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


Are we being unreasonable when we expect perfection -- or should that be "purr-fection"? -- from our cats?

We ask our cats to relieve themselves where we want them to instead of anywhere in their territory, as they would prefer. We ask them to scratch in one place instead of marking every surface, as would be natural for them. We ask them to ignore their ability to jump gracefully onto tables and countertops and to adjust their naturally nocturnal schedule to our daytime ones.

Most cats make the compromises because we simply won't.

But what about the cat who doesn't? By understanding your cat's needs and redirecting his normal behavior, you can have a well-mannered feline companion.

The first step in resolving any behavioral problem is working with your veterinarian to make sure it's not a health problem. All the training techniques in the world won't fix a medical problem. You'll need your veterinarian's help for that.

Cats are so good at hiding illness, it's no surprise how often we misinterpret the signs they do give us. A cat with untreated diabetes, for example, must drink and urinate frequently, so much that he may not be interested in using the litter box. Another common problem: urinary-tract infections. Your cat may find urinating painful and come to associate the pain with his litter box. Are you really surprised he's going to stop using it? And what about biting? The cat who suddenly starts biting may be in pain, lashing out in self-defense. Whatever the problem, it must be treated for you to have a chance at correcting the behavior.

Remember, too, that even healthy cats can become unhinged by stress and may react by altering their behavior in an attempt to cope. Some cats mark territory when their home is "invaded" by a new pet or person. In a cat's mind, this behavior makes sense: Making the world smell like himself is comforting to him (though not to you). You need to relax your cat's stress in other ways, by limiting his territory to a single room, for example, or by putting him on some calming medication, which your veterinarian can provide.

If it's not stress or illness, you need to look at your own role in any behavior problem. Are you asking something of your cat that's not possible for him to give? Your cat may not want to use the litter box if it's rarely cleaned, for example, and asking him to leave the couch alone is not fair if he has nothing else in the house to scratch. You need to provide him with some alternatives before you can hope for good behavior.

Do you provide your cat with enough exercise and entertainment? You need to offer your indoor cat more than just a few hours of your presence a day and a catnip mouse. More toys! More play!

You must also consider that maybe your cat never knew the house rules to begin with. If all you've ever done in the way of training is to scream at or hit your cat, you're probably not teaching him anything except that you're someone to avoid. Physical correction has no place in changing a cat's behavior; cats just don't understand it. And using such correction just stresses them out, leading to even more problems.

Keep a journal of problems to help you spot and understand trends and to remove some of the emotion involved in living with a problem pet. Realizing that your cat's behavior isn't spiteful or capricious can make the problem easier for you to live with while you work on turning the situation around.

Before you give up on your pet, ask your veterinarian about a referral to a behaviorist. A consultation with an expert can provide you with a plan for fixing the problem -- and at a much more reasonable cost than replacing carpeting or a sofa.


Don't swat biting cat

Q: We got a beautiful part-Siamese kitty when she was 8 weeks old. She has been a joy to the two of us, both seniors who had resolved not to have any more cats. We do have a problem, though: This beautiful little kitten bites. We have yelled "no," scolded her and batted her nose when she has bitten us. She loves to spar, and she really plays hard and rough. Any suggestions? -- H.S., via e-mail

A: Punishing your kitten for biting is the complete opposite of what you should be doing, and it may make matters worse. When you fight back, you escalate the situation, turning a rough-playing kitten into a fighting one.

Instead, watch your kitten's body language carefully, and stop playing and petting the instant she starts to get aroused toward rough play. The tip of her tail is a key indicator: When it starts to twitch and flip, break off the activity and walk away. If you miss the signs and end up with teeth and claws around your hand or arm, just freeze. Don't scream, hit or otherwise punish her. Chances are your kitten will simply let go. Then leave her be for a while.

Do not encourage rough play, and do not engage in sparring. Again, when she gets wound up, end the play or petting session and walk away. Never, ever use your fingers to play with your kitten -- use toys such as kitty wands or fishing poles. She needs to learn that fingers are not for biting.

Focus your attention in petting her on the area along the chin and at the base of the tail, and avoid more hair-trigger areas such as the tummy. If you're careful to end the petting and play just when she starts getting worked up, you'll be able to teach her to be gentle with you. With the help of training and as she matures, you will one day have a cat whose teeth you won't have to fear.

Daily grooming

Q: I have to disagree with your suggestion about brushing and combing in head-to-tail direction. I was taught to start at the back feet and work up and forward. It makes sense -- many dogs form dense areas of dead hair in the "breeches" area under the tail. If the brushing goes from head to tail, one can end up coming up against all that hair in the breeches area and in the flank area. By loosening up and removing those clogged areas, it is much easier to work toward the front as one is gradually inching forward. The dense fur is combed into a nice "free" area.

Many people don't realize that once that huge grooming is done, it takes only five minutes a day, going over the whole pet, to prevent big problems. When people say how busy they are, I tell them that they used to tend their kids' hair every day and wouldn't think not to! -- A.B., via e-mail

A: I guess I like to start with the easier areas and work up to the harder ones. Others may prefer to tackle the densest areas of fur and mats first. In truth, it doesn't matter much, as long as the grooming gets done.

I love your point that no parent would let a child's hair go uncombed. The fact is when we take on responsibility for children or pets, we have to follow through and provide the best care for them that we can. In this respect, pets truly are like children, relying on us for everything.

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to


How fast can cats multiply?

After getting yet another fund-raising pitch from a humane organization citing the "fact" that a single female cat can be responsible for producing 420,000 more cats in seven years, I asked The Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy," Carl Bialik, to do the math.

It turns out that although feline overpopulation is a real problem, cats simply cannot multiply as exponentially as many humane groups say. After talking to veterinarians about feline reproduction and mathematicians about probabilities, Bialik came up with a range from 100 to 5,000 for the offspring of a single cat -- either way, a far cry from 420,000. If cats truly reproduced that quickly, notes Bialik in his piece on the Journal's Web site, then in the 18 years since that figure first popped up in a newspaper, there'd be 50 trillion cats today. (Best estimates: 90 million pet cats and 70 million ferals.)

The oft-cited number is wrong, but feline overpopulation is still a huge problem, of course. In response to a post on the Web log, feral cat rescuer Susan Darling Green of upstate New York noted that the reason cats don't reach the "theoretical" highs is because so many die of disease and accidents. "The (420,000) number (is) absurd," she wrote. "But the reason the numbers are wrong is tragic."

In other words: Spay and neuter, please.


Is your dog teaching you?

Most books on pets seem to be about solving problems with your pet -- behavior and health issues, primarily. But can your pet help you solve some of your problems?

That's the premise for the warm little book "DogSense: 99 Relationship Tips From Your Canine Companion" (HCI, $17). In a tender, tongue-in-cheek way, writer Carla Genender and photographer Amy Hill point out the things that dogs can teach us, if we'd just pay a little more attention -- things such as how to enjoy being together doing nothing at all, and "don't complain about the food even if it seems the same thing day in and day out."

Each picture offers a little bit of canine wisdom and an essay expanding on the theme. All in all, it's a nice little book with some important messages to offer.


'Cute utes' a bargain for dog lovers

When I started test-driving SUVs, minivans, wagons and "crossover vehicles" to review their suitability as dogmobiles, I had not been shopping for a car in almost a decade. Honestly, I had no idea how much things had changed, and how many great options there are for those looking for a reliable, reasonably priced vehicle to transport dogs safely.

My favorites of the vehicles I've been driving are the little SUVs known as "cute utes," four-door, four-wheel-drive hatchbacks with zippy handling, high ground clearance, good gas mileage, and room for dogs and their gear.

These vehicles are generally good value, too, including the two I test-drove recently: the Suzuki Grand Vitara and the 2006 Honda CR-V, the latter now replaced with a redesigned version for 2007.

The Suzuki doesn't give off quite the air of confidence that the popular Honda does, but perhaps because of that it tries much harder -- it's packed with all the options for a lot less than others in the class. With its V6, it was perkier than all get-out. No flip-up glass in the rear -- one of my favorite dog-friendly features -- but lots of gadgetry at a price below the competition.

Now about that "lame duck" Honda CR-V. Why write about a model that's being replaced? Because it's one of the best and most popular dogmobiles around, and dealers will be ready to bargain on the remaining new ones in stock as the redesigned 2007 rolls in. (I'll be testing the new 2007 in the weeks to come.) The tried-and-true "old" CR-V is fun to drive, has lots of versatile cargo room and the flip-up rear glass that I really like.

With the Suzuki priced competitively and the 2006 CR-V in full "let's make a deal" mode, it's a good time to look at either of these great dogmobiles.


The cat walked in

The old idea that a cat picks you (not the other way around) gains validity in a 2004 poll by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. About one-third of cat owners report that their pet was once a stray. Top choices of where people get their cats (multiple answers allowed):

Friend/relative 43 percent

Stray 34 percent

Animal shelter 15 percent

Kitten of own cat 15 percent

Ad/private party 8 percent

Breeder 3 percent


Fun, facts for ferret fans

The American Ferret Association ( started as a small club in suburban Maryland dedicated to promoting one of the most popular and least understood pets. It has grown into a national association, expanding its goals to include fighting to eliminate laws that ban the animals.

The AFA's Web site has changed tremendously since I last looked in on it, and now offers all the care and behavioral information you'd expect plus a lot more. The shopping section offers a cookbook ($15) for providing more interesting meals for these lively pets, plus a great-looking poster ($15) of ferret colors and patterns, and another ($19) of ferret anatomy. In the links section, the site makes it easy to find a ferret-friendly veterinarian, and the list of ferret rescue and shelter organizations promotes adoption. It's a great makeover of a useful site.

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 You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at

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