In the go-go world of two-income families, the popularity of cats is no surprise. These easygoing pets have a real advantage over dogs as a pet for busy households. They don't need as much in the way of training or exercise, and they're happy to spend lots of time alone. Cats also offer the same advantages as dogs when it comes to the nonjudgmental love, listening and acceptance that experts agree is so important for growing children.
Children and cats are natural together, but you need to lay some ground rules for the safety of both from the moment your new pet comes home. Kittens can be injured by the loving attention of children, especially young ones. And with more than 600,000 cat bites reported every year in the United States, you can clearly see that some cats give as good as they get.
The key to keeping children and cats together safely is to make sure that their interactions are supervised and to teach children how to handle and respect cats.
Let's start with the youngest. Under no circumstances should a cat (or any pet) be left unsupervised with an infant. That doesn't mean, however, that you should listen to the advice of well-meaning friends and relatives and find a new home for your feline baby.
Your cat will not "suck the life" out of your infant -- that's an old wive's tale, with no basis in fact. Still, keeping your cat away from your baby while you're not present is just good common sense. One veterinarian I know even went so far as to put a screen door on the room to the nursery and, honestly, this precaution isn't a bad idea. Her children are older now, and they all love their cats.
The children that cats could probably do without are those around the toddler age. Toddlers can really try a cat's patience, even though they aren't being anything but normal. Young children can't understand that roughly poking, squeezing and patting aren't appreciated. Although most cats figure out quickly that children this age are best avoided, your child could be bitten or scratched if your cat is cornered or startled. Keep an eye on all interactions, and consider putting a baby gate across the entry to a "safe room" for your cat so he can have a place to go where he isn't pestered.
From the time a child is in school, he or she can start learning to care for a pet and take an increasing amount of responsibility -- under supervision, of course. One way to teach younger school-aged children to play carefully is to play the "copycat game." If your child pets the cat gently, stroke his arm gently to show how nice it feels. Teach your children, too, how to hold a cat properly, with support under his chest and his legs not left dangling. A cat who feels secure and safe is far less likely to scratch or bite.
As children mature, they can take on increasing responsibility for a pet's care, such as keeping food and water bowls full and cleaning the litter box.
Do not let your child mistreat the family pet. Live animals are not stuffed animals, and your child needs to learn that living beings must be treated with respect. Remember that the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of a family pet rests with the parents, and that caring properly for a pet is one of the best opportunities you'll ever have for teaching some important lessons.
My favorite quote regarding this subject was sent to me by a reader who didn't know the author: "Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is just as important to the child as it is to the caterpillar."
What a great thought to keep in mind as we rush through our busy lives.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Virtual Dog Web site (www.virtualdog.com) is an amusing way to spend part of a wintry weekend afternoon. Although the site ran a bit slugglishly every time I tried it, it was still fun to play with. The site allows you to adopt a dog of several different breeds, and then take care of your virtual pet: buying supplies, feeding and watering, taking your dog to the veterinarian or the park. Cat lovers will one day have a chance to play, too. A Virtual Cat site is in development at www.virtualcat.com.
A couple of months ago a "Dateline" piece revealed that the hot new "lifelike" line of stuffed pets got the "real" look with real fur -- the pieces were made in China from the fur of slaughtered dogs and cats. Many pet lovers had already bought the items, and others were left wondering how to tell synthetic fur from the real stuff in the future.
In its latest edition, the always outstanding Animal People newspaper (www.animalpeoplenews.org) explains the way to tell real fur from fake fur. Although you wouldn't want to try this in a store, if you're curious about a stuffed animal you already own, you can snip off a tiny bit of fur and put a match to it. Synthetic fur smells like plastic when burned; real fur smells like burnt hair. The editors also add that household pets will act differently around stuffed toys made with cat or dog hair -- trying to groom pieces or marking them with urine. Animal People is available for $24 a year from P.O. Box 960, Clinton, WA 98236-0960; phone: (360) 579-2505.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I am sorry for the loss of your little bird, Patrick. I too have numerous pets, birds included. Some are more special than others, but all their losses hurt. I've cried over the babies who only lasted an hour or two as well as the loss of some of my favorites.
Just remember that Patrick was special in his own way and brightened your life. Your next bird -- whether a parakeet, conure or amazon -- will do the same thing, but in a different way. No one can take away what you two shared, and no one should be making light of it.
My heart goes out to you. It'll get better with time. -- C.K., via e-mail
A: Thank you so much for writing. Yours was one of a couple of hundred e-mails and letters I received after I wrote about the loss of my little Senegal parrot, Patrick. I'll never stop missing him, although you're absolutely right that the pain lessens over time. With every pet I've said goodbye to, there has always been a point where remembering brought me happiness, not tears.
It'll be a while before I get there with Patrick, but I will. The cage is scrubbed out, the dishes and toys cleaned and sterilized (a dishwasher is truly a bird lover's best friend!). While I could never "replace" Patrick, his enduring legacy is that I can no longer imagine life without a bird. Sometime in the next few months, that cage will be full of life again. You can be sure I'll be writing about that happy day.
Q: Our dog has a problem with smelly stuff coming out of what our veterinarian says are his anal glands. What can we do about this? -- G.V., via e-mail
A: Many dog owners live in blissful ignorance of anal glands, two little sacs that produce a fluid that carries the unique scent by which dogs identify each other. Anal glands are why dogs sniff each other's rumps when they meet.
Disgusting as they may be to us, anal glands should not be ignored. If not "expressed" regularly, they can become impacted or infected.
The best way to prevent trouble is to empty the anal sacs every time you bathe your dog. The least repulsive way to handle this is to suds up the area well, including your hand, and then place your thumb and forefinger on the outside of each gland, just below the skin on either side of the anus -- you'll feel them as small lumps below the surface. Gently squeeze your fingers inward and together, and you should get a noxious mess for your efforts. Suds and rinse a couple of times, and it'll be gone.
If your dog cries out when you touch the glands or if the area is swollen, call your veterinarian. If you absolutely can't stand to empty your dog's anal glands, your vet or groomer will be happy to do it for you.
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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