You can learn a lot about your cat by learning more about the tiger.
Find a documentary on the gorgeous wild cat. You're certain to be astonished at how much the cat purring in your lap reminds you of a tiger. The way the tiger walks, with understated elegance and always the promise of power. The way the tiger hunts, still and focused except for the tiniest twitch at the end of the tail.
Now, pay attention to how tigers let each other know where one animal's hunting turf ends and another begins.
They rub against things, they spray and they claw.
Admittedly, seeing a tiger do these things is a lot more dramatic than watching an 8-pound domesticated cat do them. A scent-marking head bump from a tiger may knock a person over. And as for the other two behaviors, you wouldn't even want to be around. If a tiger wants to leave a message, he stands up on his hind legs and digs his claws into a tree, putting deep slashes along with his scent on the hapless plant. And then, just to make the point a little more emphatic, he turns, facing away from the tree, raises his tail, and squirts a great blast of urine at it.
With no one to yell at him for doing these things to the corner of a couch or a pile of dirty laundry, he ambles off. His world smells the way he thinks it ought to, and he's content.
Now maybe you're beginning to see the problem. The very same things the tiger does to mark territory are natural behaviors for your cat, too. And yet you want your pet to abandon them entirely? We have news for you: It's just not possible. Nor is it fair.
Fixing feline behavior problems is like taming a tiger: You must work slowly to reshape your pet's natural behaviors in ways that you both can live with. Never hit your cat, and never let her think that any discipline is coming from you. Physical discipline is worse than meaningless to cats -- and it can make a situation even worse by making your cat stressed out and afraid of you. What works in cats is to make them believe that whatever they're doing wrong triggers an automatic response they don't like -- and that you have nothing to do with it as far as they can tell. The couch they used to enjoy clawing is now covered with something they don't like to touch. Every time they get on the counter a stream of water hits them in the fanny.
Reward your cat for good behavior with praise, with treats, with petting and with games. If your cat uses the scratching post instead of the couch, make sure that she knows you approve by playing with her, with a cat fishing pole or a toy on a string. Tell her that she's good for using the litter box, for eating her plants instead of yours, and for attacking her toys instead of your slippers. Your cat isn't born knowing the rules of living among humans, and if you make following the rules pleasant and reasonable, you have much better luck getting her to follow them.
Tigers don't have to learn how to live with people, but house cats do. A consistent, understanding and humane approach to behavior problems will go far in taming the tiger in your cat.
PETS ON THE WEB
When I first bought my house a decade ago, I was surprised and delighted to find out that my neighborhood was also home to a pair of wild parrots. Since conures are not native to Northern California -- or North America, for that matter -- it's a pretty good guess the birds were on the lam, either escaped or turned loose and finding the moderate climate to their liking. Feral parrots are not uncommon, and the birds are even considered a nuisance in some places.
One wild flock, though, has plenty of fans and its own Web site. The Wild Parrots of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill (www.wildparrots.com) documents the lives of a number of birds, mostly cherry-headed conures, who live free in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. A nice, clean site, with lots to read and see. Be sure to check out the link to caretaker Mark Bittner's site (http://sites.netscape.net/markbittner/index.htm), which documents the making of a film on the flock.
Teething is a difficult time for puppies and people both. For the little ones, chewing is a way to relieve the discomfort caused by the eruption of adult teeth. This is understandable, but still difficult to tolerate if that chewing is directed toward something like an expensive pair of shoes. Don't punish puppies for chewing. Instead, distract them with a noise (such as slapping your palm on a counter), and then offer them something acceptable to chew on. And don't forget to praise them for the switch!
Giving your puppy frozen marrow bones can soothe the discomfort, as can a Kong toy, stuffed with peanut butter and chilled. By teaching a puppy acceptable chewing, you're instilling important lessons for life. Adult dogs chew out of boredom and because it feels good. It's unfair to expect a dog not to chew, so giving your dog chew toys he knows are acceptable is a good compromise.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our dog will not shut up! We yell at her, and it doesn't help. She barks all day in the yard when we're gone, and the neighbors are complaining. What can we do? -- N.P., via e-mail
A: Dogs bark to express a variety of emotions: anxiety, boredom, territoriality, aggression, playfulness and hunger, to name a few.
Barking sessions can be triggered by certain conditions in the dog's environment. For example, a dog who barks a warning when strangers are near will bark constantly if one side of the fence in his yard separates his area from a well-traveled, public sidewalk. Likewise, an intelligent, high-energy dog, neglected and bored in a lonely back yard, often rids himself of that excess energy by indulging in barking sessions that can last for hours, day or night.
Breed characteristics factor in, as well. Anyone who dreams of the quiet life probably ought to avoid owning most terriers, poodles or shelties. You can train them to stop barking, but you can't train them not to start -- they'll yap at the slightest provocation.
Figure out the kind of barking your dog indulges in. Is he a fence-runner, trading insults with the dog on the other side of the back fence? Consider reworking the yard to deny him access to that activity. Is he a bored outside dog? Make him a part of your life, bring him in to the house, and make sure that the needs for physical and mental stimulation are being met. Another advantage of having him in the house: Many of the sounds that trigger barking are masked inside. (You can help this masking even further by leaving a radio on when you leave.)
Train him not to bark by teaching him the "quiet" or "enough" command. Allow him a bark or two -- let him get his point across -- and then say (don't yell) "enough" and put your hand over his muzzle. Praise him for stopping. If he's loose, you can also get the point across with a shot from a spray bottle: Allow him a bark or two, say "enough," squirt, and then praise him for stopping.
It's not a quick fix -- you still have to address the underlying problems of boredom, stress and inactivity -- but one kind of training collar offers real promise in fighting the battle of the bark. Citronella collars, which release a mist of harmless yet annoying spray when the dog barks, are widely available now and considered more humane than a "shock collar."
Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist in your area who can work with you on training your dog and changing his environment to calm the noise.
Q: Our cockatiel Henry has laid an egg, which was a big surprise because we thought she was a he (guess we'll have to call her Henrietta). Will it hatch? -- P.E., via e-mail
A: I'm guessing Henry/Henrietta isn't of the more common varieties of cockatiels, which are usually pretty easy to figure out when it comes to males and females. In the most common variety, the gray cockatiel, males have yellow faces and females have gray. The more unusual mutations can be difficult or impossible to sex on the basis of looks alone.
If your bird is an only bird, you shouldn't be making plans for hatching that egg. Without a male around, the egg is infertile, and you can just throw it away. Some birds won't stop laying, though, and can eventually make themselves ill. If your bird becomes one of these, you'll need to take her to an avian veterinarian for hormonal or even surgical intervention.
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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