Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

FRIGHT NIGHT

Holidays are anything but fun for many pets. While we humans love the change in routine, the parties, the guests and the decorations, our furred and feathered family members too often find the disruptions disturbing -- and sometimes dangerous.

Like all holidays, Halloween is not without its hazards. The two biggest problems are injuries and poisoning -- and animal emergency clinics traditionally see plenty of both.

-- Injuries. With the increase in activity around the neighborhood, cats and dogs get nervous, and some will take off if they can. That means an increase in animals hit by cars. Other animals may be a cause of injury: All those costumed young visitors can trigger territorial instincts or fear responses in some dogs, who may then become a bite risk.

The best solution for nervous pets is to confine them for the evening in a crate or a quiet room far from the front door or any holiday festivities.

Many animal-welfare groups warn that black cats are at special risk around Halloween, claiming that cultists pick up the animals for ritual torture. Such concerns have led many shelters to halt the adoption of black cats in the days before Halloween.

In truth, such cruelties are so poorly documented that they surely happen rarely, if at all. Your black cat is more likely to be killed by a car than a cultist -- it's difficult to see a black cat in the dark -- but the threat of either is more than reason enough to keep him inside.

If you keep your pets confined safely inside the house, you will eliminate one source of risk. Keeping them away from the goodies will take care of the other risk.

-- Poisoning. Candy is a problem more for dogs than for cats because cats are generally picky about what they eat. Not so for many dogs, who'll wolf down candy (wrappers and all) if given the opportunity, giving many a serious case of what veterinarians call "garbage gut." Any candy can trigger a bout of intestinal upset, but chocolate can do much worse. The small dog who gets a large amount of chocolate could end up dead without prompt veterinary intervention.

The final precaution is to prepare for the worst. If your veterinarian does not offer after-hours care, know where the nearest animal emergency clinic is located. Put the phone number somewhere handy, like on your refrigerator.

While pets may not like holidays as much as we do, any celebration can be made pet-safe with just a few basic precautions. Be sure to take those precautions, because veterinarians would rather hand out candy to children than medicine to pets on Halloween.

SIDEBAR

Costumes for pets? Why not?

Let's face it: Your dog doesn't care if he has a biker jacket, sunglasses, an ear-hugging visor or even a colorful bandanna. He'll put up with most anything you put on him, as long as it means spending more time with you.

If putting a costume on your dog means you'll fuss over him and maybe take him somewhere interesting, like the costume contests that are everywhere these days, then sure, it's a no-lose proposition. Dress up your dog and have some fun.

Do make sure any costume you choose or make meets the commonsense standard: It's comfortable and nonrestrictive, inedible, and it doesn't involve anything that could be hazardous, such as dye or paint.

Q&A

Loose dog? Offer a ride

Q: Would you add another tip on catching a loose dog to your list?

Not long ago I was in a precarious situation with a dog. As I was walking alone on a country road, a large dog bolted out of a house and came running toward me. The house was set back from the road several feet, and the owner couldn't get to the dog before he went out the open fence. The dog stopped about 10 feet from me, growling and daring me to take another step.

While I stood frozen in one place, the owner tried unsuccessfully to get the animal to return to the yard by calling him. As loud as I dared to speak, I told him to open the door on his pickup truck and call his dog. That did the trick! The dog was all excited about going for a ride, and he forgot all about me. -- K.N., via e-mail

A: Brilliant call! I'm sure glad the dog got corralled before the situation escalated into something serious.

And you're right -- the "open the car door" trick works for many dogs. In fact, when I was growing up we had a standard poodle who was the most obnoxious, ill-behaved animal imaginable. If the front door opened a crack, he was gone. With three children in our family going in and out all the time, that meant the dog was on the lam a lot.

My parents discovered early on that all they had to do to round him up was get in the car, follow him down the street and open the car door. He'd jump in happily, and they'd take him around the block with his head out the window and ears flying in the wind. Crisis solved, until the next time one of us children or our friends weren't careful enough about closing the front door.

Baby food for cats

Q: When our cat got sick, our veterinarian recommended giving her baby food to coax her to eat until she felt better. Is that really a good idea? -- G.A., via e-mail

A: Meat baby foods are very popular with cats and can get a finicky pet to show interest in food again. Just read the label and choose a food without onion powder in it. That stuff's not good for cats.

You may not have to use baby food to get your kitty to eat, though. Sometimes warming up your pet's regular meal will increase its palatability. Just put a little canned food on a plate, microwave it for 30 seconds or so, and then stir it to eliminate any hot spots. You want the food to be about body temperature -- warm, but not hot.

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.)

THE SCOOP

Good scratch and a good stretch

The result of scratching -- whether on a post, a tree or the corner of the couch -- is sharp claws, but they don't get that way from being honed like a knife. When a cat is scratching, what she's really doing is removing the outer layer of worn-out claw sheaths. Underneath are sharp new claws.

If you look closely where your cat scratches, you'll probably find one of these old sheaths from time to time. They look like little silver crescent moons.

If the scratching post or the hieroglyphics your cat draws on the sofa don't do the trick, she'll use her teeth to chew off the old outer casings.

Scratching also helps a cat stretch out her spine (she anchors those front claws and then s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s) and mark a little territory, with the visual aid of scratch marks and the scent pads in her feet.

ON THE WEB

An inside look at vet medicine

Dr. Patty Khuly is a veterinarian with a flair for storytelling. On her Web blog, Dr. Dolittler (www.dolittler.com), the Miami-based practitioner posts something nearly every day, sharing stories of a veterinarian's life, the animals and the clients.

In her writings, she is generous not only with her expertise, but also with her humor. In her more serious posts, she writes with compassion and knowledge about such difficult subjects as saying goodbye to a pet, dealing with veterinary costs and dog attacks. Someone get this woman a book contract!

PET TIP

Solving the mystery of why cats attack

Have you ever had a really bad day at the office, come home and snapped at your mate? That's roughly what's happening when a frustrated indoor cat attacks another pet or person inside the house because they're worked up over an animal on the other side of the glass. It's called "redirected aggression," and it can be accompanied by other signs of frustration from the indoor cat, such as urine spraying.

Cats are very territorial and don't appreciate seeing other cats on what they view as their turf. In an area with free-roaming cats, the animals work out their territory with scent marking, visual marking (claw marks) and, occasionally, fighting.

But when a cat is kept indoors, he doesn't have a chance to mark or otherwise defend his yard from cats who trot through as if they own the place. The frustration builds until a cat has to lash out.

If there's one window that seems to be the perfect vantage point for your indoor cat to watch neighborhood cats stroll by, you might think about keeping the blinds closed or closing off that room. And of course, keep an eye on your cat: If he's agitated, he's best avoided until the stranger is gone and your kitty calms down. Products with pheromones (such as Feliway) may also help calm the indoor cat.

A motion-detector sprinkler, such as the Scarecrow, may keep stray cats out of your yard.

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

We love pets because ...

A majority of pet lovers say pets are not just fun, they're also beneficial to have around. Percentage of pet lovers agreeing with the following statements, in a 2004 study:

Pets are a good source of affection 87 percent

Pets are good for my health 76 percent

My pet helps me relax 75 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PET Rx

Dogs' bonus toes need attention

Dewclaws -- vestigial toes set on a dog's leg, not on the paw -- are mostly non-functional, but rarely do any harm. Occasionally, dewclaws are loosely attached and can become torn and need to be surgically removed. Because of the potential for damage, some breeders have dewclaws removed shortly after puppies are born.

Dog lovers need to keep an eye on dewclaws and remember to keep the nails trimmed. It's not uncommon for a veterinarian to have a dog come in for a routine visit and notice the nail on a dog's dewclaw curling around and growing back into the foot pad.

Ask your veterinarian to show you how to keep all your dog's nails properly maintained.

(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)

Award-winning writer Gina Spadafori has two new books out, which were co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker: "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet?" She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.petconnection.com.

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