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Cats and Dogs as Indicator Species
I am sure most of us have heard about the “canary in the coal mine”. To summarize, before technology reached the point it is today to track air quality in coal mines, miners used canaries to tell when they needed to evacuate the mine. As long as the canary was alive, the miners were ok. Not exactly high on the list of humane activities towards our feathered friends, but I introduce it here because canaries were called an indicator species. Put simply, they “indicated” when something in the environment changed. Just as the canary indicated something was wrong in a cave, our cats and dogs (referred to as pets from here out) are indicator species that something is wrong in a home.
Every week animal shelters and rescues across the country receive thousands of pets, many of whom are ill, malnourished or injured physically. Sometimes these factors occurred while the pet was roaming the neighborhood, but many times they happened in their home. As an animal advocate, this is reason enough for me to be concerned, but as a member of our society, I am also concerned about the implications of what we are seeing.
Just as with humans, pets get ill or injured in the normal course of life, so I am not implying that every pet who is sick or is hurt is not being taken care of by the owner. It would be unreasonable and irresponsible to automatically jump to that conclusion, yet it would also be irresponsible to just turn away and assume an illness or injury isn’t more than what meets the eye.
Looking at the most innocuous of situations, an ill or injured pet may indicate a family does not have the resources to take their pet to the veterinarian. The owners can be loving and provide a fantastic home for their pet, but they are struggling financially or they have never been told when their pet needs medical treatment.
If we go to the other end of the spectrum, a tremendous amount of research exists that proves people who abuse other people often begin by abusing animals. Even the biggest and toughest dog is defenseless against a human who is bent on causing them harm. Pets are easy targets, but after a while, the perpetrator begins abusing children, women, the eldery, basically anyone who can’t defend themselves. So, what do I expect a pet owner to do if you see an ill or injured pet in your neighborhood – go investigate the family for abuse?
No, of course not. It would be unreasonable for us to run around trying to figure out what is going on with our neighbors and I would never want you to put yourself in harm’s way, but you can be of great assistance to the pet and its family. Turning the other cheek and assuming all is ok is not the answer either. If a family is struggling, then we can get them help and if they are abusing their pet, then it must be stopped. So,what do we do?
Simply calling your local police department, humane society or animal services agency to share your concerns can get the ball rolling to providing help a family needs. You don’t need to diagnose what is going on, simply tell the professionals what you are seeing and why you are concerned. These agencies will be able to determine the best course of action to 1) determine if there is a problem and 2) how to best help the pet and the family.
Sometimes we feel that we are “butting into our neighbors’ business” by seeking help for them, but a phone call is not being intrusive. Many families don’t know where to turn to for help and for those who are intentionally harming their pet or family members, we need to be intrusive. Animal welfare professionals, the police and social workers can find out what is going on without intruding on someone’s privacy and can get the help that is needed, but if no one tells the authorities what they are seeing, nothing will be done.
The American Association of Pet Parents (AAPP) is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping pets happy, healthy and in their loving homes – and out of animal shelters.