For the indoor-only cat, plants are an important part of an ideal environment that should also include a variety of toys, cat trees and scratching posts, and screened porches or window perches that allow the intriguing scents of the hazardous world outside safely into a cat's life.
Although the indoor life is far safer for cats and is gaining favor among cat lovers, household confinement does have some hazards, and plants are certainly among them.
If your cat loves to nibble on houseplants, make sure poisonous plants are not on the menu. "The Cornell Book of Cats" (Random House, $35) warns that many common houseplants can make your cat ill, and a few can be deadly. Among the most dangerous are dieffenbachia, lily of the valley and philodendron. Various ivies and yews can be troublesome, too, and the bulbs of plants popular for "forcing" into early indoor bloom -- such as amaryllis, daffodils and tulips -- can cause problems for the cat that likes to dig and chew.
The other problem with cats and houseplants is strictly irritation -- not to the pet's system, but to the owner's. Some cats are industrious destroyers of household greenery, while others like to kick dirt around or even use larger pots as litter boxes. All of which makes perfect sense to your cat, annoying as it may be to you.
Can people, cats and plants co-exist? With an understanding of your cat's needs and a consistent approach to the problem, you bet they can.
Understand that your cat needs and wants plants in your home. Indulge your pet by keeping planters of sprouting grasses growing in an accessible place for nibbling. Special blends of seeds for cats are available in pet stores and specialty shops, or you can purchase rye grass seeds at the nursery.
Catnip, too, is something that's always better when fresh, as is valerian. While not all cats react to the pleasures of these plants, those that do will appreciate your keeping it in-house, and using fresh cuttings to recharge cat posts and toys.
When your cat has his own plants, you can work on keeping him away from yours. 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 you can't move out of harm's way, make them less appealing by coating them 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 reinforce the point. You can also discourage your pet by shooting him with the spray from a water bottle when you see him in the plants.
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. Another possibility: The people who make the Sticky Paws strips that discourage furniture-scratching also make a similar product that fits inside planters to halt feline explorations. (For more information, the company can be found online at www.stickypaws.com, or by phoning 817-926-3023.)
Remember that resolving behavior problems often takes time and involves a bit of compromise on your part. Give your cats the greens he wants, protect him from the ones that might hurt him, and make the rest less attractive to him. And one day, a lush indoor garden will be yours for both you and your cat to enjoy.
PETS ON THE WEB
The American Animal Hospital Association has put together the Healthy Pet Web site (www.healthypet.com) to offer basic pet-care information on most of the animals commonly kept as pets. The site does focus primarily on dog and cat care, though, and for these pets you'll find dozens of useful documents on such topics as aggression, cancer, preventive health care and traveling. Also included are posters that can be printed out for children to color, and there's a search engine to help locate an AAHA-member veterinary hospital. In all, a well-organized and helpful Web site.
If you can imagine what it's like to spend a rather large part of your life in a relatively small cage, then you can also see why toys are so important to birds. Toys give these pets a chance to use their considerable brainpower, exercise their bodies, and relieve the stresses of confinement and boredom. Check out the selection at any reputable bird shop, and don't forget to improvise with cheap and safe household items that can be recycled into toys.
The cardboard cores of toilet paper and paper towel rolls, for example, are great for shredding. Other items that will last longer include old toothbrushes, plastic bottle tops, measuring cups, spoons, and ballpoint pens with the ink tube removed. For these items, wash in warm, soapy water and rinse well before giving them to your bird, or run them through a cycle in your dishwasher.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I'm writing about the letter concerning the terrier with a barking problem. We will accept barking from our dogs -- they are telling us something is going on that we should know about. We tell them the standard "Good girl" and then "It's OK; stop" or words like that. When they don't stop barking, we then shake an aluminum pop can with several pennies in it, saying, "(name), no bark." (By the way, the pop can is empty except for the pennies.)
This method has worked on the four dogs we have. It gets to the point where their barking is very limited now after a few "arfs." But the few times they get carried away, we just show them the pop can and that quiets them down. There's no harsh punishment toward them for doing (what they think is) their job, and we get peace and quiet.
Will you share this tip to help people with barking dogs? Dogs do not like the sound of those pennies! -- W.M.K., Orleans, Indiana
A: Yes, the pennies-in-a-can trick has been around for years, and it's certainly worth trying. You've also managed to get the balance right, in praising your dogs for barking and then asking them to stop. When you do this, you change the behavior from something your dog is doing on her own to something your dog is doing that you've interjected some control over.
Of course, any bark-stopping method that requires a human presence has its limitations -- you can't always be there to correct barking. That's why it's so important for the sake of your neighbors' sanity to arrange your dog's living situation to remove or limit the triggers that make your dog fire up the yap machine.
I recommend keeping a barker inside when the family is gone. Inside the house, blocking access to front windows will keep the animal from seeing people go by, and leaving on a radio will help to muffle audio triggers such as car doors slamming.
By the way, I received a flurry of e-mails asking where to find the citronella anti-bark collar I mentioned previously. Try the Doctors Foster and Smith catalog, either online at www.drsfostersmith.com, or by phone: 800-381-7179.
Q: How old must a kitten be before being spayed? We went to look at kittens at the shelter, and they insist the babies be fixed before adoption, which seems a little young to us. -- L.E., via e-mail
A: Puppies and kittens can be safely neutered as young as 8 weeks, and studies have consistently shown no long-term problems with health or behavior for surgeries that are done earlier than the 4- to 6-month ideal previously considered standard procedure.
If your shelter's policy is to insist on early spay-neuter, I wouldn't let that deter you from adopting a kitten there. On the contrary, such policies show that the organization is actively fighting pet overpopulation by trying to stop the kittens-out, kittens-in cycle that happens when last year's babies become this year's parents.
If you end up with a kitten from another source, follow your veterinarian's advice on when to alter your pet. Although early spay-neuter is safe, not all veterinarians are comfortable with performing the operation that early.
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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