This week, we’ve called on our favorite expert pet owners to answer your questions about the unruly critters in your life. Faux Paws is Slate’s pet advice column. Submit questions here.
Dear Faux Paws,
I’ve really got to have a talk with my sister about breeding her dogs. She is somewhat of an animal hoarder and her small house is full to the gills with five dogs, two cats, a handful of chickens, and five to 10 bunnies at any given time. In addition to her two toddlers! Her animal situation breaks my heart: Most of the animals are afraid of each other, no one has enough space, and none of them are getting basic vet or grooming care.
Three of her dogs are female German shepherds and she just announced plans to breed them. She talks a BIG game about “doing it right” but I know from experience that she often exaggerates how diligently she’s attending to her animals. I mean, the dogs eat from a pile of dog food on the floor of the porch, despite having food aggression behaviors. She doesn’t have the skills, experience, or space to bring more animals into that house in any way that resembles care and thoughtfulness. Not to mention that her children deserve to grow up in a clean home and yard that’s not overrun with untrained animals. I know I probably can’t say the right thing to change her mind, but if there’s anything I can do to make a difference in these poor animals’ lives I’d like to try. Can you help?
—The Animal House
Dear Animal House,
To me, caring for approximately 22 pets doesn’t sound like a lot—at one point I had 23 pets, and though the number is a little lower now, I still have a few of everything, from dogs and cats to exotic types like saltwater fish, turtles, poison dart frogs, a crested gecko, and more. I think the real issue here isn’t the number of pets your sister has, but the level of care they are receiving. I have lots of pets, but they all receive regular veterinary care, training, and have plenty of space and toys. It’s a big expense (I have spent thousands to keep one of my cats with feline leukemia alive) and I spend many hours walking dogs, cleaning tanks, vacuuming their fur, socializing them, and medicating them when they’re sick. That’s what I signed up for when I committed to these animals. Unfortunately, not everyone views pet ownership this way, and many “animal people” don’t actually seem to care for animals at all.
People don’t typically respond well if they feel judged. You know your sister best—what typically motivates her to change her mind? For example, if you pointed out how expensive her dog breeding venture would be, would that be effective? You could also look up what the laws and American Kennel Club guidelines are regarding backyard breeders to see what kind of red tape she would have to go through to truly “do it right.” Or maybe the argument about the children’s quality of life would get through to her.
Ultimately, though, you might have to accept that as long as the children and animals are safe, there might be nothing you can say or do to change your sister’s mind. (Of course, if you suspect animal abuse or that the children are in danger, that’s a matter that needs immediate legal attention.) If you have the means and resources, you could offer to take some of the animals in yourself if she gets overwhelmed, but you are under no obligation to do so. Your sister is going to do what she thinks is best, and you have to do what’s best for you.
We want your pet questions questions!
Submit your question to Faux Paws here.
Dear Faux Paws,
My in-laws, both highly respected doctors, keep their free-flying birds in the kitchen. When we visit them, food is prepared and eaten in that kitchen where the birds flap their wings and poop. Then they’ll fly into the den, poop on the chair or couch, and you only discover it when you sit down on something crusty. Gross yes, but is it dangerous?? When we visit, I like to pretend I’m camping. A little bit of nature here, a little bit of nature there, skin is my body’s way of protecting my insides from gross stuff, etc.
But we’re about to try for a family. Is it safe for me to be pregnant around all that? Is it safe for an infant to be in the house with all that? They are so incredibly resistant to updating anything, changing anything, moving anything, and the fact that they are so educated means they don’t really listen to what their sons—grown adult men who are NOT doctors—suggest or recommend. This is a pattern in their family life in other ways (not giving any weight or consideration to my husband/brother-in-law’s suggestions). Is the bird thing a small enough request that we might get some traction toward a solution? Or at the minimum, do you have some reassurance that it’s not detrimental to our health when trying to conceive/being pregnant/having an infant?
—Birds of a Feather Poop Together
Dear Birds of a Feather,
This is a sticky (ahem) situation, and you’re right to be concerned. Birds, their poop, and even their dander can cause health issues (albeit, some of them rare) for pregnant women and young children, including psittacosis (parrot fever), allergic alveolitis, and salmonella. You can even get sick just from breathing the dried poop that infiltrates the air. With that being said, the best answer to your question will come from your family doctor or OB-GYN. I know your in-laws are doctors, but we can all be a bit stubborn when it comes to our own pets, can’t we? Find an unbiased medical professional to assess your concerns and the level of risk based on your personal health history.
However, the issue here isn’t only whether there is risk, but how to handle that risk. General cleanliness advice like handwashing after interacting with a bird is all well and good. But you’d better believe I would not be eating food with bird poop in/on/around it, especially while pregnant. I also don’t think you’re going to get very far arguing with your in-laws about their lifestyle choices, particularly because they are actually being good pet owners. You don’t mention what types of birds these are, but it is now commonly accepted in the bird community that most birds need time outside their cage to fly during the day, and keeping them permanently locked up is cruel. Birds who become stressed or neglected will often self-harm, plucking their feathers out until they are bald. This is one of the reasons why I will probably never own a bird—I love them, but I’m not about that bird poop in my cereal lifestyle.
As I see it, you have a few options. You could ask your in-laws to put the birds in their cages (if they even have them) just while you visit, or at least keep them out of the kitchen while you’re preparing food. Frankly, I don’t see this going over very well, so you’ll have to think about whether it’s worth even bringing up. Alternatively, you could spend less time at their house, and instead, get together at a favorite restaurant, or invite them to your home. Ultimately, once you and your doctor decide what a safe level of exposure is for you, you are just going to have to enforce your boundaries. This doesn’t mean telling them what to do in their own home, it just means controlling what YOU do and where you go. This will be good practice for when you are a parent and have to advocate for your child—yes, even with your in-laws.
And one final thing: Make this your husband’s problem. Any time a boundary needs to be set or reinforced, make sure the two of you are on the same page and that he is willing to stand up for you. His parents equal his problem. Best of luck.
Help us keep giving the advice you crave every week. Sign up for Slate Plus now.
Dear Faux Paws,
Over the past few years, my wife and I built up a relationship with one of our neighborhood cats. He was a fine fellow, who would graciously acknowledge our presence, wander towards us grousing and then allow us to gently worship him. We never met his family but would occasionally notice them watching us bemusedly, no doubt wondering why we were bothering their household god. Sadly, notices went up last week that this genial gentleman was missing and yesterday we discovered his corpse and returned it to his family’s neighbors as they were out. We were wondering whether it would be appropriate to send these strangers we’ve never spoken to a card or a small gift. They really don’t know us and, without impugning his magnificence, he was a cat. Would it be weird and intrusive? It might seem frivolous but he meant a great deal to us, a friendly presence in difficult times.
Dear Cat Botherer,
Send the card. Every time I lose a pet, I appreciate and remember everyone who reaches out and validates the tremendous sadness I feel, as many are not so kind or empathetic.
Dear Faux Paws,
After a series of medical emergencies, my 77-year-old mother was no longer able to live alone. About a year and a half ago, I moved her across the country to live with my big sister. My mother had three dogs, and my sister has severe dog allergies. While we were able to take the puppy back to the breeder, my fiancé (who already has two dogs) and I each took one dog to care for, “Jerry” and “Molly.” I decided to keep Jerry, as he settled in with my elderly dog and cat quite well. After the passing of my old guy, I was grateful to have him. While we have tried to find a home for Molly (through friends, pet adoption websites, local veterinarians, and word of mouth), she is older, sensitive, dog-aggressive, cat aggressive, and generally seems to be overwhelmed by the change.
We got married and merged households a few months ago, meaning we now have four dogs and one cat all under one roof. We are constantly shuffling dogs around to rooms/crates to keep the cat safe and Molly happy. I’m deeply opposed to taking Molly to the shelter, as it would be incredibly traumatic for her, and given her issues, it’s hard to imagine someone adopting her. (We also live in the South, where pet overpopulations are a perpetual issue.) That said, I’m constantly worried that a serious dogfight will break out or the cat will get killed if he sneaks out somehow. I’m just not sure what to do—feelings of guilt and worry are a constant.
Your compassion is obvious given that you’re working so hard to make sure her dogs are cared for. I’m deeply sympathetic to your situation because I have a similar one myself. One of my dogs is cat aggressive, which we only learned about once we brought home two cats. Our dog had previously come from a home with cats, but it turns out they had simply hidden from him and avoided interaction, which we didn’t know when we adopted two kittens. Trying to acclimate them to each other failed miserably, and was an incredibly stressful time accompanied by plenty of barking and tears. When the dog killed a couple of squirrels in the yard, we finally decided introducing him to the cats was a bad idea and chose to keep them permanently separated. (He really is the best boy in every other way—he just also happens to be a coldhearted killer.)
We are fortunate enough to have a decent-sized house with two stories and, most importantly, a door at the top of the steps. The cats live upstairs and the dogs (we later adopted a second) live downstairs and have done so in relative harmony for years. I don’t know your living situation and if having permanent parts of the house allotted for different animals is possible for you, but I’d suggest this rather than the shuffling you’re doing now. Now that everyone knows their space in my home, they don’t try to charge through the door, either.
If that isn’t a possibility, you’re right that you have to do something. You don’t say how long you and your partner have been married—the rule of thumb is that it takes dogs three months to adjust to big changes. It might just take more time for everyone to settle down. If you can afford it, I strongly encourage you to look into a behaviorist for Molly. After getting my second dog some training with a behaviorist and anxiety medication (yes, dogs can get anxiety, too!), she’s transformed. She’s still her spunky self, but she doesn’t have full-blown meltdowns when sees any strange dog. Really, it’s been a lifesaver.
If none of that works, you may have to rehome her. I agree with you that the shelter is not a good option for Molly, especially if it’s a kill shelter. Have you looked into rescues? Many of them are foster-based. If she is a pure breed or close to it, have you looked at breed-specific rescue organizations, even those in other states that might be willing to travel to you? You might also connect with your veterinarian (or the behaviorist, if you take her to one) and see if they have any resources for re-homing pets. Stay away from Facebook and Craigslist—she has too high of a risk of becoming a bait dog or worse. I’m wishing you all the best.
More Advice From Slate
I just found out that my old roommate from a year ago poisoned my dog. Back when we lived together, my dog kept having severe stomach problems off and on for months. I took time off work, took the dog to the vet, and made more expensive visits to the emergency vet. No one could figure out what was wrong. Because I moved out and my dog is no longer getting sick, I figured it was an allergy to our last apartment or something.