Not long ago, I wrote about how to pick a puppy and promptly got a lot of mail from people wanting to know about selecting a kitten. "Hey! What about kittens, you dope!" wrote one reader, tactfully.
Only so much can fit in any single column, I must say in my own defense. But only a dope would pass up the opportunity to write about kittens, especially now, when shelters are bursting with kittens who need homes. (Adult cats, too. And in some ways, they're a better choice than kittens.)
Yes, you can personality-test kittens, and it's great fun! Checking out kittens involves playing with them, and that's something you can never spend enough time doing.
Before you head for the shelter, block out a big chunk of time and put on some comfortable clothes you don't mind getting dirty. Put some kitten-testing toys in your pocket. A feather is ideal, but you can also use a pingpong ball, a cloth mouse or even a piece of string. (The string must leave when you do, though, since it's not suitable for unsupervised play.)
When you're at the shelter, take a deep breath and try not to be overwhelmed by so many adorable fuzzy faces. Try to look beyond such things as a beautiful long coat or that cute little Groucho mustache or those smart tuxedo markings. Sure, you ought to like the looks of your cat, but the personality is just as important.
Generally it's best to remove overly shy kittens from consideration, as well as those who spit and hiss at your approach or who stiffen or panic in your hands. From the friendlier kittens, choose one to play with first. Lift her out with a reassuring but gentle grip under her belly, and set her down in a secure observation area.
Let her explore her new environment a little while you settle onto the floor, and then, when she's satisfied with her surroundings, chirp at her and tease her with the feather or other 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. If yours shows it, she's passed the feather test.
The kitten you want should be neither too shy nor too assertive and active. You're looking for a baby who's comfortable being held, who enjoys your petting and your soothing voice. One who wants nothing but to wriggle free and keep playing -- even if not doing so out of fear -- may grow up into a cat who is too active for you.
Spend a few moments of quiet time with each of your contenders and see how they react to you as an individual and vice versa. Let your heart weigh in a little here, and be receptive to the idea that one of these little fluffballs may be the one who's meant for you.
Play with as many kittens as you can and enjoy the time with each one. If you rush things and take the first kitten you see, the kitten who would have been a better match for you may never find a home. If you take your time, the animal you take home will be friendly and well-socialized, with an activity level you can live with, a cat who appeals to your aesthetic sense of what feline beauty is all about.
If you find that too many meet all your criteria, consider adopting two. Once the hissy-fit stage is past, cats enjoy the companionship of others of their own kind. You'll enjoy doubling your feline companionship, too!
PETS ON THE WEB
The School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, has put the newsletter of its Center for Companion Animal Health online (www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/CCAH/update). The recent issue includes articles on cancer and vaccine recommendations for dogs and cats. Past issues include reports on diabetes and on homemade diets. The site's a little on the pitchy side -- yes, donations to the school are a good thing -- but the information more than makes up for the subtle begging.
Indoor cats can be trained to enjoy an outdoor outing on leash, and for this treat, you need a harness. (Because cat collars are made to enable cats to slip out of them, don't use a collar with a leash.) Choose a harness designed for cats, not for dogs, in a figure-eight design. As collars do, harnesses come in many colors, with lightweight leashes to match.
Don't expect your cat to heel like a dog, however. Walking a cat consists of encouraging your pet to explore, with you following, offering plenty of praise and maybe a treat or two. Never leave your cat tethered and unattended. This leaves him vulnerable to attack or to a terrifying time of hanging suspended from his harness should he try to get over a fence.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I don't understand why my dog chews things when I'm gone. He knows it's wrong, and I know so because he acts guilty when I come home. Why doesn't he stop it? - D.F., via e-mail
A: Dogs don't know guilt; they don't know a behavior is bad until you teach them so; and they don't know how to be spiteful. They're just being dogs. They live in the now, and revenge is not in their gene pool. Barking, chewing and digging are natural, normal behaviors, part of every dog's DNA.
Dog don't chew because they're mad at you for leaving them; they chew because they're stressed about being alone. Chewing fills the time and makes them feel better.
Look at the situation through his eyes. Your person comes home, and you're trotting happily down the hall to meet him when you hear ... swearing. You pause, uncertain. Then ... yelling, and you hear your name in the middle of that diatribe. And you realize: He's mad at me! Why, you have no idea. You've long forgotten the chewing you did. But you're scared, and you're fairly certain that the most prudent plan of action would be to take off.
When he finds you, he's so angry it scares you, so you do your best to appease him, dog style. You roll over and show your belly, or maybe you release a little urine. Another dog would see both as efforts to say: "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I don't know what's making you angry, but I apologize anyway." But instead ... more yelling and maybe a smack.
Get the point? A display like this one doesn't teach your dog anything except that you're an unpredictable lunatic. And that doesn't get you any closer to solving a behavior problem.
Stop! Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist who can help you work through the rough spots with your pet. Engaging the services of a professional is far cheaper in the long run than replacing furniture, carpets or landscaping, and it may save both your sanity and your dog's life.
Q: I am a home-care nurse with a client who allows her birds to walk, fly and "drop" all over her home and 6-week-old baby. My main concern is if there is any danger to the baby from the bird feces. I have not been able to find any printed information on the subject to give to the mother and would appreciate any direction you can offer. -- A.H., via e-mail
A: Yes, there is a possibility of disease from the situation you describe. All companion animals have the ability to share some diseases with their human caretakers. The illnesses are called "zoonotic" and range from parasites to salmonella to rabies. Children are at the biggest risk, along with people with compromised immune systems. But there's no doubt that even healthy adults can become seriously ill or even die from some animal-related diseases if they're not caught in time.
Basic common sense will take care of most of the risk -- and your client isn't showing a whole lot of it. All pets and their environments should be kept clean and free of parasites, and they should be vaccinated against diseases as recommended by a veterinarian. Pets, especially birds and reptiles, should not be allowed on counters and other food-preparation areas, and hand-washing should become part of the routine after handling pets.
Your client must keep bird droppings away from her baby, and she needs to learn about safe husbandry for the good of all concerned. Suggest that she talk to an avian veterinarian for guidance.
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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