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A Lifetime of Care
What your pets need from you at every age and stage


May 2017

3 to 6 years old, adopted


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
for adoption

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 adds.

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 dog.”

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.”

The Homecoming

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


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 website.

Vet Choice

When choosing where — and who — to treat your pet, consider these factors:

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,


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

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 aside.

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.

Good Grooming

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 tips:

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

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 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

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 patients.

“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 catheter.”

Just like with humans, blood transfusions can save lives. (To find out how your pet can become a donor, visit

WVRC’s Blood Donor Program by the Numbers

350 transfusions administered annually
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

End-of-Life Care

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


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 says.

Nutrition and hydration. “Is an animal eating and drinking? Are they staying hydrated? Are they nutritionally supported, as they need to be?” she asks.

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,” she says.

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 Feirer.

And although 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 pursue.

According 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 science.


This story ran in the May 2017 issue of: