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

FELINE FITNESS

Keeping cats inside offers so many advantages. Protected from the hazards of cars, predators and infectious disease, a cat is likely to live longer when not allowed to roam. It's more neighborly, too, since a free-roaming cat isn't going to be using the flower bed next door as a litter box.

But an indoor life is not without challenges, and one of the main ones is obesity-related health problems. Fat cats are more likely to become diabetic, more likely to have problems keeping themselves clean and more likely to have difficulty moving comfortably.

When a dog's overweight, the plan to slim down is an easy one: less food, more exercise. Dogs are generally not finicky and will eventually eat diet chow without much complaint. As for exercise, almost all dogs love a daily walk, and many are equally excited about a game of fetch.

Cats, though, are more likely to turn up their noses at reduced-calorie foods, and a couple of days without food can quickly turn dangerous for fat cats, prone as they are to developing fatty liver disease. As for walks and fetch, most cats would rather not play.

That means slimming down a fat cat may be more of a challenge, but it's not impossible. Start with a checkup and diet direction from your veterinarian, but as for the exercise, it's all up to you. The best part: Transforming your cat from a couch kitty to a lean house tiger is fun for you both. Some tips:

-- Set aside time every day to play with your cat. Cat fishing poles, with strings ending in feathers or other cat-attracting toys, are a great way to get your cat moving. Some cats love chasing dots of light from a laser pointer, while others can be encouraged to chase toys and even retrieve them.

-- Offer your cat ways to play when you're not around. Cat trees and tunnels can be great for cavorting, or for hiding when a cat just wants to be left alone. Check out toys stuffed with catnip for extra appeal, or those puzzle toys that keep a cat's interest by making play a test of both body and mind.

-- Make getting food more difficult for your cat. All most cats have to do to eat is waddle over to a full dish. End free-feeding, and make a cat's food hard to get. Break the daily measured portion into smaller meals, and put these small plates in places that require jumping or climbing to find. Some cats may also enjoy puzzle toys that make them work to get out bits of kibble.

-- Consider safe outdoor space. Converting a screened-in porch to a feline jungle gym will give your pet more reasons to stay active. Remember that cats like heights, so build in tempting overhead spaces that require effort to reach. There's nothing a cat likes better than looking down on people, after all!

Don't forget that it's possible to fence in a portion of a yard to let your cats roam without leaving your property. Several companies now offer fencing designed to keep cats in, or you can quickly locate do-it-yourself instructions with a simple Web search.

Whatever you do, don't keep your cat inside and offer nothing in exchange for the pleasures of nature you're denying him. Enrich the indoor environment, and you'll have a cat who's not only safer but also healthier and every bit as content as one who comes and goes at will.

SIDEBAR

Feline freebies can keep your cat busy

You don't need to spend a lot of money to keep your cat busy. Many cats enjoy hiding in empty boxes and paper bags, for example, while others like chasing the retaining rings off plastic milk jugs and the centers of toilet paper.

For the cat who loves to retrieve, try wadded-up tissue paper or junk mail envelopes with crinkly plastic windows, or the corks from wine or champagne bottles.

Freebies that can turn dangerous are string, floss, ribbon, twine, rubber bands or anything that your cat can swallow. Play with string things carefully, and put them securely away after the game is over.

Q&A

Dog's coat keeps getting thinner

Q: My miniature American Eskimo dog, Shilo, turned a year old in October. She had her first litter of puppies in September. The father was a miniature wirehaired terrier. She stopped feeding the puppies when they were between 6 and 8 weeks old, but she is still shedding excessively.

Her mane is all but nonexistent. Is this normal? Is there anything I can feed her that will help? The vet doesn't seem concerned. He says it's probably hormonal, but she's cold when I take her outside. Any suggestions? -- D.L., via e-mail

A: My first suggestion would be to spay your dog. There's no shortage of pets needing homes, and you're adding to the problem by breeding your dog. Not to mention, you're putting her at greater risk of potentially deadly infection and reproductive-related cancer by not spaying her. So call your veterinarian and make that appointment. It's the best thing, all around.

As for coat loss, your veterinarian's right in that it's hormonal. As anyone who's ever shown a dog can attest, unspayed female dogs are always "blowing coat" because of hormones. They blow coat after coming into season and after weaning puppies. And sometimes it seems they blow coat just because you've paid for dog show entries, asked for time off from work and made your hotel reservations.

When these dogs are finally spayed, they usually develop a coat that any dog show competitor would love -- lush, thick and glossy. And the same will happen to your dog once she's spayed, so get to it! I doubt she really needs a sweater for her short trips outdoors, but if it makes you feel better, it won't hurt to get her one until her coat comes in full again.

Feline ultimatum

Q: I have a cat who does not stop meowing. I have one week to get him to keep quiet or he has to be out of the house. Help, please. I am desperate! -- C.G., via e-mail

A: You're going to need more time than a week to solve this issue, if you can solve it at all.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself: Is this new behavior, or has the behavior increased lately? Any time a pet changes the way he or she behaves, you need to explore the possibility that the change is health-related. Changes in vocalization in cats are often because of health issues, and any cat who is suddenly noisier or more quiet or whose voice changes needs to see a veterinarian.

If the behavior isn't new, you need to ask yourself if it's natural behavior for your cat. The so-called "Oriental" breeds and their mixes are much more vocal than other cats. In fact, the chattiness of these breeds is one reason why many people like them! If your cat is a Siamese or Oriental breed, you will not be able to change your cat's basic nature.

If it's not health- or breed-related, your cat may be noisy because you've taught him to be. If, for example, you've rewarded his meows by feeding him or by opening the door whenever he wants to go out, you might be able to untrain your cat with the help of a behaviorist. Ask your veterinarian for a referral.

I'm not sure who's pushing the one-week ultimatum on you, but to be fair to your cat, you need to negotiate more time, at the very least. Adult cats have very low adoption rates. If you give up on your cat, his future is not a bright one. So please, see if you can negotiate a better understanding of what's normal for your cat, or at least get more time to try to minimize the conflict.

PET Rx

Overgrown beak needs vet's look

Contrary to advice that can still be found in books or on the Internet, beak trims should not be a part of routine health maintenance for birds. Although beaks are constantly growing at a rate of 1 to 3 inches per year, depending on the species, the beak of a healthy bird will remain at a healthy length with normal chewing activities.

Overgrowth of the beak is frequently a sign of illness, such as liver disease or malnutrition. Any bird whose beak seems to be too long needs to see a veterinarian expert in avian medicine to determine the cause of the problem and treat it accordingly.

(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.)

THE SCOOP

Watch out for cat in dryer

Cats love warmth, and at this time of year they are especially eager to search out the warmest, softest place to nap. Unfortunately, some cats have been killed in one of those spots: the clothes dryer. It's sadly easy for a person not to notice a cat in the dryer, to add clothes and then turn on the appliance.

The obvious answer is to keep the dryer door shut at all times, but it's hard to get an entire family to comply. If you can't be sure you can keep the door closed, it's important to convince your cat that the dryer's not a good place to nap.

You can try scaring your cat to help convince him to stay clear of this dangerous appliance. If you find your cat in the dryer, close the door for a few seconds (with the machine off, of course) and pound on the metal with your palms, making as much noise as you can. Then open the door and let your cat make a run for it.

I normally would not recommend any training method that would scare an animal, but the risk of death here is too great to ignore. A couple of scary moments in the dryer is vastly preferable to such a horrible death, in my book.

PET TIP

Charities need holiday gifts, too

Every year at this time I like to suggest that instead of spending money on gifts that will likely go into the closet to be "re-gifted" to someone else next year, give the pet lovers in your life something that will make a difference: a membership or donation to an animal charity.

The best place to start is with your local shelter. Even modest organizations usually have gift membership programs in place. For your contribution, your gift should come with a year's subscription to the group's newsletter and sometimes discounts on local goods and services.

Animal-health foundations are also a good bet. Your nearest school or college of veterinary medicine will have a fund set up to accept donations, either for scholarships or ongoing research into animal health. To find your nearest school or college of veterinary medicine, visit VetNet (www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vetnet.html). The Morris Animal Foundation (www.morrisanimalfoundation.org), AKC Canine Health Foundation (www.akcchf.org) and Winn Feline Foundation (www.winnfelinehealth.org) also accept donations to support research into animal health.

National advocacy groups have a wide range of programs and agendas, and you should investigate a group's goals and funding prior to making a donation in another's name. For every person who thinks the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (www.peta.org) is courageous, there are at least that many who are extremely opposed to them. Likewise with a group such as Heifer International (www.heifer.org), which works to provide food animals to Third World countries. A heroic effort to some, but probably not the best donation in the name of the leather-avoiding vegan in your life.

Some charities are notorious for paying high salaries to executives while delivering relatively little funding to the programs they're supposed to be supporting. Several Web sites are good for investigating charities, among them GuideStar (www.guidestar.org) and Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org).

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Help with pet care

Despite the media interest in new pet-care services such as doggie day care, most people are still using the more traditional businesses to help them care for their dogs. In 2004, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association asked dog lovers which services they'd used in the past six months (multiple responses allowed):

Kennel/boarding 41 percent

Pet-sitting 39 percent

Other service 17 percent

Day care 3 percent

Behavior consulting 2 percent

Pet taxi 2 percent

PETS ON THE WEB

Everything finch on lively site

Vivacious and entertaining, finches are a great fit for many different kinds of pet-loving households. Finchworld (www.finchworld.com) is a great place to start learning more about these fun little pets and their wild relatives.

The site offers information on a few dozen species (including canaries, which are technically finches). If you don't know much about finches, you'll be surprised and delighted with the variety of species available beyond the commonly sold zebra finch. And if all you want to do is watch the wild ones, you'll find information you need to enjoy what you're seeing outside. A bulletin board allows finch fans to discuss their favorite birds.

Click on any listed species to find a picture and related articles. Navigation across the top of the home page will take you to more detailed information on care and health topics, with many articles geared for beginners.

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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