This is the time of year when kittens are everywhere, and some cat lovers start to imagine their single cat would like a companion. With visions of frisky, devoted felines dancing in their heads, they bring home a new fuzzy baby.
The cat's response: "For me? No thanks!" And that's the polite version, just before he disappears into the most remote corner of the house in protest.
Introducing cats is a delicate operation, with lots of pitfalls alone the way. Some cats hide under the bed. Some stop using the litter box. Efforts to soothe others may be greeted with a hiss or a growl, or even a swipe with claws bared.
While these are all normal feline reactions to stress, the bad habits cats may develop while coming to terms with something new could become a permanent part of their routine. Which is why, for your cat's sake and your own, you need to remember one word when introducing any change to your cat.
That word? "Slowly."
Introducing a second cat to the household is a time when patience is never more important.
Despite your pet's initial misgivings, adding a companion can be a wonderful idea, especially for an indoor cat. More cats today spend their lives inside, protected from deadly hazards such as cars and contagious diseases. There are trade-offs, though: An outdoor cat's life may be shorter, but it is filled with smells and sounds and other animals. We must make up some of the difference, enriching the lives of our indoor cats.
Cat trees, screened porches, edible indoor greenery and a wide variety of toys are important, but so, too, is a playmate. For pets who spend hours alone while their owners are at work, another cat can fill that lonely time.
If you don't have a cat yet and know you'll eventually want two, it's easiest to adopt two kittens at the same time, preferably from the same litter. Kittens don't have the sense of territory grown cats have and will settle down together into a new home nicely.
But even a solitary adult cat can learn to enjoy living with a companion. Since the worst territorial spats -- complete with urine-marking -- are between cats who aren't spayed or neutered, your chances for peaceful co-existence are many times greater if the cats are both altered before any introductions are planned.
Prepare a room for your new cat, with food and water bowls, and a litter box and scratching post that needn't be shared. (Separate gear may be a temporary arrangement, or it may be lifelong; it all depends on the cats involved.) This separate room will be your new pet's home turf while the two cats get used to each other's existence.
Take your new cat to your veterinarian first, to be checked for parasites such as ear mites and contagious diseases such as feline leukemia. When you're sure your new pet is healthy, the introductions can begin.
Bring the cat home in a carrier and set it in the room you've prepared. Let your resident cat discover the caged animal, and don't be discouraged by initial hisses. Let your resident cat explore, and when the new cat is alone in the room, close the door and let him out of the carrier. If he doesn't want to leave the carrier at first, let him be. Just leave the carrier door open and the cat alone.
Maintain each cat separately for a week or so -- with lots of love and play for both -- and then on a day when you're around to observe, leave the door to the new cat's room open. Don't force them together. Territory negotiations between cats can be drawn-out and delicate, and you must let them work it out on their own, ignoring the hisses and glares.
Eventually you can encourage them both to play with you, using a cat "fishing pole" or a toy on a string. And slowly -- there's that word again -- feed them in ever-closer proximity.
Most cats, but not all, will eventually learn to live together happily. When you see your two sleeping together, playing or grooming each other tenderly, you'll know the effort was worth it.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Labrador retriever is the nation's most popular dog, and with good reason. Versatile, outgoing and easily trained, the Lab is a good choice for almost any living situation. As with any popular breed, though, uncaring or ignorant breeders are busily producing hordes of Labs with health and temperament problems, and if you're thinking about a Lab, you need to know how to avoid these breeders. One great place to start your research is The Labrador Retriever Home Page (www.K9web.com/breeds/l/labrador). The resource is impressively broad, with information on breeders, rescue, health problems, training, competitions and more. Easy to navigate, too, with lots of links.
Since dog trainers enjoy living with well-mannered dogs, it's not surprising that many of them gravitate toward breeds that are easy to train and want to please their owners -- border collies and other herding breeds, Labradors, goldens and other retrievers. When they write books about training (and it seems most of them eventually do, judging by the number of training books out there), they often assume your dog will be as motivated to mind as the ones they're used to training.
But what if your dog simply couldn't care less what you want? What if he's independent, stubborn or both? Betty Fisher and Suzanne Delzio will help you cope with their fine book, "So Your Dog's Not Lassie: Tips for Training Difficult Dogs and Independent Breeds" (Harper Perennial, $15). The pair do a great job of explaining why some breeds are more difficult than others, and their book is easy to follow, easy to understand, and packed with lots of great tips. If your dog gives you a "You talkin' to me?" look when you say "Sit," you need this book.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We just got a new kitten, and she's adorable. But she seems determined to chew on electrical cords. How can I get her to stop? -- D.G., via e-mail
A: Bundle up the extra cord, tuck it out of sight, and spray anything that remains within reach of your kitten with something that tastes nasty, such as the commercial chew-stopper Bitter Apple, available at most pet-supply stores. For the tangle of cords connecting your home computer to its printer, monitor, modem or what-have-you, check at your hardware or computer store for cord containers. The one I use looks like the exhaust hose from a clothes dryer, only narrower, with a slit along its length to tuck cords into.
Another cord caution: Be especially careful when using an iron around your kitten. The act of ironing makes the cord dance appealingly, and your kitten may jump on the cord after you've set the iron down -- bringing the appliance crashing down. When you're done ironing, put the cord on top of the board, and remember to put everything promptly away when cool.
Q: Do you think pet groomers should be tipped? -- C.S., via e-mail
A: I most certainly do! Grooming pets is hard work under the best of circumstances -- lots of lifting, lots of heat and dampness, and constant exposure to scented and pesticide-laced products. And that's just for starters. Groomers also deal with unmannered and too often badly matted pets, and occasionally get a bite for their trouble.
A good groomer is worth her weight in gold. Not only will she keep your pet's coat in good shape, but she'll also notice and point out lumps, bumps, weight gain or loss, parasite problems and more.
Typical tipping range: 10 percent to 20 percent. I tip 25 percent on Sheltie Andy's monthly wash-and-dry, and think it's a bargain. (The two retrievers I do myself.)
Q: I have a 9-month-old Boston terrier. I want to have her spayed, but I've been told to let her have a litter of puppies first. I was told that this will help to calm her down. Is that true? -- D.F., via e-mail
A: Absolutely not. Spay her as soon as possible to get the most health benefits from the procedure. By spaying, you protect her from some cancers and from the possibility of life-threatening infections. And you'll be keeping puppies from coming into a world where there are already too many -- and that includes purebreds.
The "one litter first" idea is another of those old myths that never seem to go away. The benefits of spaying (and neutering, of course) speak for themselves. Call your veterinarian today.
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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