Winter Blues: Do Cats Get SAD?

On one of my first trips to the Pacific Northwest I noticed a highway marker on I-5 just north of Salem, Oregon, that reads: “45th Parallel Halfway Between the Equator and North Pole.”

Hailing from the sunny climes of the Southwest, I pondered what that meant. On average, the 45th parallel north gets just over eight hours of daylight in winter. Add in that during the winter months of November, December, January, and February, the Pacific Northwest is sunny only a small percentage of the time (Seattle 28 percent and Portland 29 percent). After living in the beautiful PNW for 18 years I learned it means very little sunlight creates dark, depressing winters: the perfect set up for what I call the “deep blue funk,” also known as “winter blues.”

“Winter blues” is the common name for the medical condition Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD affects certain people who live far north, or south, of the equator in the winter months due to lack of sunlight. Do cats, luxuriators of sun puddles, experience the same condition?


SAD Cats

The National Institute of Mental Health classifies SAD as a type of depression that changes with the seasons. Common recurring symptoms start in late autumn, continue through winter, and dissipate in sunnier spring and summer seasons. They include lethargy, difficulty staying awake, increased appetite, feeling hopeless or worthless, and social withdrawal. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors may present in the most severe cases.

It’s thought that the lower sunlight of winter not only causes a decrease of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood and feelings of wellbeing, but also causes an increase in melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep patterns and mood.
There isn’t much science-based data to support SAD in cats, but there is the oft-cited owner survey by People’s Dispensary of Sick Animals (PDSA), a veterinary charity in the United Kingdom. It reports that one-third of cat owners said in winter their cat’s mood appeared gloomy or depressed and their appetite increased while energy levels decreased.

Changes in sunlight signal cat brains to grow a denser coat in darker months when there’s less sunlight–could there be other chemical signals?

“Cats are seasonal breeders and I would suspect that hormones, even in spayed or neutered cats, contribute to changes in their behavior, too,” says Lynn Bahr, DVM, CEO of Dezi & Roo, Just for Cats. “Housecats live in artificial environments. Their homes are cooled in the summer and heated in the winter. So I am not sure that their bodies are responding naturally to any of the seasons. Many housecats don’t have enough access to sunlight year-round. I believe this is a real problem and suspect many suffer from depression, increased appetite, and lethargy throughout their lives. It is possible they suffer from SAD all year long and not just in the winter months.”

Emotional Contagion or Real?

Emotions, such as happiness, joy, fear, anger, and sadness, are contagious. Emotional contagion means that we subconsciously read facial cues and copy each other’s emotions. Research shows that cats, too, respond to human facial expressions such as smiling or frowning.
Are cats experiencing SAD, picking up on human emotions, or just bored out of their gourd because they don’t have enough mental and physical stimulation?

“I believe it has more to do with the type of owner cats have than the premise that they are picking up on emotions,” Dr. Bahr says. “Cats who live with happy, playful, active owners are more likely to be kept stimulated and entertained than those that live with owners that sleep a lot, are depressed, and keep the house darkened.” She gives an example of moving clocks forward and backward. Cats don’t know the time changed but they do recognize a change in their owner’s habits of coming home later or getting up earlier, which is a change in the normal routine. That change may confuse some cats and cause stress.

Blues Busters

Light therapy. This is the gold standard that fills the void of diminished sunlight during winter months. A special full-spectrum light box simulates natural sunlight, which may ease some SAD symptoms.

Lighten up. Open blinds or curtains to bring in available natural sunlight. Move your cat’s bed into the sunlight, add window perches, or read a book in a sunny corner and invite your cat to soak up the rays with you. Move playtime to well-lit areas–whether natural sunlight or under a light box, it will be good for both of you.

Increase indoor activities. Exercise does a body good. It releases feel-good endorphins that lift our mood. Increase your cat’s playtime by leaving puzzle feeders out for exploratory scavenger hunts, or surprising her with a new toy.

Take it outside. Fresh air and sunshine are two of the best cures for things that ail us. For adventuresome cats, consider a leashed walk (after you’ve practiced indoors so she is accustomed to harness and leash), an outing in a stroller, or other supervised outdoor access. Catios, window units, and fancy chicken coops revamped for cats are all wonderful outdoor options.

Dr. Bahr says, “There are many ways in which owners can give their cats the sunshine they need. It is important to provide indoor cats with this natural basic need all year long but especially during the winter months when the days are shorter.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

When Pets Seek Our Help: What to Look For

We probably all remember Aesop’s fable about Androcles removing a thorn from a lion’s paw and being rewarded later on when the lion saves his life. But do animals really come to us when they’re hurting? The answer is often yes, although we don’t always realize it.

I have to admit, I was blind to pets presenting themselves to a human caretaker for help until nearly 20 years ago when I was writing The Healing Power of Pets. That’s a little embarrassing coming from not just a pet lover but a veterinarian who is trained to look past the obvious and see what lies beneath. What I learned changed my dog’s life and made me a better veterinarian and pet owner.

Actions Speak Loudly

As part of the research for my book, I traveled to Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine to interview integrative medicine expert Narda Robinson, DVM. She told me that dogs and cats will lick or rub areas that hurt or are inflamed, just as we might rub a sore shoulder. She suggested that when I went back home to Idaho I should observe my pets to see if they were rubbing certain areas of their bodies on the floor or licking a particular area.

“You don’t really even need to catch them in the act,” she said. “Just look for areas where the fur is roughed up from rubbing or licking. When you see the spots, feel them. You typically find that they are warmer from inflammation than surrounding tissues.”

If I discovered sore areas and inflammation, she advised gently massaging those spots, using a gentle, steady touch and avoiding bony prominences. Most important, never hold pets against their will. And if a pet is coming to you with a sore spot, it is crucial to determine the underlying cause.

I filed Dr. Robinson’s advice away, not realizing how soon it would come in handy.

Eyes Wide Open

A few days after I got home, I was working at my desk, pounding away on the keyboard, when our elderly Wire Fox Terrier, Scooter, came upstairs to the loft where I write and over to my desk to be petted. I looked down and I could see that the fur over her left hip was roughed up.

I put my hands on that spot, and I could feel the heat. I started massaging Scooter as Dr. Robinson had instructed, and soon Scooter was groaning with delight.

For the next week, at least twice a day, our beloved 12-year-old girl would seek me out and back up to me for a massage. I could almost hear a sound like those warning beeps trucks make when they drive in reverse. I’d start massaging, and Scooter would push up into my hands, almost purring with relief.


I took Scooter to North Idaho Animal Hospital and radiographed her hips. Eureka! She had hip dysplasia in her left hip joint. Looking back over the past several years, I realized she would present that area to be petted or rubbed first and for the longest. But I had ignored her communication with me.

From then on, I started watching our other pets more closely, and I saw the same type of behavior. On one occasion, our Lab, Sirloin, gave me his foot, because he had a cheatgrass awn embedded in it. I heard from other pet owners about their experiences, too. Their pets come to them with cut pads, broken toenails, arthritic pain or stomach upset, lifting a paw, rolling over, or just wanting to be extra close to their faithful humans. How special is that, that our animals trust us so much?

The human-animal bond is a wonderful thing in and of itself. But once we learn to go deeper and read our pets’ actions more clearly, it binds us even more strongly. That’s good for all of us, pets and people alike.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Luxe Locks: Feline Supermodel Hair Care

With their plush fur, double- and triple-coated cats are in a feline supermodel league of their own. Their lavish coats feel rich to the touch and provide insulation from natural elements, especially the heavy snow that is a feature of the original habitats of some of these cats—think Maine Coons, Norwegian Forest Cats, and Siberians. Not surprisingly, a moderate degree of maintenance is needed for these cats to stay ready for the catwalk. Here’s what lies beneath those thick, luxurious locks.

Types of Hair

Whether shorthaired or longhaired, feline coats comprise three types of fur: guard, down, and awn. (Not all cats have all three hair types.)

Guard hair is the longer, protective top layer, a water-repellent barrier that shields skin against natural outdoor elements of sun, snow, and rain.

“Guard hair is the hair that reacts from emotions such as fear. Just like the hairs on our arms may stand on end, so will a cat’s guard hairs if they are scared or defensive,” says Anita Kelsey, author of “Claws: Confessions of a Professional Cat Groomer.”

The soft down, or undercoat, lies closest to the skin and helps regulate the cat’s body temperature.

“This fur tends to be the main culprit of matting. It sheds and can get under the guard hairs if the owner is not combing their cat,” says Kelsey.

The mid layer, known as awn hair, also helps to regulate body temperature and make the coat denser. This adds further protection from the elements.

Year-Round Natural Insulation

The coat naturally adjusts to the changing environment the cat lives in. The water-resistant overcoat of guard hairs and dense layers of awn and down keep the cat warm and dry. Cats also have protective hairs around eyes, paws, and toes.

In winter the coat grows thicker in volume and sheds less. In summer, the coat sheds to be lighter and cooler. This process is Mother Nature’s natural thermostat. Cats who live exclusively indoors in a controlled environment tend to shed all year since they aren’t directly exposed to changing seasons. Kelsey says, “Cats who are shaved sometimes get hotter as they can no longer regulate their perfect body temperature through their fur.”

Grooming Needs

Although cats are naturally fastidious self-groomers, they benefit from extra brushing and combing. Regular grooming helps to remove dead fur from your cat’s coat, which means less fur is swallowed and fewer hairballs are hacked up. Additionally, brushing reduces the amount of fur shed around your home, conditions your cat’s skin and coat with natural oils, and allows you the opportunity to check for parasites, lumps, bumps and skin conditions.

Fortunately, you can keep most supermodel hair in shape with basic grooming. A weekly comb-out is usually all that’s needed. During twice-yearly sheds, the cats may require daily combing. (The profuse coats of Persian cats require daily care year-round.)

What’s the secret to grooming cats with long, thick coats? Kelsey says, “Use a molting comb or dual-purpose comb and pin slicker brush. That is all that’s required. Simple and no gimmicks.”

Some cats may find grooming stressful. To help cats learn to enjoy the special time together, keep sessions calm, gentle, and short–five minutes or less. Progress at your cat’s pace. Always stay positive, use small tasty treats throughout the process, and end with a rewarding tasty treat.

When to Call a Professional Groomer

Sometimes, no matter how diligent you are about following a grooming routine, you may need help. Cats who are exhibit fear or aggression with grooming, or have heavily matted fur should see a professional groomer, ideally one with Fear Free training.

The most common mistake people make when grooming their cat is only combing the top layer of fur without ever reaching through the other layers. This sets up matting. Kelsey recommends a home grooming lesson for every cat owner.

“The lesson helps owners understand the technique needed to comb their cat the correct way. It’s a good investment that will last the whole of the cat’s life and be of benefit to the owner and cat.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

How to House Train Your Puppy the Fear Free Way

When a new puppy joins your family, you have a great opportunity to ensure she’ll grow up to be a confident, healthy dog. Central to that goal is helping her understand where she can and can’t go to the bathroom. Here are our tried and true tips for raising a perfectly housetrained dog.

First, learn to read your puppy’s body language. Pawing at you, standing at the top of the stairs or in front of the door, barking, sniffling, pacing, circling, and whining are all the canine equivalent of crossing your legs and desperately asking Siri where the next rest area is.

Those signals are your cue to scoop her up (or clip on her leash) and get her to her designated potty area fast!

Second, let’s talk about crates. Many people think a crate is a punishment, and certainly we don’t recommend leaving your puppy in it for long periods of time. But if a crate is your puppy’s sleeping area, she’ll instinctively want to keep it clean. And when she’s safely confined in it, you don’t have to worry that she’ll have an accident in the house, which will make it more likely she’ll potty in the house in the future. What’s more, a reasonable amount of time in a crate will help your puppy develop bowel and bladder control.

Which brings us to the third tip: Stick to a schedule. Puppies need to potty every two to four hours, so it’s crucial you plan accordingly. Events that can trigger a puppy’s need to urinate or defecate include waking up in the morning or from a nap, and immediately after eating and drinking.

Excitement and stress can also lead to potty accidents, so letting your puppy play indoors can result in housetraining accidents. You’ll also want to take her out just before bedtime. She should be sleeping through the night by the age of three or four months, but for younger puppies you’re going to be in for a few weeks of sleep deprivation while you take her out once or twice during the night.

Allow for plentiful potty opportunities around potty-stimulating activities. Provide bathroom breaks within 15 minutes of waking, eating, drinking, or higher excitement activity, including play.

Not all pups will make it through the night, however, as their ability to hold their bladder isn’t fully developed until about four to five months of age. The general rule of thumb for puppies is that most pups can hold it for the number of months old they are in age, plus one. So a two-month-old pup can hold it for up to about 3 hours (though this may be stretched a little during sleeping hours). Depending upon your pup, you may need to set an alarm or cue into puppy noises to take your pup out accordingly and prevent overnight accidents in their sleeping area.

If your pup seems unable to hold it for reasonable lengths of time for her age, consult with your pet’s veterinarian as this may be a sign of an underlying medical issue that requires treatment.

Even if all you want to do is sleep, go outside with your puppy every time she has to potty. That’s because you should take every opportunity to praise and reward your puppy with a tiny-sized treat every time she potties in the right place.

Play is another great reward when your pup potties outdoors. Let her have a few minutes of play after doing her duty, and you’ll find she won’t hold back on urinating or defecating because she thinks pottying will trigger going back inside or into the crate.

Letting your puppy run loose in your house is not going to end well. She will potty where you can’t see her, which will set up a cycle that can be hard to break.

Consider attaching her to you with a leash or use other containment options in puppy-proofed spaces, including closed doors, gates, and inside fencing options. Doing so limits her space and helps her to gradually become accustomed to the home, using her natural instinct to keep her own spaces clean to encourage potty in appropriate spaces only. Such containment options also allow you to always know where she is and what she’s doing, which is important for attending to even subtle cues when she’s feeling the urge to go. Over time, the pup’s space can be opened up little by little to offer increasing freedom as she proves able to go accident-free.

Lastly, if your pup tends to potty when saying “hello,” note that she may be displaying an appeasement gesture or feel a little apprehensive about the greeting. Avoid bending or leaning over the dog or reaching over her head. Instead, turn your body slightly to the side, get down more on her level, and pet her in an area she’s more comfortable being touched, like her chest.

Alternatively, you can also channel her energy away from the greeting scenario and into another task, such as turning the “hello” into an opportunity to get her toy or to do a couple of tricks, like asking her to sit and down, for treat rewards.

What about adult dogs?

House training an adult dog is essentially the same as with a puppy. The advantage is he’ll have better bladder and bowel control and won’t need such frequent potty opportunities.

When a previously house-trained adult dog starts having accidents in the home, however, it’s time to head to the veterinarian. Barring major changes in the home, this is usually caused by a medical problem rather than a behavioral one. The cause could be as simple as a urinary tract infection (which is very painful and needs to be treated immediately) or the onset of canine cognitive dysfunction (which can be treated medically).

Punishment has no place in housetraining, whatever the age of your dog. You want him to learn that going inside the house is wrong, but he’ll actually learn that people are unsafe and unpredictable.

He may become afraid to go potty in front of you, which can lead to increased indoor house soiling. Rubbing your dog’s nose in the mess he made or any other form of punishment won’t work and can make the problem worse. Instead, address the behavior by managing his environment and training better behavior.

Another cause for house soiling in previously house-trained dogs is anxiety. For example, dogs with separation anxiety or noise phobias may start having accidents within the home. In those cases, your veterinarian can work with you to control the problem or refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or certified applied animal behaviorist.

Another source of anxiety may be a trigger the dog encounters outside. The sound of distant thunder, fireworks, gun fire, or even traffic can be terrifying to the noise-averse dog. If he’s afraid to leave the house, he will be prone to potty inside where he feels safe.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Living With a Fraidy Cat: Tips From the Field

Nemo is one of those gorgeous longhaired cats you just want to pick up and cuddle. Sadly, this has never happened. After 12 years, this fearful cat is still a work in progress.

I rescued Nemo as a feral kitten being hunted by hawks and brought him inside to live with me. There were two occasions where I grabbed him, once during the rescue and again while I was fostering. I noticed the panic in his eyes as he desperately tried to squirm out of my grasp. I was very new to feral cat rescue, and this was long before Fear Free, so I did not know how damaging those grabs could be nor what I could have done differently.

As an indoor-only kitty, Nemo developed a friendly relationship with the other rescues in the house, but he stayed clear of me. If I walked briskly through a room he was in or looked him in the eyes, he bolted. He went to his food dish only after I removed myself. It broke my heart, but two breakthroughs have helped us achieve a relationship.

Look Who’s Talking

Feral cats typically do not “speak” to humans the way companion cats do, so for the first three years Nemo never made a sound in my presence. One evening as I lounged on the couch, I heard an unfamiliar soft meow coming from the kitchen. There sat Nemo in the middle of the floor looking at me! He meowed again. I mewed back. From that day on he talked to me, but I still could not touch him.

Touch Not the Cat; Let Him Touch You

Nearly a year later I was on the couch and he came to me, climbed onto my legs and stretched out on his belly with his back to me. I was afraid to move but his big bushy tail was on my lap just begging to be stroked. As I tentatively reached out, he felt the movement and ran. Even though I had spoiled the moment, I was thrilled that he had initiated physical contact.

What I Learned

Talk about the patience required to gain the trust of a fraidy cat! By fostering scores of nursing feral moms and their kittens, and reading, writing about, and learning as much as I could about feline communication, I developed a set of skills to help reach Nemo.

  • I learned to slow down and walk quietly through the house if any cat was present. If I forgot and moved quickly, felines ran for cover, turning to stare at me with big eyes from bodies still poised to fight or flee, reminding me that I had crossed a line of trust.
  • Making direct eye contact with Nemo has always resulted in fear, so I began to use the slow eye blink and the yawn. Both of these say that I am not a threat, and I repeat them until Nemo “answers” me back with his own blink and softening eyes.
  • Danger often comes from above for kittens and cats and as a result, I do my best to be in a low position when I want to interact with Nemo. As long as I’m lying down or sitting with my eyes averted, he sometimes glides by to offer his beautiful tail for petting.
  • I began using a grooming brush to touch him whenever he graced my lap. Since it wasn’t actually me touching him, he felt less threatened and we both discovered that he loved being brushed and would break into loud purring. If I held the brush out to him to sniff, he would rub his face against it. I’m happy to report that he now accepts actual petting! Of course, there are rules: I must either be sitting or lying down before I can touch him and must stay clear of his throat area and make no sudden movements.

Nemo now initiates interaction with me but remains untouchable otherwise. The work continues.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Little Dogs Have More Than Big Attitudes

The doorbell rang. We usually get our dogs out of the way before letting people in, so my husband, Tim, called out “Rosie, Place!” as he headed to the front door. Rosie sped to the bedroom, whipped around and held position at the open doorway. As Tim greeted our guests, Rosie waited until she heard her release cue, “Okay,” before dashing out to say hello. Rosie is a 4-pound Yorkshire Terrier.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard you can’t train Yorkshire Terriers. Or Chihuahuas. Or fill-in-the-blank any small-breed dog. It’s just not true.

Did you know that small-breed dogs can be service dogs? I mean legitimate service dogs, not props that people carry around and try to pass off as working dogs. I’ve known Papillons who pulled clothes out of the dryer, helped tug bedsheets in place, retrieved dropped objects, and pressed elevator buttons for their owners with disabilities. I know small dogs who are excellent hearing-assistance dogs, alerting their people when the doorbell, oven timer, or smoke alarm goes off. These skills require high standards of training.

Small dogs can make excellent therapy dogs, which also requires specialized training. My 10-pound Papillon, Finian, is a retired registered therapy dog. During his career he visited nursing homes, hospitals, and schools. Little dogs compete in obedience, rally, barn hunt, agility, nose work, and many other sports, winning titles and the accompanying bragging rights.

The Small Dog Challenge

Tiny dogs are extremely trainable. If you follow modern, reward-based training based in science, the principles apply no matter a dog’s size. (Or species, for that matter. You can train an alligator to come when called. If that’s the case, you can certainly train a Chihuahua!) You just need to understand how to work with them, as you will have a few challenges due to their small stature. Here’s what to know.

  1. Little dogs need little treats. Use treats that your dog can swallow quickly. It may take you some practice, learning how to handle tiny treats without them slipping through your fingers. You will also need to be careful how many treats you go through in a training session. Your enthusiastic Maltese may be ready to practice 30 recalls, but can his stomach handle the treat rewards? Too many treats can cause digestive upset, so ration treats accordingly.
  2. Short dogs and tall people can sometimes make for awkward training. It can be hard to bend down and give your dog a treat. One thing you can try is elevating your dog on a couch or table. Just make sure your pup is comfortable and safe on his perch before proceeding. You can also get a spatula or wooden spoon, smear it with peanut butter or cream cheese, and offer a lick as a reward. The handle will give you some extra reach.
  3. Small dogs sometimes have short attention spans. If you think about it, the world is not really geared toward tiny dogs. They can easily get hurt, so they can be alert to their environments in case they need to get out of the way of something harmful. They are quick and agile. By the time you try and reward your little guy for sitting, he could have spun around and jumped on you.

Communicate Clearly

Marker training can help with this. With marker training, you use a word or clicker to mark the instant a dog does something correctly. If you prefer a verbal marker, choose  a short word that you don’t use for anything else with your dog, such as “Yes.”

A marker is always followed by a treat, so your dog learns when he hears the sound, he gets a reward. The second your dog does something right, click or say “Yes,” and then immediately offer the treat. This will help your dog pinpoint exactly what he did to earn the reward.

You may not have aspirations of training titles or awards, and that’s okay. Just know that your little dog is just as capable of learning as his larger cousins. If anyone doubts you, Rosie and Finian stand ready to prove them wrong.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Home for the Holidays—With Your Cat

Cats are devoted homebodies. They like their routines and comfy naps in the sun, and if they do go out, it’s for a quick trip to the veterinarian’s office or maybe a secure outing with leash and harness.

However, sometimes you have to take them on a Big Journey. Holidays may be that time – perhaps the pet sitter fell through, special medication is needed, or you don’t want to face a family gathering without purr therapy.

Preparation is key to minimizing stress and making your cat a fear-free traveler.

Know Your Cat

All cats are different, and each cat may react differently to travel. You can take steps to desensitize her, but more often than not, you should abide by her wishes if she decides she’s not a traveler.

Liz Tobey of Washington, D.C., has traveled to Boston to visit her father, both by plane and car with her cats, Miss Kitty, Tookie, and Sage. She says each experience has been different.

Air Travel

Before planning a trip, check airline regulations for traveling with pets. Some airlines have fees to carry your cat into the cabin, and reservations for pets are needed far in advance. Tobey says Jet Blue charged her $120 each way, something to keep in mind if you’re on a budget. Traveling in the cabin is a must for cats.

Carriers must fit beneath the seat. Check with the airline for specific dimensions. Tobey has used both a soft-sided carrier and a small plastic hard carrier. She prefers the hard-sided carrier because it’s easier to clean if the cat has an accident, adding that zippers on soft carriers sometimes come open. Label the carrier with your name and contact information.

For short plane trips, Tobey brings cleaning wipes, paper towels in case of accidents, a soft blanket or towel in the carrier, and treats, along with her cat’s toys, food, meds, and a bowl. Don’t forget an ID tag with your cell phone number, your cat’s rabies tag, and proof of vaccination.

To Medicate or Not

Whether you medicate your cat depends on her reaction to travel. If your cat experiences motion sickness or is anxious with travel, contact your veterinarian, who may prescribe an appropriate medication for travel.

Car Travel

Tobey has also taken her cats on long car trips, driving 10 to 14 hours between Boston and Washington, D.C. She tries to split either the initial or return trip into two days, staying overnight at a pet-friendly motel in New Jersey.

On the road, her cats travel in a large folding travel crate in the backseat of the car. It’s large enough to hold a cat bed, small litter box, and food and water bowls. She also brings a smaller carrier to use when transporting the cats from the car into the motel room. That’s easier than moving the large crate.

She packs a bag of litter and a litter box, litter box liners and scoop, a cardboard cat scratcher, and extra food and water.

Tobey avoids car travel with cats in hot weather, and never leaves them alone in a hot car. She says it’s helpful to travel with a friend to make pit stops easier.

Whether you travel by plane or car, she urges caution when removing kitty from the carrier, such as in the airport for screening or at a hotel for the evening.


Tobey typically stays at her father’s home with her cats for four to 10 days; any less time is not worth the adjustment period, she says. Her cat Sage usually recognizes her dad’s apartment after she has been there a few hours, but it takes her time to re-acclimate. Tobey orders supplies online to have on hand during the stay.

Wherever you’re staying, be sure there’s a safe place for your cat, with access to food and litter box, especially if there are other pets in the household.

In terms of future travel, Tobey says Tookie did well both on the plane and in the car. While Sage was all right on her first two plane trips, she has since become a bit anxious and may need some help in the future. And Miss Kitty? She has cast her vote for staying at home.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Help Your Dog Enjoy the Howlidays

Doggone it – some pups would bark bah humbug if they could. They just don’t appreciate the Christmas spirit.

Everything in their lives is upside down. The family is busily trying to attend to preparations for fall and winter holidays, starting with Thanksgiving right on through to the New Year. Well-wishing friends and neighbors drop in bearing gifts and food. At work, deadlines loom. You feel the pressure and so does your dog. Some caretakers believe their dog is “acting out,” when, in fact, the dog is merely anxious.

How Dogs See Holidays

Some dogs go with the flow. But some don’t. The change in routine throws them. They pick up on your stress, but they have no idea why you’re so frazzled.

Other dogs just don’t appreciate all the company. If they bark at visitors, it’s not because they’re acting out, it’s because they’re anxious if not downright fearful.

Rest Ye Merry, Gentledogs

Well before the holidays become a holidaze, make preparations for your dog to have a low-key place to retire when feeling stressed by all the goings-on. This can be an unoccupied bedroom, den, or basement. Set it up with food and water dishes and plug in an Adaptil diffuser to emit a welcoming chemical greeting. Adaptil is a copy of a naturally occurring pheromone, produced by lactating mother dogs, that helps to moderate anxiety.

If you set the room up early enough, your dog can learn to go there on his own and then he’ll be used to it once the holiday hustle and bustle begins. If packages are being delivered at a nonstop pace or you are expecting company to arrive and the constant doorbell dinging is disturbing your dog, relocate your buddy into the sanctuary room, make sure he has a Kong toy stuffed with goodies or a food puzzle to occupy his brain (avoid if multiple pets will be in the same room and competition over the resource may occur), turn on some music–classical, reggae, or music composed especially for dogs are all good choices–and close the door.

Don’t think of it as punishment. Your dog is worried or afraid. You are helping him to relax and giving him something fun to focus on.

Holiday Play

For dogs who don’t mind the throng of friends and relatives, but are thrown by you being gone more often, and feeling stressed, the answer might lie in a squeaky toy or tennis ball. While you may not have time for that long walk, you still may be watching your favorite reality show. At commercials take out the squeaky toy or, better, skip the show and toss the ball in the backyard.

Think of indoor activities to keep the pup occupied while you’re wrapping gifts. Dogs love games of hide ‘n seek. If you or the kids are too busy to play along, hide treats or a toy with treats stuffed inside.

Another advantage of playing with the dog is that it’s likely equally as effective a stress buster for you as it is for the dog.

Advanced Relief                                                

If your dog isn’t distracted by games and treats, and background music and pheromones don’t do the trick, either, there’s nothing wrong with going a step further and asking your veterinarian about nutraceuticals that may help to reduce anxiety.

Zentrol is a proprietary blend of plant extracts. Studies have demonstrated that this chewable can lower fear, anxiety, and stress as well as related “negative behaviors.”

Zylkene contains bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, an ingredient that has calming properties.

Finally, for long-term relief, seek professional help for your pet’s anxiety about visitors from a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, a certified applied animal behaviorist, or a qualified Fear Free Animal Trainer.

Asking for a stress-free holiday is likely going too far, but here’s hoping you can keep that stress at manageable levels, and that you and your entire family (including four-legged and feathered family members) stay safe. Happy HOWLiday!

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Does This Belly Pouch Make Me Look Fat?

 At 12 weeks old, Ivan was a bear of a kitten, hinting at his full adult Siberian size. He had the most adorable baby fat paunch I took as a sign that the husky boy never missed a chance to belly up to the milk bar.

We adopted Natasha from our shelter the day after she was spayed. She developed a “spay-sway” so low and prominent that I sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” when she runs. I considered it an accessory to her Rubenesque figure.

I was wrong on both counts.

Primordial Pouch

Called many names–belly pouch, belly flap, spay-sway, abdominal fold–the feline primordial pouch has nothing to do with a cat being overweight or a hanging belly apron as a result being spayed or neutered.

The primordial pouch is a flap of skin on a cat’s belly that runs the length of the abdomen. It’s easily seen near the back legs. The pouch sways from side to side as the cat walks. The area feels like soft gelatin in a plastic baggie. It’s a natural part of the feline anatomy which all cats have although the size and appearance varies. Even big cats such as lions and tigers have it.

Theorized Purposes

Experts have several theories about the purpose of the primordial pouch. The loose skin flap has an elastic quality, and certain conditions such as weight loss and aging may make the pouch more noticeable. On some breeds, such as the Bengal, the primordial pouch may be more distinct.

“Here’s the thing. The Bengal standard says nothing about a pouch. Nothing. But people talk about it. All cats have them; just some more than others and, like humans, they sag as they get older,” says Teresa Keiger, a Cat Fanciers’ Association all-breed judge.

Most animals have a fat layer covering their abdomen to protect their organs, and that includes cats. During fights or rough play such as bunny kicking, the padded pouch protects the belly from injury caused by sharp claws on the rear paws. “What I find more fascinating than the primordial pouch is the fact that the cat evolved the bigger defense mechanism of not having its skin attached to its musculature. Queens can pick up and move kittens, they became more flexible in a twisty-turn-y way, and it can help protect organs,” says Keiger.

The exceptional elasticity is key to feline form and function. The primordial pouch stretches like feline elastane (Lycra, Spandex), allowing the cat to fully stretch out in full stride when running, leaping or jumping. “My father always called it ‘jumping skin,’ so the speculation has been around awhile,” says Alice Moon-Fanelli, PhD, CAAB, of Animal Behavior Consultations, LLC.

The third supposition is that it’s a throwback to wild feline forefathers gorging after a kill, not knowing when their next meal would be. The thought is that the pouch expands, allowing more room for storage of the large meal, like a feline version of wearing sweat pants to an all-you-can-eat buffet. “The cat evolved to subsist and make the most of very little. Saving energy stored as fat is brilliant; most animals do that to some degree–looking at you, hibernating bear,” says Keiger.

Weighty Issue

The primordial pouch has a fatty texture, but that in itself does not mean your cat is overweight. Obesity is a serious health threat and approximately 60 percent of cats are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

How can you tell the difference between the primordial pouch and an overweight cat? The primordial pouch is loose, hangs low, and sways when the cat walks. For a normal weight cat, you should feel your cat’s ribs, you should see a “waist” behind the ribs and only a minimal fat pad. Looking at your cat from above you should see a feline version of the hourglass shape. In overweight and obese cats, you won’t feel the ribs, the stomach is rounder and a bit firmer, and doesn’t sway when the cat walks.

Talk to your veterinarian about the ideal weight for your cat and work together to develop a weight management plan. “An overweight cat is an overweight cat, pouch or none,” says Dr. Moon-Fanelli. “Weight, rib palpation, etc. should indicate whether or not the cat is fat. I’d ignore the pouch and focus on the weight and musculature.”

The feline primordial pouch is a normal part of your cat’s anatomy and nothing to be concerned about. The bigger concern is keeping your cat active, at a healthy weight, and happy.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Pets Make A Difference In Handling The Holidays

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a happy time of year: all about friends, family and food. But for some, Thanksgiving can be a trying holiday. The stereotypical image of the jovial family gathered around a handsomely dressed holiday bird isn’t reality for many.


One of the toughest emotions to deal with at Thanksgiving is grief. Sitting down at a holiday table without someone who used to be there can be very painful. This is true whether the loss was recent or several years ago. Whatever grief remains in our hearts for the person we loved and lost is magnified at this time of year.

Family issues

The idyllic Thanksgiving dinner is one where everyone in the family gets along for at least one day. No one argues about politics, makes unkind remarks about the food, or becomes irritable with the children. Sibling rivalries are put away, mothers love their daughters-in-law, and spouses don’t bicker. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case. Family issues are often exacerbated during the holidays.


For those who don’t have family or close friends nearby, Thanksgiving can be a particularly lonely day. Holidays have a way of emphasizing the lack of relationships in a person’s life. The result is feelings of isolation and depression.

Social pressures

The holidays are a time when people are expected to “perform,” whether as a host or a guest. If you’re the host, you’ll have the stress of providing the food and the venue for Thanksgiving, and for doing a good job at it. Decorating the house—or at least the table—is expected. Serving food that is hot, delicious and well timed is mandatory. If you’re a guest, you have to travel to your destination, bring something for your host, and help clean up the mess. It all contributes to stress at this time of year.

Money problems

The difficulties of living on a limited income become more pronounced during the Thanksgiving holiday. You may not have the money to visit family or to host the Thanksgiving meal at your home. The pain of not having money is felt most keenly at this time of year.

Fortunately, if you have animals in your life, comfort is close at hand.

So what can your pet do to help you through all these difficult situations at Thanksgiving? You might be surprised.

If you’re struggling with any of these issues, take the time to do the following the few days before Thanksgiving and even on that very Thursday.

1. Recognize the healing power of your pet. Those of us who love our pets know they provide us with companionship. But what they give us is much more than that. The pure, unconditional love they provide on a constant basis is truly magical. They give us something we cannot get from other humans: love with no judgment and no expectations. At stressful times in our lives, it’s important that we recognize the value of what our pets provide so we can be open to accepting it.

2. Spend time alone with your pet. You may have a lot going on right before Thanksgiving, and the day itself may be hectic beyond belief. Or you may be feeling depressed with the holiday coming up and may not feel like doing much of anything. Whatever your situation, make a concerted effort to spend time alone with your pet. If you have a dog, this may mean taking him for a walk, playing ball with him or snuggling with him on the couch. If you have a cat, a bunny, a bird or another animal, play with, pet or cuddle him. During this time, focus on your pet and nothing else. Don’t look at your computer, watch TV or talk on the phone. You’ll be amazed at how therapeutic these moments will be for you. Feelings of stress, loneliness and depression will be lifted, if only just a little. Take as much time as you can each day to connect this way to your pet, especially on Thanksgiving Day.

3. Share the holiday with your pet. To help remind you that your pet is there for you at this stressful time of year, find a way to include him in the event. If you’ll be hosting Thanksgiving dinner at your home, get your pet a special collar or bandana to show everyone he is part of the festivities. If you’re spending Thanksgiving alone, make yourself a special meal that you can share with your pet. A little bit of turkey won’t hurt your dog or cat, and will help you feel like you are celebrating with someone who loves you—because you are.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT