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

GET READY

The first time I wrote about disaster preparation for pets, some 20 years ago, there wasn't much to write about. I called a disaster-response official and he seemed rather puzzled at the questions I wasn't asking. Pets? Who cares?

Finally, he told me people should open big bags of pet food, fill the bathtub with water and leave their pets behind. His whole attitude: What's the big fuss? They're just pets!

I'll guarantee you no disaster-response expert would dare voice such an opinion today. And it's not just because they recognize that animals are worth saving -- because it's possible many still don't. What has become apparent over the years is that if no plans are made for pets, people won't leave their homes. And when people won't leave, that puts everyone in greater peril.

But even though it's true that government on all levels has a greater interest in helping people and pets in time of disaster, it's still pretty much up to each of us to be ready to care for our animal companions. With another hurricane season upon us -- and no community immune from the threat of disaster -- it's a good time to review your plans and your pets' place in them.

Start your preparations with something you've probably already taken care of: Make sure your pets have ID.

Most animals will survive a disaster, but many never see their families again because there's no way to determine which pet belongs to which family if the animals go missing, a common occurrence even under normal circumstances. That's why dogs and cats should always wear a collar and identification tags.

Once your pet has up-to-date ID, it's time to collect some equipment to help you cope in case of an emergency. A big storage bin with a lid and handles is an ideal place to keep everything you need together and at hand.

Keep several days' worth of drinking water and pet food as well as any necessary medicines, rotating the stock regularly. For canned goods, don't forget to pack a can opener and a spoon. Lay in a supply of empty plastic bags, along with paper towels, both for cleaning up messes and for sealing them away until they can be safely tossed.

For cats, pack a bag of litter and some disposable litter trays.

Even normally docile pets can behave in uncharacteristic ways when stressed by an emergency, which makes restraints essential for the safety of pets and people alike. For dogs, leashes should always be at hand.

Shipping crates are probably the least-thought-of pieces of emergency equipment for pets, but are among the most important. Sturdy crates keep pets of all kinds safe while increasing housing options. Crated pets may be allowed in hotel rooms that are normally off-limits to pets, or can be left in a pinch with veterinarians or shelters that are already full, since the animals come with rooms of their own.

Final item of restraint for dogs and cats: a soft muzzle, because frightened or injured pets are more likely to bite. And don't forget to put first-aid supplies in your disaster kit, along with a book on how to treat pet injuries.

You may never have to pull out your disaster kit, but it's always good to be prepared.

Back to the official response: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in cooperation with the American Kennel Club, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Humane Society of the United States, has put together a free emergency preparedness brochure for pet lovers. Visit www.ready.gov or call 1-800-BE-READY for more information.

Meanwhile, back in New Orleans

Many of the animal-assistance groups who responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are still working in the area. Recently, more than a dozen groups and a half-dozen additional volunteer veterinarians combined forces in May to fix more than 1,100 cats in the greater New Orleans area.

The three-week-long "Feline Frenzy" was designed to prevent the dramatic increase in the number of kittens typically born during the warmer months. The animals were neutered, vaccinated and re-released as part of a strategy called Trap-Neuter-Return, a non-lethal method of controlling outdoor cat populations.

For more information on TNR and humane strategies for controlling cat populations -- in all communities -- visit the Web site of Alley Cat Allies (alleycat.org). -- G.S.

Q&A

Barking dog has neighbor up in arms

Q: I hate dogs. And I hate barking dogs worst of all. These people moved in next door a few months ago, and their dog is always barking. I don't know how they can stand the constant noise, but I am ready to use my gun. Don't tell me to call the SPCA. They're animal freaks, too. What would they do? And the police don't care at all! -- T.R., via e-mail

A: They'll care if you shoot your neighbor's dog, that's for sure. As you've found, barking dogs are low on the priority list for municipal agencies (either animal control or your local police), which realistically leaves you with two choices: Deal with the neighbors, or live with the problem.

You might be surprised at how oblivious the neighbor with the problem dog is to the noise the animal makes. Over the years I have come to realize -- sometimes by living next to a nuisance barker myself -- that many owners of barking dogs develop the ability to tune them out, and so may not be fully aware of the trouble their pets are causing.

I'm not offering this as an excuse, believe me, because someone whose dog is a nonstop barker in the way you describe is likely not a caring, responsible pet lover. These dogs are bored and lonely, at the very least, and often neglected as well.

While it's better to talk one-on-one with the owners of the problem dog, I realize that's not always possible, especially if that person has proven to be dangerous or scary to deal with in the past. You might instead consider sending an anonymous letter that indicates how much unhappiness the animal is causing the neighbors, and include a flier with suggestions for improving the situation, through better care of the dog, integration of the animal into the family home, and management of the situations that trigger the barking.

The Denver Dumb Friends League has an excellent fact sheet covering why dogs bark and how pet owners can choose effective solutions. You can find it at http://www.ddfl.org/behavior/barking.pdf. The Web site BarkingDogs.net also has a lot of advice both for the owners of barking dogs and the people who live nearby.

Belling the cat

Q. Will putting a bell on my cat's collar protect birds from being killed? -- B.F., via e-mail

A. Probably not. In fact, some experts have observed that cats can learn to stalk their prey without making the bells on their collars move at all. A cat who's determined to hunt will probably keep hunting, given the opportunity to do so.

Groups such as the Audubon Society are very much against free-roaming cats, whether they're pets given access to the outside or former pets turned wild and living as best they can. Studies have shown that cats do kill a fair amount of songbirds, but they also kill a lot of animals that are neither endangered nor wanted, such as mice and rats. People who advocate for humane handling of feral cat colonies argue that blaming songbird decline on cats is a bit of a "glass house" situation. The biggest threat to any endangered species is the destruction of habitat and pollution. Cats have nothing to do with either of those problems.

The debate will rage on, no doubt. In the meantime, if you want to keep your cat from hunting, keep him inside. It's safer for him, anyway.

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

PET RX

Keeping dogs calm during thunderstorm

For some dogs, fear of thunderstorms increases because we mishandle our dog's early signs of fear -- either by soothing them or by punishing them. The first rewards the behavior; the second makes a scary event even worse.

Sensitivity to thunder is easier to prevent than to cure. When puppies and young dogs show concern, practice those things they know -- like "sit" -- in an upbeat training session with lots of super-yummy treats. In other words: Ignore the storm, distract them with other, more pleasant activities, and don't act as if anything's different.

For many dogs, though, the fear of storms is quite dramatic -- and dangerous. Some dogs may tremble, others may destroy their surroundings, and still other may bite out of fear.

If you don't live in an area where thunderstorms are common, you may be able to just deal with loud noises you can predict -- fireworks on holidays, primarily -- by getting your veterinarian to prescribe a sedative for your pet.

For dogs who are very scared and destructive living in areas where thunderstorms are common, your best bet is asking your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist. A veterinary behaviorist will work with you on a treatment plan that may include medications, counter-conditioning, pheromones, and even anti-static jackets in an effort to help a dog to relax during storms.

(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.)

ON THE WEB

Site focuses on indoor kitties

Many people have considered and even tried keeping their come-and-go cat in the house. Converting a cat to an indoor lifestyle can be difficult, and many cats are so annoying in their demands to go out that people give up.

The Ohio State University School of Veterinarian Medicine has developed a wonderful Web site, The Indoor Cat Initiative (www.indoorcat.org), that covers every aspect of living with an indoor cat. It answers every imaginable question and helps cat lovers through every conceivable behavior challenge.

Indoor cats live longer, healthier lives. If you've thought about taking this step with your cat, you'll want to read up on this site. -- G.S.

PET TIP

Shelters promote cat adoptions in June

An adult cat can slide quickly into your life. You know pretty well what you're getting with a grown cat -- activity level, sociability, health, etc. Given time in a loving environment, a grown cat forms just as tight a bond with his new people as any kitten can. That's why shelters around the country promote June for cat adoptions.

With adult cats, knowing a little of the animal's background is important, especially if your family has other pets, or children. (A cat who has never experienced them may have a more difficult time adjusting to a new family that includes either or both.) Most shelters or rescue groups try to provide some basic background information, which they ask of the people giving up their pets.

If at all possible, take each adult cat you're considering away from the caging area of the adoption center. Sit down with the animal in your lap, alone in a quiet place, and try to get a feel for the cat as an individual. Shelters are stressful places, so the cat may need a few quiet minutes to collect herself. A calm, confident and outgoing cat will respond to your attention, relaxing in your lap, pushing for strokes and purring.

No matter how promising the initial meeting, remember that cats don't react well to change, so be prepared to give your new pet time to adjust to new surroundings once you take her home. Experts advise starting out your cat in a small, enclosed area -- a spare bathroom or small bedroom equipped with food and water, litterbox, toys and a scratching post. A few days of quiet seclusion with frequent visits from you will relax your new pet and re-establish good litterbox habits. -- G.S.

BY THE NUMBERS

Big birds more popular

While the overall percentage of birds kept as pets has remained small -- 6.4 percent of all households in 2004 -- the trend in bird ownership has been away from small birds such as canaries and finches. Ownership percentages among bird-owners:

1998 2004

Small birds 58 percent 45 percent

Medium birds 30 53

Large birds 12 18

(Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Assoc. Inc.)

THE SCOOP

Iguanas can regrow tails

The ability to lose a tail can be a lifesaver for iguanas. If caught by a predator, an iguana can escape by dropping the tail, leaving it still wriggling in the mouth of an animal who thought lunch was in the bag. The trick isn't used just with predators: More than a few people who are new to having an iguana as a pet have ended up screaming the first time they find themselves holding a thrashing tail instead of an iguana.

Smaller iguanas are more likely than larger ones to regrow their tails, usually within a few weeks. If the tail is in place but injured, or is only partially broken off, a visit to a veterinarian with experience in reptiles is in order to determine the best course of treatment. -- G.S.

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.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111; (816) 932-6600