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Did you know that 80% of cat breeds have only been around for 80 years; and there are only 40-70 recognized cat breeds (compared to the 195 dog breeds)? We're diving into the world of our feline friends with the experts at Basepaws, a pioneer in feline genetics -- a field that has been understudied and underfunded for years.
Beckie Mossor, Basepaws' head cat coach, walks us through how our cat's DNA holds many of the mysteries about their personalities, behaviors, and overall health. Learn more about getting your cat's DNA tested by visiting Basepaws website!
00:03 Lorien Clemens
Hey pet lovers, welcome to Pet Lover Geek! Did you know that 80% of cat breeds have only been around for 80 years -- isn't that incredible? And while there are 195 dog breeds that are recognized by AKC, there are only 40 to even 70 recognized cat breeds. It really depends on the organization that you talk to when you see how many there actually are that are recognized. And so today we're going to dig deep into cats and all things about cats and their DNA.
I'm Lorien Clemens and today on Pet Lover Geek -- powered by PetHub -- we are talking about the world of our feline friends and their DNA. We're going to be talking to the experts at Basepaws. They are the pioneers of feline genetics, a field that has been understudied and under-funded for years.
So we're going to find out how your cats genes hold many of the mysteries of their personalities, behaviors, even overall health, while answering questions like, why does my cat wake me up at 4am every morning; or why does Whiskers choose to relieve himself in the empty box in the kitchen instead of using that freshly cleaned litter box I put in his room?
Lucky for us our guest today is Beckie Mossor. She's the head coach of Basepaws Coach My Cat program, and she's ready to answer all of our questions and get really geeky with us. I can't wait! Welcome to the show Beckie.
01:24 Beckie Mossor
Thank you so much! I couldn't be anymore excited to be here. I love to talk to cats and DNA and thanks so much for having me.
01:31 Lorien Clemens
Well we're excited and I am an equal opportunity pet lover. I have two dogs, two cats, you know, so they're both equally important to me. And we always focus so much on the dog stuff because it's so prevalent out there, but I'm really excited to get all catty with you today. So let's dig on!
Just like humans, cats DNA is super duper complex. I mean, it's incredible the information that's held in the DNA. So let's get a little bit geeky here. DNA contains more than 20,000 genes, which are all spelled out in that unique genetic code. And it's around 2.7 billion letters long. And get this listeners. I want you to imagine like a really huge book like "War And Peace", right? Okay can you keep that in your mind? Now how many letters do you think are in there? Believe it or not, it's about 2 to 3 million letters that make up all those words in a book like "War And Peace". So I want you to think about that. It means that you have 1,000 books the size of "War And Peace" that is just one cat's DNA -- that's incredible, the amount of information.
And just one letter wrong in your cat's DNA could be the difference between good health and bad health. So to help us walk through all these complexities of feline genetics and how it can impact our cats' behavior, we've got Beckie on the line. So Beckie, I would love it before we actually dig into the science of cat behavior, if you could tell us a little bit about your background and Basepaws and how you came to be with them.
03:06 Beckie Mossor
Yeah, absolutely. So I'm a registered veterinary technician and I live in North Carolina. I have, you know, the veterinary industry has so many elements to it. I'm not sure if people even realize how many career potentials there are in our industry. So I've had a very diverse background and grew my career sort of into professional speaking, writing, educating, and consulting with startup industry folks who are coming into the veterinary space to make sure we are, you know, aligning with best practices in the veterinary space and in veterinary education.
And, Basepaws is really dedicated to cat health. So we are a cat genetics company, but we have an entire arm of education and outreach because we really do want the best lives for cats that aligns with our research. And so because the veterinary industry is surprisingly small, I had some personal connections that worked with Basepaws and colleagues who recommended me to come on board with them and to help build their educational program and to help connect the veterinary space with this amazing industry space.
04:17 Lorien Clemens
That's exciting and, I mean, it is a very small industry. It's amazing how you find out, oh yeah I know so and so and so and so. Small world indeed. Okay, so let's start off with a really basic question. Does my cats genetics really determine their behavior and traits? I mean, that seems to be a pretty big lofty claim.
04:41 Beckie Mossor
Well, so I think the very first thing to say and the overall umbrella caveat to this all is: we just don't know as much about cats as we do human DNA and dog DNA. It's sort of like you already have stated, we just don't give cats the same science and research in the past, but we are now and people are learning more and more about cats as their own delineated species. You know, we always say cats are not small dogs, which in the past I think there has been sort of a mentality -- even in the veterinary space -- that kind of looked at it that way, and now we know that they have a lot of particulars of their own and we're diving in.
That being said, we're identifying genetic health markers and learning from the database that we are getting from, you know, the research that we're doing and the study groups that we're doing in these diagnosed conditions where we can look for these health markers. So we are learning a lot, but as a company we have identified a lot.
And the truth of this is it doesn't necessarily -- like you said, one letter wrong can dictate the health -- but for us it it can affect, not necessarily dictate their behavior and health because we know there is kind of that nature versus nurture, right? So there is a little element of both.
06:05 Lorien Clemens
Well, okay. There's a lot to unpack, so let's actually start with the nurture part because I feel like that's maybe something that all of us kind of understand and are a little bit more comfortable with even though there's a lot to learn about just basic cat behavior and what their behaviors do and what we already know about cat behavior and how they interact with humans. So let's start with that, and then we'll dig into what DNA tells us. How about that?
So let's start off first with communication. So we have two very unique cats in our house. One is extremely vocal and then the other, you know, he makes little sounds here and there, but he definitely communicates with us in other ways. So I would love it if you kind of just in general talk to us about cat communication and humans -- that interaction that they have.
06:58 Beckie Mossor
Yeah, it's so funny. I just actually did some quotes for a Martha Stewart article regarding this because it is a big interest for folks. And what we're finding out is cats don't really vocalize at each other in a meowing type of way. If they're vocalizing, it's more of a warning, right? We hear a little bit of hissing and growling. So cats don't meow at each other, so we have evidence that shows that meowing is actually a behavior that cats have developed to please people. There's some speculation that it's actually to mimic the sound of a baby crying in order to get attention or what they need.
07:42 Lorien Clemens
Well, and so here's a funny story. We have a 14 month old, and the very vocal kitty -- whose name is Houdini -- and every now and then my husband and I will have to stop and go "Is that Houdini or is that the baby?" Because it's so similar. And yeah, it's kind of crazy, but okay.
So really cats, their communications are all about us. So what other ways do they talk to us other than just vocalizations? I mean, are there physical things that they're doing to us? I mean, there's a lot of things that I that, as the further I get into, not just being a cat pet parent but also studying behavior and enrichment for cats and things like that, I realize oh he's been doing that for a long time and I just wasn't paying attention.
So can you talk about those kind of clues that they're giving us that they're trying to communicate with us?
08:35 Beckie Mossor
For days I could talk to you about that because cats are super, super communicative. We just miss the subtleties because they can be subtle indications, and so depending on what your cat is trying to communicate they will find different ways.
So one of the biggest questions I get is the affection factor, because people really want their cat to snuggle and to sit on their laps and to be very affectionate and close, and it's not necessarily in cats' nature to do that. So the first thing I tell folks about cats is that they like everything, but sleep, in short bursts. So they want to be petted for maybe 3 or 4 or 5 seconds. They want their interactions to be very brief.
And so when your cat is seeking out your attention, they're giving you a message. So a lot of times, I think you guys know, if your cat is hungry what those messages look like. They're, you know, real, real direct.
The one I get the most though is how do I know if my cat loves me or even likes me when they are very aloof? And a lot of people lean into that slow blink. So have you, I don't know, have you heard of the slow blink and that this can be a sign of affection from your cat?
09:46 Lorien Clemens
Oh yes, I have heard that.
09:48 Beckie Mossor
So the slow blink is really kind of a beautiful thing because it is a sign of affection in your cats, in the sense that they are saying I trust you and I am physically relaxed enough to close my eyes and be very casual because I know that you're not a threat to me and I see you as part of my space and that's okay. And so that is a sign of affection and trust from cats.
And then the other thing we see is the face rubbing, right? So kitties love to rub their face on your legs and your face. This is also going to be a sign of affection from our kitties that they're trying to create a smell merge with you. Those are their olfactory and pheromone sensory organs, very much organ-related in their face. And so these like kitty and full body rubs that they do, these drive-by's are very much signs of affection from our cat.
Other behaviors that we see, such as acting out behaviors are generally stress related in our cats. And so when we see inappropriate elimination in the house, aggression, these are usually signs of either illness, pain or more of a stress message. Once we rule out medical concerns, I almost find this always to be resource related. So our cats tell us what they need and when they need it. We just really have to look through their eyes to see what they're trying to say rather than to box it and label it like they are taking revenge because I was gone, or XYZ, and identify this is a sign of a stress behavior.
11:22 Lorien Clemens
You know it's funny because so -- to go back to where you talk about affection, I think we are extremely lucky, I guess. We have two cats that are ridiculously affectionate. We never have to like question like does this cat love me because both of our cats tend to jump up on you, snuggle, they even seem a little jealous when you're snuggling with the other one. And we have one that will literally wait for you to pet her for hours, she won't ever want to leave.
But we have had a very aloof cat in the past -- Pixie Bob -- that basically bonded with my husband and nobody else and could care less that the rest of us even existed, but you know it's interesting. So, one of the things I would love for you to talk more about though, is that resource thing because especially if you have multiple cats. We've always been a 2 cat household, but when we had, you know, a change because one passed away and then another one came in, there were some definite behavior things going on.
And so I'd love it if you could kind of chat about setting up a cat's environment because that's what we learned the most about was setting up the environment so that there's not a competition for resource, there's not feeling like you know, resource hungry kind of thing. That's not the word I'm trying to think of -- but you know, best ways to set up a cat's environment whether they are single cat or a multiple cat?
12:45 Beckie Mossor
Yeah, I feel like resource insecurities is what you were almost getting at, right?
12:49 Lorien Clemens
That's the word, yes!
12:52 Beckie Mossor
That they are worried! So, first of all, yes. I would love to talk about this. It's one of my favorite topics. And the thing about it is that our cats -- think about it like this: If you came home and your partner had said, "You know my coworker Bob got kicked out of his house and he's going to be living with us now."
13:13 Lorien Clemens
13:13 Beckie Mossor
You would be like sorry, what about Bob? Where is he going to sleep? Where is he eating? Are we buying his groceries? Is he paying rent? Is he contributing? Does he clean? Whose towels are he using, right? You have this immediate list of all of your resources that become at risk when another individual is introduced into your space. And so, without approving Bob coming to your house, you have a lot of questions that happen immediately and you're going to have a physiological response to that. Your cortisol is going to just dump, you know, your brain is spinning and you're going to have a stress response.
So this is no different than what our cats are going to feel when we bring another cat into the environment. They're instantly like, whoa, did you bring your own litter box? Do you have your own cat tree? Where are you sleeping? Whose parent is going to be scratching you? Like they're instantly like what about my resources? Cats use their resources to talk about and claim and to be comfortable in their territory, and they use scent to do that. So then when all the sudden something else is scent soaked with a complete stranger smell, it's really disruptive to their environment and the one thing cats hate in the world for the most part is change.
Now listen, I understand the exception proves the rule. There are plenty of chill cats out there who are like I don't care, take me here, take me there, whatever. Generally those cats are brought up in that type of environment, so they are accustomed to it. The majority of our cats -- I mean they can get upset if you bring in a new piece of furniture, and so we really have to think about change from their point of view, let alone the removal or the compromisation of their resources. So it's a number one thing that we see that creates competition and aggression toward another cat in the environment.
The other thing is cats just hate new things in a lot of cases. So this new smell in their environment is just like something they're not appreciating, and it's something they really need time to get accustomed to.
15:17 Lorien Clemens
Well our cats are going to love us because in a couple of months we have a new puppy joining us, so don't that'll be fun. They'll be fine, right? Okay!
15:27 Beckie Mossor
That's a whole another podcast, but we can do it!
15:30 Lorien Clemens
It really is! Okay, so I would love it real quick before we take a break, could you point everyone to the Basepaws website because I know that your blog has a ton of great resources for pet parents where they can get advice on cat behavior and creating cat environment. But I would love it if you could give that to everybody before we dig into the geeky stuff. Where should they go?
15:49 Beckie Mossor
Yeah, it's as easy as www.basepaws.com. So you can find us there and we also have a cat coaching -- Coach My Cat -- program where we really dive into behavior and you can even get a 30 minute video call with me and we could really dive into what's going on in your household. So it's basepaws.com.
16:09 Lorien Clemens
That's fantastic and so exciting. I love the coach program, it's fantastic. Now hang on, people, we're not done. We are actually going to now dig back into that DNA thing that we were talking about at the beginning and how DNA actually can revert back to everything we were discussing with behaviors. So we're going to get super geeky and talk about how your cat's DNA can play a role in behavior, personality, overall health. Stay tuned, we will be right back.
16:50 Lorien Clemens
Welcome back, we are talking with Beckie Mossor from Basepaws, a company that does DNA tests for cats. Now a lot of pet parents are surely familiar with DNA test for dogs, I mean it's like the discussion at the dog park. You're like "Oh, I got my DNA test back and he's half this, a quarter this, a quarter this." You know it's always so much fun, but you know, people don't really talk about it that much with cats. And so, I would love it if we could try to dig down into it because, you know, it's a little bit different for cats. What I've read from -- what I've gotten from Basepaws is that over 99% of the cat's DNA is the exact same sequence as other cats.
So let's talk about these DNA tests that you guys do and what you can learn about it.
17:32 Beckie Mossor
Yeah, so when we do dog DNA testing, we're really looking for the breed type, right? Like so we want to know if our dog is German Shepherd, Poodle, Chow, Hound Mix, right? Like whatever. We want to -- especially our crazy looking mutts that you're like what!
17:47 Lorien Clemens
17:48 Beckie Mossor
So dog DNA has been delineated for a very long time. There is a remarkable difference between the DNA of -- I shouldn't say remarkable, but compared to cats, there's a remarkable difference between German Shepherd and, you know, Miniature Schnauzer DNA. So we're able to really kind of isolate that.
In cats it really has not been studied that long. And not only has it not been studied that long, but cat breeds are not really a actual thing. So breeds are visual traits, mostly, that were bred into cats that were things that people really liked that became very consistent overtime. So they became a regular, consistent appearance, some of the regular behaviors, these types of things happen.
But when we look at the DNA of cats, there really is not like this breed delineation because they're just not that far separated because, like you already said, most of their DNA is very similar. So much so, that like 94% of their DNA is similar to wildcats, so we are really still learning what "breeds" look like.
So we talk about breeds in cats, I really talk about lineages because that's what we're really looking at: is geographic and family type lineages. So we take all of the DNA that we've gotten over the years and that we get from these groups, and we have learned to determine what your cat's DNA is most similar to. So when you get a breed report back, you'll get percentages of similarities to geographic and breed types that your cat is most similar to. And so because of that you get updates on your report, forever. As we get more samples and we're able to delineate even more samples, we're able to update these reports to say your cat -- to really drill them down to the closest lineages that we're able to identify in your cat.
19:55 Lorien Clemens
So is it not the same as like when I go -- you know, I'm a Boston Terrier fanatic and I work with a local really great breeder, and you know, they're AKC, what have you, what have you. But if I was to say, like I want a Siamese and I went to a Siamese breeder, are you saying that that's really not kind of the same thing? Or is it -- you know, because I guess -- because too when I was looking at the information that you guys sent over, you talked about how recently you had big jumps in your database. You have twice as many pedigree cats as part of your database and as you say, as you continue to grow, you guys learn more and more. But I mean, is it not the same when I have what I think is a "pure breed" or a pedigree cat, is it not the same?
20:41 Beckie Mossor
That's right. And there are a lot of cat breeders out there who are like "Do not tell me that" -- they don't love it. But what it really is, is the pedigree and that's why the pedigree is okay. It is to say that yes, your cat is a pedigreed Siamese or pedigree Maine Coon. When it comes to Siamese, people also don't understand there is like so many different variations of Siamese. Siamese is a very, very broad umbrella and people see a set of physical traits in a cat and they decide that that set of physical traits is a pedigree trait without realizing that a lot of times these color traits are related to several different types of pedigrees or lineages.
So that's right, you won't get a breed report back that says your cat is 100% Maine Coon. Unless your cat comes from like whole lines then you're going to show up as being the highest percentage related to that. But in that DNA, like as you said, there is thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of strands. We can absolutely find other lineages in these cats because they're just not so far "bred out" that they don't show up. It's pretty amazing.
21:58 Lorien Clemens
I know that dog breeds, for example, have been for a long time very specific because of the jobs that we have them do, and things like that. There's an entire, you know, group of people, like you know, breeders, that that's really what they do. This is their entire focus. Is it not that prevalent in the cat industry then?
22:21 Beckie Mossor
So the prevalence is really that -- well, number one, you know, as a veterinary technician, for me, it's all about the health markers. But, you know, again, what it is is just that dogs have been bred for thousands and thousands of years. I mean, like you said, for the jobs. And from a DNA standpoint, it takes a really long time to change DNA.
Now we can pick up certain -- I mean, we're learning so much about DNA, like that you could even pick up your parents fears and that fears and anxieties can be passed in DNA in the humans. I mean, we're learning how closely related it can be, too, from a familial standpoint, but to breed out an actual breed, it takes a very long time -- and much longer than we've been breeding cats. So again, that's why it comes back to a lineage.
And you know, again, you may have a pet that is 99.999% of this one lineage, so breeders can rest assured that we're not saying you don't have a "purebred cat" by any means. What we're saying is that they just haven't from a time standpoint been bred out of the wildcat long enough to delineate their DNA out. And they will with time.
And that's why we look for these pedigree purebred cats that are out there to add to our database because we know what their lineages are most like and so we're able to compare a less delineated cat to that DNA structure. So when you go to the the shelter and you get this like kitten that you're like I don't know what you are. You have a Siamese face and a black body and like, you know, those kind of, you know, 7 toes on each foot.
24:02 Lorien Clemens
A Heinz 57!
24:04 Beckie Mossor
Yeah! Those are the ones that we really want to know what they are, you know, and we always get the folks that say I want to know if it is Siamese, I want my cat is Maine Coon. We get that a lot, just because they're big and have ear tufts. So people actually get upset when they really think that their pet is one breed, but we like them to understand that this is mostly lineage, very similarly to human DNA where you'll get a report that says you are, you know, this percentage from this place.
24:32 Lorien Clemens
Let's actually dig down into what you actually are learning from the genome and what you're learning from what you guys are studying. So you have a technology -- a very unique technology -- called Next Generation Sequencing that allows you to really dig down into that cat genome. I'd love if you could talk about how the genome is different from genetics, and what you're able to learn about things, not just breed, but also the health because it's those health markers that at the end of the day we really care about. We want them to live long healthy lives. So talk a little bit more about that.
25:02 Beckie Mossor
Yeah, and I have to say we have the most brilliant team in our lab. Damian and Yuliana are both just brilliant PhD's in Genetics who have really drilled down this process and they really work with best practices. So the genome sequence is kind of where we can understand a whole lot more data than just a DNA test. We can really drill down to these different markers.
And so what we're actually doing in that case is not just looking at type and lineages, we're actually looking at certain marker points that like -- so, again like you mentioned, these are very, very long strands but there are certain marker points that we can head to that we know are related to particular diseases and health conditions. So very similar to the breast cancer gene people have heard about where women can go and have a test, and if you are positive for this gene it does not mean you have breast cancer. It does mean you have a much higher likelihood for it. And in many cases these women have mastectomies because of this very high risk.
So when we're able to do this same thing --identify a health marker -- we can look at this health marker an look for indications of disease. Right now we have 38 genetic health markers and 16 inheritable diseases that we look at. So one of the most prevalent that people worry about is HTM, so hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a condition that is very common in our, I like to say, smash face breeds -- the Persians and such. And again, it is not 100% in these cat types.
And so what can often happen is we have a cat that looks nothing like a Persian, we don't even think about HTM, and we find it present in our cats. And it often is something that we find postmortem. They have a sudden death, and then we find out it was related to this heart condition. It's not something we hear with a stethoscope in a veterinary appointment, it is something that is generally diagnosed with echocardiograms, ultrasounds and certain types of cardiac workups.
So that being said, when you're able to identify these genetic health markers, just like that breast cancer gene, you're able to take proactive measures. So if you do come back with, say, the polycystic kidney or a HTM marker, we're able to talk with your veterinarian about it early. Watch for the signs early and support kidney, support health, have regular echocardiograms if you have HTM; so that we can monitor the heart, get on medications the earliest possible because all treatment is best as early as we can, right?
So we're able to support the health soon and then if we start to see disease process showing up we're able to get on it the fastest. So that's where, as a veterinary professional, I get like ridiculously excited.
28:08 Lorien Clemens
This is really exciting actually. I'm sitting here thinking, you know, I've got the Basepaws kit here at my house. I have not yet done it. I know, I know. I need to do it with our new cat. But let's real quick, because I'm sure people going okay I need to get this done. Talk people through what they need to do. They go to basepaws.com to get started?
28:26 Beckie Mossor
It could not be any easier. You literally just go to basepaws.com and you can compare the different plans that we do. So we do breed groups -- again, we talk about that as far as breed groups, we've mentioned that -- then we also have the breed plus the health test and then we have a whole genome DNA test. So we break it down into three different options. You can compare them there. You can purchase them there. You can also find us on Amazon. So we've got great ratings on Amazon if you want to look through what people are saying and have had their experience. So you can also find our product on Amazon.
Then what you do is you get your kit. The kit comes in the mail. It's going to be in a box that you actually use to return it, so no postage necessary even. And then you're going to get this -- it's very similar to human DNA -- just a little mouth swab. A lot of people get really nervous about the mouth swab. They're like "Oh my cat is never going to let me do this." I'm not going to say that your cat will sit there and open up and say ah, but it is really not as bad as you think it is. And one thing I like to tell people is you don't have to get the whole swab in one try. Like you don't have to "60 seconds swab your cat's mouth", like you can just kind of go in, give him a break, give him, you know, a little pat for positive reinforcement and go back in.
Because one of the most common lab issues is we don't get enough sample or it's taken too close to a meal. So it's like tons of food particles. Miss swab, which are lab folks can sometimes work through but sometimes can't. After you do that swab you just put it back in the preservative liquid, and seal it up. You register your kit online, just like you would with any other DNA kit. Seal it up, mail it off, and then we're turning these over in just a few weeks at this point.
30:12 Lorien Clemens
That's exciting. Okay, we're going to do this this week, definitely. But now before we go, I'd love it if you could talk a little bit about the future because, you know, as we mentioned, dogs get everything and feline genetics has been really understudied and underfunded. So what are you looking forward to in the future with Basepaws and what do you hope to see?
30:30 Beckie Mossor
Oh my gosh, well, so one thing that we do and we haven't really talked about is not just the genome tracking, but the phenome tracking. And this to me is what's really interesting. So when we have a pet parent or guardian take this DNA test they also complete a very extensive survey. I mean very extensive and we ask you about your cat's behavior. We ask you about your cat's litter box behaviors, food preferences. And you know, in the very beginning we opened this up by saying is DNA related to their behavior? And we've really kind of talked about how it's related to health and lineage. What we know is it's not so much the genome relation, but the phenome relation.
And so what we learn from our clients and our owners is what behaviors are most closely related to what breed groups. And so that's giving us the really long-term data to say "Yes, Ragdoll breed types tend to be really chill and let you pick them up and they might be a great choice if you have a kid in the house." You know, we can say things like, you know, like "a Bengal cat might not be great for you if you travel a lot because they tend to have a lot of energy, they're very trainable.” So it's really, really cool. The phenome data is what's really going to start to tell us what the behaviors and a lot of the other types of things we want to know about our cat are.
So when you go on and you get your kits, be excited to do that survey with us so we can learn more about that and continue to convey that to you in these lifelong updates that you're going to get.
31:59 Lorien Clemens
Love it. I love it. OK, Beckie, thanks so much for joining us today. Lots of stuff that I learned that I didn't even realize I was going to learn. So hang on, everybody, I want to make sure that they understand where -- I know you mentioned Amazon -- but give us one more time the full spelling of your website.
32:17 Beckie Mossor
OK, absolutely. So you can find us on Amazon or basepaws.com
32:25 Lorien Clemens
Fantastic! I hope you learned a lot about your furry feline friends today. I know I did. Be sure to check out our other interviews with pet industry experts by searching for Pet Lover Geek on your favorite podcast app. And make sure to give us a rating so that you can help other pet lovers find us. Thank you again, Beckie, for joining us today.
32:44 Beckie Mossor
You are so welcome. Thank you so much for having me and thank you guys for listening and I can't wait to hear what your breed types are!
32:50 Lorien Clemens
Me too! I'm excited about all this! All you pet lovers out there, we're going to see you again on Pet Lover Geek powered by PetHub.