Steve Dale, certified animal behavior consultant (CABC), has reached more pet owners over the past few decades than any other pet journalist in America. He is the host of two nationally syndicated radio shows, Steve Dale’s Pet World and The Pet Minute. For 21 years, his twice weekly newspaper column was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. Steve was a contributing editor for USA Weekend (2002 to 2014), and regular columnist at Cat Fancy magazine (2006 to 2014). He has written for a long list of magazines, from People to Dog World (where he was a columnist).
He’s currently a feature writer and contributing editor for CATster, and authors a column called Steve Dale’s Vet World for Veterinary Practice News. He also contributes blogs for various websites, including for Victoria Stilwell.
Steve has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, National Geographic Explorer, Pets: Part of the Family (PBS), Fox News, various Animal Planet shows, and many others. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Redbook, various veterinary publications, and dozens more as well as appearing as an expert guest on countless radio programs.
To see Steve’s full bio, click here.
My guest today is Steve Dale, pet journalist and animal advocate extraordinaire.
Steve, on reading your bio, your achievements in the pet world are astounding. Not only do you have a magnificent body of journalistic work; you have also stepped into the thick of animal advocacy and made marks of your own. I love the one where you convinced the Chicago White Sox to allow dogs at a major league baseball game, but we are here to talk about cats.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in the cat world? And your greatest disappointment.
Greatest accomplishment is also the saddest thing that’s happened to me. When a cat who owned me named Ricky succumbed to feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), an often fatal disease in cats, I launched the Ricky Fund with the Winn Feline Foundation.
Back in the day Ricky was kind of famous for playing the piano (if only there was YouTube then), and appeared on many TV shows, on Animal Planet, National Geographic channel, PBS, and the list goes on and on. Ricky could literally jump through hoops, offer a high five, sit when asked, and jump over dogs or little children on a “down stay.” He seemed to love the attention. My little “Meowzart” even appeared in public concerts.
Our bond was palpable.
We were even asked to do Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks,” but by then his heart condition was diagnosed and I wouldn’t travel with Ricky. In 2002, he died suddenly as a result of HCM, which is an incredibly common illness in cats.
I launched the Ricky Fund with the Winn Feline Foundation, and we continue to raise money – currently well over $200,000. Studies have identified gene defects in the Maine Coon and the Ragdoll which may be carrying HCM. Breeders are being more selective, which has cut down on HCM in both those breeds. But I want to do more. We must do more – all of us – for cats.
HCM remains impossible to effectively treat – there is no magic pill or anything close. And HCM remains a very common cause of death in adult cats.
Locally, am proud to have played a role in the opening of the Windy Kitty Cat Café, they’re adopting cats out like crazy! And those cats (and kittens) are from the city’s municipal shelter. And I’m proud of being a primary voice of kitten socialization classes – my hope you’ll hear and see more of me talking about this later this year into next year. Kitten classes, like puppy classes, save lives.
Disappointment, that’s an easy one. I cared with all my heart about a Chicago cat shelter, which I was a board member for 12 years. I watched as the Board imploded, making decisions which I knew were totally wrong, and I stood up for what I believed in – and for the cats….And was summarily forced to leave; they used tactics which I’m unsure were even legal and at the very least certainly weren’t any way to treat a colleague and did not benefit cats. No one else stood up and said stop, so I left. I had to. And now seeing what’s gone on there, it’s broken my heart, truly, I may never get over it.
Your accomplishments certainly outshine your disappointments! The Oregon Humane Society gave kitten classes this year, primarily for the 500 foster parents but open to the public. What a great idea!
When I asked what you’d like to discuss in this interview, you replied with Cat Friendly Practices, Fear Free, declawing, and 50 years of the Winn Feline Foundation. Wow, Steve, any one of those subjects could take up a book, an entire library of books. But you are a wordsmith. Can you give us the briefest overview of each subject and a link where we can learn more?
Most adult cats don’t see the veterinarian unless there are very ill. I don’t understand how so many cat caretakers don’t believe that because cats happen to be more self-sufficient than dogs, they don’t get sick or because they are indoors. Of course, indoors-only they don’t so often get attacked by coyotes or hit by cars, but they can get cancers, heart disease, and actually may be more prone to diabetes or hyperthyroid disease. Indoors-only I am all for, but it’s not like a Star Trek force-shield against illnesses.
Veterinary clinics are increasingly making the effort to be Cat Friendly – it really is an official designation – means that they are indeed cat friendlier. There was a time, not too long ago, where cats were an afterthought. And Cat Friendly Practices is changing that. No, I am wrong. I know the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Cat Friendly Practices has changed that.
I loved the notion of Cat Friendly Practices from the beginning. Cats need the veterinary care they deserve!
People almost expect veterinary visits to be bad experiences for their pets, and therefore themselves. YouTube videos in the thousands depict pets hate going to the vet, and it’s a joke. NO, it’s not a joke. It doesn’t need to be this way.
A mission of Fear Free and a mission of mine to change that perception. Veterinarians are now stepping up – and veterinary nurses – to make changes, but we must do the same as pet caretakers. So, here’s what’s happening: Fear Free veterinarians, veterinary nurses and veterinary practices are beginning to see what I might have predicted.
When our pets aren’t enjoying an experience – and may even be terrified – we get stressed out too! Fear Free is turning that on its head. And wow, a dog can actually enjoy the veterinary visit, and a cat – well tolerating or yes, enjoying that visit as well.
This benefits veterinary professionals as well as their patients.
Even the best veterinarians on the planet cannot treat pets they’re not seeing. And Dr. Google truly isn’t the answer – until the Internet can take blood work on your pet or listen to your pet’s heartbeat.
Next is Human Animal Bond Certification, which the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, North American Veterinary Conference and American Veterinary Medical Association are partnering on. And they know I am ready to help in any way I can. I am a Board member of the Human Animal Bond Association. Listen, without the bond – we have nothing. We wouldn’t be sharing our lives with cats, and when it comes to dogs our bond goes back 14,000 years.
We love our pets more than ever, but we’re not always doing the best for them as there are SO many misconceptions, many coming from Dr. Google. How we feed and what we feed our pets, for example. Or our pets living in dull environments, which impacts health in surprising ways, and that is especially true for cats. I support a website which professionals write for, certified animal behavior consultants and veterinary nurses and veterinarians – and some of the best editors in the biz (members of CWA) edit for the site. I am honored to be involved. And hope people go there for credible information, and sometimes free stuff. And who doesn’t like free? www.fearfreehappyhomes.com.
About declaw, I’ve called the procedure barbaric for a long time. Now there’s a pheromone product, it’s called Feliscratch, that actually attracts cats to scratching posts! There’s was never an excuse to declaw, and today there’s even less of an excuse because with some common sense behavior modification and Feliscratch, nearly 100 percent of the time cats will be attracted to scratch their prose on posts.
Like me, you are a member of the Cat Writers’ Association, demonstrating your true dedication to cats. How many cats do you have? Do they help with your writing?
My cats have always inspired ideas to write about and also taught me. Ricky was the best teacher of all. Showing me that humans can be trained to believe they’re training cats. But also taught me all of what cats can be. He was my Lassie. I think if I fell down a well, Ricky would have been able to find a way to rescue me.
I’m a long time CWA member, and have seen the changes from newspaper and magazine writing to blogging. I love blogging! I find it more challenging – for me- because I blog at least seven times a week. It’s as if I now write a daily pet column. And I love it.
Roxy, 15, is our only current cat. She would once offer opinions walking on the keyboard. But these days she is retired. I am grateful for every day she remains healthy and for the veterinary care we have that’s kept her that way.
Tell us your favorite real or fictional cat story.
Well I already told you about Ricky the cat, This is very real: One day, I figured if Garth Brooks can perform in Central Park, Ricky can do the same on the front steps of our condominium.
And that is just what Ricky was doing when ten or 11-year old boy with Down’s syndrome walked by. He was enthralled with Ricky, starring expressionless and motionless for nearly five minutes. Suddenly, he began to laugh. We’re not talking little giggles here; I mean big full-blown belly laughing.
His mother quietly told me, “Billy’s father passed on two weeks ago. Everyone has tried to get him to talk, to react.”
Just then, Billy, who was still in stitches, reached over to pet Ricky.
Ricky rubbed his face on Billy’s arm. Then Billy sat down and snuggled with Ricky, now in his lap. I don’t know what secrets Billy shared, but he talked to Ricky for several minutes straight, sometimes laughing and sometimes crying. Just before he and his mom walked off, he looked at Ricky and said, “I love you,” and then he reached down to kiss Ricky. It’s a kiss that I’ll never forget.
That’s a heartwarming story, beautifully illustrating how much cats bring to the table, sometimes when and where we least expect it.
What five words would you use to describe yourself?
I am not that introspective. I will leave that for others to do. I will say sometimes “sad” or “concerned” that I haven’t done enough to make a difference. Or that others will be forgotten. I don’t believe many of today’s current CWA members – young bloggers especially – have any idea of the contributions Darlene Arden, Kari Winters, Mordecai Siegal or Dr. Lorie Huston made – and many others. DWAA has a Hall of Fame, and I think CWA should have the same.
That’s a good idea. We can learn so much from others.
What is the most useful writing tip you’ve ever been given?
Add something you would like to tell us just for fun.
I know Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas, and did some field research under her. Maybe I’ll say no more and let people Google her. You can hear a recent podcast I did with her, https://stevedalepetworld.com/queen-of-the-orangutans/.
So I googled her and found this amazing article on ScienceFriday.com.
Do you have any big news coming up soon? (Awards, articles, shows, readings, etc)
As I noted, I hope to elevate the prominence of kitten classes, something I’ve long spoken about. I hope to continue to speak about Fear Free, and Cat Friendly practices. And contribute my time and effort to the Winn Feline Foundation. I think it’s 13 years that I’ve been on the Board of Directors; I am aware of the contribution we make funding cat health studies. Winn Feline’s contribution to cats is undeniable. I hope people check out the website, even download a 50th Anniversary book and sign up for the free Winn newsletter.
Awards? They’re nice, and I seem to compile a lot of them. But boy, what’s far more important is the difference I hope I can make to find orphaned animals homes. Still, though, I do support pedigreed cats – they’re wonderful.
I suppose the biggest news is doing this interview for you!
Thank you so much, Steve, for your time and all the useful information you’ve given us. What is the best way to keep up with you?
“Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones,” edited by Steve Dale, Dr. Debra Horwitz, Dr. John Ciribassi, authored by American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)
“Good Cat! Practical Answers to Behavior Questions,” contributions from Betty White, Pam Johnson Bennett, Dr. Sheldon Rubin (Chicago Tribune, 2013)
“Good Dog! Practical Answers to Behavior Questions,” contributions from Betty White, Victoria Stilwell, Dr. Sheldon Rubin (Chicago Tribune, 2013)
“DogGone Chicago: Sniffing Out the Best Places for Your Best Friend” (NTC/Contemporary Books, 1998, republished update 2001)
Steve also has an impressive list of contributions and forwards. For a complete list, check here.