As an animal lover, one of my favorite aspects of life in Turkey can also be one of the most challenging: seeing cats and dogs live on the streets. On one hand, I love how people and animals here live together on what often feels like equal terms. I love seeing a cat or dog run the show in a café. And the warmth and care (and kibble) I see provided to the four-legged denizens of most neighborhoods reaffirms my faith in humanity daily.
Of course, it’s not all outdoor food bowls and gentle pats, however. While most street animals here look downright pampered compared to their counterparts in poorer countries, anyone who’s lived here a while has seen street animals with badly healed broken legs, untreated tumors or oozing infections. Or just plain hungry and cold, especially now that the temperatures are dropping.
What’s an animal lover to do? Soon after I arrived I started taking cat food to the park and kept a dish filled on our sidewalk. Then, in late September, a white kitten chose my girlfriend and me as its new adoptive parents. We didn’t have much say in the matter, really. Not wanting him to grow up as an only-cat, I picked up an even tinier kitten in the park two days later. The experience with these two has been unlike any I’ve had with cats from a shelter back in the States or Western Europe. It’s definitely been a lot more difficult. It’s also been more rewarding. And if I’d known what to expect I would’ve adopted a Turkish street animal a lot sooner. Here, then, some pointers for you, fellow animal-loving yabancı:
You can pretty much bet on street animals being riddled with parasites. Older animals may have found a way to coexist with them, but youngsters will be overwhelmed. Our kittens sure were: one was crawling with fleas, the other had terrible diarrhea from internal parasites.
And that’s par for the course, said our veterinarian, Yasemin Toptan, who owns the Mayavet clinic in Alsancak İzmir, where she treats (and adopts out) a lot of street animals. “Diarrhea is very common in them,” she said. The cause could be parasites, bacteria, viruses or just bad food scrounged from the garbage, she said.
Testing the blood or stool would give certainty about the cause, but those tests are not cheap (about 500 TL). So, since parasites are the most-common cause and since our cats had no symptoms pointing toward other diseases, Yasemin hanım chose to treat for parasites. The shots and oral worm medication cleared things up in a week. She recommended a special diet while the kittens were recovering (see ‘Food’ section).
The external parasites, aka fleas, were dispatched with flea medicine applied to on the back of the kittens’ heads. I was wary of using what essentially is a pesticide on animals so young, but Yasemin said it’s the only way of dealing with a full-blown infestation and that baths were useless in this case. She was right: Before I took our kittens to her office, I had tried every trick I found online and had bathed the younger kitten twice in one morning, but the fleas were not impressed.
A lot of street animals have eye infections, Yasemin said. If their eyes look inflamed and/or there’s discharge from their eyes, a good first-aid measure is to clean their eyes with cotton pads dipped in warm (not hot!) black tea, she said. Many also may have external injuries from fights. Small wounds can be cleaned with warm water (no soap!). Then apply Batikon, an antiseptic commonly available at pharmacies.
If you find a cat with a broken leg, gently put it in the smallest crate or box possible to restrict its movement, then take it to the vet immediately. Lone kittens, without the benefit of their families’ body warmth, are at serious risk of dying from exposure in the cooler months. If you find one that’s shaking, a hot-water bottle wrapped in a towel can save a kitten’s life, Yasemin said.
Vomiting can be a sign of a serious health problem in cats. Throwing up once or twice usually means nothing, but if a cat vomits more often than that, seems sleepy and has low body temperature (a healthy cat’s ears and foot pads feel warm to the touch), it might be facing an emergency. A cat with those symptoms should be taken to a vet right away, day or night, Yasemin said. There’s no home remedy for vomiting.
What to Feed
First of all, don’t give a cat milk. Ever. It gives them diarrhea, which in the case of cats with already compromised immune systems, e.g., street cats, could lead to more problems. You can help a cat with diarrhea by feeding it a mix of boiled chicken breast, rice and yoghurt. I’d never cooked for a cat before— one of many firsts with our Turkish street cats.
Make sure you get age-appropriate food. Kittens can’t chew the hard, adult kibble yet, and need more vitamins and other nutrients to grow up healthy. Any decent pet food will specify the age group for which it’s intended. For cats under one year, our vet recommended buying only the highest-quality food. It’s a worthy investment, she said. The young cats will end up healthier for the rest of their lives if they get the proper nutrition while their bodies are growing, she said. If it gets too expensive, switch to cheaper food after the cat’s first birthday.
Socializing & Training
Here’s the good news: most street cats take to the litter box like fish to water. Ours sure did. They’re already used to finding a patch of dirt to bury their business. We’ve had zero accidents so far. Just set them in the box as soon as they arrive at your house, and they’ll remember where it is.
If you’re getting more than one cat, or if you already have another pet in the house, keep the animals separated under all circumstances until all of them are healthy (and a vet has told you they are). For cats, this also helps their getting used to living with another cat. Whole books have been written on getting cats socialized with each other, but my basic tip is to limit their time together at first and to keep your calm. If you’re freaking out, they will too.
When you take in an older cat, don’t expect them to happily live with you right away, even if they were friendly on the street. They have to learn to trust humans. Be prepared that they might never turn into cuddly lap-cats. I highly recommend adopting more than one cat, especially if you’re getting kittens. You can never personally match the amount of exercise and mental stimulation they will give each other. And they’re so much fun to watch.
I’ve kept this mostly about cats because, to my surprise, our vet recommended against adopting large, adult street dogs. She said they are too used to being outside, to being free. They would not be happy in an apartment. There probably are exceptions to this rule, but that’s what the expert said. She also said, however, that smaller breeds or puppies would be perfectly happy to come live with you. (I just never see any of those on our streets).
Dogs often suffer from similar parasite infestations as cats (worms, fleas, etc.) and their treatment is quite similar. But (street) dogs are at risk for two very serious diseases: parvo virus and distemper. Severe vomiting is a symptom for both. Dogs with parvo have watery diarrhea, possibly with blood in it. Distemper often causes very runny noses in dogs.
Either disease is much too serious to try to diagnose at home. If the dog shows signs of pain, disproportionate fearfulness, seems weak, and shows any other physical abnormality, take it to the vet immediately. If these diseases are caught within a couple days after symptoms arise, the dog has a chance of survival. Otherwise, it might not.
Traveling with Your Adopted Pet
You’ve adopted a street animal, they’re happy and healthy, and now you want to move back to your home country. Do NOT wait until the last minute to get your animal’s paperwork. In fact, if you’re going to Europe, start the process at least three months before you intend to travel. The process is identical for cats and dogs. The animal needs to be examined, vaccinated and microchipped by your vet, who then issues a vaccination booklet and a health certificate.
Then it gets more complicated depending on where you go. If you’re moving your pet to the European Union or to Australia, for example, you need a certified rabies titer test from a lab approved by your government. Your vet and your consulate can help with the process. The certificate is good for one year. The test must be performed at least one month after a rabies vaccination, but no less than three months before you travel. If you’re going to the United States or Canada you can skip that last step. Many countries (and most airlines) accept the report from your vet as proof that your pet is vaccinated and healthy.
Unfortunately, things get a little murky when it comes to legally leaving Turkey. The official word is that you need to obtain a permit from your local Veteriner Sınır Kontrol Noktası (veterinary border control) to leave Turkey with an animal. The agency will want to see your passport, travel booking, the vet-issued documents mentioned above, and the animal itself. Then they issue a permit for the exact date of your travel. However, it is unclear whether this permit is absolutely required in practice. I personally know someone who’s flown to Canada and back with his cat with just the vaccination booklet. Of course, it would be terrible if your cat or dog wasn’t allowed on the plane.
The steps outlined above are the complete process; calls to your consulate and talking to your vet will help you decide whether to follow all steps.
Glossary of Terms You Might Need at the Vet
Muayene – Exam
Aşı – Vaccination
Parazit – Parasite
Pire – Flea
Kene – Tick
Hastalık – Illness
İshal – Diarrhea
Kusma – Vomiting
Öksürmek – Coughing
Vücut ısısı – Body temperature
Sümük – Mucus, Snot
Kuru mama – Dry food
Yaş mama / Konserve – Wet food