The independent and seemingly self-sufficient nature that many people admire in cats is really a facade masking an animal especially sensitive to illness and vulnerable to tragedy.
Cats need our help to live a healthy, long life, although they wouldn't deign to admit it to us. Some dangers are obvious, such as ignoring routine vaccinations if your cat gets around enough to risk exposure to disease. Other risks are not so obvious, and at least one gets me a flurry of letters and phone calls every time I write about it.
Keeping your cat inside is controversial, and for many it's a difficult decision to make. But consider the number of free-roaming cats killed by cars, as compared to the number of indoor cats who'll meet their end that way. The first number: unknown, but huge. The second is easy: zero.
A danger your cat isn't exposed to at all ceases to be a danger. If you want your cat to have the best chance at a long and healthy life, keep him in.
Even indoor kitties face danger, however, which is why you'll see some of their risks on the following list of "don'ts."
-- Don't make dangerous sleeping nooks available. Cats seek out warmth, as any cat-lover knows. They bask in the sun; they sleep on our chests and in our laps. One friend of mine had a cat who, when he got old, took to sleeping on the heating register (she got him a heated bed instead).
This heat-seeking behavior is dangerous when the warmth a cat seeks is under the hood of a car or in a dryer full of soft, warm clothes.
If your car isn't kept in a securely cat-proof area, such as a garage, get in the habit of pounding on the hood before starting the engine, especially on cold mornings, but even on cool summer ones. This action will skedaddle any cat -- yours or your neighbor's -- who cozied up to the warmth of the engine the night before.
The dryer is a hazard few people recognize before it's too late. And yet it's a more common danger than you think: In my circle of acquaintances alone, three people had cats who died in the dryer.
How does it happen? The cat crawls into the appliance to sleep on the warm clothes and isn't noticed when a family member adds a few more clothes or decides the ones already in there aren't dry enough. The door closes, the dryer turns on. Like a dog in a hot car, this is a horrible way to die.
Prevention is easy: Keep the dryer door closed, and make sure you check inside before turning it on.
-- Don't ignore early signs of illness. Cats can be very good at masking signs of disease until they're so sick their lives are at risk. When you notice a change in behavior, call your vet right away.
Probably the most common of these signs is a change in litter-box habits. I often get calls from people who are frustrated because their pet is suddenly using carpets or the bathtub for a litter box. While environmental changes -- a move, a new pet -- can trigger these problems, they're also caused by urinary tract problems, some of which can be fatal if not addressed.
A veterinary visit that catches a problem early is easier on both your bank account and your pet. So call.
-- Don't give your cat health products not meant for him. Aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol) are toxic to cats in amounts as small as one tablet. Flea-control preparations meant for dogs can likewise put a cat's life at risk, as can products that contain distilled coal tars, such as certain shampoos and disinfectants such as Lysol.
When in doubt about using medications, pesticides or disinfectants, talk to your veterinarian.
It's a short list, perhaps, but every caution is capable of saving countless lives. Look out for your cat. He may seem able to care for himself, but really, he's counting on your help.
PETS ON THE WEB
What do most iguanas do after coming home from the pet shop? The answer, tragically, is die, usually in a very short time. Few buyers leave pet stores with the equipment and information they need to properly house, feed and care for their pets. Some fans of the iguana have named Sept. 11 as National Iguana Awareness Day, with a Web site (www.niad.org) to mark the occasion. But you don't have to wait until then to learn about the proper care of iguanas. The NIAD site has the basics of care covered, along with pages on misinformation and horror stories (some with happy endings) of iguanas who didn't get the care they needed.
One of best things to happen in the dog world in recent years is the growth of the AKC Canine Good Citizen program, which gives formal recognition to dogs of all ages, sizes and backgrounds who prove themselves to be ambassadors of goodwill to those among us who wish dogs would stay home or simply go away.
The certification program was designed to test the dog with everyday challenges a well-mannered dog should handle in good grace. In order to be granted the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) title, the dog must accept the attention and handling of a friendly stranger, sit politely for petting, walk on a loose leash, walk through a crowd, demonstrate an understanding of the commands "sit," "down," "stay" and "come," and behave politely around other dogs, distractions, and when separated briefly from his owner.
Some owners have used this program to prepare their dogs for therapy work in hospitals and nursing homes, and the program is one more tool in helping to keep lodgings, parks and other areas open to canine travelers.
For a free information kit on the Canine Good Citizen program, write to The American Kennel Club, Attention: CGC, 5580 Centerview Drive, Suite 200, Raleigh, NC 27606. Or call (919) 233-9780, or send e-mail to info(at)akc.org.
Q: We just adopted a dog from the pound, and she has started coughing and sneezing. It seems that it is also affecting our other dog. Could this be caused by kennel cough? If so, what is kennel cough and what do we do about it? --C.D., via e-mail
Q: We boarded our dog recently, and he came back with "kennel cough." Is it contagious? My son has asthma and I'm worried. - N.M., via e-mail.
A: Boarding kennels take some heat over kennel cough, an upper-respiratory infection that's as contagious as sniffles in a day-care center. In fact, some kennel operators even find the name a little pejorative, insisting that the ailment be called by its proper name, canine infectious tracheobronchitis, or even bordetella, after its most common causative agent.
And maybe that's fair, because dogs can pick up kennel cough any place they come into contact with a dog who has it -- and that means anywhere. Parks, shelters, boarding kennels, dog shows, the waiting room of your veterinarian's office or the fund-raising dog walk thrown by your local humane society -- these are all possibilities for infection.
Fortunately, the ailment is not usually serious, even though the dry, bellowing cough can sound simply awful. For most dogs, the disease runs its course in a couple of weeks. Others, especially yappy dogs who keep the airways irritated, may develop an infection that requires antibiotics. See your veterinarian for advice. He may recommend nothing more than a cough suppressant and rest.
While it's not completely effective against the disease, a vaccine is available. A boarding kennel should demand proof of it. The rub: It requires two doses a couple of weeks apart, which means you need to call your veterinarian at least three weeks before a kennel stay or trip to a dog-dense area.
Kennel cough cannot be transmitted to humans.
Q: My cockatiel has just laid a pair of eggs. How can I best care for them? -- B.F., via e-mail
A: Unless your bird has a mate, the eggs are infertile and will not hatch. The best thing is to let your bird finish her laying, and then take the eggs away and discard them.
Some birds won't stop laying, and if yours is one of them, see your veterinarian for hormonal help for her. Endless egg-laying can seriously weaken a bird.
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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