There's a story that's told, with a knowing smile and a hint of a wink, by those who advise people on their pets' behavior problems.
A cat lover calls in with a problem. "My cat pees on pillows!" she says, obviously very unhappy with the situation.
"How long has this been going on?" says the behaviorist.
"Seven years," says the caller.
"Seven years!" says the behaviorist. "Why on earth have you waited so long to get help?"
"Because now he's peeing on MY pillow," says the caller.
People who work with pet behavior problems are often struck not by how quickly a person will reach the breaking point, but rather by how much some pet lovers will put up with and for how long. The problem is, by the time these pet lovers seek help, the behavior may be too entrenched to do much about it.
And that's the point of the pillow-peeing-cat's story: Don't wait, even if it's not your pillow that's getting hit. At the first sign of a problem, get help. Ask your veterinarian for help, and possibly a referral to a behaviorist or trainer with experience in solving your pet's particular problem, be it inappropriate elimination, destructiveness, shyness or aggression.
Why is this so important? In the case of a dog or cat who's using the house as a toilet, every day you wait the inside of your home becomes ever more difficult to clean. Pets are attracted to places they've hit before, and once a home becomes saturated, it's almost impossible to eliminate the smell to the pet's satisfaction.
Your best hope is to clean messes promptly and retrain your pet before the bad habit is as set as those old urine stains.
Need more reasons why waiting to get help is a bad idea? How about these: You could be doing exactly the wrong thing in your efforts to fix your pet's problem. And even if you're doing nothing more than ignoring the problem, the behavior could be getting worse on its own.
An example of the "wrong approach" would be the way many people deal with a dog who's shy or scared. It seems natural to react to such behavior by soothing the animal, petting him and praising him in an attempt to make him happier. It may make sense, but it's the wrong approach to fixing the problem.
When you soothe a shy or scared animal, you're really rewarding him for being nervous, and that just makes the situation worse. A good behaviorist will observe your pet's problem, will see how you are reacting to it, and will suggest a program you can follow to correct the behavior humanely. In the case of the shy dog, that will probably entail ignoring the nervousness, substituting other behaviors on command and praising the dog for those.
In the case of an aggressive animal, ignoring the problem is almost certain to make it worse. The dog who learns that all he need do to get his way is growl will soon figure out that if a little aggression is good, a lot is better, at least from his point of view. Once he gets that idea in his head, you'll have a full-blown menace on your hands. The people who guess wrong in trying to fix aggression often get bitten in the process. Or see the dog attack someone else, maybe a child.
Whatever your reason for putting off dealing with your pet's behavior problem -- denial, lack of time or hoping he'll outgrow it -- realize now that wishful thinking never changed anything. Most pet behavior problems can be corrected, especially if you catch them early and make use of the advice of someone who knows what he's doing.
Why would you want to wait to have a well-behaved pet? Call your vet, jump on the Internet, check out a book -- you can find good information by doing any of these things. But only if you try.
PET ON THE WEB
The How to Love Your Dog site (www.geocities.com/~kidsanddogs) is designed for kids, although adults could learn a thing or two here as well. The site is packed with articles on getting, raising and training a puppy or dog, with the emphasis firmly on proper care and responsible stewardship. Janet Wall, a human educator and lifelong dog lover, knows that getting through to children is not about lecturing. She has put in plenty of opportunities for learning that's also fun, including riddles submitted by kids, and quizzes that cheer on the participant with every click. I also like the "I Love My Dog" contract, which will help children understand that a pet is a responsibility that lasts for years.
Not all cats like catnip. The ability to appreciate the herb is genetic, with slightly more cats in the fan club than not. These hard-wired preferences aren't immediately apparent, though, since kittens under the age of 3 months don't react to catnip at all.
Among those cats who do like catnip, you'll find two basic kinds of reactions: Your cat may seem to become a lazy drunk, or a wired-up crazy. Credit a substance called "nepetalactone," which is found in the leaves and stems and causes the mood-altering behavior.
Is catnip safe? While some cat experts recommend that you grow your own catnip or buy only organically raised products, the consensus is that you can treat your cat as often as you (and your cat) wish. Catnip is considered to be nonaddictive and harmless.
Q: My sister's 2-year-old male golden retriever has, for the past several months, peed in the same place continuously. He does not go anywhere else in the house. Any suggestions? -- C.H., via e-mail
A: This should be a pretty easy problem to fix, but it will take some effort initially.
First, is the dog neutered? Male dogs live to mark territory, but neutering cuts down on this unpleasant hormone-driven behavior. It also makes the animal a safer, happier pet. Have your sister talk to her veterinarian about scheduling this important procedure right away, if it hasn't already been done.
Second, clean up the area where the dog is marking, using enzymatic cleaners designed for pet messes. (Other kinds of cleaners do not eliminate the odor, and some, like ammonia, even make the problem worse.) A thorough cleaning is essential, since any remnant of past mistakes will emit an odor that will attract the dog to refresh his mark.
You can get enzymatic cleaners from most pet-supply stores, catalogs and Web sites. Nature's Miracle is one popular brand name.
Finally, block off the area from the dog while he's being retrained. Take the dog outside and praise him for marking in the right spot. In the house, always keep him under watch or on leash for a couple of weeks so he never gets the opportunity to make the wrong decision.
If your sister catches him in the act of lifting his leg indoors, she should clap her hands to distract him and stop the behavior, then take him outside to finish the job, praising him for getting it right. Punishment is never necessary and is flat-out useless if done after the fact.
Q: We recently moved to a house adjacent to an undeveloped brushy hillside. The area probably has some critters that would be unfriendly to our 7-year-old Siamese cat, so we are keeping her inside. You recommended giving inside cats "greens for nibbling." I am not sure what you mean by this. Could you please explain and tell me where I would obtains these "greens"? -- G.W., Santa Rosa, Calif.
A: It's easy to keep greens on hand for cats. It doesn't take much of a green thumb, and indoor kitties in particular will be ever so grateful for your thoughtfulness.
Grasses are always a favorite. Since cats seem to like the tenderest shoots best, sow a fresh crop every couple of weeks in a wide, shallow planter. Alfalfa, rye and wheat seeds are ideal. You can find seeds from catalogs or nurseries, but be sure to choose those that have not been pre-treated with chemicals. If you search pet-supply stores, catalogs and Web sites, you can find pre-packaged kitty greens, complete with seeds, soil and planter. All you need do is add water.
Parsley and thyme are also popular and can be grown indoors for your cat's nibbling pleasure. Any decent nursery will have young plants ready to be transplanted into a pot, and the mature plants make a nice addition to your decor.
Finally, you can keep a crop of catnip or valerian on hand. Most people know about the amazing effect catnip has on some cats, but not many people know that valerian is another plant that tickles a cat's fancy. Plant both of these in cat-proof areas, or your pet may pull the seedlings out by the root. After the plant is large enough to stand it, trim off a piece and offer it to your pet.
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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