There were celebrity dogs, like Tuna, the Chiweenie Instagram sensation of Tuna Melts My Heart.
There were celebrity cats, like Pudge the gorgeous girl with the snowy mustache.
There were celebrity people, like Carole Radziwill, journalist, reality show star, and dog mom to Baby.
And there was me. I was invited to the Purina Better with Pets Summit, where all these caring people came together to learn about emotional wellness for pets and the people who love them. Somehow I found myself sitting in a room filled with people who care so much about pets that they’ve devoted their lives and careers to them. And Nestlé Purina was paying me to be there, and to write two stories about what I learned.
Let me “paws” and reflect on this a moment:
I was invited to a summit where I could learn the latest thinking about dogs and cats and how we can — and do — improve each others’ lives. And I was paid to write about it.
(Please don’t tell the folks at Purina, but I would have paid to attend.)
The only experience I ‘ve had that came close was when I visited Meow Parlour cat cafe in Manhattan and Catster.com paid me to write about it. (Christina Ha, the cofounder of Meow Parlour was a panelist at the summit.)
So much awesome information came at me in such a short period of time, it was like drinking from a firehose. Except instead of water coming out of the hose, it was puppies and kittens.
10 Things I Learned at the Purina Better with Pets Summit.
1) I see dog people (and cat people)
Humans who identify themselves as dog people tend to be a little more extraverted than those that consider themselves cat people. In the past, dog people mixed and mingled with each other when out and about with their pets, but feline fanciers didn’t have the same opportunities to connect. The internet is changing that, says Mikel Delgado, cat behaviorist and researcher, as millennials become pet people who bond online over their love of kittehs.
2) How to become a cat magnet
Christina Ha, cofounder of New York City’s first cat cafe, has lots of time to observe the interaction of people with cats. She says she can tell the people who understand feline sensibilities. Those who come into her cafe “quiet and gentle are the ones who are soon covered in cats.” Want kitty to come visit you? Let her be, stay quiet, and maybe idly play with a toy so that the cat doesn’t realize “there’s a human attached to it.” Soon you’ll be picking the cat hair off your clothes. (Or leaving it there as a cat person badge of honor.)
3) Raise the bar by turning it sideways
A simple change in design — making cages with horizontal bars — dramatically reduces the stress level in caged cats. An unobstructed view allows them to keep tabs on their environment. Add a solid non-barred area at the bottom of the cage, and cats can hunker down and feel hidden — and safe. Less stress and fear means cats in shelters may feel more comfortable, allowing their purrsonalities to emerge, and increasing adoptability.
4) Cure the blues with blues
Cats are calmer when surrounded by a color palate of blues and greens and violets. Animal Arts architect Heather Lewis helps design veterinary offices and shelters with pets in mind, suggesting softer, bluer colors, non-slip floors, less reflective surfaces, and stairs so pets can walk onto an exam table.
5) I can’t stress this enough
Stress can be detrimental to all our lives — dogs, cats and humans. It has been linked to illnesses of all kinds — from headaches to heart disease. Yet some stress is good — the kind that keeps our minds and bodies active and engaged. You can help your pets by providing puzzles and other opportunities to think through a solution such as hiding a favorite toy under a blanket for your dog to find or making a few holes in a box for your cat to reach in and grab a fuzzy mousie.
6) The play’s the thing
Dr. Tony Buffington debunks the idea that cats are low maintenance; they need interaction and thrive on mental stimulation. His prescription for reducing stress in cats: play with them. “They give back in proportion to what you put in.” And that relationship you build with your cat will pay off in lower stress for you. Win. Win. Get the mousie!
7) Will work for food
Mental stimulation is important for all animals — humans included. People and pets are happier and healthier when they work for their food. No matter how much love and great nutrition you put into that bowl you’re giving to Fido or Fluffy, it will only feed their bodies, but not their minds and their souls. Use food puzzles to make your pets work for their food. Just Google “cat food puzzle” or “dog food puzzle” and you’ll find dozens of choices. On a budget? Make one yourself out of common household items; you’ll find ideas for cats and dogs all over the interwebs.
8) Yes, your cat is judging you
But not the way you think. Hunters at heart, they pick up very subtle changes in their environment. You moved a favorite chair to a new place. Changed your shampoo. Started a new schedule at work. Are stressed about that project due on Friday. Any of these changes may affect your cat’s behavior. Your feline friend does not pee on your Oriental rug out of revenge because you’ve got a new girlfriend. What’s probably happening is you smell different because you’re spending lots of time with her, and it’s upsetting the cat’s routine and expectations. Understand this, and you’ll understand your cat. And be more forgiving.
9) There’s a yawning gulf of misunderstanding
Cats may seem inscrutable and hard to read, but not everyone knows how to read their dog’s body language either. Aside from the obvious cowering, tail tucked under and hiding, there are much more subtle signals that your pooch feels stressed. Dogs may lick their lips when they’re stressed, or yawn when they’re really not sleepy. They may “shake it off,” performing a full body shake when they’re nowhere near water. “Whale eyes” — lots of white showing in your pup’s peepers — are also a good indication of a dog that’s unhappy. If you see these behaviors in your dog, take a look around, and see if you can learn what is making your dog nervous. It might be your friend’s toddler, a suitcase, the neighbor’s leaf blower. Be observant, and you can help your dog deal with stressors.
10) A funny thing happened, or did it?
One of the peeviest of my pet peeves are the supposedly funny videos that well-meaning pet lovers post and share all over social media. You’ve seen them. Cats stealing dog’s food. A dog covering a baby with a blanket. People startling their cats by sneaking up on them. I’m a student of dog and cat behavior, and those videos make me want to snarl and hiss. I can see the whale eyes, the yawning, the ears tucked back in the dogs. Startle a cat enough and you’ll teach him not to trust you, and make him feel that his environment is unsafe. The next time you see one a “funny” cat or dog video, think twice — actually, think three times — before you like or share it. Don’t support the bad behavior that can cause all kinds of sorrow down the line, when the dog finally has enough of the cat stealing her food.
I learned so much more from the Purina Better with Pets summit, and I’ll have a sprinkling of information scattered through my stories in the coming months, as I apply what I learned to my blog, my writing and my own dogs and cats.
Anything pique your interest? What would you like to hear more about?
You may also like:
- 5 + 5 Reasons to Adopt a Shelter Pet
- Fur Goodness Sake: My dog visits the groomer for the first time
- Cats and Boxes: A (Not-So-Scientific) Study
- What Dogs and Cats Say
- Story: In which mischief almost happened, but didn’t