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

DO YOU KNOW CATS?

Do you pause when a black cat crosses your path? I sometimes do, and then I laugh at myself for being influenced by such a silly old myth, even for a second. But that's the funny thing about cats -- more than any other domestic animal, they are the subject of countless myths, legends and old wives' tales.

While some stories about cats are harmless, others are too dangerous not to debunk. Here, from my archives, are some stubborn old myths about cats -- and the facts to counter them:

-- Black cats are bad luck. Black may be an unlucky color all right, mostly for cats themselves. Humane society officials have warned for years that black cats are sometimes the targets of those who practice rituals that include the torture and killing of animals. (Many shelters refuse to allow black cats to be adopted around Halloween for this very reason.) Black may be an unfortunate color for another reason: visibility. Countless cats are killed by cars every year, and the difference between a hit or a near miss may be the driver's ability to see the cat darting across the road. At night, patches of light-colored fur are a distinct advantage.

-- Cats need to drink milk. Is cow's milk the perfect food for cats? Not at all! On the contrary, some cats (like some people) can't tolerate milk well. For these animals, a saucer of milk means gastric upset. In the wild, kittens never drink milk after they're weaned, and domestic cats have no reason to either. On the other hand, if your cat likes and can tolerate milk, feel free to offer it as an occasional treat. Milk's a good source of protein and other nutrients for those cats who don't find it upsetting.

-- Cats purr when they're happy. Expert cat observers know that purring isn't just a sound of contentment. Cats also purr if they're injured, while giving birth -- even when dying. British zoologist Desmond Morris has observed that purring is "a sign of friendship -- either when (the cat) is contented with a friend or when it is in need of friendship, as with a cat in trouble."

-- Cats are a danger to babies. So many cats find themselves looking for new homes when a baby is expected that you could put it another way: Babies are a danger to cats. But the fact is that you don't need to find a new home for your pet if you become pregnant. Cats do not maliciously smother or suck the breath out of babies, as the myths hold. That doesn't mean some considerations aren't in order, however. Pregnant women have to take special precautions when cleaning the litter box (or have someone else do it) because of the risk of disease. And even animal advocates remind new parents that common sense dictates no animal be left unattended with a small child -- for the protection of both.

-- A well-fed cat won't hunt. The ability to hunt is hardwired into all cats, but the level of desire varies by each cat's genetics and early experiences, not by the rumbling in his belly. The play of kittens -- pouncing and leaping on anything that moves -- is really hunting behavior. Observers of feline behavior believe that if the mother is an eager hunter, the kittens may be, too. Putting a bell on your cat won't protect wildlife, but keeping him in will.

Q&A

Little dog won't stop messing

Q: I adopted 2-year-old Oliver several months ago from a rescue group. I was told he was house-trained, but that was wrong. He is mostly Pomeranian, and I've read this breed can be hard to house-train.

I can't seem to break him from the habit of defecating in the middle of the living room. My carpet is new, and this is really a problem. He has a doggy door, yet today he was outside and came inside to go!

He's a sweet dog and is good in other ways, but I'm almost to the point of giving up and giving him back to the rescue group. I have a suspicion that this was the reason he was abandoned in the first place. Do you have any advice? -- K.B., via e-mail

A: Small dogs can indeed be difficult to house-train, for a couple of different reasons. One of the major problems is inconsistency on the part of the owner. A Great Dane who isn't house-trained is a much bigger problem than a Yorkie with the same bad behavior. A lot of people with small dogs decide it's just as easy to clean up a little mess now and then instead of working on a big training problem.

But little dogs can be house-trained. Toy breed expert Darlene Arden says you have to start by looking at things from a little dog's point of view (her new book, "Small Dogs, Big Hearts: A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dog," will be out later this month).

For example, you have to make sure your dog feels safe in the outdoor spot you've chosen for him. A dog's guard is down during the act of elimination. And when a dog weighs 10 pounds or less, it's important for him to feel he's not going to be attacked. "They feel vulnerable," says Arden. "You need to find that one very safe spot for them." And keep the grass short so the dog doesn't feel as if he's hacking through a jungle, she adds.

Despite the special challenges the small dog presents, Arden says house-training is possible. Once your dog has that safe spot outside, you can teach him to use it with the aid of a schedule, praise and a dedication to consistency.

"Feed on a schedule," says Arden. "You must take your dog out after he eats, after play, after any kind of stimulation. Take a special treat and your happiest voice to the special spot. The moment the puppy's feet hit the ground, get excited." When the deed is done, says Arden, praise to the heavens and deliver the treat.

Limiting a dog's range in the house helps, too. "I'm a firm believer in crate-training -- as a tool, not a punishment," says Arden. "A crate keeps a dog out of trouble when you can't watch him."

Mistakes are part of the learning process and should never be punished. "If you see the dog starting to go in the house, pick him up and run him to that special spot," says Arden, and praise him when he finishes up outside.

The fact that your dog comes in to relieve himself suggests he hasn't a clue about what you expect from him. Start from the beginning. Clean up past mistakes with an enzymatic cleaner, restrict his range in the house, take him outside and praise him for getting it right. If problems continue, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist who can observe your interactions and set up a program just for you and your dog.

ON THE WEB

Helping horses stay healthy

No matter how attached one may get to them, racehorses such as Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro are not pets. But there are lots of horses -- including many ex-racehorses -- who do qualify as pets in the minds of their owners. Research charities for horses help keep working horses and pet horses healthier and happier, and donations are always welcome.

The injured Barbaro was rushed to the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine (www.vet.upenn.edu), which, like all veterinary schools and colleges, accepts donations to aid in its research and educational efforts. Links to help donate to other veterinary schools and colleges can be found on the VetNet site (www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/vetnet.html) of the University of California, Davis.

Other funding for equine health comes from the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation (www.grayson-jockeyclub.org) and the Morris Animal Foundation (www.morrisanimalfoundation.org). The latter also funds research into health care for all companion animals.

PET Rx

Cat a mom? Book that spay now

An unspayed cat is either getting pregnant, is pregnant, or will be getting pregnant again soon after weaning her babies. And some of those babies will be getting pregnant, too, as young as 5 months of age.

These "oops" litters are one of the major causes of the surplus of kittens that fill shelters from summer to fall.

Alley Cat Allies, a national group that promotes the humane management of feral cat colonies, recommends spaying a mother cat two weeks after the kittens start to be weaned, which happens between the ages of 4 and 6 weeks. In other words, get that mother cat in for surgery about six to eight weeks after she gives birth.

Kittens can be neutered as young as 8 weeks old. Talk to your veterinarian about getting the timing right to keep from adding to the tragedy of pet overpopulation.

(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.)

BY THE BOOK

Diet guides push slimmer pups, people

Martha Garvey's "My Fat Dog: Ten Simple Steps to Help Your Pet Lose Weight for a Long and Happy Life" (Hatherleigh Press, $12) is a straightforward guide to turning around a dog's unhealthy life.

The book covers causes of obesity and the effects on canine health, and it offers a comprehensive overview of activities designed to get a dog active and keep her happy as she loses weight. With tips and charts in each section, this little book has all the information you need to get your pet fit and trim again.

Garvey has created a template for keeping track of your dog's weight, food intake and exercise. She includes tips for multi-dog households, senior dogs and dogs with mobility limitations and injuries. For those families with a tubby tabby, she has also written "My Fat Cat" as a companion guide.

You've heard of the Atkins Diet, the Pritikin Diet and the South Beach Diet? Well, get ready for the Dog Diet and the amazing health benefits that author Patti Lawson discovered when she adopted a dog. The result is "The Dog Diet, a Memoir: "What My Dog Taught Me About Shedding Pounds, Licking Stress and Getting a New Leash on Life" (HCI, $17).

Lawson had settled into a routine of binge eating and comforting herself with chocolate after a distressing breakup. She wasn't really looking to change anything, but little Sadie became the catalyst for change in Lawson's life.

Instead of watching TV with a carton of ice cream, Lawson found herself walking her dog and trying to create meals so bland and unappetizing that Sadie would actually let her eat them instead of begging at the table. She changed the whole way she ate -- with astonishing results.

It's hard to take "The Dog Diet" seriously as a weight loss and exercise program. But since it's both humorous and touching, and makes excellent points about the beneficial impact of a dog in our overly sedentary lives, who cares? -- Christie Keith, doghobbyist.com

BY THE NUMBERS

Shopping for Bunny

Basic items such as nesting material and water bottles are the top purchases made by those with pet rabbits, but other items find their way into the shopping cart. According to a 2006 survey, here are purchases reported in the last 12 months:

Nesting/bedding 59 percent

Water bottle 53 percent

Treats 40 percent

Wood chews 31 percent

Toys 24 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

THE SCOOP

Cat bones defy easy counting

How many bones does a cat have? It depends on the cat. The range is usually put between 230 and 250, with the average cat counting about 244 bones in his body, if cats could or cared to count.

The determining factor has to do with how long a cat's tail is, and how many toes the animal has. A long-tailed cat will have more bones than a cat born without a tail, such as the Manx. A cat with extra toes -- they're called polydactyl cats -- will also have extra bones.

The average cat has about 30 more bones than we do. But we have something cats don't: rigid collarbones. Not that a cat would consider that a disadvantage. With the design of their bodies, a cat can fit through an opening roughly the same size as his head.

Assuming he isn't overweight, of course.

Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." 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.spadafori.com.

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