Cathy Bissell – Founder of BISSELL Pet Foundation

by Elysian Magazine

CATHY BISSELL at it from all angles. In 2011 she founded the BISSELL Pet Foundation (BPF) to help reduce the number of animals in shelters by bringing awareness to animal welfare and the importance of pet adoption. In the past 10 years since its inception, BPF has raised millions of dollars for animal welfare organizations and has touched the lives of nearly 400,000 pets across the globe.

Most recently, she also launched subsidiary programs through BPF to impact pets from adoption to spay/neuter programs. More than 5,400 animal welfare organizations across the U.S. participate in the Partners for Pets programs through BISSELL Pet Foundation and Cathy is now expanding her animal-saving programs internationally with projects in Germany, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands and The United Kingdom. What’s next for Cathy? Saving more lives.

You have always been drawn to animals. Is there a first memory when you connected with pets in a unique way?

As a child, my family had Irish Setters, a beautiful breed you rarely see today. One dog, in particular, was named Patrick and he would stay outside all day long in his dog run. But at nighttime, my parents would leave him outside. It was not common for dogs, at that time, to be house pets. However, I was saddened by it, and would regularly sneak Patrick into the house, and he became my best friend. Looking back now, I think he carved out a little piece of my heart and that began my love for animals.

Did your father or mother ever discover that you were sneaking the dog in? Did they allow you to continue once they knew what you were doing?

They did realize what I was doing and, after a while, they actually allowed him to stay inside with me at night.

You attended Miami of Ohio for college. How did that experience impact you?

Yes—I left my home in Michigan, just outside of Detroit, and attended Miami University, or Miami of Ohio, located in Oxford, Ohio. It is a wonderful university, but when I attended it was a bit smaller. It has truly grown in size since then, especially its beautiful campus. My youngest son actually decided to go there as well. It was a fantastic experience for me as I studied liberal arts and, in my spare time, would work at a local veterinary clinic.

Tell me more about your experience at the vet clinic.

At that time, I really wanted to go into that profession and become a vet. I loved animals, and I felt that was the path I was going. I really enjoyed my experience there, working with all kinds of animals including cows and pigs, or whatever animal we were helping. The vet I worked with was an incredible man who also cared deeply for pets.

It changed for me, though, when one day when I was working in the office and a family brought in their dog, who I must add was a perfectly healthy dog. They were moving and they wanted the veterinarian to put the dog to sleep because they couldn’t take the dog with them. The vet offered to take the dog himself and gave them other options instead of putting the dog to sleep. They said, “Nope, it’s our dog, and we want you to euthanize it.” I said to the vet, “I am not going to be around for that. I will not be in the room or physically present.” And he said, “No, you have to stay in the room and assist.” The family, incidentally, also made their 10-year-old son stay in the room, and it was heartbreaking. For me, that was a life-changing moment. I realized that I can’t do this, and this is not what I signed up for. So, I went in a different direction, but my love of pets remained.

You have made a tremendous impact on animals. Has life gone full circle?

Interestingly, it has. Even though I stepped away from animals directly and went in a different professional direction for several years, I’m back in the animal world, just not in the way I thought it would be.

After some time at Miami of Ohio, you then transferred to the University of Michigan and, at a football game, your brother introduced you to the man who is now your husband of 40-plus years. Did you ever expect life to twist and turn like that?

I truly wasn’t expecting it, but I couldn’t be more grateful. Our relationship and partnership have been so important to me and, of course, our work with BISSELL Homecare and also the BISSELL Pet Foundation.

After you met Mark and were married right after college, where did you end up?

We went on to live in New York City. I was working in fashion at the time and loved the experience.

You worked for Harper’s Bazaar as an assistant to then the iconic . . .

Senior fashion editor, Nonnie Moore.

Tell me about her.

Nonnie was a phenomenal woman. In a city like New York where people are always wanting to be at the top, she was at the top, and still, she held true to her family always coming first. Not only was she my boss, but she also happened to be my neighbor, so we formed a deep bond. We went to work together, and I would ride home with her at night. She was a phenomenal mentor for me and, although she had two sons, I was almost the daughter she never had.

Did you know immediately that she was exceptional?

Nonnie, yes. I was fearful because she was the leader, the senior fashion editor. Working for somebody like her in a powerful position who decides fashion is fantastic, but also hard. But she was phenomenal in every way. She was so smart and very relaxed. Designers loved her because she was not trying to be anything she wasn’t.

What did you learn from her, your takeaway from working for an iconic trendsetter?

To always try and stay young. Not because you want to embrace youth, but because you want to understand youth. Nonnie always told me that young people are the ones you will learn from, and I think that is true. She always said, “Ride the subways. Don’t take cars or taxis when you can, but stay in the subways because you can see what is going on.”

I think that lesson is part of what puts me in the shelters today, because I want to stay current and experience it firsthand. I want to understand what is going on. I want to see how animals are being treated.

I learned that from her, to stay current, understand what’s going on, to never stop learning.

How do you stay current in the pet rescue world now? Also, how do you witness firsthand the treatment of animals and still protect yourself from some of what you see in the shelters and rescues?

You must compartmentalize your thoughts. If you take too much home with you, it can be really difficult. I do take a lot home, and I have changed a lot because of it. It can be heartbreaking to see these homeless pets in shelters, but it’s also incredibly wonderful when their lives are changed, when they get adopted, when they get the help they need.

When I started the foundation, I just wanted to help animals by giving money and making a difference that way. But my work grew because I became personally involved—first in Michigan and now across the country. I could really see firsthand what was going on and all the work that is going in to saving lives.

Shelter people are wonderful, and they are doing so much good for the animals they serve. To make a sustainable difference, we need to work through communities and understand how to change communities, and to get involved.

How can you do both—extend beyond the firsthand experience, the proverbial bubble—and not be affected by witnessing horrible things that are done to animals?

Understanding that we’re helping is important and keeps me going. It’s of course very difficult, especially in emergency response to witness these situations, but you must remember to be strong. My mom always taught me to be strong. She had five girls and one boy, and she wanted her girls to be strong.

With every person you touch, I see a deepening or conversion of sorts to pets. What was your mother’s conversion? How did that happen?

We are a very close family, and we all have a lot of dogs. In order to be with us, she had to be around our dogs and cats. She may have been forced into it; she was frightened of pets when she was younger, and growing up we had several animals. My dad was an animal lover, and we always had three dogs and other animals, including chickens. My mom wasn’t really interested, but when she comes to see us and stays with us, she’s surrounded by them and has grown to love them.

Speaking of your family, you and your sister started a lost animal website?

Yes, it was called Lost Pet USA, a site dedicated to reuniting pets with their owners. It started from a personal experience for my sister who found a lost cat. At first, she gave the cat to her neighbor and I said, “You can’t just give somebody’s cat away.” She explained, “I’ve had signs out, and nobody’s come for it, and I’m assuming it’s nobody’s pet.” We took the cat to a vet to scan for a microchip, and it had one, and it belonged to the home next door. So, that was how we started Lost Pet USA. There were people like us out there who mistakenly might think it was better to give a pet away or leave a pet at a crowded shelter when they found it. We started the site to make an example out of our experience and try to do something positive, and work to reunite families.

Is Lost Pet USA still in existence?

We have since closed the website. At the time, the site was necessary, but now more people are aware of microchips and are scanning them, usually before they come into the shelter or return them home.

So, the antidote to lost pets is now the microchip?

Yes. Microchips are imperative for helping lost pets. Every single pet that we, BISSELL Pet Foundation, touch must have a microchip; I’m insistent upon that. Some shelters say they can’t afford them, so we will supply them with the microchips. Every pet deserves to find its home.

Moving back to speaking about pets, in particular your dogs. I think every pet owner has one animal that stands out above the others. Who was yours?

I have loved all my dogs equally, but the one that changed my life the most was the first dog that I adopted, Bear.

Tell me about Bear. I know he was six years old when you adopted him, but tell me about how he became part of your family.

I was hosting a charity event for animals here in Western Michigan, and the proceeds went to our local humane society. The director, at the time, brought this dog up to me as I was standing with my two black labs. I watched with surprise because he, the dog, had no reaction to my two dogs. He was just perfect. He was gorgeous inside and out.

I asked where Bear came from, and they said, “Somebody dropped him off at the shelter.” I could not imagine who would drop such a gorgeous dog off at a shelter. I was so upset that someone would give up a dog so beautiful, so regal and so perfect, to a shelter for no valid reason. I was told the family gave him up because they got a puppy, and Bear was too old. It was heartbreaking.

“I am taking him home,” I told my husband that evening, who said, “Oh, no, you’re not taking that dog home.” I replied, “Okay, well, you’re going out of town tonight. So have a great trip.”

I went home and he called me, and he asked, “Did you bring the dog home?” And I told him, “Yes, I did. And he’s sitting with his head on my lap.” Mark said, “You have to take the dog back.” But, of course, I didn’t. I just couldn’t. Bear was part of the family instantly and I wasn’t sending him back to the shelter.

When Mark came back on Monday, it was his 50th birthday, and while we were celebrating, I took a beautiful picture of the three dogs together and said, “Happy Birthday.”

Your husband eventually fell in love with Bear.

Yes. He definitely fell in love.

Was the adoption of Bear as significant or transformative for your husband as it was for you?

I am not sure where Mark transformed or at what point he changed, but he did. Honestly, he did not have a choice really. He just had to go with the flow and was transformed right along with me. We work that way.

He is just very accepting, luckily, and that’s what makes our bond so special. I mean, he did realize that this was a sad situation, but he does not get as emotionally attached as I do, because it is hard for people. I understand that. It is hard for me. So, he accepts, and he learns, and he listens, but he doesn’t go as far or deep as I do.

In 2011, what prompted you to start the BISSELL Pet Foundation?

I was supporting an animal welfare organization locally, and I decided to help raise funds for them. Our balance became substantial—more than one shelter really needed—so I decided we should spread this wealth a little bit to other shelters in the area. We did that, and seeing the impact it was making, I decided the best way to help rescue animals was to start a foundation.

In the past 10 years, the foundation has continued to grow, focused on four pillars—Adoption, Emergency, Spay/Neuter and Microchipping. We support adoption and spay/neuter programs which are so important for keeping the homeless animal populations down. Microchipping is a part of what we believe in, as well as emergency care. Now we’re involved with transporting pets across the country.

You also have partners across the United States and beyond—not only in the state of Michigan?

We started small, but then we grew appropriately. We have touched almost 400,000 animals across the country, and internationally, through our programs and grants.

During COVID, what was your focus?

We still promoted adoption with the shelters that had enough staff to keep operations going. During COVID, many of the shelters lost their staff—people were sick, people weren’t coming to work. Shelters were shutting down and closing their doors, and some of them still had pets in their care. So, we devised a way to do an adoption event where you could do everything safely online, limiting in-person interaction. Adopters could fill out all their information online. You could select a pet that you liked, and they would arrange a time for you to meet that pet separately. The process was created to ensure people weren’t coming into the shelters and making it unsafe. Adoptions were also taking place outdoors, which really helped.

In some metropolitan areas like Manhattan, by way of example, there were no animals left in the shelters after so many people adopted the pets. Were you able to help?

We were, actually. There was some transport going on, moving pets from one shelter that was full to another that had open space. We do larger transports today than we did then, but we were still transporting into metropolitan areas. I did hear New York City shelters were empty. I said to myself, yet there are so many homeless pets in the South. We worked to move as many pets to different parts of the country, but we still hit some roadblocks.

That was the hard part, with everybody being shut down. We did what we could, and we reminded partners to reach out to other shelters in their area if they were struggling. At that time, fewer people were surrendering animals to shelters. People had to keep their pets at home. The ones that had to surrender an animal could, but only if a shelter was open.

Your passion started at an early age. What advice do you give to people trying to ascertain their passion?

I think you have to go with your gut. What does your heart tell you? If you’re passion-driven, you will figure out a way to do it and accomplish your goal. It takes time, and it takes perseverance. But if you really want to make a difference, you can.

How many hours a day do you work on pet-centric philanthropy?

Well, if you asked my husband, too many, but I do work a lot. I am always working. As a matter of fact, last night he asked me, “How do you stand it?” But when you love what you are doing and you know are saving lives, you do it.

It would be remiss for me not to mention BISSELL vacuums. You personally have a dog patent for a shedding tool.Tell me about it.

We don’t promote it, but we have it available to purchase online. The ShedAway idea came about from my own need as a pet owner. I would brush my three black Labradors, Bear being one of them, and when I would brush them, there would be hair everywhere in my yard. It looked like I killed an animal. I said, “This is ridiculous. We’re in the vacuum business. I need to innovate a tool to take the shedding hair and have it sucked into a vacuum before it goes everywhere.”

I worked hard on it, working alongside our talented team of product developers and engineers, and it came together perfectly.

BISSELL was started in 1876, but there weren’t vacuum cleaners in the 1800s. What did the company start as?

It started as a carpet sweeper company. It began with the push sweeper that we still make today actually! We bought our first vacuum company, Singer Vacuums, which is what moved us toward the vacuum market, and here we are now more than 140 years later.

You have been on television to promote the pet component of BISSELL. Do you enjoy doing the commercials and being on TV?

At first, I have to admit, it was pretty scary because television can be intimidating. There are a lot of people in the wings—a lot of laughing in the background and, you think, what did you do? What did you say? Are they laughing at me? But that’s just the chaos of a busy set.

In the end, it is a great tool for getting a message out, and it’s important to tell people about our mission. I really am on television to promote the foundation. I love any chance to promote our message across the country.

The BISSELL company gives money to undergird the foundation. Did you see a lot of impact from that capital infusion?

I am always pushing for the animals, and my husband luckily supports me and sees the great work we are doing to save lives. So, he supports our efforts and the people at the company also support it. We regularly hear people buy BISSELL products because of the donation to our foundation, and a lot of our employees are dedicated to the foundation as well.

And while yes, BISSELL is one of our primary financial supporters for the foundation, they do not support all of our work. We rely heavily on private donors and sponsors to help us make the impact that we make every day.

BISSELL headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, epitomizes a pet friendly company. Is that your influence or was that employee driven?

There’s two parts to that, actually. There’s BISSELL as a global company focused on making products that are absolutely pet-friendly and yes, our corporate offices for our employees are also pet-friendly.

BISSELL makes great products to clean up after pets, which obviously has played into everything that we produce. We sadly learned that people were giving up their pets because they couldn’t clean up after them. We needed a solution that should go hand-in-hand with pet ownership and pet adoption. Even our marketing became focused on pets and the foundation. We started putting adoptable animals on our vacuum packaging, specifically the boxes. We got behind the message.

I wanted everyone to know that my dog Bear, a rescue, was not just on a box, but he was on my ShedAway tool. I wanted everyone to know that you should adopt—look at these beautiful faces. The company got behind the products and the awareness messaging. We kept developing better and better pet products for cleaning carpets; we even used the statement: There’s no better stain than a pet stain to inspire us.

Then, the company itself evolved. One day I said, we should become an open campus. My husband said, “Nope, that’s not going to happen because people aren’t going to buy into that.” So, we started slowly making it pet-friendly in one area, and our employees loved it. They all wanted to bring their pets. They were so happy not have to leave their dogs home alone because they were at work.

We opened the entire campus, and we built a pet spot. It’s an indoor-outdoor kennel where people can feel safe to leave their pet while they’re at a meeting in an area where people might not want a pet in the space.

Let’s talk about your life here in Grand Rapids, beyond the foundation. You raised three pretty amazing kids. How old is your youngest? And I heard he has a unique story behind his name?

My youngest is 26, Merrick. We call him “dream baby” because I dreamt the name. I dreamt both his name and the spelling.

Do all your children live in Michigan?

No, my youngest son lives in Chicago. But my two older children are here with their families.

Do all your children work for BISSELL?

My oldest son, who was my second child, works here, and my son-in-law also works here. It’s fantastic actually to have them all part of the family business.

What is next for you?

To save more lives with the foundation. We’re celebrating 10 years this winter, and the next 10 years are what’s next for me.

How are you planning for that?

It has really been interesting, because it has been 10 years now and, at the five-year mark, we conducted an analysis of the work. “Are you doing enough good?” “Is it counting?” We were making a difference because every life counts.

Now that we have reached our 10-year anniversary, we really kicked into full gear. We must stay focused in the areas that I talked about—the adoption, the spay neuter, all key things—the microchips, helping with emergencies. As I have been out there in the field and working for the shelters trying to help them, I realized that there are large challenges ahead like heartworm, a new area of concern. A lot of dogs in the South have that disease, and it needs to be addressed. Helping educate and conquer the issues surrounding heartworms is a priority for our team, and we now have dedicated grant programs to treat and prevent heartworm.

We have grown our transport initiative and efforts. It’s a large production, but it’s strategic because it fits within the plan to save more lives.

Being a smaller team, we are flexible and can adjust quickly. It happens because we are in the field with boots on the ground. And since I am the one in the field (with my team who is amazing), and I’m seeing situations firsthand, it’s easier for me to shift and say, “Let’s do it,” and meet the need.

Do you think the BISSELL Pet Foundation will be around in 20 years?

Absolutely. Stronger and bigger than ever, I hope.

The level of awareness and education, unfortunately in the South, is lacking comparatively to other areas in the United States. What key states are focal points?

Yes. I am really focusing on key states, even though we reach across the country. Arizona, which has a lot of animals in the Maricopa County area, and Texas, which is equivalent to four states, need a lot of help. They are struggling with a lot of issues including overcrowding. Other places we are focused on include Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and other southern states, like South Carolina.

How have shelters in the South really impacted you?

Louisiana always has my heart because that is where I learned a lot, and have seen a lot, after Hurricane Katrina. I got involved in the shelter world there due to the impact of Katrina’s devastation. Before 2005, I had never been in a shelter in my life. Can you imagine?

After the hurricane, I went to take photographs of the animals that were being evacuated up to Michigan. I went into the shelter for the first time in my life, and to see everything was heartbreaking.

Do you have memories of neglected and marginalized animals?

Yes, I have definitely seen some horrific situations, but I always remember the beautiful moments as well. I try to focus more on the thousands of lives we’ve saved and impacted instead of the sadder memories.

Animals heal.

They are healing in every way, physically and mentally. They are good for your heart and lowering your blood pressure. I think the American Heart Association even came out with saying pets are good for you. You get out and walk, so they encourage exercise. They’re your best friend and provide much needed companionship, which is why we love pets.

What was the transition from Louisiana, which was your introduction to the shelter world, and your sweet spot, to international efforts?

We do some international outreach. It started because Canada was reaching out to us saying, “We have been following your work. Can we do some of your adoption events?” So, we started that, because we are an international company and it made sense. As the company changed and became very pet-focused, our international companies said, “We want to be involved and to make a difference here in our respective countries.” Just today, in the Netherlands, several young women reached out to us wanting to be able to give out grants and help their communities. We have projects in Germany, Canada, Australia, and it continues to grow.

Have you done anything in the Middle East or developing countries yet?

We have explored the Middle East, but it’s difficult with grant distribution and tracking details, and I want to be able to track the saved animal lives. Kabul has been a very interesting topic recently—with the animals left behind—and there are lots of funds being raised to help. Any way I can help, then I help. I just cannot take that project on, unfortunately.

What is your primary focus, here forward, in the next half of your life?

Everybody has their area of focus. As a family and as a company, we are involved in philanthropy surrounding education and children. For me personally, the pets are and have always been my heart. My husband feels the same way. We give the most there, but we continue to donate in other sectors as well.

What piece of advice would you give a young woman, the age of your youngest?

I would tell any young person the advice that I read belonging to a quote from Steve Jobs. I have the quotation hanging in my kitchen. I have botched it up over the years because I keep repeating it differently. But the message is the same. Do not let anybody tell you how to live your life. If you have a passion, you need to go with your passion and do what you feel is best for your life. Because nobody else can tell you how to live your life.

Editor’s note: Cathy Bissell founded the Bissell Pet Foundation in 2011, whose goal is to help its growing network of animal welfare organizations in all 50 states find a loving home for every pet. She is also co-founder of LostPetUSA, a searchable nationwide database established to help reunite lost pets with their families.

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