3 to 6 years old, adopted
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Thank you to the Elmbrook
Humane Society for letting
us photograph animals up for
adoption. Although some have
since been adopted, select
animals throughout this feature
are still in need of a home.
Pets give you so much — love, laughs,
companionship and crazy stories, for starters — but they require a few
things too. We spoke with veterinarians and a host of other experts to
get tips for how to become an ideal caretaker for your furry pals
throughout their lives and time with you.
Breeder or Rescue?
Before bringing home a new pet, do your research, know what you’re
getting into, and think with your head more than your heart, says
Jennifer Smieja, communications and marketing coordinator at the Humane
Animal Welfare Society (HAWS) in Waukesha.
“One of our main goals — and one of our main pushes these days — is more
about education than anything else,” she says. “Making sure that people
know what is required of them as a pet owner, what kind of time it will
take to be a pet owner, what kind of expenses they can expect, as far as
pet bills and even food. That can add up quickly.”
they call me
estimated to be
10 years old, waiting
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Smieja says detailing the day-to-day time commitment required by pet
owners is especially important. “We have so much going on in our lives
these days. We’re probably not as present as we used to be because of
electronic devices and those kinds of things,” she explains. “And our
pets need our attention. They need exercise every day. They need
interaction with us. … They rely on us for everything, and if we’re
going to have a pet as a member of our family, we need to be sure that
we can give them everything they need.”
If you’re ready to expand your family, the next step is tackling whether
to adopt a pet through a humane society or rescue association or work
with an animal breeder. Here local experts offer their advice:
Always choose a responsible and reputable breeder. Dr. Sarah Feirer, a
veterinarian with Shorewood Animal Hospital, suggests visiting the
facility where the animal is bred and meeting its parents. Ensure the
litter is well cared for and raised in a good, loving environment, she
But don’t rule out adoption. “Just in our southeastern Wisconsin area,
we have several shelters that probably have upward of 20,000 to 25,000
animals a year. (These animals) need people to be open and willing to
consider adoption, or they don’t have a chance at a second home, which
is incredibly important,” says Heather Gehrke, executive director of the
Elmbrook Humane Society.
Realize no dog — or cat, bird or rabbit — is perfect, and behavioral
issues can be conquered. “When you have somebody else who has, more or
less, broken in the pet for you, you are going to have a little better
idea of what you’re dealing with,” says Smieja of adopting an adult pet
from a shelter. “But you are still going to have some surprises. Every
pet is going to act differently in a new situation. … When you get that
dog that maybe already has a bad habit or two, it’s not the end of the
line. You can work through these things.” HAWS offers one-on-one
consultations with behavioral specialists.
If your sights are set on dog ownership, know that training a puppy is
no small task. “(My husband and I) had a toddler, and I needed an adult
(dog),” says Feirer, who adopted her dog, Mia, a pittie mix, last
summer. “I didn’t have time to train a puppy. I feel like people don’t
understand how much work a puppy can be. Mia came to us house-trained.
We knew that she was good with kids and cats, and she’s been an awesome
What defines a no-kill shelter?
“No-kill also equates to adoption
guarantee,” explains Elmbrook Humane Society Executive Director Heather
Gehrke. “So you’re making a commitment to place any healthy, manageable
or treatable animal into a home. There’s no regulatory body, if you
will, but what the standards say to be a no-kill or adoption guarantee
is that you place 90 percent or more of your total intake of animals. In
2016, we were just under 98 percent.”
Before you bring your pet home, share your expectations with your
family, partner or roommates — and come to an agreement, advises Linda
Bobot, a certified professional dog trainer and owner of The Teacher’s
Pet Dog Training LLC. “It’s going to take the cooperation of everybody
to integrate the (pet) into the home,” she says.
To begin with, she suggests discussing the following:
Who will feed your pet?
Who will walk the dog?
Who will clean up in the yard, litter box, cage, etc.?
Will your pet be allowed on the furniture?
Then have a game plan in place to ease the transition for your pet. “It
needs to be realistic, because when the needs of the (pet) are not met,
that’s when behavior problems manifest and that’s when (pets) get
surrendered,” she says.
5 or 6 years old, waiting for adoption
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Multiple pets. If you’re bringing a new pet into a home with existing
pets, Dr. Lora Marheine of the East Side’s Small Animal Hospital
recommends keeping them separated initially. The new pet should get a
thorough physical exam to ensure it doesn’t expose existing pets to any
disease. “From there, a lot depends on the animals’ personalities. If
they don’t seem overly stressed, then you do controlled exposures,” she
says, explaining that you keep dogs on leashes or let cats see each
other through a baby gate.
“With kitty-cats, allow their scents to mingle,” Marheine says. “If you
have a T-shirt that you hugged one cat with, then you put the T-shirt in
the room with the other cat.” She also suggests room swaps, in which one
animal is in a room for a while and then the other animal can explore
the room after the first animal has left. This technique can make pets
feel less threatened. And if you know your cat doesn’t handle stress
well, she recommends using Feliway, a product that mimics feline
pheromones to make cats feel safe.
Food. Dogs and cats need a diet rich in high-quality fats, high-quality
protein, a mix of digestible complex carbohydrates, fiber and probiotics,
says Bryan Nieman, brand director at Fromm Family Foods. Look for fats
such as salmon oil, chicken fat and safflower oil and chicken, salmon,
lamb or duck for protein. Other beneficial ingredients include barley,
oatmeal, peas, lentils, and even whole fruits and vegetables.
“The balance, or ratio, of fat, protein, carbohydrates and fiber in the
diet is as important as the specific ingredients,” Nieman says. “If a
diet is unbalanced, it can cause unnecessary metabolic stress on the
body and result in additional waste in your yard or in the litter box.”
“There’s a lot of buzz right now on feeding dogs grain-free this or
that,” Marheine says. “I do not feel there is any strong basis to say
that a grain-free diet is a necessary diet for a dog. For cats, make
sure they are eating some canned food. Go toward the higher-protein,
lower-carbohydrate choices, which are better for them, particularly for
certain medical conditions.”
In addition to consulting your pet’s veterinarian, Nieman adds that
neighborhood pet stores can answer questions about a variety of pet food
brands and their practices.
Volunteer Your Time
Not quite prepared to tackle the responsibility that is pet ownership
but still want to test the waters? Then try volunteering at a Milwaukee
area shelter. Opportunities range from kitten cuddling and front-door
greeting to providing full-time foster care.
“Sometimes we need folks who can take in a dog and work through behavior
issues,” explains Jennifer Smieja, communications and marketing
coordinator at the Humane Animal Welfare Society. “There are bunnies
that come in pregnant, and we need them to go out and have mom and
babies taken care of until they can come back in for adoption. …
Fostering is a great way to get them out of the shelter environment,
which sometimes can be very stressful, get them into a home, work
through whatever it is we need worked through, and then get them back
here so we can adopt them out more quickly.”
Foster care can also include hospice foster care. “I can’t tell you how
thankful we are for hospice foster care volunteers,” says Heather Gehrke,
executive director of the Elmbrook Humane Society. “These animals don’t
deserve to live their last days here. That’s probably one of our biggest
needs. It takes a strong and special person to do that.”
“You know that you’re giving so much to a pet for a short time, and
they’re so grateful,” adds Smieja. “While it’s sad to let them go at the
end, there’s always another one who is going to need your help.”
To learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit a local shelter’s
When choosing where — and who — to treat your pet, consider these
Location. Especially for animals like cats, which don’t enjoy car rides.
“It wouldn’t be ideal to be transporting those animals for half an
hour,” adds Feirer.
Knowledge and practicality. Dr. Kaye Krueger of Lake Country Veterinary
Care in Hartland says to look for people who know their business and how
to help their patients, and who are able to refer to other experts when
needed. Practicality — or the ability to match patients and their owners
to appropriate care — is also crucial, she adds.
Communication. The ability to communicate effectively with your vet is
key. Find someone you trust, whom you can ask questions, and who is able
to answer in a way that makes sense to you.
5 years old,
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Services offered. The majority of clinics offer general wellness
services and scanning technology like X-rays and ultrasounds. Feirer
says most general practice vets perform surgery too. “We do soft-tissue
surgery, so we’ll do spays, neuters (and) mass removables. We’ll go into
bladders to remove stones; we’ll remove foreign bodies from the
abdomen,” she says. For more complex procedures, such as repairing a
torn knee ligament or resetting a broken bone, a patient is usually
referred to a local board-certified surgeon, Feirer notes.
On the flip side, what can you do to be a good pet owner?
Be diligent about your pet’s wellness. “Come in at the yearly interval
for a physical exam,” stresses Feirer. “We’ll check weight and update
vaccines. That’s when we’ll be able to catch a problem before,
hopefully, it’s a significant problem.”
Communicate openly and honestly. “Be honest and communicate with us
openly about what you’re doing at home, what you’re seeing at home,
(and) how long something has been going on, just so we can have as much
information as we can to help out your pet,” she says.
Be proactive, and don’t ignore odd behavior. “Animals can sometimes be
really good at hiding disease,” Feirer warns. “I’ve met lots of dogs and
cats that are acting, overall, relatively normal, maybe just a few
subtle things here and there, (and) people don’t realize that their pet
is sick before it gets really bad.”
Follow through. “Ask questions and contribute to care decisions, then
follow through with the treatment plan instructions,” says Krueger.
Want to tour a clinic before committing? Just ask. “Most clinics, I’m
sure, are more than happy to give people a tour,” says Dr. Sarah Feirer,
a veterinarian with Shorewood Animal Hospital. “We’ve had people come
without their pets just to talk with the doctors and make sure they have
the same goals and philosophies for caring for their pets.”
Today’s trainers share positive reinforcement methods so you can teach
pets behaviors you want to encourage rather than set up animals to make
mistakes and then correct them.
One-on-one sessions. Bobot teaches clicker training to her clients in
their homes. “Animals do not have a language connection in their brain
as we do, but they understand once the sound from the clicker is paired
up with a food as a reinforcer. It’s classical conditioning: With a
click, you get a treat,” she says.
She explains that a clicker is unique because it doesn’t carry emotion
as our voices do, and a clicker sounds the same no matter who holds it.
“The sound has a startle effect on the brain, and what we learn through
a startle (helps us) learn faster. And it’s paired up with food, so it
has a dopamine connection,” she says. “It’s a very joyful way of working
with animals. You’re never saying ‘no.’ You’re saying, ‘That’s not what
I was looking for; try something else.’ It creates creative learners,
and it makes people happier too.
“Animals will ask questions during learning by doing something different
than what they’ve just been repeating. When there’s no click and no
treat, that’s information for them,” she explains.
1 year old, adopted
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
She says animals, including goldfish, cats, dogs and even ones at the
zoo, learn quickly with a clicker. Once an animal frequently offers a
desired behavior, then you introduce a verbal cue and set the clicker
The most important thing to teach your pet is that it’s safe with you,
Bobot says. “If we use force, dogs can learn quickly that the safest
place to be is not within our reach. With clicker training, the dog is
learning that the very best place to be is at our side,” she says.
Classes. If a weekly class fits into your schedule, the Milwaukee Dog
Training Club (MDTC) offers puppy classes as well as obedience classes
for dogs 6 months and older.
“Our training parallels clicker training, but it’s using your voice,”
says Deb Jumes, a lead instructor for puppy classes at MDTC. “The word
‘no’ is not allowed in class. It’s not a command. Pups don’t know what
it means. ‘Yes’ is an indicator, and the pup is going to learn that
anytime he hears ‘yes,’ he’s doing something right. He’s going to
associate it with a reward coming.” Treats are common, she says, but
other rewards include playing, chewing a toy or getting a belly rub.
In fact, she and the other MDTC teachers emphasize patience and play.
“We don’t want to spank and yank dogs ever. If you get frustrated, take
a break. End on something your dog can do right, and play. With a puppy,
keep it to three minutes, and keep it simple — a sit, a down and a
little heeling and then play,” she says, explaining that you’re building
a relationship with your dog.
“You have to treat this puppy like he’s a foreign exchange student. He
doesn’t know our language,” says Linda Roman, another MDTC instructor.
“It’s important that everybody in the family agree on the vocabulary.
There’s beauty in the repetition in language — you’re building that
foundation of English for the foreign exchange student.”
Instead of scolding, you redirect bad behavior. If a puppy is chewing on
your hand, then you bring out a toy and let him know that’s what he can
chew on, Roman says. She also advises being proactive to catch a good
behavior and being ready with praise. For example, take a puppy outside
after a nap, supper or play, because those are bowel and bladder
stimulants, she says.
In a class setting, dogs learn from playing with each other too. “If one
puppy is inappropriate with another one, their way of communicating is
very direct, very quick, never misunderstood, and the problem’s solved
right then and there,” says Kim Rinzel, MDTC’s director of training and
a certified professional dog trainer. “And it helps the puppies learn
how to read dogs’ body language.”
Rinzel, who also works as an animal behavior specialist at Wauwatosa
Veterinary Clinic, emphasizes that the club trains dogs in skills and
manners, but it’s not equipped to deal with behavioral issues and
concerns of separation anxiety. In those cases, instructors can
recommend one-on-one options. “If your dog is falling apart at home,
then we need to work with you at home,” she says.
After a visit to the dog park, pups will likely need a bath. What else
should be part of your routine to keep pets healthy and looking sharp?
Dr. Lora Marheine of the Small Animal Hospital shares these grooming
Hair. While cats are generally good at taking care of themselves,
dogs should get the occasional bath. How often you bathe your dog is up
to you — and depends on the breed. Dogs whose hair grows continuously
need regular trips to a professional groomer. For other dogs, use a
gentle dog shampoo with room-temperature water — not shower temperature,
she cautions, which will dry out their skin. Towel them dry or use a
hair dryer on a coolish setting.
9-year-old cattle dog, adopted
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
More important than bathing, keep the coat combed to avoid heavy mats.
“It’s a good way to check for any signs of problems — redness, sores,
scabs, discharge or smell,” she says.
Nails. Cats can self-groom their nails with a scratching post,
but you should also check their nail length monthly. “As cats get older
and they’re less mobile, we tend to see a problem with nails
overgrowing, and those can become painful for the cat,” she says. For
those cats — as well as dogs — you can trim nails at home or have your
vet do that for you.
Teeth. Ideally, cats and dogs should get their teeth brushed
daily. Your vet can give you detailed instructions for introducing tooth
brushing gradually. That said, “they’re not always willing participants,
and I tell owners that this is not designed to be torture,” she says.
“Then we look at dental diets and dental treats as ways to help keep the
mouth healthy.” You can find the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s list
of products proven to reduce plaque and tartar at vohc.org. Water
additives are also available. Finally, you may need to schedule full
dental care, which requires general anesthesia, through your vet.
Ears. For dogs with long ears, look for redness, discharge or
odor, signs that you may need to clean ears regularly with professional
veterinary ear products.
The Older Adult Years
As pets age, they slow down. You’ll need to switch to a senior food with
fewer calories, and you might cut back on exercise depending on your
pet’s mobility and energy level.
Sensory and cognitive decline. “All dogs go through sight loss
starting at about age 7, when they turn into a senior,” Rinzel says.
“They start to get cloudy in the eyes. You can wave your hand, and if
they don’t respond with an ear twitch or a flinch or a tail wag, that
tells you that they’re losing their sight.” If your pet’s sight is
diminished, she suggests playing more games involving scents.
Regarding hearing, different dogs lose different frequencies, so they
may be able to hear some family members but not others, she says.
“As dogs get a little older, they get just as confused as we do. (Watch
for) things like waking at night — a day-night swapping — circling and
getting stuck in a corner. Cats go through this too,” she says.
You can use food supplements or medications to slow down cognitive
decline. “If I have a strong suspicion of dementia and have ruled out
metabolic causes, we use drugs like Selegiline,” Marheine says, adding
that it’s an individualized discussion.
Oscar and Ollie
8 years old, waiting for adoption
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Behavior trends. More generally, your vet will ask you to look
for behavior trends, Marheine says. For example, is your pet gaining or
losing weight? Do you see changes in water consumption, urine habits,
appetite or activity? If your dog doesn’t jump on the furniture or
hesitates going up or down stairs, that can indicate joint issues. Cats
may also have difficulty jumping, or they may become uncomfortable using
a litter box if the litter shifts under their feet.
If she suspects arthritis, she performs a thorough physical exam and
screens the blood to rule out other metabolic problems that might impact
the joint. Depending on how uncomfortable the patient is, she may
recommend X-rays to check for bone tumors. Otherwise, she may suggest a
joint supplement, such as Dasuquin for dogs or Cosequin for cats.
Another option is cold laser therapy, a light that can reduce
inflammation, help fight infection and speed healing. The Small Animal
Hospital uses it for a variety of reasons, including to treat arthritic
“We start out on a relatively frequent schedule and then reduce the
frequency depending on the patient’s response,” Marheine says. “Some
respond profoundly; others not so much. The nice thing about laser is
that it’s nonpharmacologic, so we’re not introducing anything into the
body that could have a negative impact. That’s particularly important
when we have patients who may have multiple things going on.”
Blood transfusions. Animals with a severe injury or illness may
need a blood or plasma transfusion. For example, older dogs that develop
certain types of blood cancer or benign masses of the spleen, liver and
heart can bleed into the chest or abdomen.
“Dogs and cats have a blood type just like people,” says Dr. Timothy L.
Johnson, director of blood donor service at Wisconsin Veterinary
Referral Center (WVRC), with locations in Waukesha, Grafton and Racine.
“If a patient needs blood, we start by determining his or her blood
type. A unit of blood — packed red blood cells in most situations and
fresh whole blood in special situations — matching that blood type is
tested against the patient’s blood to make sure they are compatible. If
the blood is compatible, it is administered to the patient through an IV
Just like with humans, blood transfusions can save lives. (To find out
how your pet can become a donor, visit wvrc.com/pet-owners/blood-donor-program.)
WVRC’s Blood Donor
Program by the Numbers
22 blood donors in the program: 16 dogs, 6 cats|
20-25 units of plasma typically on hand in the freezer
8-10 units of packed red blood cells in the refrigerator
Arguably the most difficult stage of pet ownership is the final one. No
two circumstances are the same, and end-of-life care is often coupled
with financially sensitive decision-making. Evaluating your pet’s
quality of life can guide you in the right direction.
“Good quality of life is perceived differently by individuals,” says
Krueger, “(but) good appetite, ability to maintain cleanliness, (and)
mobility without pain are my top necessities.”
11-year-old miniature poodle mix, adopted
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Feirer says Shorewood Animal Hospital, a clinic accredited by the
American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), uses AAHA’s position
statement on managing and maintaining a pet’s quality of life to
recommend appropriate end-of-life care. The statement involves examining
a plethora of factors, says Feirer, including:
Pain. “The biggest thing that we focus on is pain. We always want to
make sure that your pet is comfortable. Animals do feel pain. … Are they
breathing comfortably? That can go hand in hand with the pain,” she
Nutrition and hydration. “Is an animal eating and drinking? Are they
staying hydrated? Are they nutritionally supported, as they need to be?”
Support. “Can they get up? Sometimes they need some support, depending
on the animal. Are they getting pressure sores? Good bedding can be
important,” she says.
Urination and defecation. “Are they able to get up to urinate and
defecate? You never want an animal to just be urinating and getting to
where they’re lying in it,” she adds.
Behavior. “Are they still able to enjoy the things that they typically
enjoy? … If they usually like hanging out with the family at the end of
the night, and if the pet just can’t get up to hang out with the family
or if it doesn’t want to, (that can adversely affect) quality of life,”
Owners can work with vets to keep their pets comfortable at home too — a
concept that’s come to be known as pet hospice. “How I typically think
of pet hospice is (that) we’re not trying to fix the problem; we’re just
trying to maintain the patient’s quality of life at home,” explains
opinions regarding euthanasia can vary, Feirer says it’s an entirely
fair option to consider if your pet is truly suffering. “How I view
euthanasia — and how most veterinarians view euthanasia — is that it’s a
really caring thing you can do for an animal when they’re suffering,”
she adds. “You never want to see an animal suffer. That’s our goal.”
Both Feirer and Krueger say they also work with in-home vets who can
administer euthanasia at home, a route many owners are now choosing to
Cremation Resource, the average cost of pet cremation is $50 to $150,
depending on the weight of the animal, type of cremation (communal vs.
individual) and clinic location. Other options for the final disposition
of pets include pet burial, veterinarian disposal or donation to