DEAR DR. FOX: More fur could fly! Unmentioned thus far in your column regarding feral cats is the well-meaning but poorly advised habit some residents have of leaving cat food outside in bowls. Cats are not the only critters attracted to cat food. Raccoons, coyotes and rodents like rats and mice are, too. And these animals are fairly abundant here in western Prince William County, Virginia, and perhaps in your area, too.
A lot of the residents in my neighborhood leave trash, including meat and bones, in thin plastic bags on the curb for the twice-a-week trash pickup, rather than utilizing the solid plastic bins everyone was provided. The homeowners association, strict on many things, has been lax in this regard. When I walk my beagle around the neighborhood, I see many of these trash bags ripped open with bones strewn about, perhaps the work of cats or other wild animals. The bones could cause choking in animals, and they attract flies.
Eventually, the coyotes will catch on that there are free meals from these trash bags and cat food bowls. Once they catch on, it's just a matter of time before small pets and perhaps even toddlers start disappearing, as has happened already in the western United States. Maybe then something will be done. -- D.V., Bristow, Virginia
DEAR D.V.: Yes, it seems that the fur must fly before people wake up and act responsibly on many fronts.
I have addressed the issue of people putting food out for free-roaming cats in earlier columns. It is one of many human activities that, as Dan Flores emphasizes in his excellent book "Coyote America," create ideal conditions for some wild species to proliferate so the war on wildlife will continue.
All garbage should be put in raccoon-proof containers; these masked bandits are the most dexterous of species in opening containers and spreading the contents out for all to share. More than one dog has died from eating the bones out of the garbage, but coyotes, by all accounts, seem to handle such potentially hazardous fare just fine.
Those good-hearted people who put out food for stray cats and end up feeding raccoons, opossums and the occasional coyote -- who will happily make a meal out of a cat -- must realize that their concern for cats amounts to misguided altruism and does more harm than good, as you point out in your letter. Such feeding encourages cats to congregate and multiply. Even neutered "community colonies" of cats pose a serious threat to wildlife and to public health.
Real concern calls for responsible action, and with free-roaming cats, that means humane trapping, neutering and holding in quarantine or group housing in sanctuaries where rehabilitation and socialization can lead to many becoming friendly and adoptable.
DEAR DR. FOX: Several years ago, you gave us excellent advice about our cat's low neutrophil level. We followed your vitamin and food regimen, and Jacky Paper remains an active cat.
I'm writing because Jacky has always had a weird fetish. A friend recently suggested that it could be diet- or vitamin-related, so we're turning to you once again. The cat has an obsessive need to gnaw on plastic, rubber bands, twisty ties, ribbons, bows and any substance that is plastic or rubbery. For example, when we bring home bottles of Gatorade held together by plastic rings, Jacky hears us separating the bottles and comes running into the kitchen, jumps on the counter and tries to bite the plastic. When we throw the rings in the garbage, she claws at the can to try to get at them. It's like she has a cat version of pica.
A few weeks ago, we were awakened at 4 a.m. to the sound of Jacky Paper choking. I jumped up and was horrified to see that she had just vomited up a piece of plastic about 4 inches long by about 1 inch wide. We discovered that we had inadvertently left a plastic bag of oranges in the fruit bowl -- we just forgot to take out the fruit and throw the bag away. Of course, she zeroed in on the bag and chewed it up and swallowed the plastic.
What can we do to curb her plastic fetish? -- B.K., Arlington, Virginia
DEAR B.K.: I always advise close examination of the animal's oral cavity to rule out inflammation or infection that can make some animals want to chew things to help alleviate the discomfort.
The second consideration is possible digestive or inflammatory bowel issues or internal parasites. All of these are possible triggers for pica, or abnormal appetite. But if there is no identifiable physical cause and only specific materials are chosen to consume, I would diagnose addictive behavior triggered by one or more substances.
In the case of plastic materials, extracts of animal fats (stearates) are used as a softener, and some animals may detect the odor or taste and find it irresistible. Some cats like to hoard and chew paper money, which is treated with a finishing coat containing animal fat extract.
Once a cat develops an addiction to these kinds of materials, the only things to do are to keep vigilant and store such items out of the cat's reach. Plastics, including those on food packaging, contain phthalates, which disrupt the endocrine system, along with bisphenol A (BPA), which is still used as a lining in canned foods for human consumption as well as in most cans of pet food. So many chemicals have been put into the environment and into the food chain with limited, if any, knowledge about their safety or concern. A coalition of health-care professionals and scientists have posted a call-to-action statement called Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks) in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
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