Some people seem to have bad luck over the holidays, and I have traditionally been one of them. I've filled the house with smoke from a poorly laid fire in the fireplace just before guests arrived for dinner, and I've tripped over a sleeping dog on Christmas morning and ended up in the emergency room (the dog was fine; I went home with a cast).
But that's nothing compared to the disasters that seem to dog the pets in our family over the years. I've spent good parts of many holidays in after-hours veterinary clinics, and a few times those trips were for problems that could have been prevented.
Fortunately, the better part of two decades -- and most of my writing career -- have passed since my last holiday pet disaster, and I'd like to think it's because I learned a few things along the way. In the interest of helping your holiday season go easier, I'd like to remind you of what to look out for in the weeks to come.
Every year at this time I offer a list of the most common holiday hazards for pets, including foreign-body ingestion and accidental poisoning. The bad news is that many pets will end up at a veterinarian's office this holiday season. The good news is that yours won't be among them if you keep an eye out for these hazards.
The place to start? The Christmas tree. This popular sign of the season is full of hazards for dogs and cats. Tinsel can be an appealing target for play, but if ingested, it can twist up the intestines and may need to be surgically removed. This is a particular danger to cats and kittens, who seem to find tinsel -- along with yarn, ribbon and string -- especially appealing to eat.
Ornaments, too, are deadly in the mouths -- and stomachs -- of pets, and even the water at the base of the tree contains secretions that can at the very least cause a stomachache. Light strings are no good for chewing, and the whole tree can come down on the cat climbing in its branches. Some dogs may even be inclined to break the rules of house-training on a freshly cut tree -- why else, they reason, would anyone bring a tree into the house?
The best way to keep your pets out of tree trouble is by making the tree off-limits unless you're there to supervise. Putting the tree in a room with a door you can close is probably the easiest solution.
And how about holiday greenery? Holiday plants such as mistletoe may look intriguing to your pet, but they're also toxic, as are the bulbs of the amaryllis plant. (Long the poster child for holiday poisoning, the falsely maligned poinsettia can be safely welcomed into the pet lover's home.) Holiday food can be a problem, too (see sidebar).
The best way to keep your pet safe is to look at everything new that's in your house for the holidays and figure out the best way to keep it out of the mouths and paws of your pets.
And just in case the worst should happen, find the number now of the nearest veterinary emergency clinic and know how to get there if you have to.
Thanksgiving: Don't share the goodies
We love to share food with our pets, and what better time to do it than on Thanksgiving?
Problem is, foods that are too rich, too fatty or too spicy -- or anything your pet's not accustomed to -- can trigger a bout of intestinal upset. For some animals, the treat can trigger a serious inflammation of the pancreas or intestine, and that means a life-threatening illness.
What to avoid? Anything that you wouldn't eat, your pet should avoid, too. And while a little bit of lean meat -- beef or poultry - can be added to your pet's meal, steer clear of the fatty parts and poultry skin. And no gravy!
While you're waiting for the Thanksgiving feast to begin, don't share the appetizers, either. And as for the sweets in festive holiday bowls? Put them out of reach, so your pets don't help themselves.
Tips for ending cat scratching
Q: May I share how I trained our cats to use the scratching post instead of the furniture?
You're right in your recent column: Yelling at the cat and punishing him won't work when it comes to destructive scratching. You have use motivations that mean something to the cat. And you have to teach him where to scratch. Otherwise, how is he to know you want him to scratch the post?
I use the cat's favorite treats, a scratching post, a squirt bottle and some wide, double-sided sticky tape.
The tape goes on the spots where the cat prefers to scratch, and the sticky feel discourages scratching. I begin training by rubbing their paws on the post, so their paw-scent is left on it. I immediately give the cat a treat for having his paws on the post.
Usually it takes only a few tries for the cat to get the message that scratching the post would get food -- a reward all cats understand. My oldest cat still goes through an evening routine where he trots up to the post, scratches it, and looks at me with a "Well, where's my treat?" expression. He also scratches and stares at me when he knows it's dinnertime.
The squirt bottle is for when I catch them scratching elsewhere. One brief squirt is all it takes to convince them to stop. Then I can redirect their attention to scratching the post.
We have three indoor kitties (one is a feral kitten that we took in), and our furniture is still mostly unscathed. Understanding the feline mind really does work! -- K.B., via e-mail
A: Thank you for sharing your tips. They're excellent! I wish more people would understand that reward-based training is really the way to go with cats. Punishment often stresses out the cat more and not only damages the bond with the animal, but often leads to other stress-related behaviors, such as urine-spraying.
Working with a cat's natural tendencies and rewarding him for good behavior is the best way to train these pets.
Q: Until a month ago, we spent weekends in a different home with our dog and cat. In the weekend home, our cat would spend time outside, but he would always come in to use the litter box. At our home, it is just the opposite: He spends time outside but never uses the litter box inside. We provide the same box and same litter. Can you explain this? -- A.H., via e-mail
A: When you are dealing with litter box questions, you have to remember always that cats may seem mysterious in their ways, but their choices are not at all mysterious to them.
Each cat will prefer one kind of area to potty over another. Factors that go into the preference may include box and filler type, location, past illness and so on. Without knowing the complete history of your cat in both houses, and without observing the cat for signs of unhappiness with the box in the weekday home, I'd guess there's a difference that's quite obvious to your cat but not to you.
It could be as simple as this: At the weekday home, there's a potty area outside that's more appealing than the litter box, and at the weekend home, the situation is reversed. For example, there may be a kind of soil in the beds at one home that your cat likes. Or maybe at the home where your cat chooses to use the box, there could be a neighborhood bully-cat who's driving your cat inside.
Paperwork needed for pet purchase
Adding a pet to the family is often referred to as an "adoption," but make no mistake: It's still a business transaction. Whether you're getting a pet from a shelter, rescue group or private breeder, you should come away not only with a new family member but also with a sheaf of paperwork.
At minimum, the rescue group, shelter or seller should provide you with a contract that spells out any guarantees for health and temperament as well as return policies if the animal isn't working out. A basic medical history -- vaccines, wormings, neutering -- should also be included, as should recommendations for future medical care, food and so on. If you're buying a registered animal, make sure you get the forms you need to transfer ownership with such organizations as the American Kennel Club and the Cat Fanciers' Association.
If you do not get all the breed registration paperwork, it can be difficult to track it down later. Some sellers flat-out disappear after a sale, while others will try to charge more for "papers" after you've already taken your pet home. Mind you, any breeder who'd do either is likely not someone you should have been getting a pup or kitten from in the first place. But that won't help you much when you've already fallen in love with your new pet, will it?
If you don't get registration paperwork, the breed registries will try to help with registration matters if you contact them. But in most cases they can't do much, since people rarely have enough information on the breeder or the animal's parents to get the matter cleared up.
Head tilt common in pet rabbits
Head-tilting in rabbits is common and can be caused by a variety of diseases. A common name for head tilt is "wry neck," although the correct medical term is "vestibular disease."
Rabbits with vestibular disease can have a head position that ranges from a few degrees to 180 degrees off the normal position. They can fall over, circle, have difficulties standing and develop eye injuries because the downward-facing eye is in a position of vulnerability. These pets need to see a veterinarian for proper diagnosis of the causes behind the head tilt and then targeted treatment.
For most rabbits with vestibular disease, the vast majority will recover most of their normal head position and lead normal lives, as long as good nursing, veterinary care and time for recovery are provided. Some rabbits, however, will have a lifelong residual head tilt even if the inner ear disease is cured.
(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 choices? Don't rule out the rat
Let go of everything you've ever thought about rats and consider the benefits of these pets with an open mind.
-- Rats are social animals. Many small pets don't like being handled, but rats get used to careful socialization easily and come to enjoy riding in pockets and on shoulders.
-- Rats are smart. Rats respond quickly to food-based training and seem to love to perform tricks.
-- Rats are agile and sturdy. Try to get a guinea pig to run a maze or climb a ladder and you'll appreciate the fleet-footedness of a rat. Unlike mice, rats can stand up to the handling -- and occasionally, the unintentional mishandling -- of well-meaning children.
-- Rats are diverse. Think colors like silver mink, platinum, blue and chocolate, and markings like hooded (the head a different color than the body) or masked.
-- Rats are easy to keep. Get a cage sized for a slightly larger animal, such as a chinchilla or guinea pig, and your rat will be content. Add bedding, a place for the animal to hide and sleep, a food dish and a water bottle, some toys, and you're set. Your rat will happily eat the food manufactured for them and will be even happier if you add fruit, nuts, vegetables and other "people food."
The downside of rats? They don't live all that long -- two to three years -- and they're prone to tumors. And like all rodents, they love to chew and can be destructive if left unsupervised.
Be sure to choose a healthy rat from a reputable source. As with all pets, good sanitation practices are a must, especially hand-washing after handling the animals. A calm, well-socialized rat isn't likely to bite, but any nips that do happen should be discussed with the family doctor, especially when children are involved.
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Why keep a cat?
Companionship is the No. 1 reason why cats are so popular, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. Here are the top responses given (multiple answers allowed):
Companionship 90 percent
Fun to watch 73 percent
Relieves stress 62 percent
Like family member 60 percent
Easy to maintain 57 percent
Pest control 51 percent
Different cats, different boxes
Tailor the litter box to your cat's size, age and preferences, and you'll be more likely to get your cat to use it consistently. For example, a big cat needs a big litter box, and a cat who isn't good at squatting may need one with higher sides to keep the mess in the box.
Be creative when choosing boxes. While any good pet-supply store will offer plenty of choices, you're not limited to shopping there. Plastic sweater boxes with the lids off provide a roomier box, and retired baking pans are small and shallow enough to make a kitten feel comfortable.
The problems of age may factor in, too. Young kittens and old cats may have problems getting over the high sides of a big litter box. Make things easier for them -- and ultimately, for you -- by cutting down one side to serve as an easy entrance.
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.petconnection.com.
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