Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Shelter Pets: Love on Four Legs

Today is the last day of November. It is also Shelter Pets Day on Facebook! In celebration, people have been encouraged to share their own shelter pet stories, so I'd like to share mine. Both of our current cats and my service dog were shelter animals. Yes, I said my service dog is a shelter alumni, but more on that in a minute.

We adopted Meisha, a 3-year-old torti cat, on April 6, 2000. We had been to the Humane Society of Chittenden County the day before to look at cats, and had seen this shy, scared beauty huddled in the farthest corner of her cage. We didn't know until the next day that she was just getting over a urinary tract infection. Not wanting to further traumatize her, we left her alone and socialized with a few others that needed homes, but none seemed to "click."

The following day, we went back to the shelter and decided to ask if we could take the torti into a room to see if she would feel a bit more at ease. Soon after we were settled, she jumped up in my arms and cuddled against my shoulder, purring. She also let my husband and children hold her, and we knew she was the one for us.

However, when we got her home, she refused to let us pick her up and seemed rather aloof. Having had two previous homes before coming to ours, she had no way of knowing that ours would be permanent, and most likely didn't dare risk getting attached. Three months later, she developed a life-threatening liver infection. She stopped eating, her weight plummeted from 9 pounds to 7, and we rushed her to our vet, where the prognosis wasn't good. However, with the excellent care from the vets at VCA Brown Animal Hospital, and our love and support, Meisha pulled through. From that point on, she began to open up to us, but very slowly. It took two years of patience and encouragement on our part, another life-threatening illness, and surgery to remove several bladder stones (the cause of her chronic urinary tract infections) before she learned to fully trust us and blossomed into the confident, happy, "Queen of the house" that she is today.

Meisha hasn't had it easy. A couple of years ago, she developed a very rare eye condition that has caused her to lose her sight in one eye, and will at some point, most likely cause total blindness. At nearly 14 years of age, in spite of her health issues, she still gets around well, is an incredibly loving, confident companion, and we feel blessed to share her life.

In 2005, my doctor told me it was time to get a service dog. I'd had dogs growing up, but after my husband and I married, we lived in apartments where either dogs were not allowed, or pets were banned altogether. Although dogs are not allowed as pets where we currently live, service dogs are. The first place I looked was the website for the Humane Society of Chittenden County, and there I found the photo of a gorgeous Australian Shepherd-Collie mix. Having had two Border Collies in my late teens and twenties, I had a deep love for the herding breeds and knew them to be intelligent, easy to train, and good with children. Since a lot of children live in our apartment complex, this was one of my main concerns.

My husband had not grown up with dogs, and had somewhat of a phobia since he'd been attacked by one in the past. However, he trusted my instincts when it came to picking out a dog. When he saw Mindy, his first thought was, "My gosh, she's HUGE!" Weighing in at around 100 lb., she certainly was a big girl; but she was just what I needed. As we were filling out the adoption papers, another family came in to look at her. Had we been five minutes later, we might have missed out. And so, Mindy joined our family.

Service dogs usually begin training as puppies, and most training programs will not accept dogs that are older than two years of age. Mindy was six years old with a crooked paw (the result of being shot as a puppy) and no training except what they had done at the shelter. We enrolled her in an obedience class at HSCC which she passed with flying colors. Then, through a group in Arizona that helps people train their own service dogs, I began training Mindy in the service behaviors I needed her to perform. She learned very quickly, even adapting some of the procedures to make them easier on both of us. And if she saw a need, she stepped in to fill it. For example, we have railings on our stairs, but the railing doesn't extend around the landing. About two nights after she'd been with us, Mindy started up the stairs behind me, timing her ascent to arrive at the landing just as I had to let go of the railing so I could place my hand on her back for balance. Then she repeated the process at the top of the stairs, escorting me to the bedroom door.

Because we live in multi-family housing, we didn't want her to bark and annoy the neighbors, so I taught her to use her "indoor voice," a soft woof, when she needed to go out. The only time she barks out loud is to alert me that someone is at the door, or if there is something unusual going on outside so I can check it out. She even has a special UPS bark, and loves the "boys in brown" because they sometimes give her a biscuit.

Mindy will be 12 years old in January, and in spite of showing signs of aging, still fulfills her service duties, and has brought a world of love and joy into our lives--and cured my husband of his dog phobia! We feel so privileged to have her in our family.

Last, but not least, is Micau, a 3-year-old cat we adopted in January of this year from HSCC. When we arrived at the shelter, we told them we needed a cat that was good both with other cats and with dogs. One of the young women there said, "I think we have just what you're looking for," and introduced us to a beautiful, long-haired black and white female. She immediately came over to us, rubbed against our legs, began purring, and let us pick her up. She seemed equally comfortable with both of us, and she had previously lived with cats, dogs, and other animals. We needed to look no further.

Meisha immediately established her superior ranking in the pecking order, and, as she had with Mindy, stood her ground when challenged by our new addition. Mindy accepted Micau right away. Within minutes of bringing her home, Micau found and used the litter pan and began exploring her new domain. She is a very loving, affectionate cat who divides her time between David and me, but will also greet guests and, if they are willing, curl up in their laps. In some ways, Micau is more like a dog--she'll come when called (most of the time--she IS a cat, after all), will follow us from room-to-room, and has learned to tap my hand when she wants a treat. She is a healthy, playful, welcome addition to our household.

Shelter animals make wonderful companions. They truly appreciate being given a second chance to have a forever home, give unconditional love and affection, provide comfort and companionship, are loyal, and worth every penny of what it costs to provide for their care. We feel so fortunate to be able to learn from these animals, to love them, and to share our lives with them. If you're looking for a companion animal, please give those in your local shelters your first consideration. You'll be saving a life and enriching your own.