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


Cats love plants. A cat with free access to the outdoors will spend a large part of his time rolling in the grass, rubbing his cheeks up against trees and nibbling fresh shoots of anything that strikes his fancy.

More cats are being kept indoors for safety these days. And while that's generally good news, it does mean that plants need to follow them in, to keep those indoor cats happy. Plants are an important part of an ideal environment for indoor cats that should also include a variety of toys, cat trees and scratching posts, and screened porches or window perches.

When planning your indoor jungle, make sure poisonous plants are not on the menu. The ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center ( maintains a list of plants that shouldn't be in any cat lover's household. Check your plants against this list. Among the most dangerous are dieffenbachia, lily of the valley and philodendron. Various ivies and yews can be troublesome, too, and the bulbs of plants popular for "forcing" into early indoor bloom -- such as amaryllis, daffodils and tulips -- can cause problems for the cat who likes to dig and chew.

After you've removed the potentially deadly plants, you'll want to put others out of reach just because you'd like them to stay in one piece. Some cats are industrious destroyers of household greenery, while others like to kick dirt around or even use larger pots as litter boxes. All of which makes perfect sense to your cat, annoying as it may be to you.

Plants on the ground or on low tables are the easiest targets, so make your houseplants less accessible to the bored and wandering cat. Put plants up high, or better yet: Hang them.

For the plants you can't move out of harm's way, make them less appealing by coating them with something your cat finds disagreeable. Cat-discouragers include Bitter Apple, a nasty-tasting substance available at any pet-supply store, or Tabasco sauce from any grocery store. Whenever you find what your cat doesn't like, keep reapplying it to reinforce the point. You can also discourage your pet by shooting him with the spray from a water bottle when you see him in the plants.

Pot your plants in heavy, wide-bottomed containers, and cover the soil of the problem plants with rough decorative rock. Foil and waxed paper are less attractive deterrents, and I don't like to recommend them as much as decorative rock because you're going to get tired of looking at that foil.

Once you have your "look, don't touch" plants safely situated, you can indulge your pet by keeping planters of sprouting grasses growing in an accessible place for nibbling. Special blends of seeds for cats are available in pet stores and specialty shops, or you can purchase rye grass or wheat grass seeds at a nursery. Keep tender shoots always available for nibbling by planting fresh seeds every couple of weeks in wide, shallow containers.

You'll also want to keep fresh catnip growing (see sidebar) if your cat enjoys the herb. Don't grow it where your cat can get to it, though, or he may well rip the plant out by the roots.

I think cats appreciate the sight, smell and taste of plants, which is why a houseful of lovely plants -- some for nibbling, some not -- should be part of a feline-friendly environment for any indoor cat.


Catnip: herbal nirvana

Is catnip really safe for cats? After all, we don't condone recreational drugs for people, and yet here's one sold openly for our cats.

But it's not as if cats drive, have to show up for work or are faced with huge personal decisions. So let your cat have all the catnip he wants.

The fresher the better, so keep some growing where your cat can't get to it, and snip off bits to slip into cat toys or rub on the cat tree. Crunch up the catnip just before you offer it to your cat to release the intoxicating smell.

Not all cats react to catnip. The ability to appreciate the herb is genetic, with slightly more cats in the fan club than not. These hard-wired preferences aren't immediately apparent, though, since kittens under the age of 3 months don't react to catnip at all.


This 'dog car' is a school bus

Q: I enjoyed your piece on "dogmobiles," and I bet you that my story's unique. Will you share it?

I found a 1980 Chevrolet school bus at an auction, bought it for $2,400, paid another $1,600 to get it running well and had seven years of everyday trips with all my dogs in it.

Then I found another school bus, a great 1993 Ford diesel in good condition inside and out. Every morning, the dogs and I went hiking and then into town for errands. I took out half the seats and had platforms made, so that everyone has either a seat with a dog carrier in it or a platform to bark at the passing parade.

I get lots of smiles and waves, and everyone knows me now as the "dog lady." That bus is as dependable as any new car and costs a lot less to run. I highly recommend it! -- Elaine Edwards, via e-mail

A: Thanks for your e-mail and picture. I've heard from an incredible number of readers with suggestions, questions and stories about transporting dogs. I'll start with short vehicle reviews in Pet Connection next week, with longer versions on my pet blog (linked from

Many people wrote to remind everyone that it's not safe for people or pets when dogs roam freely in vehicles. My dogs generally ride in crates, although I do admit to now and then taking a short errand run with my older retriever Heather riding "shotgun" in the passenger seat.

Interestingly enough, the first vehicle I test-drove for my upcoming vehicle reviews -- the Toyota RAV4 -- has a warning light and tone reminding that everyone should be buckled up, even dogs!

Kitty come down!

Q: Why do cats get stuck up trees? -- G.M., via e-mail

A: Cat claws are designed to move a cat forward, anchoring the animal as it goes. If that forward direction is up a tree, it's difficult to head back down. Instead, the gracefully powerful movement of a cat heading up a tree is counterbalanced by the crashing and controlled free fall used to get down.

Most cats do find their way back down, of course, which is a good thing these days. With municipal budgets being what they are, few fire departments are allowed to respond to "cat stuck in tree" calls anymore.

The best way to get a cat out of a tree? Open a can of tuna, salmon or mackerel and let the wonderful fishy smell drift upward. She'll come down when her hunger outweighs her apprehension.

(Got a question? Send an e-mail to


Get a cat over a vet hissy fit

A trip to the veterinarian can send a cat into a full-blown snit that can last hours after the return home. The smells of a veterinary setting can even set off other feline family members, who may become aggressive toward the returnee.

Let your cat pick the speed at which he settles back into the household after a trip to the veterinarian. When you get home, put the carrier down in a quiet place, open the carrier door, and leave him alone. Your cat may stay in the carrier for a while, may head for the nearest bed to hide under, or may step out and be just fine.

To help "de-vet" the scent of the returnee so other family cats will settle down, try running a towel over the cat who stayed behind and then swiping it over the returning cat. A dab of vanilla or water from a can of tuna on both noses may also help the cats settle back down, through smell-confusion.

For the cat who is utterly uncontrollable or dangerous when taken to the veterinarian, talk to your veterinarian about sedation, or consider using a mobile veterinarian, who can treat your cat in your home.

(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (, an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at


White House pets in the spotlight

The Presidential Pet Museum's Web site ( is the place to go for a fairly comprehensive list of all presidential animals, from the hounds and horses of George Washington to the dog and cats of George W. Bush. The animals kept by presidential families started out being more purposeful than companionable, with horses and milk cows commonplace.

By the turn of the last century, though, animals were welcomed just for keeping the president and his family company. Theodore Roosevelt brought in the new era with eight dogs and cats and a pack of presidential guinea pigs.

But it fell to another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, to bring the presidential pet into the political spotlight. His dog, Fala, is still arguably the best-known and most-loved White House pet in history. (Could it be a coincidence that current White House dogs Barney and Miss Beazley are Fala look-alikes?) You'll find Fala's picture and much more on the Presidential Pet Museum's site, which is both attractive and easy to navigate.


Dogs need to learn not to jump up

To dogs, jumping up on people seems perfectly normal.

When dogs greet each other, they check out the places where the scent is strongest: the mouth, the genitals and the anal area. Checking out areas packed with scent glands makes perfect sense for an animal as smell-driven as the dog, even if mouth-licking and crotch-sniffing are not considered polite behavior in human society. An untrained dog will try to connect instinctively, and that means starting the greeting by jumping up for a closer whiff of human breath, followed by a dive for the crotch.

Dogs have to be trained in human etiquette, and a lot of times we don't do a good job of it. We may, for example, have rules that make perfect sense to us but are completely incomprehensible to a dog. Do you let your dog jump up on you when you're in jeans but yell at her for doing the same when you're dressed for an evening out? Congratulations! You've just failed the dog logic test.

Some people let little dogs jump up because it's cute and easier than bending down to greet the dog. These dogs quickly learn this behavior will get them picked up.

Pick a set of rules -- dog rules, people rules or some combination of the two. But whichever rules you pick, be consistent and don't expect your dog to magically understand when jumping up is OK and when it isn't. It's either fine all the time, or it's not.

How to get your dog to stop jumping up? Ask for and reward a behavior that's incompatible with the one you don't want. Best bet in this case: Sit.


Fish better than TV?

Why keep fish? While some people enjoy the challenge of keeping complex tanks running well, most people cite watching an aquarium as the thing they like best about having fish. Top reasons (multiple answers allowed):

Fun to watch 84 percent

Appearance 78 percent

Relaxation 69 percent

Quiet 57 percent

Easy to maintain 47 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association


Kittens good at multiplying

A female cat with good access to males who gets an early start in the breeding season (February to September) will probably be able to raise three litters of kittens per year. Litter sizes vary from one kitten to 10, with the number typically smaller in young and old animals and largest when the mother cat is 3 to 4 years of age.

Add it all up, and a busy mother can produce 50 to 150 kittens in her lifetime. Some cats have even more, with a lifetime total of more than 200. The kittens born are soon producing more kittens, who in turn produce more kittens, who ... well, you get the picture.

This is prime kitten season, when more babies are born than can find homes. If you adopt one of those babies, don't delay in getting your kitten spayed or neutered.

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 You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at

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