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

BITE PREVENTION

Every year in the fall, I devote space to one of my highest priorities as a pet-care columnist: preventing dog bites, especially attacks on children.

Many people imagine that the biggest threat to their child's safety is an attack by some vicious neighborhood dog and that the risk increases when children start walking to school in the fall. And while it's true those random attacks do happen (and are all over the news when they do), the fact remains that in most cases, children are bitten by dogs they know, animals belonging to family or friends.

Much of the risk to children presented by a family dog can be minimized by making sure an animal is just that -- a member of the family, an indoor dog both trained and socialized. The most common description of a dog involved in an attack: young, unneutered and socially isolated, often kept on a chain.

Reversing those risk factors -- with the help of a trainer or behaviorist, in some cases -- won't make your dog absolutely safe (any dog may bite), but it will go a long way toward creating a safer family pet.

If you've taken steps to make your family dog as safe as possible, the next step in bite prevention is to teach your child what to do if encountering a potentially hostile dog on the street. This is especially important because our instincts, when faced with a threatening loose dog, could not be more deadly. We want to scream and run, which may trigger predatory behavior in a dog.

The Humane Society of the United States suggests teaching your children how to behave around strange dogs and how to react if attacked. Be sure your children know the following:

-- Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs confined in yards -- especially those on chains -- should also be avoided. If the dog is with his owner, children should always ask permission before petting the animal and then begin by offering the back of the hand for a sniff. Pat the dog on the neck or chest. The dog may interpret a pat from above as a dominant gesture. Teach your children to avoid fast or jerky movements.

-- "Be a tree" when a dog approaches, standing straight with feet together, fists under the neck and elbows into the chest. Teach your children to make no eye contact: Some dogs view this as a challenge. Running is a normal response to danger, but it's the worst possible response to a dog because it triggers the animal's instinct to chase and bite. Many dogs just sniff and leave. Teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, and then back away slowly out of the area.

-- "Feed" the dog a jacket or backpack if attacked, or use a bike to block the dog. These strategies may keep an attacking dog's teeth from connecting with flesh.

-- Act like a log if knocked down -- face down, legs together, curled into a ball, with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears. This position protects vital areas and can keep an attack from turning fatal.

Role-play these lessons with your child until they are ingrained. Dealing with the dangers in your own yard and teaching your children how to cope may spare your child a bite -- and may even save a life.

SIDEBAR

Friendly pet? Choose a different sign

Many people use "Beware of Dog" signs to keep people out of their yards or protect their friendly pets. But these signs may not be your best friend. In fact, if your dog does happen to hurt someone -- even knocking someone down in a friendly greeting -- it may be argued that you knew your dog was dangerous with the posting of the sign.

A better option? A "Keep Gate Closed" sign may do the trick, but even better are the "Dog/Dogs in Yard" signs from The Original Pet Postings company (www.bigdoorproducts.com or 877-995-3667). The signs are $17, including shipping and mounting hardware, available in three different color combinations.

I like such signs -- and recommend them often -- because they can help keep both people and pets safe, while giving a potential intruder reason enough to move on.

Q&A

Can milk make a cat sick?

Q: Is it my imagination, or is my cat allergic to milk? It seems to give her the "runs," to judge by the litter box. I thought milk was good for cats. Please advise. -- W.T., via e-mail

A: Some cats -- like some people -- can't tolerate milk products, and for these animals, a saucer of milk means gastric upset.

In the wild, kittens never drink milk after they're weaned (and never drink cow's milk at all), and domestic cats have no need to either. The inability to digest milk usually starts at about the age of 12 weeks.

For those cats who can tolerate milk, it's fine to offer it as an occasional treat. Milk is a good source of protein and other nutrients for those cats who don't find it upsets their tummy. But if you never give milk to your cat, she's not missing anything important, and for your cat, that's probably good news.

Hairball help

Q: I've had it with hairballs, especially with cleaning them up or stepping in them. I am sick of the sounds of my cat retching. What can I do? -- S.O., via e-mail

A: You'll have to tolerate a certain amount of hairballs, because that's just part of having a cat. But there are steps you can take to help ingested hair to go through the system instead of come back up.

A great alternative to commercial hairball remedies is canned pumpkin. Regularly adding a teaspoon or so to your cat's diet is a safe, inexpensive way to deal with hairballs. If your cat won't eat the stuff undoctored, try mixing it into canned cat food or with the juice from water-packed tuna. Hairball-remedy cat foods also add fiber.

Commercial hairball products are fine, too, if used as directed. But know that overuse of oil-based hairball remedies can interfere with your cat's absorption of some important nutrients, such as fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

Talk to your veterinarian about your cat's hairball problems, and discuss home remedies, diets and over-the-counter products. If you're sent home with something from the vet, be sure to follow directions and not overdo any medication. Ask follow-up questions of your veterinarian if you have them.

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

PET Rx

Nicotine danger to curious pets

Everyone knows the surgeon general's warning about cigarette smoking, but what about cigarette eating? Nicotine poisoning is a real concern anywhere a pet may find cigarettes, cigarette butts, chewing tobacco, or even nicotine gum or patches.

The toxic dose for nicotine in pets is 20 milligrams to 100 milligrams. A cigarette contains 9 milligrams to 30 milligrams of nicotine, depending on the type of cigarette, and a cigarette butt contains about 25 percent of the nicotine of the original cigarette, despite its deceptively small amount of tobacco. (Smoking seems to concentrate some of the nicotine in the tail end of the cigarette.) Cigars can contain up to 40 milligrams. Smoking a cigarette yields only 0.5 milligrams to 2 milligrams of nicotine. But eating one is a different ball game, as all of the nicotine becomes available for absorption into the body.

Some good news: One of the first things nicotine does in the body is induce vomiting, which may save the patient's life if there is more cigarette material in the stomach. Still, if you think your pet has eaten cigarettes or other tobacco products, call a veterinarian for advice right away.

And as always: The best medicine is preventive. Watch what your pets get into.

(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.)

PET TIP

For cats, the higher up the better

Most healthy cats are able to jump several times their own height and land gracefully and accurately on a piece of real estate not much bigger than a half-sheet of paper.

That ability comes from their powerful thigh muscles, which constrict tightly and then let go like a catapult. A human with the leg strength and power of a cat could jump from the ground to the top of a house -- the only problem is that his thighs would be as big as his waist.

Their jumping prowess enables cats to put themselves up above it all, where they feel secure and can see everything that's going on. On top of the bookshelf is a safe place to be when the dog or the kids are on the rampage or the vacuum cleaner is roaring -- just as being on top of the garden wall is a great place to be when you're watching for little mice in the grass. Being up high probably also suits a cat's attitude: They like to look down on us.

The desire to go higher is stronger in some cats than in others. Among pedigreed cats, the slender, athletic cats of the Oriental varieties, such as Abyssinians and Siamese, are born to jump. Cats with larger, heavier bodies, such as Persians, are more likely to consider a jump onto the couch to be high enough.

Not all cats are as graceful as they think they are. If you live with a cat who's always bumping things off the shelves, you need to take action to prevent your favorite knickknacks from being knocked down. Your most delicate, darling and irreplaceable items are best kept behind doors in glass-fronted cabinets. For the others, get a product called Quake Hold. It's a putty that museums use to fasten items to shelves.

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Dirty cages, dirty birds

Less than half of all bird owners report sanitizing their pet's cage on a weekly basis. Keeping a cage clean is an important element in keeping birds disease-free. So how often are cages sanitized? Here's the poop:

Weekly or more often 42 percent

Once every 2 to 3 weeks 17 percent

Monthly 17 percent

Once every 2 to 4 months 5 percent

Once every 4 to 6 months 2 percent

Two to three times a year 3 percent

Annually 4 percent

Never 9 percent

No answer 1 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PETS ON THE WEB

Site celebrates Ragdoll cats

A lot of nonsense gets passes around about cat breeds (dog breeds, too), and some of it seems to take on a life of its own. There are claims that Rex cats are hypoallergenic (sorry, no), and that Ragdolls go limp when they're picked up because of some genetic mutation in their nervous system or because human genes were spliced in.

Ragdoll cats are prized for their laidback personality, and the mellowest of these beauties have been used in breeding programs over the years, making an easygoing cat even more so. But there's no weird science behind that Ragdoll flop and not all Ragdolls are floppers.

The ones that are, however, are a major armful of fluffy feline love -- they just relax into your arms when you pick them up. For more on these gorgeous cats, visit the Ragdoll Connection Network site (www.ragdoll-cats.com).

FREE PET PRODUCTS ON NEW WEB SITE

And if you buy a copy of one of the books through PetConnection.com before Oct. 24, you'll also get some gifts worth more than $100 from pet-care companies in celebration of Pet Wellness Month.

"Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink Out of the Toilet?" (each $12.95, HCI) are co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker. The books explore dozens of the serious, silly and just plain quirky questions that pet lovers have about their animals.

No purchase is required to enter the contest, which features prizes from Bamboo and Petmate. Visit PetConnection.com for all the details. You'll also find a searchable archive of past columns, a popular Web log and more.

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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