Here's a rule to remember when it comes to dealing with feline aggression: Never, ever hit your cat.
While it may make you feel better -- at least in the short run -- a smack won't help you change a cat who appears to delight in sinking teeth and claws into you at seemingly unpredictable moments.
Fear and pain can cause a cat to lash out. The best way to deal with a scared cat is to let him be, while a sick cat surely needs a veterinarian. But most times what we see as "meanness" in a cat is just part of being a cat. You can change this behavior, but only if you understand what's behind it and react properly. Here's what makes cats go crazy and how to correct the problem.
-- Overstimulation. You're petting your cat and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Not a full-powered attack, but you've still got those sharp tips around your hand. What to do? In the short run, freeze. Don't struggle or fight back, or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes smacking your other hand hard against a hard surface -- a table top, for example -- may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he will usually calm down and release you.
That's the solution if you've gotten to the attack stage. The better option is to be familiar with your cat and his body language and stop petting before he becomes overstimulated. Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but the fact is that they missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, it's time to stop petting, or to switch to an area that's more relaxing. Belly rubs are fine for dogs, but not for cats. Instead of petting your cat's sensitive tummy, rub behind his ears or at the base of the tail.
-- Play aggression. Sure, it hurts all the same, but the cat who pounces on your feet and then careens off the wall isn't trying to claw you -- he's playing. Instead of punishing your cat, redirect his energy. Increase your play sessions with your cat with an appropriate toy, such as a cat fishing pole or toy on a string, to help your cat burn off his excess energy before you try for a quiet petting session.
No matter what, never let your cat view you as a plaything, not even when he's an adorable kitten. Wrestling bare-handed with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you're setting up a bad precedent. A stuffed sock is a great substitute for a human hand when it comes to playthings -- let your cat bite, claw and bunny-kick to his heart's content.
What if he persists in seeing you as a plaything? As with the overstimulated cat, stop the behavior by freezing. Don't give him a reason to continue the attack. You can also inform him that attacks on you are not permitted by letting him have it with a shot from a spray bottle. A nice theatrical scream helps, too, unless you have neighbors close enough to hear you and call the cops.
-- Redirected aggression. Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living-room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you. What gives? You were just the victim of redirected aggression.
This one's tough to fix. Try to discourage strange cats in your yard. Thump on the window, or put an air horn out the door and give them a blast. And again, be aware of your cat's body language. A cat who's looking for trouble is one who's best avoided.
With all feline aggression, the trick is to eliminate the triggers and work on your cat's tolerance levels. If you're patient and consistent, your cat will improve over time.
If you give in to temptation and smack your pet, though, you'll end up with a pet who's even more aggressive, or who's terrified of you. Either outcome makes it well worth the effort to stick to a nonviolent approach.
PETS ON THE WEB
It's not pretty, but Kyler Laird's collection of animal-rescue resources (www.ecn.purdue.edu/(tilde)laird/animal_rescue) may be just the Web site you need if you're looking to adopt a pet. The site is nothing but links -- and lots of them -- to shelters and to various small rescue organizations. Constantly growing and frequently checked (although I did find a couple of outdated links), Laird's collection is a great place to start if you're looking to adopt a particular kind of pet (such as a ferret or rabbit) or specific breed of dog or cat. Another of his creations, Purdue Dogs (www.ecn.purdue.edu/(tilde)laird/dogs) is also worth a look, especially for his comprehensive list of canine terms.
Cats get into -- and onto -- everything, which can make decorating your home a challenge, especially if you're fond of delicate collectibles. Although it's best to put your most fragile and valuable items in hutches or glass-fronted bookcases, you can get a degree of security for the rest with a product called Quake Hold, a putty that seals objects to shelves and counters. Quake Hold should be available at your home center or hardware store. If it's not, though, you can pick up some double-sided tape or Velcro for another way to keep your cats from knocking over your goodies.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I got a cat for the first time, and I was wondering: What does it mean when a cat purrs? -- A.S., via e-mail.
A: Purring is one of the more special elements of a cat, as far as most humans are concerned. Caressing a purring pet is proven to relax the one doing the stroking -- and lower the blood pressure, too. A purring cat or kitten is sure to bring a smile to the face of any human, young or old, and cats have made a real difference in the lives of those in nursing homes or other institutional settings.
But careful observers of cats know that purring isn't just a sound of contentment. Cats also purr if they're injured, while giving birth -- even when dying. British zoologist Desmond Morris has observed in his masterwork, "Catworld: A Feline Encyclopedia" (Penguin Reference), that purring is "a sign of friendship -- either when (the cat) is contented with a friend, or when it is in need of friendship ... as with a cat in trouble."
Although the experts are pretty clear on why cats purr, they're not yet certain as to how. The most common explanation has the sweet sound originating in the voice box, with what are called the vestibular folds, or false vocal cords. The passing of air across these structures is thought to produce the purr all cat lovers adore.
Q: You mentioned in your recent column that when grooming a double-coated dog during shedding season, you get enough fluff to make another dog. Anyhow, don't throw that fluff away! Hand-spinners have discovered that this stuff (dubbed "chiengora") makes wonderfully soft and amazingly warm yarn. And yes, the doggy smell washes right out. -- Anne Weber, via e-mail
A: Thanks for your note. Yes, it's indeed possible to make sweaters from what your dog sheds, especially if yours is a long-haired, double-coated dog such as a collie or Samoyed.
If you want to try to make clothes from dog wool, there's even a book that will walk you through the process. Kendall Crolius and Anne Black Montgomery put it all together in their book "Knitting With Dog Hair: Better a Sweater From a Dog You Know and Love Than From a Sheep You'll Never Meet" (St. Martin's Press, $10.95, and whew, what a title!). One reviewer on Amazon.com noted a wonderful side benefit to using your dog's hair for sweaters -- as a discipline tool: "You be quiet now, or I'll make a sweater out of you."
If you'd like to try the knitting without the spinning, check out the classifieds of Dog Fancy or Dog World magazine. Hand-spinners will sometimes advertise in such publications and will turn your dog's fur into yarn for a fee. You can also contact local craft stores to get the names of hand-spinners in your area, or do a Web search for "hand-spinning." "Knitting With Dog Hair" also offers tips to finding artisans who can help you at every step, even if all you want is a finished product.
Some folks probably would find the idea of wearing a dog-hair sweater or scarf appalling. But I rather like it. When I think of all the grocery bags full of hair I've combed out of the Shelties over the years, I'm really sorry I missed the opportunity to have a scarf or something to remember some really great dogs who've passed on.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also 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)spadafori.com.
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