I love houseplants. I pore over seed catalogs, kick around nurseries, and fill my home with plants of all description. And then I abuse them horribly.
Sometimes I kill them with kindness, other times with neglect. Had I the knack with pets that I have with houseplants, I'd have long ago been jailed for animal abuse. But I mean well, and I'm always trying to do better. The same cannot be said for pets, who sometimes seem to go out of their way to ensure a plant-free home. Cats, in particular, take delight in the many cruelties they can inflict on innocent greens.
Chances are you're better at houseplants than I am, just because it's hard to imagine anyone could be worse. If you've taken the side of your plants against your cat, there are steps you can take to protect your plants and still provide your cat with the greens he loves.
First and foremost, realize you're going to have to sacrifice some plants to save the others: Set aside some space for a cat-friendly plant collection. Give your cat some plants for nibbling, some for sniffing and some for play. For chewing, always keep a pot of tender grass seedlings -- rye, alfalfa and wheat -- growing in a sunny spot. Parsley and thyme are herbs that many cats enjoy smelling and chewing, and both can be grown indoors. Try some different varieties, especially with the parsley.
Catnip is a natural for any cat garden. The stuff is so appealing to some cats they just won't leave it alone. Because of this, keep seedlings out of reach of your pet, or the plant may never get a chance to reach maturity. Once you've got a mature plant, snip off pieces to give your cat, stuff into toys or rub on cat trees. Catnip can't hurt your pet, so let him get as blissed out as he wants. Don't be surprised, however, if catnip has no effect at all: The ability to enjoy the herb is genetic, and many cats do not possess the "catnip gene."
When your cat has his own plants, you can work on keeping him away from the rest. Plants on the ground or on low tables are the easiest targets, so make your houseplants less accessible to the bored and wandering cat. Put plants up high, or better yet -- hang them!
For the plants that you can't move out of harm's way, make them less appealing by coating leaves with something your cat finds disagreeable. Cat-discouragers include Bitter Apple, a nasty-tasting substance available at any pet-supply store, or Tabasco sauce from any grocery store. Whenever you find what your cat doesn't like, keep reapplying it to enforce the point.
Once your cat learns the leaves aren't so tasty, you can teach him that dirt isn't for digging and pots aren't for tipping. Pot your plants in heavy, wide-bottomed containers and cover the soil of the problem plants with rough decorative rock. Foil and waxed paper are less attractive deterrents, and I don't like to recommend them as much as decorative rock because you're going to get tired of looking at that foil.
You can also deter your cat from even approaching pots by using carpet runners around the plants, with the pointy-side up. Commercial products such as the Scat Mat work well, too, giving off a small electric charge (like a carpet shock) to the pet who steps where he shouldn't.
Whatever tool or combination of tools you choose, remember that the most important ones are patience and compromise. Give your cat the greens he wants and make the rest less attractive to him, and a lush indoor garden will one day be yours for both you and your pet to enjoy.
PETS ON THE WEB
Cornell University has put a list of poisonous plants on the Internet at www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/plants.html. Another veterinary-school toxic plants listing is the University of Pennsylvania's, at http://cal.vet.upenn.edu/poison/index.html. The ASPCA National Animal Poison Control Center, offers its "Household Plant Reference" in book form for $15, including shipping and handling. To get a copy, write to ASPCA National Animal Poison Control Center, 1717 S. Philo Road, Suite No. 36, Urbana, IL 61802. Although you won't find a list of plants there, you can find out more about the organization at its Web site, www.napcc.aspca.org.
This is the time of year when that old saw gets trotted out warning people with pets to avoid poinsettias. In fact, poinsettias are not the toxic menace they're purported to be, and you can safely decorate your home with them. What if your pet munches down a few leaves? The worse that could happen might be a tummy ache, followed by vomiting. Not pleasant, to be sure, but hardly worth flying in a panic to see the emergency vet.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I'm thinking about teaching my golden retriever to pull a sled with kids on it. Is this good or bad for this breed? How do I train him to pull a sled and steer it correctly? -- M.G., via e-mail
A: Hauling goods is work that has traditionally been shared by members of both the equine and canine families. Many dog breeds such as the Alaskan malamute and Bernese mountain dog were developed specifically to work pulling sleds or carts for human masters.
Although most dogs no longer must work for a living, traditional drafting skills are still in use in sports such as sled-dog racing, skijoring (cross-country skiing with a dog) and carting. All kinds of dogs and mixes have taken to harness, including retrievers such as yours, setters and even standard poodles.
Your golden will likely enjoy pulling a sled, but please make sure he's healthy before starting any training -- check with your veterinarian. And don't get started until you have the proper equipment, also for your dog's protection.
You'll need a harness designed for draft work, properly fitted and padded. Harnesses sold for dog-walking aren't designed for pulling, nor are collars. If you can't find sled-dog supplies in your area, you'll need to order from a specialty retailer, such as Free Spirit Outfitter (12324 Little Pine Road SW, Brainerd, MN 56401; 800-355-5575; www.gearfordogs.com).
If your dog walks well on leash, you can start right in with the draft training. If he doesn't, you'll need some basic leash training before putting him in harness. Although some dogs are trained to follow steering commands ("gee" for "right," "haw" for left and so on), I'd recommend handling the direction of the sled yourself, keeping your dog on leash and walking along beside him. That way you can be sure he doesn't get out of control or overexert himself.
Before you load on the kids, get your dog used to the idea of pulling with an empty sled. Encourage him forward and praise him for his efforts. Keep things positive, and your dog should come to enjoy his special job.
Q: We recently took in a stray cat and have been giving her milk. We were just told by a neighbor that milk is bad for cats, and that surprised us. We thought cats need milk. Who's right? - C.B., via e-mail
A: Cats have been drinking cow's milk since the first day one sneaked into a barn. They like it, that's for sure. But do they need cow's milk? Not at all.
Mother's milk -- from their own cat mother -- is the perfect food for kittens. And while they're little, they get everything they need from it, including important antibodies. After the age of 12 weeks or so, however, a few cats lose the ability to digest the lactose in the milk. For those cats, milk isn't recommended and can cause loose stools. Others are fine drinking milk, but it doesn't provide any nutrition a cat couldn't get elsewhere.
In the wild, kittens never drink milk again after they're weaned, and your cat has no reason to, either. If your cat likes and can tolerate milk, however, feel free to offer it as an occasional treat. But remember that it's never a substitute for a properly balanced commercial diet or for fresh water.
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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