Noodles, who shared his life with one of my best friends, left this world a couple of months ago at the age of what my friend guessed was 17. He was one of my favorite cats, although why I liked him is difficult to explain.
The cat was very unpredictable. Sometimes when I visited he would leap into my lap, purring, while other times I was greeted with a hostile and hate-filled glare. Noodles liked to be petted, up until that moment when he decided he had enough, at which point he'd sink his teeth into your hand.
Those less-agreeable traits aside, I think I liked Noodles because he lived the life he wanted to and beat the odds against his survival. Noodles had been dropped on his head as a kitten, with no apparent ill effect. He spent the rest of his life tempting fate: He ambled across streets in front of speeding cars, taunted dogs, and pretty much did his best to use all of his nine lives before he left. The cat had his own guardian angel, and with Noodles, it was a full-time job.
Other cats I know didn't fare nearly as well as did Noodles, who in the end seemed to run out of time, not luck. In just my circle of friends (not counting those readers who write me), I can count in the last two years more than a half-dozen free-roaming cats who are missing (and presumed dead), four who were found dead (three at the side of a road), two who were backed over by their own family's car, one who was torn apart by a neighbor's loose dog -- the list goes on.
If you're thinking all these hazards are more about living in a developed area than about letting cats roam, consider this: I know one horse trainer who remarked that whatever cat problem she has around her barns is quickly brought into line by the wild predators who consider the animals a tasty meal. People drop cats and kittens off "in the country" thinking that life will be better. It is, for the coyotes.
Why do so many people insist on letting their cats roam? I think a lot of us let our cats out because doing so is what we've always done. Fair enough, but I remember a time when many dogs roamed free, too, and we've decided that's not a good idea. I also remember when nobody spayed or neutered their pets, and when it was considered acceptable to drown unwanted offspring in a bucket, year after year.
We've come a long way since then, and we need to keep moving forward -- not only because it's better for our cats, but also because it's more considerate of our neighbors.
Cats do not need to roam at will. They do need your help to be happy inside, though, with scratching posts, toys, greens for nibbling, and lots and lots of quality time with their favorite people. You can even give them a taste of the outside with access to screened porches, or with back yards equipped with netting to keep cats safely contained. (Directions on how to make cat fencing can be obtained from Alley Cat Allies, (202) 667-3630 or on the Web site at www.alleycat.org/ic_fs_fence.html.)
What's in it for you?
Yes, keeping an indoor cat is more work, mostly because you have to maintain a litter box. But I've noticed over the years that those people who have indoor cats spend more time with their pets, and as a result often end up with a closer bond with the animal. What you'll get out of the deal is the biggest benefit of all: time.
I miss Noodles, and I'm happy he was able to live his life exactly as he wanted to. But I've known too many cats who weren't as lucky as he was. If they'd just been kept inside, they could have made it to old age, too.
PETS ON THE WEB
Breed rescue groups are always struggling to help the most animals on limited amounts of money, and that means making some difficult decisions from time to time. A single homeless stray who has been hit by a car and requires extensive surgery can eat up money that could have saved several healthy dogs, leaving rescue groups in the difficult situation of sacrificing one dog so that others may live.
The LABMED Web site (www.labmed.org) seeks to change this stark reality, at least for homeless Labradors and Labrador mixes. The group funds medical care for those dogs who have a good chance at being an adoptable pet, if only their urgent health problems could be resolved. The Web site is a fund-raiser, collecting money through donations, as well as by selling LABMED merchandise and taking a commission for shoppers sent to other shopping areas through the Web site. The clever idea has paid off: More than 250 Labrador and Labrador mixes have been saved, and their stories on the LABMED site make for inspirational reading.
Can you give a cold or flu to your bird? Although the myth is a pervasive one, the answer is likely to be "no." Because human colds and flus are always around, it seems to make sense that when a bird shows similar symptoms -– congestion, coughing and such -– the pet has the same gunk that has been floating around the rest of the family. But it's a good bet there's something else going on with your bird.
If your bird is showing cold or flulike symptoms, don't just figure the problem will pass in the same way a human bug will. Birds are very stoic when it comes to hiding symptoms of illness, and when a bird does show signs of disease, he's often quite sick indeed. So get him in to see an avian veterinarian, pronto.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have a 5-year-old male Border collie. He is very well-behaved and gets exercised well a minimum of two times a day. He is with me at all times.
My problem is that he won't do the "Come" command. He listens when he feels like it. When he does come, I praise him. Then the next day he will totally ignore me if he is sniffing something. Other than that I consider him to be the perfect pet. Any suggestions? -– S.G., via e-mail
A: Teaching the "Come" command is easy in theory. Put your dog on a "Sit-Stay" on short leash, call his name, say "Come," reel him in with praise, and give more praise and treats when he gets to you. Easy, sure, but have you ever noticed that the majority of dog owners have to cross their fingers when they call their off-leash dogs?
I'm guessing that your dog isn't paying attention to your command for a couple reasons: First, because he really hasn't been thoroughly trained to understand it; and second, because he really doesn't respect you enough to see why he should bother when something more interesting beckons.
You're apparently letting your dog off leash even though you have no expectation that he will come when called. And when you call him, you have no way of getting him to you. You've dealt him a hand with four aces -- is it any wonder why he returns to you only when he feels like it? He's in charge here, not you.
The first thing to do is to keep your dog on leash. He shouldn't be allowed freedom he hasn't earned. For the purpose of exercise, if you want him to run off leash in an enclosed area, play fetch with him (Border collies love this). Don't order him to you because you'll be getting ahead of the game and asking him to do something he doesn't yet understand.
You need to teach your dog what you want, and for that, I'd recommend working with a professional trainer one-on-one for a couple lessons just to learn what you should be doing and to help figure out those things you are getting wrong. Because you've put a bad association in your dog's head with the "Come" command -– which he knows he can ignore -– I'd start over with a new word, such as "Here."
Following the trainer's advice, work with your dog in increments, on a short leash to start with, then on longer leashes and lighter lines. Positive reinforcement -– praise, treats or toys -- are a must. Practice in different places and in different situations: in the house, in the yard, in the park, with your cat walking by, with your kids playing. Never let him get into a position where he learns you really can't do much about it when he bolts.
The trick is building your dog's understanding that the recall has no exceptions: Wherever you are when you call, he should drop what he's doing and come to you. This takes time, patience and practice. Take it slowly, don't take any shortcuts or chances, and keep the trainer's phone number at hand for working through the rough spots.
Q: My Sheltie is almost a year old and well-coated for her age. She does not bark incessantly, but does carry on when anyone comes to visit or when she meets someone she knows when we are walking. Would the citronella collar you've written about get to her nose over all her chest hair? -- L.I., via e-mail
A: The citronella spray anti-bark collar works fine with shelties. I did sheltie rescue in my area for a few years -– the breed is one of my favorites –- and always kept a citronella collar on hand for the noisier of my foster dogs.
The collar releases a spray of citronella when activated by the dog's barking, but it's not necessary for the spray to get on the face. The collar really works by distraction: The "pfffttt" of the spray releasing catches the dog's attention, as does the pungent smell. The dog can't resist taking a whiff, and since he can't bark and sniff at the same time, the disagreeable activity is halted.
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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