Kitty Whisperer

SPCA volunteer is a friend to all felines

By Jessica Laskey
February 2024

Barbara Dow is in her happy place, a chair in the cattery at the Sacramento SPCA, playing with two 8-year-old stray cats who are being socialized.

“Rowdy has eye problems, but he knows my voice,” Dow says. “He’s not up for adoption right now, but they did take him to UC Davis to see what they can do for him. The other one, Rachel, is shy, but she loves me and lets me rub her tummy.”

Dow has volunteered at SSPCA since 2018 and is lead mentor at the cattery. She trains other volunteers to work with the shelter’s felines, among the 6,000 stray or surrendered animals the nonprofit receives each year.

Dow spent 17 years at Happy Tails Pet Sanctuary as an adoption counselor when she decided to check volunteer opportunities at SSPCA. She was impressed with the organization and its “amazing people.” She started as a cat socializer and worked up to lead mentor.

“It’s very important for (volunteers) to understand what’s going on with each cat before they just dive in and start petting away,” Dow says. “You have to understand the cat’s body language, when it’s approachable and when it’s not.”
Dow spends most of her time in “teaser rooms,” where she sits with cats and learns their behaviors and preferences to pass along to other volunteers.

“My job is to try to relax the cats and get them to not be so fearful,” Dow says. “The paperwork on each cat stall tells us who the cat is, where it came from, its age, intake type, as well as any medical problems. After we’ve gone in and evaluated them, we write the date and what we were able to do with them and what we observed.”

Each cat is assigned a color code to designate friendliness—key information as volunteers come and go when schedules allow.

“Orange means approachable and friendly, which is where volunteers start,” Dow says. “Green is in between, sometimes it might be friendly, or it might hide, so go slow. Pink is a hissy kitty that does not want to be bothered.

“Sometimes I’ll just sit there with them and sing a song or talk in a mommy voice to them. I make a total fool of myself, but sometimes it relaxes them.”

When Dow isn’t busy cooing to the kitties, she paints them. An artist trained in watercolor and oil at American River College, Dow paints all kinds of subjects, but pet portraits are among her favorites. She helped orchestrate cat-paw paintings for Happy Tails’ “Painting for Paws” fundraisers when she volunteered there.

Though she used to keep a studio, Dow says the pandemic made selling art harder than ever. So she focuses on volunteering.

“Being retired for years now, this gives me a purpose besides my painting to do something special for the animals as best as I can,” she says. “The people here are so amazing and so devoted to the animals, it’s like one big family. I’m never afraid to ask a question. There’s nothing to complain about.”

For information on volunteering, adopting or donating, visit

Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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