Category Archives: behavior

Do Pets Grieve?

I’m frequently asked if pets experience grief at the loss of an owner or another pet in the household. The short answer is “Yes, they do.” Linked below is an article from the Green Bay Press Gazette, written by written by William Hageman, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Studies suggest some animals grieve loss of owners, housemates

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A Special Bond – Cats & People

Cats pose more mysteries to us than answers most of the time. Cat owners undoubtedly have a bond just as strong with their pets as dog owners do, and they learn to interpret the signals that cats provide. Relationships with cats are subtle and complex, but scientific study has revealed a few interesting facts about how cats interact with their owners.

Both of these articles are at the Discovery News page.

Cats Don’t Actually Ignore Us by Jennifer Viegas

Cats may try to hide their true feelings, but a recent study found that cats do actually pay attention to their owners, distinguishing them from all other people.

The study, which will be published in the July issue of Animal Cognition, is one of the few to examine the cat/human social dynamic from the feline’s perspective. Cats may not do what we tell them to, but they usually adore their human caretakers.

Cats Adore, Manipulate Women

The bond between cats and their owners turns out to be far more intense than imagined, especially for cat aficionado women and their affection reciprocating felines, suggests a new study.

Cats attach to humans, and particularly women, as social partners, and it’s not just for the sake of obtaining food, according to the new research, which has been accepted for publication in the journal Behavioural Processes.


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Thunderstorm Phobia

Given the outrageous storm we had last week, this week’s post is likely to seem to be too little too late. However, we’re not out of thunderstorm season yet, so this information will be of some use.

As with all behavior problems, a little knowledge is a potentially dangerous thing. I’m providing this client-oriented information as an educational tool to help guide you to a more productive conversation with your veterinarian.

Behavioral training is just one part of a fear-management program for dogs. Your veterinarian may want to add in a medication to help both fear reduction and training success. Be sure to consult your vet as you start off on your training to reduce thunderstorm phobia.

This article doesn’t mention one of my favorite tools for storm phobias. It’s called a Thunder Shirt. We’ve got quite a few clients who have found these very useful for fear behaviors in dogs.


By Kathy Diamond Davis

Fear of thunderstorms is common in dogs, and tends to get worse as they age. It is partly genetic. While some aspects of this problem remain a mystery, we know a lot that can make life easier for thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their families. Best of all, you may be able to help your dog avoid developing this fear in the first place.

Prevention and Precautions

Why do dogs fear thunderstorms? Too many dogs are left outdoors during storms, sometimes with no shelter at all. Anyone would be scared with good reason. Keep your dog inside during storms.

If you want to take your dog outdoors during a storm, do it safely. Some dogs do better when protected by raincoats and boots. Make the trip outside a fun adventure or calm occasion rather than a stressful experience. Special rewards for pottying outside in the rain are a good idea. Make storms occasion for special times with your dog to create positive associations. Games, treats and special activities are time well spent during storms.

Don’t be tense during storms. Be upbeat with the dog, not impatient or pitying with your touch or your voice. The dog will pick up on your emotions and body language, so make them confident.

Dogs feel “rewarded” for fearful behavior if you pet and praise when the dog is behaving fearfully. Rewarding a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring more often, even when the individual is not conscious of being rewarded for it. Give rewards when the dog is behaving confidently, calmly, or happily. Work with your dog to develop ways to elicit these behaviors so that you can do so during storms and then reward. This is powerful training that will help you and your dog in all aspects of life.

Be aware that this fear can be “contagious” from one dog to another. This makes it all the more important to handle both the fearful dog and a new dog carefully, so that you improve how the dogs feel about storms rather than letting the fear get worse, or even feeding it by how you manage the dogs.

Causes and Triggers

Dogs react to a variety of things associated with storms, and it helps to know what these are for your dog. You may never know them all, but at least a general understanding will help you understand the extent of this fear.

The loud noise is scary to some dogs, and the dog can hear it at a much greater distance than humans can. The dog has early audio warning of an approaching storm, and most storm-phobic dogs eventually start reacting long before the sounds are loud.

Electricity in the air may be a major factor in dog storm phobia. Is there something unpleasant about this to the dog’s sensations? Does it perhaps become even scarier to a dog who has been trained with an electronic collar, or frightened by a static shock in everyday life? We have a lot more questions about the effect of electricity on dogs than we have answers.

The smell of the air changes when a storm approaches, and of course the keen nose of a dog detects this early. The air pressure changes, too, and a dog’s ears are more sensitive to pressure changes than most people. In some cases, it might hurt.

The family may change routine when a storm is approaching. If the family is fearful, gets irritable with the dog, or treats the dog in some unpleasant manner during this time (puts the dog outside, for example), that could feed the dog’s fear.

Anything that has become associated in the dog’s experience with thunderstorms can become a trigger for the fear. So, anytime one of these triggers happens is an opportunity for you to help your dog overcome the fear.

For the More Severe Cases

Veterinarians, veterinary behavior specialists, and dog families deal with thunderstorm fears as this problem is so common. Different things seem to help different dogs. Beyond the above tactics, here are some things you may decide to try:

1. A quiet, dark, sheltered refuge. Your dog may find the preferred spot independently, leaving you to simply make sure it stays consistently available to the dog. Chosen places dogs include basements, bathrooms (sometimes in the bathtub), closets, and crates that are kept in secluded parts of houses.

2. If your dog becomes frantic and as a result might suffer injury or do damage during a storm, you may need to develop a good means of confining the dog. Sometimes a secluded crate works, if the dog has been conditioned to rest calmly in a crate.

3. The DAP Diffuser is showing some promising results in calming fearful dogs, and doesn’t seem to have negative side effects, so consider setting one up in the area used by the dog.

4. You and your veterinarian or veterinary behavior specialist may decide to medicate your dog with an anti-anxiety drug for the entire storm season or year-round (these medications generally do not work until the dog has been on them for weeks), or a sedative during storms. Due to the unpredictability of storms, it may not be possible to administer a sedative when it’s needed.

5. For some reason, there are dogs who find it comforting to get under a “security blanket” to combat storm fears. Due to the risk of overheating a dog, don’t force this method. You might give it a try, though, monitoring the dog to see if it helps and to find a covering that provides the benefit without excessive heating. Don’t leave a dog alone with the covering if the dog is likely to chew and swallow pieces of it.

6. A behavior specialist can help you work out a behavior modification program to work on this problem. Such a program might include a tape of storm sound effects and training for your dog that you can use when the fears start. Learning more about communicating with your dog and modifying dog behavior in positive ways is always time well spent.

Don’t take thunderstorm phobia lightly, even if the problem seems minor in your dog. Handled badly by humans, it will get worse, and dogs have been known to jump through glass windows during storms. Some dogs will throw up when it storms. Many dogs have fled fenced yards. This is a major problem that calls for intelligent handling at the first sign. Treat storms as a routine part of life, nothing to fear, and even perhaps occasion for some special times. Do these things before your dog ever shows signs of phobia, and perhaps you’ll never experience a serious case.

Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others. Should the training articles available here or elsewhere not be effective, contact your veterinarian. Veterinarians not specializing in behavior can eliminate medical causes of behavior problems. If no medical cause is found, your veterinarian can refer you to a colleague who specializes in behavior or a local behaviorist. Copyright 2004 – 2013 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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Sunday Post Early – Altruism

I’ll be out of town tomorrow, so I saved up an interesting topic that we can get started on this week and continue at some point in the future.

Understanding our own social behavior, ethics, and morals is a monumental challenge. Human behavior is complex, to say the least. We can still learn a great deal about our own social conventions by examining the behavior of animals.

There have been a few articles (in Nature, Smithsonian Magazine, and online) recently that deal specifically with our tendency to identify altruism. Altruism, the act of helping others, is something that seems to be understood by human babies as young as 3 months. It’s fascinating to consider.

This article talks about a study and what it may imply about our own behavior. Have a look. I’m curious about what you’ve observed from your own pets or other animals. Do you think they understand altruism?

Here’s the article.


Filed under behavior, communication, ethics, human interest, nature



A research group at Duke University has created a series of tests that help you identify what kind of personality and cognition your dog has. For a fee of $60, you can buy a kit that will allow you to play games with your dog, which in turn lets you understand how they think and perceive.

There’s a brief CBS news article here.

Visit the Dognition Home Page here.

The Dognition Blog has a lot more interesting stuff, too. Don’t miss it!
Dognition Profiles.
What will you learn from Dognition?
Dognition and Citizen Science

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Predators and Prey – The Natural World’s Lessons

I’ve talked about my connection to nature and my profession in a previous post. What I didn’t mention is that my interest in the natural world hasn’t decreased over the years. I’m still fascinated by books, documentaries, and research. Recently I had a reason to look up the definition of predation – as in, predators and prey. I quickly found the very basic definition I needed, but I ended up spending hours reading about the intricate interactions between predators and prey. While it may seem academic to the average pet owner, two things make this relevant. First, those of you reading aren’t “average” owners — you’re far more inquisitive and dedicated than that! Secondly, the predatory and predator-avoidance behavior we see in nature is also found in our domestic animals. I’ll share the tip of the iceberg with you.

Predation is, very simply, the killing and consumption of another organism for food. This can be something very obvious: Lion eats Zebra. However, if the zebra munches the grass enough that that particular plant dies, is it not also a predator by definition? The lines are a little fuzzy sometimes. Overall, however, we see that most ecosystems are a network of connections between sources of food and consumers of food. Plants supply herbivores which supply predators. Predators at the very top of the food chain – man, lion, shark, wolf – are called Apex predators. Apexes aren’t preyed upon by anything else.

These food webs are an interesting balancing act. If there isn’t enough grass to feed the zebra, they starve, and so do the lions. However, if there aren’t enough lions, the zebra grow out of control and eat too much grass, which then crashes their population again. If there are too many lions, they eat too many zebra, which decreases the number of lions eventually, and allows more grass to grow to rebuild the zebra population. Scientists call this “top down” or “bottom up” control in an ecosystem. If any of you are familiar with the wolf and moose populations on Isle Royale, it’s a perfect example of how the various species influence one another. To tie this in to a topic we see daily, consider the influence that outdoor cats have on the population of rodents and birds.

Hunting behavior by predators has four basic phases:

Detection, or finding prey.

800px Catstalkprey

Attack, or chasing after prey.

DetZoo2009072316 copy

Capture, or catching the prey and preventing escape.


Consumption, or eating what has just been caught.

Wolverine Predconsumpt

Predators have evolved to have body structures that support these behaviors and ecological niche. As I mentioned with the Cheetah Running video on Thursday, adaptations like front paws that can rotate, forward-facing eyes, and agile bodies all help.

Herbivores, on the other hand, have evolved to *avoid* all of these behaviors. It’s an evolutionary arms race to see which animal can outdo its prey/predator. Herbivores have specific adaptations to avoid the stages of predation.

Avoid Detection: Camouflage to blend into the environment, color patters that make it hard for a predator to pick out an individual (zebra stripes), and avoiding the time and place predators frequent.

Detroit Zoo 20080927 9

Avoid Attack: Colors to warn the predators of poison. There’s also a neat behavior in which an animal like an antelope will bounce vertically while running away. Scientists believe that this signals to the predator that the prey is extremely healthy and strong physically, and not worth the energy to chase down/kill.

Springbok pronk

Avoid Capture: Outrunning the predator, fighting back, and finding cover or refuge.

645px Ctenomorpha chronus02

Avoid Consumption: Armor, spines, chemical defenses, shedding a non-vital body part, and playing dead.

1024px 60 lionfish

Those are the basics! Next time you’re out and about in nature or the zoo, watch for these behaviors and adaptations! You’ll be surprised how easy they are to recognize.

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News – Puppy Socialization Video

Today I’m sharing a video put together by the AVMA that talks about socializing young dogs. We’ve had a lot of new puppies this fall (check out their photos on our Facebook page!), so this is a timely topic.

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Thursday News – Zoo Animal Enrichment

Animals in zoos are ambassadors for their species, not to mention conservation of the natural world. Few people can travel to other continents to see animals in their natural habitat, so zoos are a necessary “evil” in terms of promoting stewardship of the environment.

The challenges that zoos face are many. Keeping the animals healthy and happy is a primary concern, of course. Keepers try to engage animals with interesting, stimulating activities. This may include foraging for food throughout an enclosure, toys, training behaviors, and so on. I’m good friends with a zookeeper, and I can say with confidence that keepers have some amazingly cool ideas for giving their animals more than just a parade of people to watch.

In Philadelphia, the zoo there is taking a unique approach to enrichment for some of its animals. They’ve constructed aerial walkways for monkeys, lemurs, and orangutans. These walkways are enclosed paths that traverse large segments of the entire zoo. The animals are allowed to explore on their own, choose where they want to be, and have all sorts of different things to watch and interact with.

Naturally, the visibility of the animals in these walkways is great for visitors. They get to observe the animals in a more candid way than through the glass of a typical enclosure.

The only question I have is whether the zoo officials consider this enrichment for the guests, too.

Here’s the link to the full article.

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Quality of Life

Last week, I talked about pain in our veterinary patients. I’m going to expand on that topic today by discussing how we evaluate “Quality of Life.”

Whenever we see a patient for an appointment (for any reason, well or sick), we perform a physical examination. We also ask for an extensive history about food intake, weight gain/loss, activity level, general attitude, and any concerns the owner may have. An assessment of a pet’s level of pain is also included in the examination and history.

Once we have all of our information organized, we have a good idea about whether a pet is healthy and doing well, or not. For the pets that are doing well, there’s not much that we need to do beyond routine preventive care with vaccination, parasite prevention, bloodwork and stool checks. However, many of our patients will have a problem that needs to be addressed. We spend time talking with the owner about what’s wrong and what can be done about it. We put a plan into action to help the pet, then re-evaluate at some point in the future to reassess the situation.

Some conditions can’t be cured, only managed. They become an ongoing part of our evaluations and plans. As patients age, we see problems begin to arise that are simply consequences of being older. Arthritis, loss of sight, lumps bumps and tumors, dental disease, mental decline… these are just a few of the chronic issues we deal with on a daily basis with our older pets.

It rapidly becomes very important to look at the big picture. We understand that older pets or certain illnesses are going to mean that a pet isn’t “100% healthy and problem-free.” Bearing that in mind, we ned a way to evaluate whether a patient is living a good life. We need to know if the treatment we’re providing is good enough that we aren’t being unfair to our pets by asking them to suffer. These are difficult subjective questions to talk over with owners. Each pet requires an assessment based on a smaller number of very specific guidelines which help us decide if a patient is doing well enough or needs more intervention.

One of the least specific questions we ask is, “Are there more good days or bad days?” This one’s tough for the veterinary team but great for owners. You know your pets better than anyone, so you’ll know if they’re having a bad day. You’ll recognize subtle changes in personality, activity level, enjoyment of toys/treats/activities, and sleeping patterns. Many older pets do have some days that are worse than others, and we have to be lenient about that. Things aren’t going to be perfect. That being said, a pet that’s having more bad days than good ones needs help to get back to more good days than bad.

Back in 1993, the United Kingdom’s Farm Animal Welfare Council developed a way to evaluate living conditions for farm animals. They’re quite easy to adapt to companion animals, too. They utilized a concept called “The Five Freedoms.”

1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst
2. Freedom from Discomfort
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury, and Disease
4. Freedom from Fear and Distress
5. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior

These five criteria touch on the most basic parts of a life that we could consider ‘good.’ The most basic things — eating, for example — MUST be present for that animal’s life to be considered good. Without those, we’re doing any animal a disservice by continuing without changes to improve the animal’s status.

A veterinarian named Dr. Villalobos created a Quality of Life Scale that can be used to evaluate domestic pets. Each of the following criteria is evaluated on a 0-10 scale, with 0 being worst and 10 being best. It’s useful for both the veterinary team and the owner to fill this out for patients who need evaluation. We each have unique insights that, when combined, provide the most accurate assessment of quality.

HURT – Adequate pain control, including breathing ability, is first and foremost on the scale. Is the pet’s pain successfully managed? Is oxygen necessary?

HUNGER – Is the pet eating enough? Does hand feeding help? Does the patient require a feeding tube?

HYDRATION – Is the patient dehydrated? For patients not drinking enough, use subcutaneous fluids once or twice daily to supplement fluid intake.

HYGIENE – The patient should be brushed and cleaned, particularly after elmination. Avoid pressure sores and keep all wounds clean.

HAPPINESS – Does the pet express joy and interest? Is the pet responsive to things around him or her (family, toys, etc.)? Is the pet depressed, lonely, anxious, bored or afraid? Can the pet’s bed be close to the family activities and not be isolated?

MOBILITY – Can the patient get up without assistance? Does the pet need human or mechanical help (e.g. a cart)? Does the pet feel like going for a walk? Is the pet having seizures or stumbling? (Some caregivers feel euthanasia is preferable to amputation, yet an animal who has limited mobility but is still alert and responsive can have a good quality of life as long as caregivers are committed to helping the pet.)

MORE GOOD DAYS THAN BAD – When bad days outnumber good days, quality of life might be compromised. When a healthy human-animal bond is no longer possible, the caregiver must be made aware the end is near. The decision needs to be made if the pet is suffering. If death comes peacefully and painlessly, that is okay.

A score over 35 is considered an “acceptable” quality of life. Download a nice PDF of the assessment sheet here.

This is always a touchy area with owners. I believe the most owners know in their hearts when quality of life isn’t good enough. However, acknowledging that means that we have to accept the fact that a pet is in trouble and needs help, or will need to be put to sleep. If the condition that is causing life to be poor is easily addressed, the pet gains tremendous benefit and can have quality go way up. Sometimes, though, the harsh reality is that there will be a limit to what can be done. We have to be fair, we have to be selfless, and we have to be realistic. Letting go is insanely difficult, a fact that -any- pet owner understands. From my side of the table, I have seen clients make poor decisions about quality of life that they ultimately regret. I don’t say this to be judgmental or to preach. Seeing the truth is difficult at best, not to mention emotionally painful in many ways.

The Quality of Life assessments, when started -early- and used often, can help us identify small problems before we’re trying to push a boulder up a hill. All too often, I see pets that have had declining quality of life that the owner overlooked until it’s so bad that the pet is in horrible shape. In some cases, the owners elect to euthanize. In others, they ask, “What can we do to save him?” That second question is guaranteed to bring about an extremely difficult answer. Whether it’s the high financial cost to try to get a pet with lots of problems back on its feet, or a disease we simply can’t do anything about at that point, the pet is the one who has suffered its way to that point in time.

We can do so much better than that. Every single one of the quality criteria in that list can be worked on and improved. “Pawspice” care can be a wonderful way to ease pets through their golden years, but only if we have the courage and dedication to acknowledge that it’s needed.

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Pets in Pain

“He doesn’t seem like he’s in any pain, so I’m not worried about it.”

I hear that phrase numerous times a week, usually after I broach the topic of a condition that we know is painful. Pain in pets is a concept that’s evolved considerably over the years. There was a time when veterinarians didn’t send home pain medication after surgery. The ‘rational’ justification for that was because “pets don’t feel pain” and “if they’re not in pain, they’ll move around too much after surgery.” It was an incredibly sad state of affairs that I consider a very dark time in our profession.

There are some things we’re certain of. Damage to the body is painful. We can safely assume that surgery is painful. We can safely assume that things like chronic dental disease and arthritis are painful. The human body responds in certain ways to pain. We see these same responses in dogs and cats. Even when we have a pet fully anesthetized, with pain medication on board, we see the heart rate and breathing rate increase when a painful stimulus such as a surgical incision is applied. Pets DO feel pain, there’s no doubt about that.

Identifying pain in animals isn’t always easy. The signs can be subtle. In addition, we expect that as pets age, they’ll slow down some and behave a little differently. The trouble is that those signs overlap the signs of pain in pets. Pets also have some natural instincts to mask the signs of pain (or illness) that we assume are a holdover from needing to survive in the wild. These factors make it a challenge to identify pain.

Some of the common signs of pain are:

-Less activity

-Lack of appetite

-Increased sleeping

-Aggressive behavior or other changes in social behavior

-Limping, hunched back

-Not jumping up/down off the furniture, difficulty with stairs

-Hiding behavior in cats

Some problems in pets that we assume would be painful are more difficult to assess. Dental pain is one such problem. People report severe pain from some dental conditions, but often, pets will continue to crunch up dry food even with severe dental disease being present. I don’t think it’s fair to say that they’re NOT in pain. I believe that the need to eat is such a basic life requirement that pets endure the pain. (Some owners notice that the pet isn’t chewing the food, or won’t chew treats/toys anymore.) Dental pain and arthritis pain are the two things I see most commonly.

Thankfully, we now have far, far more options to help pets that are in pain. We have a very wide variety of medications that are safe, effective, and inexpensive. Some medications are fairly costly ($1-$3 a day), but I would certainly hope that owners would try to find a way to provide for their pet. Conditions like dental disease can be treated directly to decrease pain directly.

I personally deal with chronic pain. I think most everyone at least knows a family member that endures chronic pain as well, be it back pain or arthritis or other injury. Pain utterly changes who you are as an individual. It’s exhausting. The relief of this pain (even if it’s not 100% gone) completely changes the outlook. Relief from the pain restores a remarkable amount of quality to your life.

It’s no different for our pets. They don’t deserve to suffer in silence. If nothing else, if you’ve noticed any of the signs above, or your pet has a condition that you know is painful, ask what can be done to ease that pain.


Filed under behavior, medicine, pain

Cat Behavior : The Indoor Pet Initiative

Domestic cat sleepingCat owners, this week’s post is especially for you! There’s info for dog owners at the site I’ll be talking about, too.

Veterinary medicine has made some tremendous gains in treating our patients when they are ill. Nearly all of the specialties available to humans are also available to pets – cardiology, ophthalmology, internal medicine, oncology, and many more. One of the underutilized specialties in vet med is behavior.

Owners have known for a long, long time what needs to be done to have a happy, content dog. General needs for dogs, generally, match our own social and homemaking needs, so they’re easy to understand. Frequent and energetic social contact suits most dogs just fine. They travel well in general and enjoy recreation with their owners.

Cats, on the other hand, have quite a few special needs to ensure their lives are low-stress and fulfilling. They’re a little harder to understand, too, because they include things like a quiet, safe refuge away from people and short, non-confining periods of social interaction. Lots of natural behaviors — instincts — are still very strong in cats. Hunting and scratching are two of the more obvious instincts we recognize. Hiding, observing, perching, and familiarity are some of the less obvious but still very important cat needs.

A website developed by The Ohio State University’s veterinary school has become an absolutely fantastic resource for learning about what makes a cat tick. It’s called The Indoor Pet Initiative. It provides some amazing insights into how to make your home perfect for your cat. It covers everything from litterboxes to scratching posts to what sorts of things can stress a cat out. I highly recommend that all cat owners spend some time reading the site. I learned a few things I can do for my own cat to lower her stress!

There’s a strong debate about whether cats should be indoors or outdoors. I will strongly defend the idea that “outside is dangerous” for cats. Outdoor cats have a life expectancy of around 4 years. Deaths occur because of being hit by cars, killed by other animals (dogs), or contracting a fatal disease like Feline Immunodeficiency Virus or Feline Leukemia. These are horrible, painful deaths! Outdoor cats are also plagued by fleas, ear mites, upper respiratory infections, and intestinal parasites. We can protect cats from some of the diseases and most of the parasites, but there’s not a darned thing we can do about cars and other animals. Cats are simply safer if kept indoors.

With the proper home environment, cats can life a fulfilling and happy life inside your home. There are safe ways to allow your cat to experience the outdoors with direct supervision, as well. The Indoor Pet Initiative gives cat owners all of the information they’ll need to provide a fantastic home environment. Happy indoor cats have a life expectancy of 12 to 18 years.

Indoor cats will live, on average, three times longer than outdoor cats. I can’t think of anyone that would knowingly trade 2/3 of their own life just to engage in dangerous activities. If we can provide a happy, fulfilling indoor home for our cats, why would we subject them to the penalty of 2/3 of their lives?

Take some time to read through the Indoor Pet Initiative. It’s well worth the time for both dog and cat owners!


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