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

FIXING FELINE MEANIES

Universal Press Syndicate

Here's a rule to remember when it comes to dealing with feline aggression: Never, ever hit your cat.

While it may make you feel better -- at least in the short run -- a smack won't help you change a cat who appears to delight in sinking teeth and claws into you at seemingly unpredictable moments.

Fear and pain can cause a cat to lash out. The best way to deal with a scared cat is to let him be, while a sick cat needs a veterinarian. But most times what we see as "meanness" in a cat is just part of being a cat. You can change this behavior, but only if you understand what's behind it and react properly. Here's what makes cats go crazy and how to correct the problems:

-- Overstimulation. You're petting your cat, and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Not a full-powered attack, but you still have those sharp tips around your hand. What to do? In the short run, freeze. Don't struggle or fight back, or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes smacking your other hand hard against a hard surface -- a tabletop, for example -- may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he will usually calm down and release you.

That's the solution if you've gotten to the attack stage. The better option is to be familiar with your cat and his body language and stop petting him before he becomes overstimulated. Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but they've missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, it's time to stop petting.

-- Play aggression. Sure, it hurts all the same, but the cat who pounces on your feet and then careens off the wall isn't trying to hurt you -- he's playing. Instead of punishing your cat, redirect his energy. Increase your play sessions with your cat with an appropriate toy, such as a cat fishing pole or toy on a string, to help your cat burn off his excess energy before you try for a quiet petting session.

No matter what, never let your cat view you as a plaything, not even when he's an adorable kitten. Wrestling bare-handed with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you're setting up a bad precedent. A stuffed sock is a great substitute for a human hand when it comes to playthings -- let your cat bite, claw and bunny-kick to his heart's content.

What if he persists in seeing you as a plaything? As with an overstimulated cat, stop the behavior by freezing. Don't give him a reason to continue the attack. You can also inform him that attacks on you are not permitted by letting him have it with a shot of water from a spray bottle.

-- Redirected aggression. Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living-room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you. What gives? You were just the victim of redirected aggression.

This one's tough to fix. Try to discourage strange cats in your yard. Thump on the window, turn on the sprinklers, or put an air horn out the door and give them a blast. If you can't keep the intruders out, block your cat's access to the window through which he sees the other cats. And again, be aware of your cat's body language. A cat who's looking for trouble is one who's best avoided.

With all feline aggression, the trick is to eliminate the triggers and work on your cat's tolerance levels. If you're patient and consistent, your cat will improve over time.

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Q&A

Specialists can make difference

Q: My dog has had an ongoing problem with digesting his food. Working with my veterinarian, we tried a few different things, but now he wants me to take the dog to a specialist. I didn't even know there were specialist vets. Are they really needed? -- O.R., via e-mail

A: If you think about it, it's pretty difficult for a single person to handle primary care, anesthesiology, dentistry, surgery and more for all kinds of pets.

So yes, veterinary specialists do exist, and their expertise can make a difference.

The relationship between your regular veterinarian and a specialist is pretty formalized. You are being sent for the specialist's help, and then you, your veterinarian and the specialist will work together to resolve the issue. Typically, a specialist does not continue care after the health crisis is over, but rather sends the client back to the referring veterinarian.

For ongoing issues, however, it's not uncommon for a pet to see two veterinarians over a long period. For example, my 12-year-old retriever sees both our regular veterinarian for traditional care and a veterinary acupuncturist who helps Heather with her arthritis pain. Both veterinarians are aware of the situation and consult each other to be sure Heather has the best quality of life as she ages.

This is the third aging dog I've used both Western and Eastern veterinary medicine with, and the integrated approach has worked well in easing the decline.

Veterinary specialists fall into two general categories: those who specialize in a kind of medicine, such as surgery, and those who specialize in a particular species or related group of species, such as birds.

Among those in the first category are certified specialists in behavior, cardiology, dentistry, dermatology, emergency and critical care, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, ophthalmology and surgery. You can also find veterinarians who specialize in alternative care, such as acupuncture.

Species-specific certified specialists include those certified in avian, feline, and combination feline and canine care.

Most specialties require additional years of study and the passing of extremely difficult tests, or boards, hence the origin of the terms "boarded" or "board-certified" in describing a specialist.

Information on all traditional veterinary specialists can be found on the American Veterinary Medical Association Web site (www.avma.org) by clicking on the link to "Veterinary Specialty Organizations." For alternative veterinary specialists, visit the site of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (ahvma.org). -- Gina Spadafori

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.

On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a monthly drawing for more than $1,000 in pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.

PET BUZZ

Early introductions ease dog-cat rivalry

-- Dogs and cats can get along very well indeed if introduced early enough in life, notes a study in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science and reported on Discovery.com. If introduced while still young, the two species can learn each other's body language. For example, dogs normally sniff each other's rears to get information. In the case of successful multipet households, the dog may sniff the cat's nose instead -- the "Eskimo kiss" common among cats.

-- It's a zoo out there when it comes to online dating. Databases called "studbooks" are a crucial tool when it comes to breeding captive wild animals. The databases contain information on sex, age and weight -- not so much about favorite foods, hobbies or walks on the beach -- and are used by 200 zoos in the United States alone. Zookeepers use many tricks to ignite an animal's breeding instinct, including showing pandas movies of other pandas mating (panda porn, as it's been called), or simulating a rainstorm for frogs, replete with rain and the sound of thunder.

-- Nearly 20 percent of all plant species on Earth are in Brazil, reports National Geographic Traveler.

-- In his farewell address as president of the American Medical Association, Dr. Ronald M. Davis stressed the importance of physicians and veterinarians working together for public health. Speaking of the AMA's new relationship with the American Veterinary Medical Association, Davis stressed that of the roughly 1,500 diseases now recognized in humans, about 60 percent move across species. During the past three decades, he said, three-quarters of newly emerging human infectious diseases have been animal diseases transmitted to humans. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon

PET BOOKS

A medical book that's really about love

The phone rings in the middle of the night, and veterinary surgical specialist Dr. Nick Trout races to Angell Animal Medical Center. Sage, an old German shepherd, the deathbed gift of her owner's late wife, is fighting for her life.

When Trout arrives, he finds the dog panting in agony, her stomach twisted and bloated. He kneels to examine her and, as their eyes meet, her tail thumps in greeting.

"This selfless creature placed more importance on the simplicity of a human connection than on the unrelenting pain she was more than prepared to endure," he writes in "Tell Me Where It Hurts" (Broadway Books, $23). "If ever a dog deserved a chance, this dog did."

In this slightly fictionalized account of 24 hours in the life of a veterinary surgeon, we watch Dr. Trout struggle to save the life of not only Sage but also of a dozen other animals. We meet their owners, the friendly and the rude, the wealthy and the poor, the corporate executive and the struggling single mom. We get to know the dog-loving, secretly wealthy shopping bag lady, and the woman who breaks down when her dog is diagnosed with the same disease that took the life of her 4-year-old daughter.

Armchair veterinarians and "ER" addicts will love it, but "Tell Me Where It Hurts" is only superficially a medical drama. It's really a story about the bond between humans and animals, and one veterinarian's awe at being a part of it. -- Christie Keith

BY THE NUMBERS

How fat is your cat?

According to a survey of pet owners, cat lovers agree that neutered is neater. But when it comes to figuring out a cat's proper weight, their reports don't jibe with the higher obesity rates that veterinarians claim -- up to half. The percentage of cats whose owners say are (multiple answers allowed):

Spayed or neutered 86 percent

Overweight 14 percent

Put on diet 10 percent

Taken to groomer 4 percent

Source: American Pet Products Association

PET Rx

Cats need shots for rabies, too

The risk of contracting rabies from your cat -- or any cat -- is very small, but rabies is so deadly that if your cat were to contract it, he would need to be euthanized, and you might need to have a series of inoculations to save your life.

The seriousness of rabies is why vaccinations are recommended -- and in many places, legally mandated -- for cats as well as dogs.

If your cat tangles with a wild animal but is current on his rabies vaccination, he'll need to be quarantined. If he's not vaccinated, public-health officials may require that he be killed. That's because the only way to tell for certain whether an animal is rabid is to test the tissues of the brain.

Be sure your pet is vaccinated against this deadly, contagious disease -- for his protection, and for yours. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.

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