological Effects of Pets are Profound


I once faced a sickening defeat. After a day and a half of an intensive scuba class, diving too deep, too fast produced pressure in my ears, causing dizziness and nausea. I was forced to quit. Next, I realized I was too vertiginous to drive home.

Despairing, I lay down on the blanket that protects our car’s upholstery from our border collie’s dirty paws. As I inhaled Sally’s scent, calm washed over me. Within a half hour, the dizziness eased enough for me to drive.

We animal lovers have long known that, no matter what life may bring — sickness, sadness, or radiant health — pets make us feel better. Numerous studies have documented astonishingly wide-ranging effects. Cat owners enjoy a 30 percent reduction in heart attack risk. Watching swimming fish lowers blood pressure. Stroking a dog boosts the immune system. Now researchers can explain the source of our companion animals’ healing powers: Our pets profoundly change the biochemistry of our brains.

“This is science that supports a truth the heart has always known,” Meg Olmert writes in her book “Made for Each Other,” a synthesis of more than 20 years of work on the biology of the human-animal bond. She singles out one neuropeptide: oxytocin, a brain chemical long known to promote maternal care in mammals.

Oxytocin levels rise in a mother’s brain as she goes into labor, and produces the contractions that deliver the baby. Once her infant is born, just the sight, smell, or thought of the baby is enough to trigger milk letdown (a fact that has caused many a new mother to ruin a blouse.) Humans have known for millennia that this affects animal mothers, too: Ancient Egyptian tomb art shows a kneeling man milking a cow with her calf tethered to her front leg.

But oxytocin’s powers are not, as once thought, limited to mothering or triggered only by labor. Nor is it confined to females, to mammals, or even to vertebrates. Even octopuses — who not only lack breasts, but die when their eggs hatch — have a form of oxytocin called cephalotocin.

Oxytocin causes a cascade of physiological changes. It can slow heart rate and breathing, quiet blood pressure and inhibit the production of stress hormones, creating a profound sense of calm, comfort, and focus. And these conditions are critical to forming close social relationships — whether with an infant, a mate, or unrelated individuals — including, importantly, individuals belonging to different species.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last June, Japanese researchers sprayed either oxytocin or saline solution into the nostrils of dogs, who then reunited with their owners. The owners were told not to interact with their dogs, but those whose pets inhaled oxytocin found them impossible to ignore. Statistical analysis showed the oxytocin inhalers were far more likely to stare, sniff, lick, and paw at their people than those who had saline solution.

Oxytocin is not the only neurotransmitter companion animals call forth from our brains. South African researchers showed that when men and women stroked and spoke with their dogs, as well as doubling the people’s blood levels of oxytocin, the interaction boosted levels of beta endorphins — natural painkillers associated with “runners high” — and dopamine, known widely as the “reward” hormone. These neurochemicals, too, are essential to our sense of well-being. A later and larger study by University of Missouri scientists also documented that petting dogs caused a spike in people’s serotonin, the neurotransmitter that most antidepressants attempt to elevate.

So it’s no wonder that pet-assisted therapies help troubled children, people with autism, and those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and drug addiction. Pets help normalize brain chemistry.

“By showing how interacting with pets actually works,” says the Missouri study’s lead author, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, “we can help animal-assisted therapy become a medically accepted intervention” — one that could be prescribed like medicine and reimbursed by insurance.

All animals appear to have cells directly under the skin that activate oxytocin in the brain. So gentle touch — from grooming your horse’s coat to making love with your spouse — is a powerful trigger. But so is simply thinking about someone you love, whether it’s a person or a pet. And in fact, a small study published this fall at Massachusetts General Hospital found that MRI scans of women’s brains lit up in the same areas when shown pictures of their pets as when shown pictures of their children.

But here’s the best part: It’s mutual. We effect the same physiological changes in our pets as they do in us. As I lay on that blanket in our car, soothed by Sally’s scent, I remembered how my best human friend, Liz Thomas — whose column you will read next week — once quelled desperation and fear in another border collie named Tess, Sally’s beloved predecessor. I was away tending to my dying mother when Tess, a rescue with separation anxiety, suffered a stroke-like illness. For the first time in her life, she was confined overnight at the vet’s. Liz knew just how to help. She came to our house, retrieved my barn coat, and took it to Tess’s hospital cage. Tess inhaled my scent and instantly, her ears folded and the terror fell from her face. She let out a sigh and relaxed.

Mourning A Pet Isn't What It Used To Be

By Monica Collins


A close family member died in June and, as winter approaches, I still can’t shake the grief. I brim over with tears in a flash; I search for his face on streets and in parks we used to go; I keep his belongings scattered around the house. I grapple with the fact he’s gone forever after 16 years of daily companionship. I miss my dog Shorty so much.

I guess some shrewder wag might advise me to get a life. My West Highland terrier was just a dog after all. Find another. There are bigger worries in the world. But few rattle me as deeply as Shorty’s passing.

Many who have loved and lost animals share this pain. Heartache over a deceased pet has become more openly expressed and more socially acceptable — particularly as the definition of “family” has expanded beyond mom, dad, and 2.5 kids.

Hallmark, the greeting card company that tracks our sentimental occasions, produces a burgeoning pet sympathy line. “There has been a growing consumer demand for cards offering condolences for the loss of a pet, reflecting the fact that Americans often view pets as members of the family,” says Hallmark spokeswoman Jaci Twidwell in an e-mail.

Those who work closely with grieving pet owners say they also see a change in public expression. The Animal Rescue League’s Mike Thomas, the supervisor of the Pine Ridge Pet Cemetery in Dedham, says people once buried their animals or visited the graves with the hope no one recognized them.

“When I first started here, people looked over their shoulder and they seemed kind of embarrassed with what they were doing, but today it’s altogether different,” he says.

Thomas has worked at Pine Ridge for 44 years. He’s witnessed a lot of heartbreak expressed with fervor or contained with stoicism. He remembers one mourner who lay on the ground and wailed for about 15 minutes. “I thought I was going to have to carry her back to the office,” he recalls.

‘I know I’ve come to the right place when people meet me at the door in tears.’ Betsy Johnson, veterinarian

On an autumn morning at the pet cemetery, there is no keening but many reminders of recent visits. A small pumpkin sits on the grave of “Tanya,” which reads, “1972 to 1978, once upon a time there was a very shaggy dog.” The marker for “Buttons Bernstein” features both a Star of David and a Christian cross. Perhaps the most eloquent stone belongs to “Dewey, 1898 to 1910. He was only a cat but he was human enough to be a great comfort in hours of loneliness and pain.”

Thomas hasn’t counted how many mortal pet remains are interred at Pine Ridge. He estimates 20,000 since the cemetery opened in 1907.

If there’s odd reassurance in the outdoor sanctuary of repose, the Rev. Eliza Blanchard’s pet loss circles offer non-denominational support. Blanchard, a Unitarian Universalist, describes her ministry as “spiritual care for animal caregivers.” At a pet loss circle, bereaved humans of all ages have a chance to openly remember their fallen four-footed companions. The next gathering is Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at First Parish in Brookline.

Blanchard believes the growing candor in mourning an animal started with the baby boom generation, that insistent demographic bulge: “We’ve never been a generation to keep our needs and desires under a bushel.”

She suggests boomers “brought animals closer to our domestic life.” Whereas the family dog or cat once wandered far afield during the day — and slept outside or in the garage at night — today’s pet occupies the heart of the home. “So when they get sick and die, we witness the suffering of our animals at home.”

Such was the case with Shorty. During the last months of his life, he was in Angell Animal Medical Center twice. The diagnoses varied from liver disease to chicken allergy to swollen gall bladder. As I moped and hoped for a cure, Ben, my partner who also loved Shorty greatly, would put it to me bluntly: “Look, he’s an old dog. He’s been failing for a long time.”

Finally, when our old dog stopped eating for days, I had to make the dreaded call to a veterinarian who came to our house to put Shorty out of his misery. “I know I’ve come to the right place,” says Dr. Betsy Johnson of Lincoln, “when people meet me at the door in tears.” Thus we greeted this vet on a mournful mission.

Shorty died in Ben’s lap wrapped in a favorite blanket. His death mask appeared to be a smile. I said my final goodbye as Ben carried the body out to Johnson’s truck. I worried neighbors would see the corpse but a woman who had recently moved in next door provided a perfect grace note. She happened to walk by and immediately assessed the situation. Putting her hand on Ben’s arm, she said, “I am so sorry.” That simple affirmation from a stranger provided unexpectedly soothing balm.

When I recently met Johnson at the local Starbucks for an interview, I barely recognized her, having met just once while in extremis. She has a calm demeanor and speaks softly about the pet grief she has witnessed and known herself.

“I’ve got personal experience with my own dogs. I’ve done a lot of reading about it,” she says. “I see a lot of people who are dealing with grief.”

She describes the anguish of losing Fritz, her smart Doberman mix — who would nudge her shoulder from the back seat whenever he spied the McDonald’s golden arches — at a dicey time when her family life was in tumult. “I felt I could lose the house but not my dog. And a year later, I lose my dog. It was like my world tumbled down. It was far worse than anything else I had been through.”

Many callers to the Tufts University Pet Loss Support Hotline (508-839-7966) wrestle with the guilt of feeling worse about a pet’s death than a human relative’s. Dr. Claire Sharp, the professor at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine who supervises volunteer first-year students staffing the hot line, believes heartache is profound because pets transcend family fractures and everyday vagaries.

“Pets are there for us through everything,” she said. “Having a pet often makes our lives immediately better.”

Yet, the end of life for a pet can cause deep rifts, provoking arguments about costs and inconveniences of treatment or timing of euthanasia. Pet Loss Hotline students meet regularly with a mental health professional to assess their counseling skills. Ultimately, the callers mainly seek affirmation they did the right thing for their deceased animals.

“It’s hard to rush grief along,” says Sharp. “When people realize they’re not alone and they made the right decision at the time, there’s reassurance.”

Before Shorty, I didn’t like animals. I avoided and distrusted them. I was that griper on my condominium board who complained about the dogs. Now, I wonder how I can ever live without one.

“No, you don’t have to feel embarrassed,” says Johnson. “Losing a pet is as strong as losing a mother, a brother, a spouse. I think the tough part is having people say, ‘Oh, it’s just a dog.’ ”

Monica Collins writes the syndicated column, “Ask Dog Lady.” She can be reached at

Animal Friends offers pet loss support to those who are grieving the loss of a furry family member. In addition to monthly, non-denominational Candlelight Remembrance Services, and a Pet Loss Support Group, we offer reading materials online and ways to memorialize the love you have for your pet.  Please visit our website.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

February is Adopt-a-Shelter Rabbit Month at Animal Friends

Did you know that rabbits are the third most-adopted companion animal? And for good reason! To start, they are quiet and clean creatures making them an excellent roommate for apartment life. They can be litter-trained and roam freely throughout your home (after it’s been bunny-proofed of course!). Classified as lagomorphs, rabbits are incredibly intelligent and social. There are 47 breeds of rabbits recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association and each of them can live to be 8- to 12-years old.

At Animal Friends, we’re celebrating Adopt-a-Shelter-Rabbit Month for all of February. So even if you’re not quite ready to add a bunny as your newest furry family member, you can get your bunny fix by becoming an Animal Friends’ rabbit volunteer!

Through our Rabbit Volunteer Program you’ll learn how to recognize certain behaviors and how to care for the buns and the basics of handling them. You’ll provide socialization, exercise and enrichment. In doing so, you can help to stimulate the rabbits’ brains to prevent boredom and to get them more comfortable with being handled and petted – all which aids in making them more adoptable!

Rabbit volunteers have the option to do many things at Animal Friends. There is always a need for volunteers at our Bun Runs and off-site activities. You can spread your knowledge and love for buns into the community to try to bring in more rabbit adopters. Volunteers are also needed to write bunny bios, become a foster guardian or even just to groom them. There truly is something for everyone.

Even if you don’t have the time to dedicate to being a rabbit volunteer, please stop by Animal Friends to see our shelter rabbits in action at our weekly BunRuns on Saturdays from 2:30-4 p.m. It’s such a joy to watch them run and play and to see how much personality they have. For all you know, it could be love at first rabbit!