Out of all the animals that we have taken into human society and have changed over generations to better suit our own ends, why is the cat the one we have accepted largely on his own terms?
We have meddled endlessly with other domesticated animals, the dog most notably so, bred in all shapes and sizes and turned into a herder, a hunter, a puller of carts and sleds, or even a tiny ornamental companion. The many breeds of sheep, horses and cows also show our urge over the generations to change animals to better suit our own needs and fashions.
One could argue that the cat was already a useful and attractive animal when his kind chose to associate with ours, and as such, we saw no need to change him. The cat didn't need our meddling to keep our homes and farms free of vermin -- his own interests just happened to dovetail perfectly with our own. And surely the fact that the cat was not only useful but also graceful, beautiful and affectionate made it easy for our kind to welcome him into our lives and homes for the sake of companionship alone.
Of all the attributes that led our kind to take so strongly to their kind, perhaps there's one that touched our hearts the most.
I think we fell in love with the cat's ability to purr.
After thousands of years of sharing our lives with cats, isn't it amazing that we are still not sure exactly how they purr? A vibration, sure. But where? The rattling of skin folds, say some, while others argue that the sound is the movement of air through swollen blood vessels. And why is our cat the only one of his family to manage this lovely sound? Tigers, for example, can rumble and roar, but only the domestic cat can keep the motor running on both inhale and exhale.
I'd be happier if the mysteries were never solved, for they add to the purr's uniqueness and its appeal.
When I think of purring, though, I don't think of history or science. Instead, I remember a day when a little cat saved his own life with the power of his purr.
A friend and I had gone to the shelter to search for an elderly neighbor's lost calico and found ourselves sadly pondering a cage bank full of homeless cats. Few, we knew, would be alive in a couple of days' time. We tried to push the thought out of our heads as we looked in each cage for the missing cat.
And then we heard the purr. It came from a leggy young tabby with a battered look about him. He had snuggled onto the floor of his steel cage as if on a satin pillow, his front legs folded beneath him, his eyes half-lidded with contentment. His purr was as rough and raspy as the low gear on an untuned Harley.
He opened his eyes and revved up his motor as we approached, and in seconds we were both smitten with the half-grown kitten. Once out of the cage, he was as charming as his purr suggested, bumping my friend's chin with his head and settling into her arms as if he belonged there. Just that quickly, the purring tabby earned himself a new home.
The neighbor's missing calico wandered home the next day, thinner than when she left but otherwise unharmed. And the ratty little tabby with the big purr grew into a handsome and loving companion, which he likely would never have had the chance to become were it not for his purr.
The purr is the essence of all that is wonderful about cats. And although I am no scientist, I have my own theory of where such a beautiful sound originates. I have no doubt that it comes straight from the heart.
PETS ON THE WEB
Crufts, the mother of all dog shows, is the latest of England's animal-related sporting events to fall victim to that country's foot-and-mouth livestock epidemic, with officials postponing the historic four-day show for an unspecified time.
Crufts is held each March in Birmingham, England, and a trip there is the dream of anyone who'd like to wear out the soles of a pair of walking shoes while happily gazing upon hundreds of different breeds of dogs, an amazing array of merchants, and at both canine athletes and beauty queens doing what they do best.
The show's Web site (www.crufts.org.uk) promises to provide updates on the rescheduling of the event, but that's not the only reason to click on it. The site also offers plenty in the way of show lore, past winners, merchandise, and general information regarding dogs and this legendary event.
Altitude has a lot to do with attitude, at least when it comes to parrots. In the wild, dominant members of the flock choose the highest branches on which to rest, with the lower-ranking birds settling on perches below. Pet parrots who see themselves as dominant to their owners can often be helped just by getting their own height issues readjusted.
The rule is known among behaviorists as "your head, my heart," and requires you to keep your bird's head no higher than your heart. That means canceling shoulder rides in favor of letting your bird perch on your waist-level arm or hand, and it also means removing cage-top play gyms and lowering the height of the cage itself by removing the stand on which most models rest.
When your bird is no longer looking down on you physically, he won't be as likely to look down on you socially. You'll then be in a better position to train him in the basics of well-mannered behavior.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our daughter has two cats from the same litter, brother and sister, both neutered and about 18 months old. Both were completely trained using the same litter box while living in New York City. Our daughter moved to a new city and new apartment in October.
Tiger uses the litter box (same litter, same box). But Lily goes around or near the box, but not in it. When they came here to our house (new to them as well) to visit, Lily used the same litter box as Tiger for three days. When they went back to their new home, she started right back to leaving a present outside of the box nearly every day.
At first we thought it was her new surroundings. But after four months, she shows no sign of improving. Our daughter has bought spray, has cleaned the area daily, has moved the box and has changed litter. She's now at her wit's end. -- E.V., via e-mail
A: She needs to add at least one more box, probably in a different part of the apartment.
It sounds to me as if Lily is trying her best, by going near the communal litter box. But some cats don't like to share, and others aren't allowed to share. The dominant cat won't tolerate it. And sometimes a cat won't use a box unless it's perfectly clean and fresh, no clumps at all.
Your daughter can cover all contingencies by adding one or more additional litter boxes. That way, Lily can be assured of a space she needn't share with her brother. Additional boxes also increase the likelihood that the cats will always find a clean one, assuming your daughter is diligent about scooping.
Q: Will you please add to your suggestions on keeping dogs out of litter boxes? The ideas previously submitted sounded great, but they work only if the dog is bigger than the cat. If you have a 4-pound dog and a 12-pound cat, as I do, then making the opening to the litter-box area cat-sized just won't do it. The only thing I've found so far that works is to put the litter box in the bathtub in the spare bathroom. The cat is big enough to get over the edge, but the dog isn't. -- B.G., via e-mail
A: I've had readers confirm over the years that keeping the box in the bathtub will usually keep cat-sized dogs out. So, too, will putting a baby gate across the door to the area where the litter box is. The cat can jump it easily, but the dog can't.
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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