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Helping Hard to Place Pets

By Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, Consulting Animal Behaviorist for the ASPCA, Guest Blogger

I was given a Toy Poodle a few years ago when a friend died of cancer and none of her relatives were able to take him in. I kept him for the rest of his life. Other animals might be taken in by rescue groups or shelters if there is no one able to care for the pet. Some pets, particularly if they’re extremely sick or aggressive, might be euthanized.

Trish McMillan Loehr, MSc, Consulting Animal Behaviorist for the ASPCA, with two fur friends. (Photo courtesy of the ASPCA)

It’s important to check out every possibility on where you will place your pet. For example, many people love the sound of a no-kill sanctuary, but some shelters that sound good in writing may not give the pet the quality of life your relative would have wanted. Make sure you visit the shelter or rescue group’s facility, ask about their adoption policies, and most importantly, see the conditions in which the animals are kept.

Working with One-Person Pets
Once an animal realizes their owner isn’t coming back, they will often bond to a new person. It may take a number of weeks or even months for a really sensitive animal to come around, but most behavior can be modified, given time, patience, and positive reinforcement.

Pets Feel Losses Too
Losing a loving human can be a very difficult thing for an animal to cope with. It would certainly be much more stressful for a frightened or aggressive pet to end up in a shelter than with people who may already have a bond with them. If you have a relative who is ill or dying and you know in advance that their pet may eventually need a new home, it’s best for a potential new caregiver to start trying to make friends with the animal as soon as possible.

Fearful Cats
If the cat is fearful and won’t come to you, get a live trap. Pick up the cat’s food for 12 hours, cover the trap (except the entrance, obviously) with a towel or blanket, leave some really delicious food in the back of the trap such as canned tuna, and wait for the cat to walk in. It’s best to stay nearby and check frequently or watch through a window so that the cat doesn’t need to stay in the trap very long. Cover the trap completely for transport, so the cat won’t panic and try to escape.

Once the cat is in your home, confine her to a small room, such as a bathroom or spare bedroom at first, and gradually release her into the rest of the house as she becomes more comfortable. This may take a few days or even weeks, depending on how quickly the animal adjusts to his or her new surroundings. Sometimes extremely terrified cats will squeeze themselves into small spaces, and can even get lost this way in their own home. Here are more tips on helping cats adjust to a new place.

Fearful Dogs
If you need to catch a dog who is fearful or unfriendly, you may want to get a trainer or animal control person to help out. There are live traps for dogs as well, but many good animal handlers can often capture a dog with a noose leash. Again, confine them in one area until they’re used to you and their new home.

Comfort around Strangers
If you put your cat or dog into another room whenever you have visitors, try to soften the isolation by giving them a special treat or toy to work on. I really like food-dispensing toys for this purpose, like the Slimcat ball or Kong toys. This can also help the pet learn that when visitors come over, good things happen to them. If possible, put the pet in their “safe zone” before company arrives, to avoid any frenzy at the door.

To get your pets to feel comfortable around visitors start with the sort of guests who are the least scary to your pet. Many animals will warm up to familiar people more quickly, or may prefer females to males, or quieter people to people who move or speak more abruptly.

It’s also a good idea to remove all social pressure from a fearful or aggressive animal; direct eye contact or reaching to pet the animal are actually threats in canine and feline body language. It’s also a good idea to ask a visitor to sit still, not stare at or reach for the animal, and to occasionally drop treats, letting the cat or dog warm up on their own time.

The ASPCA has a number of articles on working with fearful pets.

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