2016-11-24 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

When Ben Franklin said, “Honesty is the best policy,” he wasn’t referring to re-homing dogs and cats, yet the adage does apply. Knowing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is extremely important when trying to place secondhand pets in loving, forever homes. Omissions or little white lies from former owners or from shelters and rescue workers are damaging to the welfare of the public, as well as the surrendered animal.

First, owners need to be truthful. I’ve heard many fabricated stories after 35 years of eavesdropping at shelters as people drop off animals. Too bad we can’t install a jumbo polygraph at each town shelter to determine who is telling the truth when they say they “found” a dog or cat. Owners who try to slip a pet in as a stray are not fooling anyone, plus they are hurting their pets’ chances of finding a suitable new home. We can’t interview the bewildered pet left behind to get his background. Most municipal shelters require people show their drivers’ licenses for every transaction nowadays, yet even this doesn’t guarantee honesty.


Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom- “Honesty is the best policy”- apply to animal shelters too. Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom- “Honesty is the best policy”- apply to animal shelters too. A medical history on a previously owned dog or cat, including records from the family’s vet, takes the guess work out of the equation. This information can save a ton of money and provide clues on diagnostic veterinary tests too. It is so helpful to know a pet’s true age (and name). I call this the “Rumpelstiltskin factor.” There is no definitive way to estimate age on pets that have endured a hard life. I call this the “Johnny Cash factor.” Besides huge lie detectors, we can wish for a universal microchip or birth date tattoo (like racing greyhounds have). Then shelters and rescues would know every real birthday.

A behavioral survey from the former owner is crucial too. Although most shelters do their own temperament testing, it is better to have the full story. Many town shelters provide questionnaires for relinquishing owners, but a study from the University of Pennsylvania and University of California vet schools found people tend to be less than truthful, probably for fear that their pets will be put to sleep. Concealing problems such as aggression or fear of strangers may pose a danger to shelter personnel or potential adopters, while neglecting to mention other issues like separation anxiety or house soiling may cause the pet to be returned. The vicious cycle of homelessness continues.

Part of this research was a survey at two Sacramento shelters. One group was given a questionnaire they were told would be kept confidential; the other knew it would be shared with the shelter staff. Significantly more dogs in the confidential group were reported as aggressive or fearful. (In reality, shelter workers would never say their answers will be kept confidential.) Yet, these owners may have thought they were improving their pets’ chances by hiding negative information, when actually they were making matters worse for the pet and the shelter. Therefore, savvy shelters assess the pet, and don’t take former owners’ responses on their own questionnaires as gospel.

Finally we must insist on the “whole truth” from animal advocates, both staff and volunteer. It may take years of experience to accept you cannot save every animal, for some are too ill and others not safe when placed in a home. We have an ethical obligation to protect public safety. Equally important, it is not true that “any” home is better than no home.

In the old days, town shelters had legal difficulty denying adoptions. Now most require adoption applications screened by the director. Gone are the days when we used to chase the unsavory guy who just adopted a Shepherd mix (that would probably spend his short, tortured life on a chain) into the parking lot to tell him that he forgot his dog’s “free neuter” certificate. He’d look at us like we were nuts.

Full disclosure can cause friction when working alongside those too naïve or too determined for a pet go to the first interested party. I recall interjecting the fact a particular dog could scale a six-foot fence to the scorn of a zealot who said I ruined her possible home. Isn’t it better the people are prepared, or decide not to take a particular dog, than to have the shelter called to retrieve its lifeless body when the dog is hit by a car?

Rescuers are like sales people when promoting a homeless dog or cat, so there must be truth in their advertising. If dogs were real estate, we’d have to tell customers if the basement floods. The people are going to find out anyway, and then it will be to everyone’s detriment. We can’t shave a decade off an ancient animal’s age, or neglect to tell prospective owners the facts we know… like the Border Collie has been returned twice for nipping, or the cat misses the litter box, or the Lab mix was on Prozac for the last five years. “Any” home can become a parade of “many” homes, and then none at all.

Adoptable at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: “Vinny” 16-568 is an eight-year-old Lab/Hound mix who entered the shelter in July. He’s a sweet, low-key senior who would love a quiet, permanent home where he could snuggle and “hang his hat.” Little “Martina” 6-496 is a friendly kitten who loves playing with a tennis ball. She will be ready for adoption soon. Go see her now before she leaves for Wimbledon. Happy Thanksgiving!

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