Watch Tip: Learn Signs of Pain in Cats and Dogs

Posted on January 8th, 2012 by Anna Nirva


Learn to recognize signs of pain in dogs and cats so that you can take appropriate action and prevent extreme suffering. Cats typically mask pain and many dogs do as well. The signs may be subtle but you can recognize them if you are prepared. As you travel through your daily life, be ready to help an animal in distress. You may save a life.

All animals deserve treatment to relieve their suffering

You certainly believe that but be aware that many people do not; they will ignore suffering in their animals. For centuries prevailing wisdom advised that the lesser animals did not feel pain like people do, possibly because people didn’t understand how to read the subtle symptoms of pain. Maybe they were taught to discount what signs they did observe. Remember, veterinary science is a recent innovation.

Cat pain or illness symptoms are particularly difficult to discern and a cat might be critically ill by the time the signs are evident. This sadly happened to our dear adopted cat Lucinda a few weeks ago and this post is dedicated to her memory. By the time she quit eating a day before Christmas Eve, she was already terminally ill, but she didn’t act sick. She slept more over the next two days; sleeping and refusing food were the only signs that she didn’t feel good. We took her to the vet the day after Christmas Day; she seemed weak.  She was diagnosed with severe non-regenerative anemia, cause unknown; her hemoglobin reading was the lowest the vet had seen in all his years of practice. We had to say goodbye. The suddenness of her decline and death was stupifying. We were horrified that we hadn’t provided treatment sooner.

Cats hide pain or illness instinctively. They are unlikely to vocalize when experiencing distress, but some will as pain advances. Know your cat’s routines and habits; be aware of changes. Symptoms of pain or ill health in cats include:

  • Change in routine, personality or activity levels
  • Loss of energy/more sleeping  OR  anxiety/agitation/aggression
  • Sitting on all four paws tucked under body, hunched posture, withdrawn
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid breathing or panting, inward expression
  • Favoring of a certain body part; tenderness; licking of sore spot
  • Fur looks unkempt

Read the Colorado State University’s “Feline Acute Pain Scale” to learn more about identifying signs of pain in cats.

Dogs are more variable in their expression of pain. Some dogs and breeds (notably the bully breeds) are stoic while some other individuals will provide many clear evidences of discomfort.

  • Whining or whimpering
  • Panting, rapid breathing, shivering, inward expression
  • Change in routine, personality or activity levels
  • Loss of energy/more sleeping  OR  anxiety/agitation/aggression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Favoring or presentation of a certain body part; tenderness; licking of sore spot

This is the dog version of the Colorado State University’s pain scale.

The most important advice is to know the behavior and habits of your own animals; be watchful and curious. If you are observing possible pain-related behavior of a neighbor’s pet or a stray, advocate for them. Contact your neighbor and describe your observances. Even in a note taped to an entrance works. See the Sunbear Squad “Pocket Poster” you can download and post at your neighbor’s. We have a Spanish language version available too.

If you find a stray that appears to be in pain or ill, take the animal to a vet if you live in an area served by a shelter or pound that you do not trust to uphold humane standards of care. If your area is served by a compassionate organization, contact them.

Watch Tip: Expecting Families

Posted on January 2nd, 2012 by Anna Nirva

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Be aware that expecting families may be under emotional pressure from family and friends to give away their dogs and cats for safety reasons. This is a very frequent cause of animals entering shelters and pounds. After a few days of stress, confusion and depression, many will sadly lose their lives. With terrible irony, the new human life sometimes results in death to the once-loved family pet.

Advise expecting families that they don’t have to give up their pets

As young families prepare for the most exciting event of their lives, new birth, they are typically deluged with well-meaning advice from every direction. One common piece of advise is to rid the home of dogs and/or cats. Some are concerned that cats will cause health problems with pregnancy. Others are concerned that dogs will attack babies. Still others believe that a new family will not have time or money for pets any longer. If the pet isn’t fully housetrained, that causes clear concern for basic hygiene for everyone but especially for a crawling baby.

Sometimes the expecting families have a change of heart about keeping pets. At the shelter where I volunteer frequently, a pregnant woman callously remarked to staff that “babies and dog hair don’t mix” as she filled out her paperwork to surrender an clearly worried little Corgi mix.  The woman had no empathy for her dog’s feelings of confusion. If only she knew how animals suffer when separated from their family and when they suddenly find themselves trapped in wire cages enveloped by strange noises and smells.

You might be able to offer a different perspective as an animal lover. Our farming heritage provides one such point. Many generations of farmers and herders around the world have managed to raise healthy children surrounded by various animals large and small. While keeping animals is not without risk, adult knowledge and common sense prevails to keep youngsters safe. Young veterinarians provide another perspective; they typically don’t give up their pets when pregnant, yet they are more aware of the risks due to their profession. Remind them that children learn responsibility at a young age by helping to care for family pets; they learn compassion and empathy if guided appropriately by parents and older siblings. They experience the deep joy of connecting with a special animal.

Provide resources to expecting families

If you are close to the expecting family with a pet or pets, think about offering some support. You might be able to walk the dog on a schedule or offer extra help when introducing the pets to the newly arrived baby. You might offer help with housetraining if needed. You might offer to regularly clean the cat box (to prevent exposure to toxoplasmosis), if another family member isn’t available.

See these resources online and share with expecting families:

Watch Tip Classic: Fireworks and Holidays

Posted on December 25th, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch and listen for stray pets who panic when holiday fireworks detonate—they may bolt through traffic or get lost. They might eat live or spent fireworks casings left on the ground. Be alert for violent cruelty to animals during this holiday in particular, when some troubled people become overexcited or aggressive!

Holidays are always high-risk for pets. Be vigilant.

What effects do all holidays have on your household? Holiday event schedules are busy and stressful. Your home might fill up with visitors and special dishes. Entrance doors and gates swing open and shut more often, and with so many distractions, tempting foods may be left out on counters. Spills occur and containers of cleaning supplies appear. New and unfamiliar people visit at odd hours. Interesting (sometimes fragrant) wrapped gifts and packages are sitting out.

Your dogs and cats are very attuned to these changes and they may become anxious or overexcited. They may be unsupervised in all of the hubbub and explore what they shouldn’t. It’s no wonder that accidents happen around holidays, and companion animals are so often involved.

Veterinarians will tell you that clinics are especially busy after any major holiday, and some of the stories are very sad—and almost always, the accidents preventable. Shelters and rescues will tell you that they get more calls to surrender dogs and cats around the holidays as well, often for behavior (lack of training) issues relating to holiday activities. This anxious adolescent puppy (pictured) was dumped on a SW Wisconsin county road just before a holiday. (She was adopted by a more responsible and loving family.)

Please be vigilant in your neighborhood and advocate for those who have no voice during any holiday. Be proactive in your home. If you expect visitors, crate your dogs and keep your cats in a safe room.

Remember, holidays are not celebrated for companion animals. They actually don’t mix well at all!

Watch Tip: Give to Local Animal Welfare Groups

Posted on December 17th, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch Tip LogoGive to your local, independent animal rescues and shelters today, if you want to support the daily work of re-homing abandoned and neglected animals. The big national organizations do not support daily operations in your area. They don’t buy kibble for your local strays. They just look like they do.


When you look into the sweet, earnest faces of a rescue cat or dog, imagine seeing a large choir of human faces surrounding them. Slow your thoughts and see these people come into focus. They are young and old; they are brown- and olive- and white-skinned; they are poor and prosperous; and they are passionate. They share the same goal: save this one you see in front of you right now.

Imagine the rescuer, the foster family, many transporters, walkers and cuddlers, caregivers, veterinary staff that discount for rescue animals. These are the volunteers and low-paid staffers who have already given of themselves to bring this cherished animal to this adoption web site or this event or facility. These unheralded local heroes are critically important to the life of this one furry face looking up at you. They saved this one. Can’t you see them?

You must understand that it has been a devastating couple of years for this choir of rescuers. The harsh economy caused millions more animals to be abandoned or neglected. Rescues and shelters are swelled over-full of hopeful animals; they are forced to say “no” to needy dogs and cats much more often—which is a painful moment each time. The economy caused potential adopters to hesitate and turn away. It caused caring donors to close their checkbooks with a whispered “I’m sorry, I can’t right now.” Some rescues and shelters talk about closing their doors and some have already closed.

The large national organizations did not open any overflow facilities during this economic downturn. They did not divert their substantial income streams to benefit the daily operations of openly-struggling local rescues and shelters. With eloquent fundraising letters, pretty calendars, and heart-rending pictures of sick or injured animals in cages, they talk about their work. Much of their work is extremely helpful—grants for spay-neuter efforts, special teams for rescuing animals in disasters, educational materials, influencing legislation to protect animals. But they never send any checks to your local groups to buy food or pay for routine vet care or support daily caregiver payrolls.

If your local group is named “humane society” or “SPCA” take note: these are just common names that everyone uses, like Kleenex. Some groups are actually changing their names, a big long-term project, because they believe donations will go up, no longer appearing to be supported by a wealthy national organization.

These are desperate times for local, independent animal welfare groups. Can you help your local groups this year? Will you?

Watch Tip: Christmas Pets Part 2

Posted on November 27th, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch Tip LogoIf someone you know is set on purchasing a new puppy or kitten for Christmas, give guidance. They should watch out for greedy backyard breeders of diseased or parasite-infested puppies and kittens. Backyard breeders and puppy/kitten mills maximize profit by reducing costs of care below humane standards. Insist on viewing the parents: are they healthy, socialized and of good weight? Insist on viewing the nursery area: is it clean, comfortable, and warm? If they make excuses why not—run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction.

Continued from last week:

Responsible breeders can be very different. I’d like to describe a few. I toured what might be termed a “commercial” German Shepherd Dog breeder’s operation in  mid-summer. They show, breed and train dogs, sell their puppies, and they run a boarding kennel and retail dog supply store as well. Trophies and ribbons lined the walls. Their puppies start at $1,000 and the litter of twelve 4-week-old puppies that I played with were all spoken for. This business has never placed a newspaper ad to sell their puppies. I toured the entire place; it was a last-minute unplanned tour for guests at a neighboring relative’s party. Without exception, it was clean, bright, and neutral-smelling throughout the facility. The three whelping rooms each featured one large window along the hall, so the nursing mom and puppies could be watched without disturbance. Each included a high-sided box that the mom could step into to get a bit of privacy if she wanted. One unused whelping room was a foster home for two cats needing homes. All of their owned cats were fixed and they wandered freely around the facility. The non-breeding dogs were kept in large chain link pens inside a large metal outbuilding with cement floors. The entire property was well-kept and orderly. The boarding kennels were full.

“Hobby” breeders are small high-quality operations. Typically they show or compete with their dogs or cats and raise one or two litters per year inside of the home; the baby pets are well-socialized as a result.  They hope to raise and train a champion (or several) and have specific breed-furthering goals in mind. They place their “show quality” pets in show homes and their “pet quality” littermates with qualified families (reservations and references usually required). Because they are love the breed, they check the health of parents and grandparents of their breeding dogs to avoid passing along known congenital disorders. Their enthusiasm for their breed could sweep a customer into participating in some new activities with the new pets.

What are the hallmarks of responsible breeders?

Share these reasonable expectations for good breeding operations with your family or friends who are determined to purchase a puppy from a breeder. If your family or friends don’t get good advice, they could easily end up perpetuating the abject misery of those poor dogs and cats who are trapped in mills, and worse, they might suffer the loss of a baby pet.

  • The litters are in demand, reserved in advance; waiting lists are typical.
  • They require a purchase contract and references before purchasing one of their offspring.
  • They require sterilization contracts for their pet quality offspring.
  • They run health checks on the parents and grandparents to prevent breeding of known defects (for instance, some gene pools contain defective genes for epilepsy or hip dysplasia which you want to avoid).
  • They allow viewing of breeding parents, kennels, nurseries, whelping pens (the sire might not be on site).
  • Many display ribbons and trophies won by their animals, as well as show or competition photos.
  • They provide all recommended new puppy and kitten shots and de-wormers.
  • They require the return of their offspring if they are no longer wanted and find new homes for them.
  • Many run small rescues or donate to rescues for their breeds. You might adopt a returned pet from a breeder like the Obama family did!

If the breed of dog typically has docked tails or ears, such as a Boxer, be sure to specify in advance if “natural” tails or ears are preferred, because some surgeries may be performed on very young puppies.

Use this questionnaire (pdf) to guide questions that can help identify a responsible breeder.

Local breed club members are excellent resources in a search for reputable breeders. Ask your vet for recommendations. Local shelters and rescues can be good sources of information for which breeders to avoid. If you read the classifieds, look for advertised bloodlines and champions to identify more serious breeders who might be more careful to breed only animals that have passed health checks.

RED FLAGS: When you call, explain that you want to view the breeding parents and the nursery. If the response is “no, you might be carrying diseases,” cross them off your list. This is the standard excuse used by a puppy or kitten mill. (Common sense tells you that if they were seriously worried about you spreading dangerous diseases, they would not let you handle a baby pet or even visit.) Definitely pass over those breeders that do not provide the first round of shots and wormer, which indicates a backyard breeder. Those pickup trucks selling puppies at Walmart? Well, if you’ve read this far, I know you’ll be suspicious about that! Drive on.

Remember that purebreed rescues are active in all breeds and some will have baby pure- or part-bred pets from time to time. Your friend or family member might be surprised at how rewarding the adoption process can be!

Watch Tip: Christmas Pets Part 1

Posted on November 27th, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch Tip LogoIf someone you know is set on purchasing a new puppy or kitten for Christmas, give guidance. They should watch out for greedy backyard breeders of diseased or parasite-infested puppies and kittens. Backyard breeders and puppy mills maximize profit by reducing costs of care below humane standards. Insist on viewing the parents: are they healthy, socialized and of good weight? Insist on viewing the nursery area: is it clean, comfortable, and warm? If they make excuses why not—run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction.

Three rules:

  1. Healthy mother with groomed fur, no scratching, no hip bones showing (and father, if possible in this age of artificial insemination)
  2. Clean, fresh-smelling nursery (a few small “accidents” are allowable, but not diarrhea)
  3. Healthy litter of lively bright-eyed puppies or kittens, with shots and wormed

Her new puppy was dead within the week!

Imagine the heartache and the unplanned expenses of trying to save a dying baby pet. I just heard the story yesterday from a new adopter at the shelter where I volunteer. She had purchased a puppy from a disease-infested small country breeder and she couldn’t talk about losing her puppy without tears. She saw one puppy squirt watery diarrhea, a sign of disease, when she was buying hers. Did you know that healthy puppies shouldn’t have diarrhea—they should excrete firm little logs? She did not know that.

“Pudding” diarrhea is not normal either. Brown watery diarrhea with puddles of dark blood is a DIRE emergency; the puppy is likely to die within hours. I resolved to write about this in memory of her puppy and the memory of all puppies who died this week from preventable diseases because they didn’t get their shots. Read my post about puppy shots here.

But even worse is how breeding parents are treated in the mills

The puppies or kittens, if they don’t get sick, are the lucky ones—because they escape the miserable life of their parents. The breeding parents suffer horribly for years confined in small pens or cages. They develop skin diseases, eye and ear infections, dental disease, foot and teeth injuries from wire pens, and parasite infestations. They are usually starved. And they die never having known a kind hand or soothing voice. You’ve likely seen pitiful images of breeding parents with matted fur and vacant eyes. For sensitive animal lovers, these realities inflame and incite armies of activism designed to eliminate abusive breeding practices.

“Backyard” breeders are small-scale puppy or kitten mills (or horses or other commercially-viable animals).  Typically an inexperienced animal lover will decide to begin breeding to make some extra money. I worked with someone who bred Boston Terriers and Miniature Horses for a few years. They provided decent care to their breeding animals. The family incurred large veterinary bills for unplanned cesarean sections of the Boston puppies. (This breed usually requires cesarean births.) They had buyers suddenly returning unwanted dogs and horses. Because this family wasn’t experienced, they made beginners mistakes and suffered troubled relationships with customers. They eventually sold all of their animals, even their house pets, and moved into town. It’s hard to make money selling animals. Some backyard breeders don’t give up–they just cut back expenses every way possible, leading to abuse.

To be continued next week.

Watch Tip: First-time Pet Owners

Posted on November 13th, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch Tip LogoFirst-time pet owners, especially those who have not grown up with a pet in the family, may lack the knowledge needed to keep the pet safe and healthy.  They may not understand the physical and emotional needs of their a young puppy or kitten. If your neighbors or friends are first-time pet owners, watch and listen for signs of problems. Offer friendly advice, loans of pet-related items and even pet sitting to the new family. Be a voice for that pet; you could even save a life.

Puppy was dangerously neglected by an ignorant owner

A reader recently wrote to me about how her sister made a dramatic, life-saving rescue of a neglected puppy; the story is now posted on our stories page. I love hearing from readers with true-life rescues like this. Sometimes hearing a new story like this enriches my understanding of the root of neglect, which is ignorance. The short-haired puppy was chained continuously to a picnic table in a northern climate and winter was coming on. The chain was very short and it was deeply embedded in her growing neck. I won’t spoil the story by telling you more; read it. It does have a heart-warming ending.

I imagine that the puppy’s original owner made an impulsive decision to adopt a cute, free puppy offered at a yard sale or something like that. The owner was not prepared nor knowledgeable nor even thoughtful. The owner was flatly oblivious. If the kind-hearted rescuer had not been curious about source of the pitiful whining on the other side of the fence, that puppy would have certainly died of exposure within a few hours. This type of scenario is unfortunately all too common. And while I don’t recommend theft as a solution to neglect, certainly the owner violated state animal neglect laws. It was a tricky situation. I know I would not have turned my back on that suffering puppy either.

Does a first-time dog owner know that a picnic table is not safe shelter?

We all have learned one way or another that a picnic table is not shelter for pets. A deck is not a dog house, nor is a clothesline pole. A tree trunk is not a dog house. The side of a house is not shelter. A hole under a porch is not shelter either. A proper shelter in most climates is a dog house; it has a raised floor and a roof and walls and a doorway. (Read my Watch Tip about adequate shelter.)

But first-time pet owners might see dogs living in neglectful conditions and make the assumption that it is acceptable thereby perpetuating the practice. That’s one of the ways we learn, through observation. If that learning is not reinterpreted by someone more knowledgeable, we remain ignorant, sometimes dangerously so. And so puppies continued to be tied to picnic tables with chains that are too short. So first-time owners don’t understand that puppies need their collars expanded weekly while they are growing. They have not been taught so.

First-time owners might not know how to house-train their puppies

I wonder if the puppy in the story above was banished from the house for peeing on the carpet. It happens so often! Many dogs end up in pounds and shelters because their owners didn’t learn how to house-train them, or for intact male dogs, they didn’t learn that neutering prevents territorial marking (if house-trained). In the shelter where I volunteer, we have had three recent toy dog strays, all intact male dogs, all extremely cute. Today I photographed two of them and they both marked spots within seconds of entering the room. Nothing more need be said.

First-time owners might not understand the importance of spaying and neutering

Our nation is experiencing a crisis in feral cat overpopulation. Cats, both feral and domesticated, are more likely to be euthanized in pounds and shelters than dogs. Inexperienced cat owners likely don’t understand how quickly young cats can reproduce. Even experienced dog owners might not provide sterilization surgery to cats, who are second-class pet citizens in some families. First-time owners might not understand that kitten shots and parasite treatments are absolutely necessary as well.

I’m so grateful that kittens raised with litter boxes nearby easily train themselves! That instinct alone has saved millions of lives I think.

Share your knowledge of pet care, house-training, and your love of companion animals with neighbors and friends, especially first-time owners. You’ll be bringing so much good into the world!

Watch Tip: Roaming Cats and Dogs

Posted on October 16th, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch Tip LogoThe single most important factor contributing to accidental injury or death of companion animals is roaming. If a dog or cat is roaming, it is likely to encounter a serious problem sooner or later. Vehicle traffic, wild predators, deranged persons and many other unseen dangers are out there. If your neighbor allows a pet to roam continually, say something. You may save a life.

Door hangers make it easy to send a life-saving message

Sunbear Squad now has free “Loose Dog Dangers” and “Loose Cat Dangers” door hangers available for downloading. These files when printed and cut out will enable you to communicate simply and quickly with others in your neighborhood and community. The dog and cat door hangers list the many dangers that a roaming pet may encounter. For the uninformed, the list may be a powerful deterrent.

Download door hanger files here.

Watch Tip: Physical Punishment

Posted on October 9th, 2011 by Anna Nirva


Watch for physical punishment of cats, dogs and other helpless companion animals, such as swatting, whipping, kicking, beating, and throwing. Frustrated owners who don’t know how to train their animals lose their tempers and become violent. Some frightened animals will defend themselves with teeth and claws, some will escalate their unwanted behavior, some will panic and defecate, and others will utterly collapse in terror. They may be traumatized for life. Please intervene to calm the situation or call law enforcement immediately.

Excessive physical punishment teaches the pet that his owner is dangerous

The pet likely has no idea why his beloved owner turned on him. His protector is suddenly crazed, dangerous, and hurtful—the very opposite of a protector. His owner is unpredictable and can’t be trusted. The pet might extend that distrust to all people, or all men, or all children. The pet might begin to see the world as a dangerous place because he doesn’t have a protector anymore. He must fend for himself.

A puppy waited in the back seat of a sedan in a Colorado Walmart parking lot for his family to return, worried. Finally he saw them. He watched them approach and grew more fearful by the moment. He trembled and circled uneasily on the seat. He started to whine. Finally he defecated in panic. He tried to crawl under the seat. The door opened and his owner picked him up by the scruff of the neck and threw him to the ground while still gripping his neck, shouting obscenities. Again the puppy was picked up and thrown to the ground, and again and again. The puppy flung his head from side to side, trying to bite the big hand that held him by the neck. The family watched unhappily.

Two woman ran up, screaming at the abuser to stop. He stopped and held his dirty trembling puppy, breathing hard, red-faced. He shouted in frustration that he beat his puppy because “he always shits in my car!” (Very understandable!) He told his family to get in the car with the puppy and they drove away fast. But the women got the license plate number and reported the incident to police, who promised to follow up.

I worry about the fate of this dog today and about the fate of many thousands of dogs and cats treated similarly. If they end up in municipal pounds, their lives of terror and neglect will finally end in the “euthanasia hold,” a method of restraining a struggling animal that shelter workers use to reduce the likelihood of being bitten.

Keep in mind that frustrated pet owners beating their animals are likely not criminal-minded individuals but they are out of control and could be dangerous to you as well as the pet. Use all care when approaching them or call 9-1-1. Animal abuse is a felony or misdemeanor in all 50 states.

Watch Tip: Contaminated Water

Posted on October 2nd, 2011 by Anna Nirva

Watch Tip LogoWatch out for standing water—don’t let your dogs and cats drink it, especially young and baby pets or pets with compromised immune systems. Avoid puddles: antifreeze, ice melt chemicals, cleaners can poison your pet. Stay away from livestock tanks and buckets. Don’t let dogs swim in unknown ponds or streams. Be proactive and bring fresh water from home for both of you when visiting a dog park or hiking trail because algae, parasites and bacteria may be present.  Many of the same water-borne diseases affect people too.

Water can carry diseases that affect pets, domestic animals, wildlife, and people too!

Even when the water looks clean, don’t trust it. The cleanest streams tumbling down polished rocks can carry tiny protozoa like Giardia, Leptospira or Campylobacter, which infects companion animals, domestic animals, wildlife and people. These organisms may live for long periods in certain conditions. Many animals and people become carriers, never showing signs of illness while others get diarrhea and other symptoms, sometimes extreme.

Don’t trust water from wherever animals congregate, unless you have good reason to. Those invisible organisms find their way from old feces in the grass to running paws to water containers, and infected animals might never show a sign of illness. But the very young, old, or already-compromised cat or dog might become deathly ill or could develop dangerous complications.

Always wash your hands with soap after petting or handling unknown animals to reduce transmission of diseases to your pets or your human family. Be sure to disinfect your vehicle or home surfaces if you have rescued or helped a stray animal; a solution of tablespoon of bleach to a gallon of water will likely kill those organisms on surfaces. Wash your clothes too!