Savannah Morning News Column: Savannah Morning News Column

Mysteries of the Feline

Savannah Morning News – February 10, 2018, William Brown III, Interim Chief Executive Officer

Shelters are built to help the need of homeless pets, yet in most shelter settings very little is actively done to understand feline behavior. They are still cared for; food, water, shelter, toys. Yet when an adopter returns the cat for scratching up the couch, not using the litter box, or not playing the first day home, the shelter will put the cat back in the kennel not knowing what else to do. Can you imagine how much better the adopter will feel about their cat if they only had a little more information about their pet? What better way to be a resource for the community as a shelter than having that information to give. Well, today we are going to pass along some of those answers.
Let’s start out with a few common issues adopters have that may lead to the return of a cat to the shelter.
“My cat won’t stop scratching my furniture.” Furniture feels good under their paws, they can easily mark the fabric with their scent claiming the territory as theirs, and why use the scratching post when the couch can easily get the job done as well? Double sided sticky tape is an essential tool when it comes to many cat issues. The tape acts as a deterrent that works even when you’re not home to chase your kitty away from the couch. Then they will start seeing the furniture as an unpleasant experience, meanwhile that scratching post with the treats and catnip around it is now her new best friend.
“My cat is not using its litter box.” There are a few questions you want to ask with this issue. Where is the box located in the house? How often is the box being cleaned? Is the box being shared with another cat? Cats naturally want to bury their waste as it prevents attracting predators to their area. Take advantage of this! Is the litter you’re using comfortable for the cat, is it kicking up a lot of dust? Is it clean enough for the cat so that she wants to use it? We like a clean spot to go, and so do they, which may mean cleaning more than you already do. Is the other cat in the household guarding the box and bullying the new cat away from it’s territory? If so, you may need to add another box into the equation. A good rule of thumb is one box per cat, plus one.
“My cat is hiding and won’t come out.” This is a common misunderstanding when it comes to cats, as people are very much looking for cats to behave like dogs. They want the cat to explore, play, and automatically know where to properly pee and scratch. Unfortunately, cats take longer to warm up to a new environment. Cats have an established “home base” of an area of roughly 500 feet. In this area, they find food, water, shelter, and comfort. This is also the area they will live their lives in, so it must feel safe to them and allow them to be secure within that area. Imagine being moved around into a new area and having to establish all that information over again, while warming up to the other pets and people now in that territory. This adjustment takes time.
It is not natural for animals to act out of spite and vengeance. They are simply trying to satisfy a basic need whichever way they can. The answers and solutions to just these three common issues, can make the difference between a cat sleeping in its bed at night or being returned to a shelter.

Our Dogs have A Lot to Say if You Listen and Watch

Savannah Morning News – January 12, 2018 Michelle Thevenin, Chief Executive Officer

“Oh, they’ll be fine, they’re both wagging their tales.”

“He’s barking, he must be aggressive.”

“Everything was fine, and then she just bit him with no warning.”

If I had a dollar (or maybe even just a quarter) for every time I’ve heard one of the statements above and known it to be a misreading of dog body language, I would be wealthy and could retire.

Wagging Tails:  Not all tail wags are the same!  A slow stiff tail wag may signify worry or uncertainty which could turn into fear or a tussle.  My dog Taylor (a husky/shepherd mix) has a tail that goes in circles (like a helicopter) when he is having great fun and playing.  A low slow wag might indicate fear or appeasement.

Barking: While barking is not body language, it is certainly a signal that can be misread.  As anyone at the dog park knows, Taylor loves to talk at the park.  He barks on arrival to announce himself, he barks in frustration when he can’t keep up with the younger dogs in a game of chase, he barks to warn us about the bicyclists or skateboarders outside the park and he barks at children who come too close (he is not a fan of children).  He also barks to tell me how excited he is that I am home from work or that I’m about to feed him dinner.  Taylor has a lot to say.  On the other hand, Phoenix, my English Shepherd mix, rarely barks.  Most often I catch him barking at squirrels, my cats or another dog, when he wants to play.  It’s usually just a couple of yips and he’s in play bow posture.  Otherwise he is pretty quiet (which is good as Taylor does enough talking for both of them).  All of these barks communicate different things and should be read in combination with the dog’s body language.

Bite warnings: We’ve all seen those pictures on Facebook of children hugging dogs.  Generally speaking, those are not cute pictures to those of us who can read the dog’s body language.  I see lip licking, yawning, stiffness or “whale eyes” – all signs of fear or anxiety that indicates a dog is in a situation it isn’t comfortable in.  These are a few of the signs a dog might give before it starts to struggle or give a warning nip.  I don’t know the exact percentage, but I bet a fair number of times when a dog bites it did give a warning but it was naively ignored (or worse yet punished because it gave a warning growl).

Our dogs have limited means of communicating with us verbally.  But they have a rich body language and if you are skilled at reading it, you can prevent potential mishaps or know when to step back and let your dog interact with other dogs or humans.  On the other hand, your dog is constantly reading your body language – we unknowingly say a lot with a mere stare or hand gesture.  We can live more harmoniously together when we can accurately interpret each other’s “language”.

If you want to learn more about dog body language, come to our free monthly seminar on Saturday January 13 at 3pm at Pet Fix Savannah (7215 Sallie Mood Drive) with our professionally certified dog trainer, Allisia Vroom.  This is a human’s only event – please leave your dogs at home.


Resolutions For Your Pets

Savannah Morning News – December 29, 2017 Michelle Thevenin, Chief Executive Officer

Soon after Thanksgiving (and perhaps after a bit of overindulgence), my friends start discussing their resolutions for the new year.  January 1st seems so far away at that point, it’s easy to over promise – no sugar, alcohol or dairy; meditating every day for 15 minutes; going to the gym 5 times a week and spending more time with their families.

At the Humane Society for Greater Savannah, we have some resolutions for you to consider as you celebrate the new year with your pets:

  1. Keep them slim:  We see overweight pets surrendered to us more regularly than you might expect at HSGS.  Carrying extra weight is as dangerous for your pets as it is for you – diabetes, joint pain, heart disease and breathing problems.  And if your pet is in pain, it can also make them a bit cranky so you may encounter behavioral problems.  As with humans, taking off the extra weight can be more difficult than putting it on.  Talk to your vet about the ideal weight for your pet and how to keep them healthy.
  2. Training:  Our shelters around the country are full of adolescent large breed dogs who were cute and cuddly as puppies but too much to handle as teenage dogs.  Training during those first two years is essential and will make the adolescent years more tolerable for you and your pet.  My big shepherd Darwin was returned to a shelter at 6 months old as he became too much to handle for his family.  A few training classes later, his “sit” and “wait” were nearly impeccable and kept me sane.  Check out our training classes at
  3. Identification:  If your pet gets lost, she is more likely to be returned to you if she is wearing a collar with identification — her name and your phone number.  And in case the collar is lost, your pet should be micro-chipped.  We offer micro-chipping for $15 and our next clinic is Thursday, January 4 from 2-6pm.
  4. Preventatives:  Regular heartworm, flea and tick preventatives are crucial in our climate.  Talk to your vet about what preventative would work best for your pet and use it according to their instructions.    At our clinic on Thursday January 4th, you can get your pet tested for heartworm and purchase appropriate preventatives.
  5. Exercise:  This is a 2-for-1—a daily walk or ramble with your dog will get both of you some exercise and fresh air as well as give you some bonding time.  Playing with your cat (blowing bubbles, dancing feathers, laser pointers) will bring a smile to your face and give you some quality time together.

I am looking forward to celebrating the new year and all that 2018 will have in store for the pets and people we serve at the Humane Society for Greater Savannah.  It’s going to be a remarkable year – thank you all for your support over the past year, we appreciate it!


HSGS Christmas Poem

Savannah Morning News – December 18, 2017 Michelle Thevenin, Chief Executive Officer

It has been our holiday tradition to share this poem for several years – the staff and pets at the Humane Society for Greater Savannah wish you and your loved ones a blessed holiday season!

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care

In hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

My dogs, they were nestled all snug in my beds,

While visions of chewy toys danced in their heads.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter.

Off to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutter, threw up the sash.

The moon on the crest of the new fallen snow

Gave a luster of midday to objects below.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

With a sputter of ashes and flurry of soot,

He slid down the chimney with all of his loot.

My precious dogs stood there, so regal and proud,

Guarding their home with their barks oh so loud.

St. Nick showed no fear, and he called them by name.

He knew in his heart they were gentle and tame.

He brought out his list, began checking it twice.

“My beauties, I see that all year you’ve been nice.

“I have in my bag many toys and much more.

Please tell me, you puppies, what you’re longing for.”

My dogs talked to each other — much to my surprise —

And then turned to Santa with tears in their eyes.

“We have chewies and balls and ropes to be tugged.

We are pampered and coddled and petted and hugged.

But for Christmas, dear Santa, we have but one care:

That all dogs be loved just as much as we are.

“We want no dog beaten, no dog whipped or chained.

We want no dog abused, abandoned, or maimed.

We want that all dogs, no matter what size,

See true love reflected in their masters’ eyes.”

St. Nick paused for a moment to gather his wits.

“I cannot stop humans from being such twits.

All dogs are so beautiful and such a treasure.

They just want to be loved and to give humans pleasure.

“This is a bright lesson I will try to teach.

And maybe your wish will be within my reach.”

St. Nick then turned to me, his face wet with tears:

“Be proud of your babies. They all are such dears.”

He planted a kiss on each beautiful head:

“Now you gentle giants, go right off to bed.

Think only good thoughts, and dream only good dreams

Of running and jumping and playing in streams.”

In an instant, St. Nick disappeared in a poof,

And I heard him laugh loudly up there on the roof.

He jumped in his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And off he then flew like the down on a thistle.

And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,

“Merry Christmas to All, and to Dogs a Good Life!”

— by Richard Lederer, Ph.D. in Linguistics, author of more than 30 books on language, history, and humor with thanks to Clement Clarke Moore.

We’ll be closed Sunday December 24th and Monday December 25th.  We’re hoping to send all our pets Home for the Holidays before then!   Please stop by to open your home and your heart to one of our beloved pets.

Holiday Safety for Your Pets

Savannah Morning News – December 15, 2017 Michelle Thevenin, Executive Director

The hustle and bustle of the holidays are in full swing in my house.  I’ve bought my tree and holiday cards have started arriving in the mail.  The menagerie senses something is different and there’s a special treat for them under the tree.

Your household is probably no different.  As we approach the holidays, there are several things we can do to keep our pets safe while sharing the joy of the season:

  1. Christmas Trees: We’ve all seen the memes on social media of cats pulling down ornaments, lights or even whole trees.  I have friends whose dog liked to crawl under the tree and chew on its branches (it’s just a big stick that someone brought into the living room, after all).  You may need to keep your pet our of the room the tree is in – the tinsel, the crinkling of gift wrap and potentially edible ornaments are all very tempting to dogs and cats alike.  If you have a live tree, change the water frequently as your pet may want to sip out of the tree stand and bacteria can gather there which might upset their stomach.
  2. Poinsetta, Mistletoe and other Holiday Greenery: In general, something new in the house may ignite your pet’s curiosity and they may explore by chewing or even eating the greenery – some holiday plants can be poisonous, while others may just cause an upset stomach or diarrhea.  Cleaning up after your sick pet is probably not how you want to spend your holiday gathering, so keep plants out of reach and keep an eye on your pet.
  3. Party Animals: If you are hosting a holiday gathering, think about whether your pet is a social butterfly or prefers to sneak away to a quiet corner.  Even for a social butterfly, all the hustle and bustle can sometimes be overwhelming.  Give your pet a place to escape to and provide them with a special toy or treat to keep them occupied.  And always supervise them around children who might be visiting and may not know how to best interact with your pet.
  4. Holiday Foods and Alcohol: My pets have fairly set diet that doesn’t differ much from day to day. Introducing rich holiday foods, sweets or alcohol (accidently sipped from a cocktail a party guest may set down on your coffee table) may cause stomach upset or worse, a visit to the emergency vet. Many holiday foods contain ingredients that are toxic for our pets, such as chocolate, xylitol, garlic and raisins.  No one wants to spend the holiday at the emergency room getting their stomach pumped, including your pet.
  5. Lost and found: As visitors come and go, ensure your doors and gates are secure and that a pet doesn’t slip out unnoticed.  Make sure your pet is micro-chipped and is wearing a collar with identification.  My menagerie is not only micro chipped but wears collars with their name and my phone number embroidered on them.  This is particularly important during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season when pets may escape unseen out the door or in a strange neighborhood during travels.
  6. Routines: Keep your routines as  normal as possible.  The morning walk and evening playtime may help both you and your pets de-stress.  If there are guests in the house on your pet’s favorite couch or an airbed where their crate usually is, set them up somewhere with their favorite blanket and a fun toy or treat (like a filled Kong).  Feed them at normal times so they are not so tempted to gnaw on those semi-edible Christmas tree ornaments.

But most of all, enjoy the holidays with your loved ones, both human and four-legged.  The team at the Humane Society for Greater Savannah wishes all of our readers many blessings this holiday season!

Building a Great Animal Welfare Community in Savannah

Savannah Morning News – December 1, 2017 Michelle Thevenin, Executive Director

The other day on my neighborhood Facebook page, there was a mention of “no-kill” and “high-kill” shelters.  This discussion and others on social media are great insight into all the passion, good intentions and occasional irrationality we humans bring to animal welfare, especially those of us intimately involved with it on a day to day basis.  And it’s very relevant to our current animal welfare discussions in Savannah.

Nationally, the benchmark for calling an organization “no-kill” is that 90% of the animals leave the organization alive and less than 10% are euthanized (for non-treatable medical or behavioral reasons).

Yes, “no-kill” shelters do still euthanize animals — usually for untreatable medical ailments or behavioral issues that pose a significant danger to the public or the public’s pets.  That’s not really “No” – kill – there’s still some euthanasia.  Hence why I’m not fond of the “no-kill” brand – it’s misleading and doesn’t acknowledge the necessity of humane euthanasia.

The Humane Society for Greater Savannah currently has a record low euthanasia rate due to improved internal processes and more attentive medical treatment.  But we are limited by law from accepting strays (pets with no clear owner) and by policy as we generally require a scheduled appointment for someone to surrender a pet (mostly governed by the number of open kennels and surgery spots at Pet Fix Savannah).   So, our success, while commendable, is not reflective of the community as a whole.

Professionally, I’m more interested in the community’s euthanasia’s rate, as a whole.

As a community, we are far from having 90% of our animals leave our organizations alive.  If we are committed to becoming one of the best cities for companion animals in the country (certainly an important aspect of becoming the best mid-sized city) we need to implement best practices that have proven successful elsewhere in the southeast – places like Anderson County, South Carolina or Carroll County, Georgia (or the oft-mentioned comparison city of Charleston).

Those best practices include:

  1. Adequate resources:  A recent Savannah Morning News column about the city budget noted that citizens have greater appetite for increased and better services but are not so keen on paying for those improved services.   This would be true in Animal Welfare as well.  Improved results may require additional resources initially, whether in the form of taxes, donations or knowledge.  There are a lot of best practices out there just waiting for us to steal them and make them our own.
  2. Animal-friendly policies:   Our ordinances and organizational policies need to reflect our intention to be a community that values companion animals and the human-animal bond.  Floyd and DeKalb Counties just passed county resolutions to achieve a 90% live release rate community-wide.  Pehaps Savannah should consider such a resolution in the spring.
  3. Proactive before reactive:  Reactive is the sheltering and adopting work that HSGS and the countless rescue partners in the community do.  It’s important and saves lives.  But we have to focus on being proactive in order to decrease our need to be reactive – spay/neuter, Pets For Life, kitten nurseries, strategic community cat management and strong lost/found pet programs are just a few examples of activities we need to turn our attention to.   There are best practices in each of these areas and we should use them.


Savannah and coastal Georgia are a crossroads with respect to companion animal welfare.  We can continue on the slow meandering path that will see us continue to kill healthy cats and dogs in our shelters.  Or we can be deliberate and disciplined in our work and hit a community-wide live release rate of 90% by 2020.  The Humane Society for Greater Savannah is gearing up for the latter.  I hope the community supports that work.  This is a community decision – not the work of individual staff or volunteers but a reflection of our community and what we stand for.