If you've been thinking about adding a kitten to your household, this is the time to do it. From now until the early fall, it's kitten season at the shelters. While the situation is sad proof that education about spaying and neutering still has a long way to go, it does mean you're sure to find the perfect kitten -- and save a life in the bargain.
What is a "perfect kitten"? You'll do best with one that is friendly and well-socialized, has an activity level you can live with, and appeals to your aesthetic sense of what feline beauty is all about. You're looking for a baby bursting with good health and playfulness -- bright eyes, clear nose, clean ears and fanny, glossy coat -- that isn't afraid of people and, better yet, considers them the source of all good things.
Checking out kittens is really about playing with them, and that's something you can never have enough of. Here are a few things to remember while you're playing:
-- Concentrate on the kitten as an individual. All kittens are adorable, so try to look beyond such things as color or markings. Sure, you ought to like the looks of your cat, but the personality is just as important.
-- Don't hurry. Test as many kittens as you like and enjoy the time with each one. If you rush things and take the first kitten you see, the kitten who might have been a better match for you may never find a home. An impulse adoption is never a good idea.
Start your testing by picking up the kitten carefully, with a reassuring but gentle grip under her belly, and setting her down in a safe area away from the others.
Let her explore her new environment a little while as you settle onto the floor and see how she reacts to you. She should be interested and inquisitive and not too timid. Chirp at her and tease her with a leaf, feather or cat toy. She should pursue it eagerly, batting at it and pouncing as she goes, and sitting up on her haunches to swat at it as you tease it overhead. This is all normal behavior for a healthy, outgoing kitten.
Try to spend some quiet time, too. The kitten you want should be neither too shy nor too assertive and active. She should be comfortable being held, enjoying your stroking and soothing voice. One who constantly struggles to wriggle free and keep playing -- even if not doing so out of fear -- may grow up into a cat that is too active for you.
A practical approach is good when narrowing down the field. Don't spend too much time considering frightened kittens or the wild ones who spit and hiss in terror at your approach. While it is true that patience, kindness and love have turned around many a problem kitty, be sure you're up to the challenge before taking on one of these babies.
Once you have your contenders, it's time to listen to your heart and that little "click" that's the beginning of a special bond between you. If you're finding it impossible to settle on one kitten, consider taking two. Kittens do well in pairs, especially in households where they're left alone for long periods.
Adopting a kitten is a joyous occasion, but remember the ones you leave behind. Since you can't take them all, do what you can to help: Get your new baby (or babies) spayed or neutered at the earliest opportunity.
PETS ON THE WEB
All cats are beautiful, and if there's one organization that surely agrees with that statement wholeheartedly, it's the Happy Household Pet Cat Club. The group is dedicated to encouraging the proper care of all cats, promoting spaying and neutering, and making a place in the show world for cats of unknown parentage. The organization's Web site (www.best.com/(tilde)slewis/HHPCC/home.shtml) spells out these goals and offers detailed help for the person who's thinking about showing a cat -- how to enter, how to groom, what to do when you get there, and so on. The page also contains a list of top show winners and gives a special honor to rescued cats.
This is the time of year when many people pack up the family -- dog included, of course! -- and take a road trip. One of the best things you can do to ensure a disaster-free vacation where your pet is concerned is to make sure collars and tags are in good order.
Your dog should be wearing a sturdy collar with a license and an up-to-date ID tag that has at least one number, area code included, that's not yours -- someone who'll be there to answer the phone should you lose your dog miles from home. Ideally, your pet should also be equipped with an imbedded microchip for an unshakable, permanent ID.
One of the best travel tips I ever got came from a co-worker who logs lots of miles with her dog. She got me started using paper key tags for disposable IDs. You can buy a huge bag of them at any hardware store for not a lot of money and throw a couple dozen in a plastic bag in your glove box. Every time you change location on a vacation, write the day's information on the tag, for example: Pretty Tree Campsite No. 15, or Sea Dog Inn, Room 32, 123-555-DOGS.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have a purebred golden retriever who's six months old and hasn't come into heat yet. Shouldn't that have happened by now? How long will she be in season? -- D.B. via the Internet
A. Females dogs reach sexual maturity at different times, with smaller breeds generally attaining it more quickly than larger ones. A dog's first heat can occur anytime from about six months to 24 months, although most dogs will come into season for the first time within their first year of life.
After they start, females come into heat for 21 to 30 days every five to seven months. The period starts at the first sign of bleeding and ends when she loses all interest in breeding. Females become interested in breeding about a week after the season begins, and some of them become so keen on it they'll try to mate with neutered dogs or escape to find suitors. You have to watch your dog very carefully.
Females are most fertile when they begin "flagging," flipping their tails up and out of the way in response to any touch on the rump.
If you're waiting until after her first season to spay her, don't. Forget that old myth that spaying shouldn't be done until after the first season, or worse, after the first litter. Aside from doing your part to prevent unwanted pets, spaying before the first season can eliminate the risk of some cancers and greatly reduce the possibility of others. Spaying and neutering can now be safely performed on dogs and cats as young as 8 weeks.
Q. We live in skunk country, and my dog doesn't seem to have the good sense to let them be. I know it's just a matter of time before he gets sprayed, and I want to be ready. What's the best way to get out skunk smell? -- S.D. via the Internet
A. Even more important if you live in an area where wild animals are plentiful is to make sure all your animals are kept current on their rabies vaccinations -- for your safety, as well as theirs.
As for the smell, the old standby, tomato juice, works well, as does white vinegar. (Following the same principal, vinegar and water douches also work, but you might be too embarrassed to buy them in bulk.) Commercial preparations are available in most pet-supply stores, and these work best of all. Saturate your pet with whatever you use, let it sit for a few minutes, and then follow with a regular soap-and-water bath. That should get rid of the worst of it, but your pet will still smell a bit for quite a while.
If, while working with your pet, you find evidence that the skunk may also have bitten him, stop and call your local public health office immediately. Your dog may need to be quarantined. If that seems drastic, remember that once it takes hold, rabies is a fatal disease. Don't take any chances.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina@aol.com.
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