Why does the cat who just came in now want to go back out -- and vice versa? Is he just trying to drive you crazy? Of course he is, but there's more to the story.
Cats like to keep an eye on their territory, and if their territory includes a piece of the outdoors, they're going to want to check on it frequently. And after they're out, who's looking after their indoor turf? The cat needs in to check. And check. And check.
And besides, can you honestly say you have better things to do than to serve your cat? Your cat doesn't think so.
If you disagree, then installing a cat door can end your days as door opener. Cat doors aren't just for indoor-outdoor cats, either: Putting one in as a gateway to a screened porch is a great way to give your cat safe access to the smells and sounds of the great (and dangerous) outdoors.
The basic cat door has a flexible plastic flap that opens as your cat pushes on it and seals shut again with gravity -- and sometimes magnets -- to keep the heat, cold and wind out after he's passed through. Although these flaps are fine for warmer climes, they may be a little drafty in areas with more severe winters. More expensive models are available that do a better job at keeping the weather out, so look around. Some folks have also gotten creative in installing the doors. I've known people who've built tunnels with pet doors at both ends to minimize drafts.
If you have problems with neighbor cats coming in, you can find cat doors that work electronically, opening only for those cats wearing a collar with a special battery-operated transmitter -- yours. Stray cats aren't the only animal who can learn to use your cat's door, of course: Raccoons and opossums can too, and so can skunks. The other problem with cat doors is the things your cat can bring through them -- all manner of prey, from small mice to large, angry birds.
The convenience is probably worth it, though. You have a couple of options in installing cat doors. While most people put them in a door, they can also be installed in a wall, and most manufacturers include directions for both. If you have a sliding-glass door, you can buy panels with a pet door built in that fits on the end of the slider.
After you install your cat door, just leave it be for a week or so until your cat takes its presence for granted. (Always remember that cats aren't keen on change.)
To teach your cat to use the door, tape the flap up securely for a few days so that he comes to appreciate the fact that he can conveniently come and go on his own schedule through this magic portal. (And I do mean securely. If your cat gets clobbered by the flap, it takes a long time to coax him near it again.)
Then put the flap down and put a little butter or margarine on the bottom edge of the flap and encourage him with tasty treats and praise from the other side. You can also drag toys on a string through, encouraging him to chase them.
Repeat in very short intervals over the course of several days and your cat will get the hang of it, sure enough. If you have another cat who already knows how to use the cat door, you usually don't need to do anything. Your new cat or kitten will learn from the other cat (or even from your dog, if the pet door is shared).
Once your cat learns, your days of servitude are past. Except for feeding your cat, grooming your cat, petting your cat ...
PETS ON THE WEB
The Westminster Kennel Club dog show is just a dog show the way the Kentucky Derby is just a horse race. Westminster is the only event of its kind with widespread name recognition. Wining there is about as good as it gets for the owners and handlers of the nation's top show dogs -- even despite the most dreadful setup imaginable. If there's a worse place for a dog show than midtown Manhattan in February, it's hard to imagine. The show is Feb. 14 and 15 in Madison Square Garden, but you can get an early preview on the WKC's Web site (www.westminsterkennelclub.org).
Don't play tug-of-war with your dog, especially not if you have one of the more protective breeds or mixes. What seems like an innocent game could be a setup for tragedy, because this is one game that can teach your dog to be dominant. Here's how: You play with your dog, pulling against him in a battle of dominance, however playful in appearance. You get bored or the phone rings, and you drop your end. You think: Game's over. Your dog thinks: I win. It's exactly the opposite message your dog should get, and it may lead to other dominance challenges. A better game is fetch, which gives your dog a good workout and reinforces your role as leader.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: The time is right to add a sheltie to our family. We are trying to be careful with our purchase. At first we went to a pet store that had what I fear are puppy-mill pets. We've also been searching the newspaper classified ads since November with no luck. I've also tried searching the Internet.
There is one breeder who seems responsible that I was told is a "backyard breeder." What's wrong with that? I was also given the names of some breeders expecting pups. No one had any available now.
It's difficult to know what to do and whom to believe. What's a person to do? -- E.D., via e-mail
A: A well-bred, well-socialized Shetland sheepdog is a wonderful dog. I've shared my life with a few, including the only sheltie I have now -- Andy, who is coming up on his 14th birthday, still healthy, smart and loving.
I've had shelties for more than 20 years, and I've volunteered fostering and placing unwanted shelties for a couple of those. The time I spent doing rescue work nearly turned me off the breed entirely. There are a ton of dreadful shelties out there, poorly bred to the point of being crazy, and sick besides. I'm not just picking on shelties, by the way. The same situation holds for any popular breed: goldens, Labs, poodles, Rottweilers and so on. Both casual breeders and puppy mills do their part when it comes to ruining a breed.
The problem with casual "backyard breeders" is that they are usually cheerfully ignorant of the damage they do. They aren't aware of congenital defects (such as hip and eye deformities), so they don't screen for these problems. They aren't aware of the value of careful socialization, so any socialization the pups get is accidental. The puppies are often weaned and placed too early, as well.
As for puppy mills, even if you put aside the significant potential for health and temperament problems with mass-produced puppies, you perpetuate a well-documented system of cruelty when you buy one of these dogs.
Finding a reputable breeder and buying directly from that person is the best way to get a purebred puppy. Reputable breeders plan their matches to improve the breed, screen for health problems and socialize their puppies.
Such breeders can indeed be hard to find. To get the contact for the national breed club, contact the American Kennel Club at either its Web site (www.akc.org), or by phone (919-233-9767). (At the Web site, click on "Buying a Puppy.") Someone there will be able to share with you the names of club members in your area. From there, it's a matter of networking to find a breeder who's planning a litter and to get on the waiting list for one of those puppies.
The decisions you make now will affect your family for years. Take your time!
The best explanation of how to find a good breeder is in the book "Your Purebred Puppy: A Buyer's Guide" by Michele Lowell. (Henry Holt, $14). I also wrote on this topic extensively in my book "Dogs For Dummies" (IDG Books Worldwide, $19.99). I strongly encourage you to find one (or both) of these in your local library so you'll be armed with the information you need.
Q: Charlotte, my scarlet macaw, is crazy for sunflower seeds. I feed her a pellet food sold by our veterinarian, plus lots of fruits and veggies. But she'd kill for sunflower seeds! I've read that they have an addictive substance. Is that true? It isn't hard to believe, knowing how nuts my bird is for them. -- G.K. via e-mail
A: The rumor that sunflower seeds are addictive has been floating around forever. I guess the answer depends on how you define "addictive." If you mean is there a substance in the seeds that alters the body's chemistry (like nicotine or morphine), then the answer is no. There's just no evidence that sunflower seeds can exert that kind of hold on a bird.
But if you mean addiction in the more casual sense -- like my "addiction" to chocolate -- then you're probably on to something. Many birds find sunflower seeds to be the yummiest of treats, but not all do. My Senegal parrot, Patrick, isn't at all interested in sunflower seeds -- but you'd better get out of his way when almonds or safflower seeds are available!
Seeds are fine as a treat, by the way, but should never be the sole diet for a parrot. You've got the right idea: a base diet of high-quality commercial food complemented by a wide array of fruits, vegetables, and healthy "people food" such as pasta, breads, cooked eggs and so 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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