Feline Communication

While we may never be able to decipher all that our animal friends are trying to tell us, there are some clues that can be observed. Both dogs and cats communicate primarily with body language, but canine and feline communication is quite different – the same behavior in a cat may mean something quite different than it would for a dog.

Audio Cues

The meow has its roots in kittenhood; kittens mew to their mother, but adult cats in the wild do not usually meow to each other. For domesticated cats, we continue to play that parental role so many adult cats meow to their people. We humans reinforce meowing, because we tend to be responsive to it. Meows have many different meanings. It may be a request for attention or food, could indicate confusion, or may be a complaint such as when the kitty is put into a carrier and driven to the vet clinic.

Hissing is often interpreted by people as a sign of aggression, but actually it is a defensive sound for a cat. It says “I feel threatened. Please back off!”

Not much says contentment like the purring of a cat. Purring, combined with kneading, dates back to their time as a nursing kitten. Surprisingly, cats also purr when they are in extreme distress. Stressed, injured, ill, and dying cats are known to purr.

So you can see, deciphering the meaning of cat vocalizations requires observing the visual cues that accompany them.

Visual cues

Confident, happy cats have their tails held high. It can also be a greeting to you or another animal. A drooping tail may indicate a cat that is cautious, unhappy, or not feeling well.

Where a dog’s wagging tail usually indicates anticipation, a cat’s wagging tail may indicate interest or annoyance, depending on the speed. If just the tip of the tail is moving, the cat may be in stalking or play mode or may be feeling frustrated or annoyed. A snapping or thumping tail can indicate that the cat is very irritated. In this case, it is best to leave the cat alone for a while.

When a cat puffs their tail or the fur on their back it usually means that they are afraid, startled, or ready for battle. It can also be part of feline play, especially in kittens. The circumstances will be your best clue to the meaning.

Half closed eyes or slow blinking is a sign of contentment. Some cat experts suggest that if you look at your cat and blink it is like saying “I really like you” to the cat. If you are fortunate, the cat may reciprocate the blink.

Dilated pupils indicate that a cat is intensely interested or very stimulated. An anxious cat may lick their lips.

Watch your cat’s whiskers for more cues. If they are pointing forward, this often indicates that the cat is anticipating something pleasant, a treat or play. If the whiskers are pulled back along with the ears, the cat may be feeling annoyed or stressed.

A happy, relaxed cat’s ears face forward or slightly outward. Cats can move their ears to follow sounds so ear movement may indicate listening, but if an ear is cocked or the ears are pulled back, this may indicate annoyance. Flattened ears let you know that the cat is feeling threatened or defensive and you should back off.

When a cat is in a calm or playful mood and rolls on their back exposing the belly, they are showing trust, but that does not necessarily mean that the cat wants a belly rub.

Scent cues

Cats greet each other by sniffing. They touch noses and sniff each other from behind, too. If a cat sniffs at your face, or turns their hind end to you, these are polite feline greetings.

Rubbing their face, head, or body on objects or people may seem cute to us, but to a cat, it is a form of marking. They have glands on their cheeks that deposit a bit of scent that we cannot smell, but other cats will notice and know that this person or object has been claimed. Obviously, this also indicates affection as a cat would only claim someone they like. The head bonk (butting you with their head) or licking, which is a cat’s way of grooming, are also signs of feline affection.

While you can easily learn cat communication basics, the best and most rewarding communication happens when you really get to know and befriend an individual cat. So start observing your kitty’s subtle communications today!

Taking Great Photos of Your Pets

Capturing the holiday fun in photographs adds to the enjoyment for many of us. But getting good photos of your pets can be frustrating. I may spot Toby, my tabby cat, doing something irresistibly cute, but by the time I get there with the camera it’s all over, or worse still, the image comes out dark or fuzzy.

Clay Myers is a professional photographer for Best Friends Animal Society. He has photographed literally thousands of animals, from wildlife to virtually every kind of pet. Last month alone, he photographed a puppy mill rescue in Colorado, dog rescue transport in Missouri, and feral cats in Portland. I asked Myers to share his top tips with us to improve our holiday pet photos.


“The single most important element in photography is light. When possible, shoot outdoors on an overcast day, in the shade, or indoors by a window. The golden light of sunrise and sunset adds a lot of drama to photos,” explains Myers. “Avoid photographing your pets in harsh, high-noon lighting. This is especially true with black and white pets.”

“Look for good light in your pet’s eyes. Avoid taking photos when your pet’s pupils are large, like when they are in a dark corner of the room, as this will almost always lead to red or green eyes.” Myers knows that pets have a way of doing something adorable or amusing in less than optimal light conditions so that’s when you capture the shot with your flash.

Background and Composition

Myers suggests that you choose backgrounds that are in contrast to the color of your pet. Don’t photograph your black pet against a dark background. Myers mentioned that grass is a great background for dark pets, either green in summer or light brown in winter..

Thinking about how to frame your photo can make it a lot more interesting. “Try to avoid placing every subject in the middle of the frame,” said Myers. “For example, if you’re taking photos of a dog running consider capturing the dog running into the frame, or if a person and a pet looking are to the left, position them to the right of the frame.”

When photographing people and pets, like in a family shot, get everyone in position first and then bring in the pets.


One of the most challenging things when photographing dogs is getting them to look at the camera. “Try having someone stand directly behind you so they can help get the dog to look at the camera,” advises Myers. “Have an assistant try to get the dog’s attention with a squeaky toy, tossing a ball in the air, making high pitched squeals, or panting like a dog.  I call this my Pant and Shoot Technique.”

Shy dogs may become uncomfortable when they are the center of attention for a photo. Myer’s recommends something to put them at ease: “With shy dogs, I find taking photos while they are being walked or petted makes a huge difference.”


“The main photographic feature of cats is their beautiful eyes so be sure to look for good light in their eyes,” said Myers. “Try to capture your cat’s personality whether it’s being lazy, silly, serious, or playing. I like taking close up shots of cats being petted, capturing the pure ecstasy they show.”

Myers said that having an assistant behind you employing his Pant and Shoot Technique works surprisingly well with cats, too.


One of the frustrating aspects of photographing pets with most digital cameras is the delay. Those few seconds are plenty of time for the pet to look away.

Myers explains, “Using a digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera will significantly boost your chances of getting good photos of your pets. Being able to click off several frames will probably lead to more keeper photos. You can purchase a good digital SLR with a lens for around $700- $1,000.”

Improving Your Skills

Myers recommends that taking a photography course or joining a camera club are great ways to expand your skills. “Study the work of other photographers, too. Look at their lighting, composition, and backgrounds. Attention to detail will make you a better photographer,” adds Myers. (You can study some great pet images on Clay Myer’s website, http://www.claymyersphotography.com.)

“Photography helps me see nature, and everything else for that matter, in a new more profound way,” explained Myers. Capturing your pet’s unique personality and the special moments you share can do that same thing for you.

Everyday Miracles at an Animal Shelter

Not a single day passes at our shelter without a lifesaving miracle unfolding before our eyes. Sure, there are lots of challenges and some disappointments, too. In fact the animals’ stories often start as heart-rending, but more often that not with a bit of our TLC and your generosity, the conclusion is nothing short of uplifting. Sometimes it is better than we even dared to hope.

Jack’s story is one of these. Jack arrived as a bedraggled gray and white cat with a broken pelvis, probably the result of a run-in with a car. It took several weeks of TLC but Jack’s injuries healed and last month he was adopted.

“Jack is a great helper.” wrote Jan. “He helps with putting things away, cleaning, and re-arranging. He helps me do the morning crossword puzzle by lazing on my lap and writing arm. I had someone in to install a ceiling fan; we had to shut Jack out of the room because he was much too helpful. Jack is a great snuggle-upper on snowy winter nights, too. Thank you for the opportunity to adopt Jack.”  All I can think when I read that is: no, thank you.

Hope for Orphan Newborn Kittens

Gregory was just one day old when he and his two siblings arrived at the shelter without their mother. His eyes were still shut and his little ears were just tiny flaps. A dedicated foster mom bottle fed the kittens every few hours at first. Eight weeks later they returned to the shelter as robust, fuzzy kittens. Terri and Larry met Gregory here in the shelter and it was love at first sight.

“Thank you for allowing us to adopt Gregory. The minute we got him home it was like Christmas morning for him. He is so happy. He uses the scratching pole, the litter box and loves our other cat, Squeeks. He is so loving,” wrote Terri and Larry.

Love for Dogs with Grey Muzzles

Rusty was 12-years-old when he arrived at animal services as a stray. No one reclaimed him so he came to Nevada Humane Society, but the shelter environment was taking its toll on Rusty. He was losing weight at an alarming rate. Enter Central California Lab Rescue. They whisked Rusty off to a foster home. “He’s starting to fill out really nicely and is having fun with his doggy friends. He is full of energy and loves fetch,” wrote Erica with CC Lab Rescue.

Millie was 10 years old when she was picked up as a stray; as is too often the case no one came to look for her. Linda and her family spotted Millie and adopted her almost a year ago now. “Millie came to live with us just after New Years Day” wrote Linda. “She and Bella, our other German Shorthaired Pointer, play everyday. There’s still a lot of pup in this 10 year old and we are so thankful we found her.”

Care for the Sick and Injured

Gus was only eight months old when he arrived at the shelter last month with the most horribly inflamed eyes we had ever seen. Our veterinarian performed surgery to remove his painful eyes that very day. In spite of his affliction he remained the most delightful little cat. Less than a week later Debbie and Bruce stepped into the shelter looking for a special needs cat, since their older blind kitty had passed away. It was a match made in heaven for Gus and now he is loving life with Debbie and Bruce who love him all the more for his blindness.

Patience for the Frightened

Susan spotted a dog in an empty lot off Virginia Street. No one could get near the dog, but Susan fed her every day for seven months and named her Buddy. Once the snow began to fly Susan became very worried and asked Animal Services to bring out a dog trap. When Buddy arrived at the shelter she was terrified and just cowered in the kennel.  Judy, one of the animal services volunteers, worked with Buddy and now she walks on a leash, sits, shakes hands and plays fetch. Her angel, Susan, continues to visit her and will be adopting Buddy any day now.

For us, these wonderful little miracles for the animals leave us filled with gratitude. You see the real miracle, the true blessing, is you. If you adopt your pets at animal shelters, volunteer your time or donate to local animal rescue organizations, then these miracles are truly made possible by you. You have our sincerest thanks.

One More Miracle, Please

Mo, a tabby kitten, came to NHS when her owner died. Losing her person was the least of her problems, Mo had a birth defect that would have soon ended her young life if not for the skill and generosity of Veterinary Specialists of Nevada. They performed surgery that gave Mo a new lease on life. Sugar, a calico kitten with a leg injury, has become Mo’s best buddy as they both recover in the shelter together. Now these two kitties are hoping for one more holiday miracle – someone who will love both of them and take them home together.

Help me – I found a Stray!

Actually, the stray most likely found YOU!  Why you?  Because you care!

If you’ve found a stray, do the obvious first thing – check for a tag! If there is a tag and the owner’s name is on it, call and arrange for a pickup and know you have done your good deed for the day. If the animal has no tag, they may be microchipped and easily identified through a veterinary clinic or shelter where they can scan for a microchip.

If there is no tag or microchip, contact your local animal services agency to report a found animal. In some communities, finders of lost animals are legally required to either surrender found dogs to the agency or to report to the agency that they have a stray animal. Even if you’re not legally required to notify animal services, it’s still a good idea to let them know that you have a stray. If the owner of the animal is looking for their pet, they may be able to be matched up when they call this agency.

If you found the lost animal in Washoe County, you can register the animal on Washoe County Regional Animal Services’ (WCRAS) website (www.washoecounty.us), posting a photo of the animal with the hope that someone will recognize their lost pet and be reunited. You can call WCRAS at 775- 353-8900 for additional information.

Many people do not know to call animal services when their pet is missing, so creating a simple FOUND PET poster – even if you do end up turning the animal into animal services – can be a real lifesaver. If you can take a quick photo for the poster, that is ideal, but if not, write a description and include your phone number or one for your local animal services. Distribute multiple posters in the area where you found the pet.

What if the stray is sick or hurt? If you feel you can afford it, take the animal to your own veterinarian. If you can’t afford veterinary care, it is best to contact your local animal services agency immediately.

One word of caution: A stray that is injured may bite or scratch even when you are trying to help them. There are safe ways to move an injured animal out of harms way, but in most cases it is best to call animal services for assistance when the animal is hurt.

I’ve got the stray – now what? If it is possible for you to keep the stray while you try to find the original owner, it will minimize the impact on local shelters that are usually very full and will be less stressful for the animal. It’s usually best to keep the stray separated from your other pets. A bathroom, spare bedroom, laundry room, or enclosed, heated porch or garage can make an excellent guest house.

If you have some hesitation about trying to find the owner, keep in mind that just because an animal is injured, frightened, or without identification, it does not mean that the pet didn’t come from a loving home. The animal might have lost the identification tag or might have been lost for a long time and now have a matted coat or become very thin. If the animal is hand-shy or nervous, these are things that could have been learned on the streets. None of these conditions are sure signs that the animal does not have a heart-broken person looking for them somewhere.

Besides notifying your local shelter and creating posters, you may want to place a found ad in the local paper. Some papers publish them free of charge. You can also post the found pet on Craig’s List and you’ll want to check lost-and-found ads in the local newspapers. Neighborhood children are a valuable resource and often make it their business to know all the pet animals on the block. Ask them if they recognize the stray or if they know of a family that recently lost a pet.

When someone answers your flyers or ads, make sure the person gives you a detailed description of the animal. To ensure that you have found the animal’s real owner, here are a few additional tips to consider:

  • Withhold one detail about the animal, something someone who did not own the pet would not be able to know from your photo and description alone.
  • Ask the caller to bring a photo of the animal to the meeting place.
  • Ask for their veterinarian’s phone number and make a follow-up call.
  • Watch how the animal reacts to the caller in person. If you are not satisfied, ask for more proof of ownership.
  • Remember to get the owner’s phone number and address.
  • Ask them to bring their photo ID or offer to deliver the animal yourself.

Maybe the stray is not really a stray. Feral cats are common in every community. The best solution for them is not to be brought into a shelter, but rather to be neutered and cared for as part of a trap-neuter-return program. If you see or are feeding feral cats, contact the Animal Help Desk at 775-856-2000 for free advice and assistance.

If you must take the animal to your animal services shelter and you feel you can provide a new home if the animal is not reclaimed, be sure to let them know that you are a possible adopter. This will give you a chance to adopt if the animal is not claimed within a given time period.

Remember – the odds are the owner is looking for their dog or cat so you should make every effort to find the owner. I was unfortunate to have lost a dog years ago that escaped. Fortunately, a friendly Good Samaritan found my beloved Bailor ten miles away, dodging traffic. He kept him over night until the local shelter opened; we were reunited only because of this kind soul.

You can make a huge difference in the life of grieving humans and wandering, scared pets by taking a few small steps. And if you have pets, be sure they all have an identification tag and a microchip so they can quickly be reunited with you if ever lost.

For more information on this topic, please contact our Animal Help Desk at animalhelp@nevadahumanesociety.org.

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Animal Dreams

The other day my cat, Buddy, was sleeping soundly when suddenly he let out a piercing cry. Going to see what had happened, I was surprised to see that he was still sound asleep, his feet were twitching, but he was out. I knew that animals had dreams, but Buddy was talking in his sleep! He was clearly dreaming about something that was distressing to him, perhaps the cat from next door? Or maybe he was reliving something from his life before I adopted him. There is no way to know. But we do know that animals are capable of having complex dreams, just as we do.

Studies have proven that other mammals show the same level of brain activity and increased heart rate during REM sleep (the cycle of sleep where dreaming occurs) as humans. Although no one really knows the true function of dreaming, it does seem to be necessary for normal data processing and memory storage in humans. So, it seems likely that the same is true for animals.

Dogs and cats are champion sleepers, clocking a lot more hours of shut-eye than we do. Most dogs sleep 12 to 14 hours a day, and cats sleep 13 to 18 hours. Much of their sleep time is really napping as they wake more often than we do.

During their dreams, it is normal for animals’ paws to flex and relax, whiskers to twitch, and legs to move, even making a full running motion. Apparently, Buddy’s slumbering vocalization is not that unusual; dogs are known to bark during their sleep and cats to chatter.

People have two main types of sleep: slow wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. As we fall asleep, the first stage we enter is SWS, mental processes slow but muscle tone remains. The next stage is REM sleep; the body is relaxed but the mind is active and the eyes may be darting rapidly. Our pets go through these same sleep stages.

Studies conducted in 2000 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicate that not only do animals dream, but their dreams can be highly complex involving long sequences of replayed waking events. Prior to these studies, many scientists believed that only a few species of animals, such as dolphins and primates, were capable of recalling complicated memories.

The MIT research convinced many scientists that most animals not only dream, but are capable of intricate thought processes, able to retain and recall long sequences of events, and are capable of re-evaluating their experiences.

In his best selling book, The Cat Who Came for Christmas, Clevaland Amory describes the rescue of his white cat, Polar Bear, from the streets of New York. He explains that after his rescue, Polar Bear spent a great deal of time sleeping. “During his sleep he was obviously dreaming. . . He would twitch, often gently but at other times violently, both front and back paws moving – sometimes so violently that he woke himself. At such times he would be alert very quickly, casting a look around and a casing of all fronts. . . Finally, after satisfying himself that the present, not the past, was the reality, he would blow out a little sigh, and immediately go back to sleep.”

Amory goes on to say, “I believe [animals] dream exactly the way we dream, and about everything in their lives – that they have good and bad dreams in almost direct proportion, as we do, to whether their lives have been more good than bad. Unfortunately, because the majority of animals have it so much tougher than we do, I believe that the majority of dreams, except in the most fortunate petdom, are bad.”

Sadly, Amory is probably right about this. But from a different perspective, realizing that animals also dream and that the nature of their dreams is so very similar to our own, adds to our understanding of animals and gives me a deeper appreciation of the many things we share in common.

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What Happens if your Pets Outlive You

Pets play an important role in the lives of the people who love them. We get great pleasure from them and they depend on us for love and daily care. So what happens if your pet outlives you?

  • Who will keep him in the loving atmosphere you created for him?
  • Who will make sure she is fed her favorite food?
  • Who will take him to the vet and ensure he gets special treatment and care if needed?
  • Who will take her for a walk and out for play dates?
  • Will he end up being taken to animal control and euthanized because nobody adopted him?

Sadly, most people have not thought much about the fate of their pets in the event of a tragedy. For once-loved pets, the results can be sad and painful. Here at Nevada Humane Society and other animal shelters, a steady flow of pets come in whose owners have died.

If a pet owner has not made arrangements for the care of their pet, the pet is at risk of becoming homeless, and sadly for some, that ends in death. Assuming that friends or relatives will step in to provide a home for your pet, puts your pet in danger. By making arrangements in advance and putting these in writing, you can protect your pet from an uncertain future.

The most reliable method to provide for a pet that outlives you is to create an enforceable trust that will require distributions to a designated human beneficiary to cover the pet’s expenses while at the same time requiring the beneficiary to take proper care of the pet.

You will need a lawer to assit you in drafting the trust, as pets are not allowed legal standing. So selecting the right human beneficiary and a lawyer who can help ensure that your plans are carried out are the two most imporatnat decisions you will make to safeguard the well-being of your pet into the future.

Another option is finding an animal sanctuary, shelter, or pet retirement home and making them the designated beneficiary who will be responsible for the care of your pet. It is always wise to visit the facility in person to be sure that it meets your standards. You will also want to ask questions, including:

  • Will they adopt the pet out? What are their adoption policies?
  • Will they provide lifetime care in their facility?
  • What is their euthanasia policy?
  • What kind of daily care and veterinary care is provided?
  • How much individual human attention will the animal receive?

At Nevada Humane Society, we seek new homes for pets who are orphaned by their people and provide care until an appropriate home can be found. Other shelters have similar programs available; some organizations offer lifetime care in their facility, but do not do adoption. You will want to check out the various options and decide what is best for you and your pet.

If you select an individual instead of an organization, you should name several alternate caretakers should your first choice be unable to serve for the duration of the pet’s life. It is often a good idea to authorize the trustee to select a good home for the pet should none of the named individuals be willing or able to accept the animal.

The pet owner should compute the resources necessary to care for the animal. The animal’s life expectancy, the standard of living the owner wishes to provide for the animal, and the need for potentially expensive medical treatment will be among the factors to consider.

You will also want to consider your individual pet’s preferences. Particularly with older pets, finding a situation that will provide the pet with a good quality of life is important. Often, older cats or dogs find change stressful and adjustment to a new environment can be difficult for them. Finding a new person to care for older pets in a home environment is usually a far better option than life in even the nicest of facilities.

There are several wonderful resources available for pet owners who want to learn more about making plans in case their pets outlive them. A search online will turn up helpful websites and you may also want to read When Your Pet Outlives You: Protecting Animal Companions After You Die by David Congalton.

The most important thing is to not put off planning for your pet’s future. After all, tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.

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Where Did You Get Your Pet?

The majority of people with pets, 61%, did not get any of their pets from animal shelters. You might wonder how we would know that. Well, last year Maddie’s Fund and the SPCA of Northern Nevada released a survey conducted by the University of Nevada, Reno.

This may sound like bad news for the animals in shelters, but actually I think it holds a great opportunity for them. You see, the survey also revealed why people had not adopted pets. Understanding why, we can take steps to address concerns and lay misconceptions to rest.

The most common reasons given were a desire for a specific breed and for a kitten or puppy. Other people said that they feared it would be too difficult or emotional to choose an animal from a shelter or that the animals might be less well-behaved or unhealthy. A few said it might be too costly to adopt a pet.

Purebred pets

Statistically, 25% of dogs in animal shelters are purebreds. On any given day, you can find handsome Retrievers, Chihuahuas, Siamese, Persians, and numerous other purebred pets in local animal shelters. If you are patient, you can find a dog of almost any breed, but if you are having trouble finding the pet of your dreams in a shelter, there are purebred rescue groups for both dogs and cats that specialize in a specific breed.

Younger pets

Each summer and fall area shelters have a large array of charming kittens. This summer we even had many Siamese kittens. Puppies can be a bit harder to come by, but they are still found in shelters. You can even look online for the pet of your dreams through adoption websites, such as PetFinder.com.

Good feelings

Some people worry that adopting a pet may be a sad or depressing experience. But most people who have actually adopted a pet report that is has been fulfilling and rewarding. After all, how often do you get to save a life? Knowing that you have will make you feel great!

I have heard a few people say that they might feel guilty about the pets that they see in the shelter, but cannot adopt. If that is a worry, you can adopt from a no-kill shelter. Our community has three to choose from, including Nevada Humane Society, the SPCA of Northern Nevada, and Pet Network.

Good health

The majority of animals in shelters are healthy pets who just need a loving home. In fact, it’s standard practice in our shelter, and many others, to spay or neuter and vaccinate every pet. We also stand behind their health by offering care for any ailment that may develop related to their time at the shelter. Occasionally, cats can become stressed when they move into a new home and can come down with a little cold, but most are easily treated and back to good health in no time.

While most pets in shelters are in great shape, some people find that adopting a special-needs pet, one that is older or needs a little extra care, is something that has great meaning for them. The bond that develops with a pet that really needs you is especially deep and rewarding.

Good behavior

Most animals in shelters are there though no fault of their own. Moving, loss of a job, or some other lifestyle change are among the most common reasons why pets end up in shelters.

Often, the secret to a well-behaved pet is finding one that is a good fit for you. Adoption counselors at your local shelter know the animals and they are trained to help you find a pet that will be a good match. Perhaps you are looking for a couch-potato dog or a lap cat to keep you cozy through the winter. Maybe you would prefer an active dog who will inspire you with exuberance on the morning jog or a cat that will make you laugh so hard at his antics that you forget all your cares.

Shelters have the largest selection of pets in any community, so you have the best chance of finding your furry soul mate there.

The cost of pet adoption

I could argue that pet adoption at any price is a bargain, given that you get a wonderful new friend, but the truth is that pet adoption is very affordable. Many local shelters, including Nevada Humane Society (NHS), offer special prices during adoption promotions. Senior citizens are often eligible for further discounts. At NHS, the Seniors-for-Seniors Program allows people 55 and older to adopt a pet 6 or older free of charge.

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