We ask a lot of cats when we bring them into our homes. In fact, it says a lot about the love between our kind and their kind that most owner-pet situations work as well as they do, and how mutual affection and understanding can counteract a cat's own natural instincts.
We ask our cats to relieve themselves where we want them to instead of anywhere in their territory, as they would prefer. We ask them to scratch in one place instead of marking every surface, as would be natural for them. We ask them to ignore their ability to jump gracefully onto tables and countertops and to adjust their naturally nocturnal schedule to our daytime ones.
Most cats make the compromises. If yours hasn't, you need to figure out why before any effort to change your cat can begin.
The first step in resolving any behavioral problem is working with your veterinarian to make sure it's not a health problem. All the training techniques in the world won't fix a medical problem. You'll need your veterinarian's help for that.
Cats are so good at hiding illness, it's no surprise how often we misinterpret the signs they do give us. A cat with untreated diabetes, for example, must drink and urinate frequently, so much that he may not be interested in using the litter box. Another common problem: urinary-tract infections. Your cat may find urinating painful and come to associate the pain with his litter box. Are you really surprised he's going to stop using it? And what about biting? The cat who suddenly starts biting may be in pain, lashing out in self-defense. Whatever the problem, it must be treated for you to have a chance at correcting the behavior.
Remember, too, that even healthy cats can become unhinged by stress and may react by altering their behavior in an attempt to cope. Some cats mark territory when their home is "invaded" by a new pet or person. In a cat's mind, this behavior makes sense: Making the world smell like himself is comforting to him (though not to you). You need to relax your cat's stress in other ways, by limiting his territory to a single room, for example, or by putting him on calming medication your veterinarian can provide.
If it's not stress or illness, you need to look at your own role in any behavior problem. Are you asking something of your cat that's not possible for him to give? Your cat may not want to use the litter box if it's rarely cleaned, for example, and asking him to leave the couch alone is not fair if he has nothing else in the house to scratch. You need to provide him with some alternatives before you can hope for good behavior.
Do you provide your cat with enough exercise and entertainment? You've asked your cat to give up the whole world, and all you're offering in return is a few hours of your presence a day and maybe a catnip mouse? More toys! More play!
You must also consider that maybe your cat never knew the house rules to begin with. If all you've ever done in the way of training is to scream at or hit your cat, you're probably not teaching him anything except that you're someone to avoid. Physical correction has no place in changing a cat's behavior; cats just don't understand it. And using such correction just stresses them out, leading to even more problems.
Look at what's been going on in your life. How has your cat reacted to the situation, and how have you? Keep a journal of problems to help you spot and understand trends and to remove some of the emotion involved in living with a problem pet. Realizing that your cat's behavior isn't spiteful or capricious can make the problem easier for you to live with while you work on turning the situation around.
Before you give up on your pet, ask your veterinarian about a referral to a behaviorist. A consultation with an expert can provide you with a plan for fixing the problem -- and at a much more reasonable cost than replacing carpeting or a sofa.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Rottweiler has become one of the most popular breeds recently, and that's a shame. While the Rottie can be a good dog, it's not a good dog for everyone. As always when popularity strikes a breed, the dogs suffer. Poorly bred and undersocialized dogs end up with health and temperament problems, and too many end up in the shelters. If you are thinking about becoming a Rottweiler owner, slow down and do some research.
A great place to start is the Blackdogz Web site (www.blackdogz.com/buyarott.html), with its list of reasons not to bring a Rottie into your home. Serious food for thought!
The American Rottweiler Club's home page (www.amrottclub.org) also stresses caution, and has great information about the breed as well as a classic piece on dealing with dominant dogs by the late dog-trainer and author Job Michael Evans.
Finally, consider taking in a rescued Rottie. The "Rottweilers With Special Needs" Web site (www.geocities.com/Petsburgh/7568) is a great place to jump onto the Rottie Rescue Ring, a collection of Web sites designed to find new homes for second-chance dogs.
Ever wonder how the pros get those adorable pictures of dogs and cats nuzzling for ads and commercials? It's easy to get your pet to kiss your kid for a picture. The trick: a dab of butter or margarine in just the right spot. You can't see it, but your pet can smell it and won't be able to wait to lick it off your child's cheek. Another trick: To get your dog's attention for a picture, rattle keys or squish a squeaky toy. If you're looking for that super-alert look, throw the toy in the direction you want your dog to look. That's what dog-show photographers do.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I've been watching the occasional dog show on cable TV, and I have a dumb question. What's up with the judge groping the dogs? It seems sort of personal to me. -- S.W., via the Internet
A: Judges have to put their hands on the dogs to assess their structure and make sure all the pieces are where they ought to be. The alignment of the teeth, for example, differs from breed to breed -- the undershot jaw of a boxer doesn't go with a collie.
With longer-haired dogs, the grooming can be so skillful that a judge could be fooled into thinking a dog is put together better than he is. That's why in addition to a hands-on examination the judges have the handlers "gait," or move, the dogs around the ring.
As for the most personal of examinations, there's a reason for that, too. Dog shows are supposed to be about evaluating breeding stock, so the judge has to make sure both testicles are evident in male dogs. Anything less is a disqualification.
Q: After several months without a dog companion, I have decided to get another dog. I have researched several breeds and have decided that I could handle the border collie (not because of their current popularity, but because of their intelligence and activity level).
I have been pondering getting two border collies so they will have daytime company. Would you suggest getting two from the same litter or different litters? Both of them will be females, and I intend on having them spayed when they are old enough. Would one be a better choice? -- J.W., via the Internet
A: It's hard enough to raise and train one puppy well, and nearly impossible to handle two. The best choice would be to raise one puppy to adulthood, and then get the second puppy and raise her.
Since you are aware of the border collie's super intelligence, energy and intensity, I won't spend too much time warning you that even one is more than most people can handle. Do keep in mind, though, that they need training to keep their minds engaged and lots of aerobic exercise (daily is best). A bored border collie will find ways to keep herself amused, and you might not like the choices she makes.
You may well enjoy getting involved in a sport such as flyball or agility with your border collies. They excel at these sports, and the fast pace suits their type A personalities well.
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(at)aol.com.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600