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Do You Disclose Health and Behavior Problems?


By Admin October 12, 2011

Yesterday, I got a very short electronic mail message from a dear cousin of mine. Earlier this year, she had lost her beloved dog, a rescued Golden Retriever mix that had been very much the center of her life. My cousin has never had children and has never worked outside the home. She has always had a dog, and much of every day has been occupied with grooming the dog, walking the dog, playing with the dog, watching television with the dog, and so on. Family funds are prioritized to ensure that the dog has good medical care, including visits to specialists an hour from home. What my cousin lacks is physical strength–she is not the sort of woman who could hold back a dog that wanted to lunge–so she has wisely limited herself to beagles and small Golden mixes.

When their dog died, my cousin and her husband were crushed, and at first they thought it would be a long time before they adopted another dog, but it wasn’t long before the house was just too empty, and so they adopted a female mixed-breed dog from a shelter that had posted a charming video of the dog playing and nuzzling. They were smitten.

During the first weeks, they discovered a growth on the ear that needed to be surgically removed, but far worse than that, they discovered that their new dog was highly dog-aggressive, sometimes aggressive against people, and so prone to separation anxiety that she would chew the doorframes and furniture whenever they left the house for even an hour or two. Commercial baby gates were no match for the ingenuity of this dog; my cousin has shared YouTube videos revealing just how the dog managed to unlock each style of gate. Because the dog was too dog-unfriendly to go to a group class, they hired a trainer, bought books and tapes, and got one of those crates that some dogs actually find comforting, but the dog’s anxiety and destructive tendencies only worsened. This past week, after four months of failed efforts, my cousin and her husband sadly took the dog back to the shelter. My cousin is devastated–too devastated, in fact, to speak to me.

I am also, obviously, sorry for the dog. I suspect that the shelter will not seek to find some more appropriate family. What the shelter did, I feel, was analogous to placing, say, a feral Savannah with a frail older lady who thought it was cute…

As I brooded over this story yesterday, I also remembered an incident that arose the last time I took my own cats to the veterinarian. There I was, sitting right under one of our PPCR monthly flyers, when another person in the waiting room commented admiringly on one of the cats, and I admitted that I am a member of PPCR. Then the person asked me a question I am sure goes through many other people’s minds also: If a cat has health or behavior problems, does the rescue disclose those to the adopter?

The answer is that PPCR does disclose health problems of which we are aware. Every adult cat placed from foster care is tested for feline leukemia (Felv) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and we make the results available to potential adopters. Every kitten is tested for Felv but not necessarily for FIV, because test results are not meaningful for kittens below a certain age. Most cats we place from foster care have been examined by a veterinarian, either at the shelter or in connection with medical care we ourselves have provided. Exceptions include cases in which a cat is surrendered by its owner or breeder along with recent medical records. Any medical records or information we have is turned over to the adoptive family, except that we white out the name of the previous owner.

However, as a non-profit rescue, we are not in a position to order genetic analysis or extensive physical screenings—blood work or imaging–for asymptomatic cats. If a cat shows symptoms that call for expensive tests, we gratefully accept donations in support of those procedures, and of course we share the results of any such procedures with potential adopters. For example, as I write this message, we have in our care a magnificent purebred American Shorthair whose recent medical exam revealed a heart murmur; given that the cat is a senior, we plan to arrange for X-rays and an echocardiogram, even though the costs of those procedures will far exceed the fee for adopting the cat! (As a member of PPCR, I just mailed off a donation for part of the cost.)

As far as behavior is concerned, absolutely YES, we are very candid about behaviors that an adopter would need to manage. Usually, even the cat’s biographical sketch on our website indicates whether he or she is shy, doesn’t like other cats, is a “diva” (not entirely easy-going), or especially craves interaction. We would not characterize any of these traits as a behavior problem, in the absolute, but recognize that some families prefer a more active cat or a less active one, and that some are readier than others to wait for a cat to demonstrate affection. And YES, we also disclose litter-box irregularities. Feel free to ask the foster mom more questions, or more specific questions, regarding the behavior and social needs of the cat that has caught your fancy.

Of course, just as we cannot guarantee that a given cat will not develop cancer, say, we cannot predict with certainty how a cat will behave in any particular home environment. One of the great advantages of housing a cat in a foster home is that we can observe cats in some home environment, but a cat that gets along with my cats will not necessarily get along with yours, and a cat that shares my taste in music might not share yours. We do try very hard to make good matches, on the basis of the information you provide to us in your application and during your interview, and again, you have probably noticed that a cat’s biographical sketch on the website often contains language such as “would prefer a quiet home” or “tolerates other cats except dominant males.”

I can think of various reasons why some hypothetical animal-care organization might take the risk of misleading an inappropriate adopter into taking a challenging animal, but at PPCR we try never to take such risks. We are committed to disclosing all relevant information we have about each cat, not just because being honest is an ethical way to treat human beings–our adopters–but mainly because we want to attract an adopter who will give each cat the care it needs, and to deter an adopter who isn’t right for the cat. Every time a cat is forsaken–and being returned by a dissatisfied adopter is another abandonment–the cat is further traumatized, and our goal, in relation to each cat, is to lift the weight of loss, not to add to it