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Homeless dogs and cats need help - quickly - in the cold

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 4, 2008 - The threat of homelessness and economic hardship plagues not only humans this winter, but our pets.

The number of stray and abandoned animals is rising in St. Louis, much to the chagrin of local shelters and rescue agencies, like Stray Rescue of St. Louis.

"In all the years I've been doing this, which is most of my adult life, I've never seen anything like this," says the shelter's founder, Randy Grim.

For the past few weeks, Stray Rescue has been working nonstop to rescue an increasing number of animals from the streets.

"I never know how bad the problem is on the streets until the fall comes and winter starts to come because most of the strays hang out in the foliage," Grim explains.

This year, winter has revealed thousands of dogs and cats, he said. Many have no access to food or shelter and fall victim to the elements.

'Street Kids' 

"So many dogs right now have mange, which is a parasite. They lose all of their hair, so they freeze to death. And starvation, of course," Grim adds. He says he wakes up each morning worrying about the harsh winter's effects on the strays he goes out every day to feed.

"I think this week, we're going to be in the teens and I know when I go back to feed some of my - I call them my 'street kids' -- some of them won't be alive anymore," Grim said recently.

Already Grim has seen more dead dogs this winter than last. And it's only December.

"We have many more months," he adds. "I don't know how we're going to be able to deal with it all."

Shelter, Food and Water

Dogs and cats can suffer greatly, especially in urban areas during the winter, says Dr. Steven Schwartz of the Human Society of St. Louis' Veterinary Clinic.

"It's just as if a person were left out in the wilderness," explains Dr. Schwartz. "Their health begins to decline rapidly."

With little access to water, stray and abandoned animals experience fatigue and dehydration, which can affect their immune system. Frostbite, particularly on ears and paws, is common.

Enforce the Law

Laws have been enacted on both sides of the Mississippi River that require protecting animals from the elements. Ledy VanKavage, based in Illinois, is the senior director of Legal Training and Legislation for the ASPCA, and has helped to train police officers to enforce these laws.

"Basically, people can demand that officers and animal control enforce the laws," VanKavage says. "Older chiefs don't realize sometimes. It's in the agriculture code and they're not trained in the law. It's about education."

VanKavage recommends that when people see an abandoned or neglected animal, they call the police or animal control.

"If they (the law-enforcement people) don't do anything, call the alderman or county board member. Go to their meetings."

People's economic woes can take a toll on their pets. Some dog owners can't afford to buy a shelter. VanKavage recommends talking to neighbors with neglected animals and figuring out what to do to help increase an animal's comfort.

"Especially around this holiday season, people who are willing to make a humanitarian effort could offer to pitch in and buy shelter for a neighbor's animal," VanKavage suggests.

In Illinois, and in the city of St. Louis, it is against the law not to provide adequate shelter for pets. People like Grim and VanKavage have worked hard to pass anti-tethering laws, which include strict rules for pet accommodations. Some convictions can lead to felony arrests.

Both VanKavage and Grim emphasize the importance of individual citizens to help make certain these laws are enforced and to help keep animals off the streets by spreading education and spaying and neutering domestic and feral dogs and cats.

"No-kill" shelters such as Stray Rescue also desperately need foster parents to help rehabilitate and care for animals. Stray Rescue receives approximately 100 calls a day from people who have spotted strays and abandoned pets all over St. Louis.

Grim has also started the "Abandoned, Not Forgotten" hotline for police officers, banks and utility companies to notify Stray Rescue of animals left behind in foreclosures or boarded up in abandoned houses.

He remains committed to his "street kids" and the hopes that some day a change will come for them.

"I think maybe the change will come when it's no longer the unique work that we do, it's the work that we all do."

Cold weather concerns

  1.  Ice melt and salt can be irritating to dogs' paws. "Clean them off and dry them when you get inside," says Dr. Schwartz.
  2.  Icey conditions: "I will see more orthopedic problems in the winter from dogs slipping on the ice," explains Dr. Schwartz. "You've got to be extra careful. Try to clean a path for the dogs when they are outside."
  3.  Anti-freeze is often readily available and leaks from cars. "It's sweet-tasting and  is particularly hazardous to dogs. It can be life-threatening and cause kidney failure," warns Dr. Schwartz. Keep containers closed well and clean up spills immediately.

To go to the website of an organization, click on its name: 
Stray Rescue of St. Louis , Humane Society of Missouri , ASPCA

Holiday hazards

Even pampered pets need extra care this time of the year. Webvet.com offers some tips:

Chocolate: Chocolate is off limits for pets. The darker the chocolate, the more dangerous it is. Theobromine and caffeine are the toxic ingredients.

The tree: Use wire to secure your tree and prevent pets from pulling it over on themselves. Also the tree preservative that may be in the water around the trunk can cause gastrointestinal problems in cats and dogs.

Seasonal plants: Poinsettias get the bad rap, when  they are fairly low on the toxic scale. Other problematic holiday plants to keep out of reach: Christmas cactus, mistletoe, holly, cedar, balsam and pine.

Table scraps: Rich, fatty foods are often holiday favorites, but they can result in life-threatening pancreatitis. Anything salty, spicy or greasy qualifies. Bones from chicken or turkey can splinter in the stomach.

Ornaments: Tinsel can be too fascinating for a cat to pass up as a snack. Small decorations hanging low on the tree can be gobbled by dogs and cats, and intestinal blockage can result.

Holiday guests: Guests who aren't used to keeping track of pets may  leave the door open and out the pet will go. Besides alerting guests to your furry escape artists, make sure the animal has a microchip, or at the least, a  tag with your contact information, the vet's contact information, or both.

For more go to www.webvet.com , a site for health and wellness information from animal health experts.

Solange Deschatres is a freelance writer.

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