These days I'm hearing from a lot of people wanting to know about feline pregnancy. How long does it last? (On average, 66 days.) Do I need to help my pregnant cat with delivery? (Yes, usually by leaving her alone.) How do I know if she's close to delivering? (Watch for enlarged nipples and the secretion of a tiny amount of milk.)
What strikes me about these letters is that too many cats are having babies, youngsters who'll be vying against other kittens later for homes that aren't nearly numerous enough. The cats these people are writing about are having kittens who are in many cases destined to never see their first birthday.
The answer? Spaying and neutering, of course.
According to a 1995 survey by the American Animal Association Hospital, nearly 80 percent of the cats and dogs in the United States and Canada are spayed or neutered. What do these people know that you don't? Here are a few facts to consider:
-- A neutered tomcat is less likely to roam, less likely to fight (and less likely to cost you money to patch him up), and less likely to spray urine to mark his territory. He's more likely to live longer, because the cat who's looking for a mate is really looking for trouble. If a car doesn't get him, infectious disease (spread by fighting or mating) or cancer may.
-- A spayed female is a more attentive and loving pet, because her energy isn't constantly directed toward finding a mate. (Cats are in heat nearly all the time until they become pregnant.) If you spay your cat, you protect her from some cancers and infections and from sexually transmitted infectious diseases.
"Spaying" and "neutering" are the everyday terms for the surgical sterilization of a pet. Neutering -- or altering -- is also used to describe both procedures. The technical terms for the two operations are "ovariohysterectomy," for the female, and "castration," for the male - which pretty much explains why "spaying" and "neutering" are the preferred terms.
Although the procedures are among the most common, a lot of people don't understand what's involved. Spaying is the removal of the female's entire reproductive system: The uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries are taken out through an incision in the abdomen. Some veterinarians use stitches that have to be removed in about 10 days' time, while others use those that are absorbed into the body. Recovery is fast, taking just a few days, during which you should limit your cat's activities -- no jumping or boisterous play.
In neutering, the cat's testicles are removed through incisions in the scrotum, the pouch holding the testicles. These incisions are generally left unstitched in this relatively minor procedure. Post-operative care normally involves keeping the incisions clean and dry. Some veterinarians recommend keeping the cat inside (if he is not already an indoor pet) and using shredded newspaper in place of litter until the incisions close, which usually happens within three to five days.
Most of the people who write me about pregnant cats are dealing with "oops" litters, the result of not getting their cat to the veterinarian in time. I sure hope they'll be calling to schedule an appointment for neutering as soon as those babies are weaned.
If your cat is an accident waiting to happen, don't delay. The arguments are solid in favor of altering your pet, and you need go no farther than your local shelter to find them.
PETS ON THE WEB
Medical science in recent years has come around to agreeing that pets are good for people. The world-renowned Mayo Clinic has even devoted a section of its Web site to a collection of articles (www.mayohealth.org/mayo/9906/htm.pets.htm) on people and pets. The articles include references to studies showing the positive effects of pets, including a 1995 one from the Journal of Cardiology that found that dog ownership increased the likelihood of surviving a heart attack. Another study reveals that older people who own a dog or a cat are likely to be active and less likely to be depressed than people without an animal companion. The site offers some commonsense advice on living healthily with pets. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it's good to see an organization like the Mayo Clinic confirming what pet lovers have known all along.
The "step-up" command is basic to having a well-behaved pet parrot (a category that includes budgies and cockatiels, as well as their larger relatives such as macaws and cockatoos). Like dogs, birds are social climbers and will take advantage of the human who isn't perceived as leadership material. The bird who understand and reacts properly to "step up" is one who also knows you're in charge. Climbing comes naturally to parrots, and if you've got a well-socialized baby, you should be able to teach him pretty easily. Start with your bird on your hand, or on a T-stand perch. Ask your bird to "step up" and press your finger (for small birds) or hand (for large birds) against his belly, just above the legs. Offer praise and a favorite treat (such as a seed) for complying. A well-trained bird will automatically raise his foot to the command "step up," and that takes practice. Ask your bird to "step up" at least a dozen times a day -- to leave his cage, to be petted, to move from room to room -- and you'll be on your way to having a well-mannered pet.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Would you kindly insert your annual warning about animals being left in cars? I have already seen one small dog in a large car -- admittedly the car was in the shade, but I still feel strongly about this. I must admit I tore off a piece of scrap paper and left a very terse note under the owner's windshield wiper. -- P.L., via e-mail
A: It is indeed remarkable that this warning needs repeating, but every year dogs die in hot cars. Clearly, not everyone is getting the message.
A car functions like a greenhouse, and heat can build up to lethal levels in minutes, even on a pleasant day in the 70s or low 80s. Even with the windows rolled down, a dog can show signs of heat stress -- heavy panting, glazed eyes, rapid pulse, dizziness or vomiting, or a deep red or purple tongue -- in the time it takes to carry a carton of ice cream through the "10 items or less" line. Brain damage and death can follow within minutes. Shade is no guarantee of safety; cars left in the shade can be in the sun in as little as an hour.
Many animal-welfare groups have preprinted warning fliers ready to slip under a windshield wiper. You might want to pick up a few to keep in your glove box, along with the number to call if you see a dog who's in trouble. Your local shelter or humane association should be able to give you that information in advance, so you'll have it when you need it.
Q: My cat is 7 years old. We are moving to a new house. When we let the cat out in the back yard, will she find her way back or do we have to introduce her to the surroundings? What should we do? -- C.M., via e-mail
A: Your cat needs a couple of weeks indoors to settle into a new routine, to become familiar with the house and use her scratching post and litter box normally again. Don't rush her. Be observant of the signs that your cat is becoming less tentative and more confident in her explorations of your new home, and above all, don't allow her outside until she's comfortable with the inside of your house.
After your cat settles down inside the house, you can start taking her out on a harness and leash and follow her around as she becomes familiar with the new area. Coax her back in by using praise and treats -- let her walk in, if you can, instead of carrying her -- and follow each outing with special play or petting time, so she develops a positive association with your new house and is more likely to recognize it as home.
When is the right time to just let her come and go as she pleases? To be honest, it's always a gamble. Do your best to give your cat all the time she needs to settle in and then let her explore the outside for another week or more under your supervision. In the end, however, if you insist on letting your cat outdoors, you just must chance it and hope for the best. If you've taken the time your cat needs to adjust, she's probably going to stick around.
Remember, though, that cats do live longer, healthier lives indoors. There's no better time to convert an indoor-outdoor cat to one who's strictly indoors than when you move to a new home. The territory your cat hasn't explored she won't miss, so if you keep her inside from the get-go, she should adapt pretty quickly.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is 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 WriteToGina(at)YourPetPlace.com.
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