Like most predators, cats have keen senses. Our lovingly spoiled and mostly domesticated former hunters get food served to them these days, often in fancy bowls. But that doesn't mean they've lost the senses their wild kin rely on to survive.
People and cats live in completely different worlds when it comes to our respective sensory perceptions. When you imagine things from your pet's point of view, you'll be able to better understand what makes your cat tick.
Consider the feline sense of smell, which is many times more powerful than a human's puny abilities in this area. Once you know that your cat is so much more sensitive than you are capable of being, you shouldn't be surprised that the litter box you think is "tolerable" may be offensive to your cat. Same goes for those perfumed litters: We may love them, but they can be strong to the point of overpowering to our keen-nosed felines.
Of course, the litter box is a relatively modern convenience, and the cat's sense of smell is good for much more than deciding when it's not clean enough. Smell also plays a role in the establishment of territory. Cats like things in their home range to smell like them, be they [be it?] people or furniture, and make them familiar by rubbing or scratching. The sense of smell is also important to free-roaming cats when it comes to finding prey, and in the determination of whether "found" food is safe enough to eat.
Dogs are scavengers who eat just about anything; cats are true predators. For them, fresh food, please, is their decided preference. Ever wonder why your cat turns up his nose at canned food that's been out a while? Simple: It doesn't smell right.
The sense of smell and taste are very closely connected in cats in part because the animals have a special anatomical feature called the vomeronasal organ, which allows them to process scent almost by tasting it. The organ is at the front of the roof of the mouth, and you can tell when your cat is using it: They open their mouths a crack and seem to be panting slightly. The facial expression that accompanies this behavior is so distinctive that it even has a name: the Flehmen response.
You can use your cat's well-developed sense of smell to your advantage if you're trying to entice a sick or just plain finicky cat to eat. If you warm your cat's wet food to just above room temperature before serving (about 85 degrees, or what we humans would call "lukewarm"), you'll make the odor more enticing, and so increase the appeal of the meal.
No matter what you do, though, you're not likely to get most cats interested in anything sweet. It's not for any lack in their sensory ability. Experts believe cats can identify foods that are bitter, salty, sweet or sour, although their appreciation of any of those qualities differs greatly from our own.
Not surprising, really, when you consider that were your cat to choose a gourmet meal, chances are he'd opt for a freshly killed mouse, hold the seasonings. Or maybe, knowing the skillful predator that lives in even the most pampered of pets, your cat would choose his meal live and easy to catch.
Dead or alive, a mouse is a meal preference no human would share. But then, our tongues also aren't adapted to clean meat off the bones of prey the way a cat's sandpaper-textured licker is. It all comes together so beautifully in the lithe, supple body of the perfect small predator.
When you think about how different cats and people are, it makes you wonder how we get along as well as we do. If nothing else, it should give you a sense of wonder at the superhuman senses of our most popular pet.
PETS ON THE WEB
I wish every chronic pet illness had a Web site as helpful and supportive as the one dedicated to feline diabetes (www.felinediabetes.com). Administered by a cat-loving physician, the site offers everything an owner needs (but maybe didn't think to ask the veterinarian) about caring for a pet with this disease. What is it like to live with such an animal? You'll find that here, along with tips on using syringes and monitoring your pet's sugar levels. A worthwhile read, without a doubt -- this is a site that's built with science but runs on love.
Winterizing your car or truck? Now may be the time to do it, but make sure when you're taking care of your vehicle that you're also watching out for your pet. The worry? Coolant made from ethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting liquid that can be lethal to your pet in dosages as small as a teaspoon, or less.
Safer alternatives exist to ethylene glycol, such as coolant made from propylene glycol. No matter what you use, though, be sure to clean up any spills promptly and thoroughly, and keep any stored product in leak-proof containers in a closed cupboard. If your pet laps even the smallest amount of coolant, see your veterinarian immediately. Your pet's only shot at survival is prompt treatment.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our puppy, a Lab mix from the shelter, is almost 4 months old now. She has a lot of energy, and sometimes we think we made a mistake in adopting her. But we know that puppies are a lot of work, and we're going to hang in there.
The biggest problem we have is that we can't get her to quit biting when she plays. It's really serious, to the extent that our 7-year-old son is afraid to play with the puppy now. Since we got the puppy for our son, this obviously is a bad situation. Can you help? -- N.N., via e-mail
A: Consider how human babies explore the world around them: They touch things, they grab things, and they taste what they grab. Puppies are much the same way, but since nature didn't equip them with fingers, they do their exploring with their mouths.
If you watch a litter of puppies play with each other, you might be surprised at how rough they can be. They nip -- hard. They grab hold of each other by the ears with needle-sharp teeth and pull. As puppies grow older, they learn from their littermates and their mother how to restrain those playful bites, which is one reason why it's so important to leave a puppy with his canine family until he's at least 7 weeks of age.
Some puppies don't get this critical early education, and some others are just slow learners. Others still are from breeds that are known to be "mouthier" than others -- retrievers are the classic example.
You can teach your puppy to keep his teeth to himself by attacking the problem from a couple of different directions. The first would be to redirect the behavior, giving your puppy a yummy toy and praising her for chewing on something that's not a family member.
Even as you're teaching the puppy what's OK to mouth, teach her how to leave family members unchewed by making the nipping unrewarding. Every time the puppy nips, cry "ouch" in a loud voice and immediately stop the play session. Turn away and ignore the puppy completely for a few minutes. Teach your son to do the same thing.
The message to get across: Play stops when she nips. If you're persistent and consistent, your puppy will get start getting the message soon and will learn to inhibit her bites.
If the behavior doesn't show any sign of ending, or if the biting seems more aggressive than playful, don't delay in asking your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist or trainer.
Q: Would you put in a word for greyhounds? There's a real need for homes for these dogs after their racing careers are over. Greyhounds are sweet, gentle and affectionate. They may be retired athletes, but they are committed couch potatoes. About three months ago, I adopted a sweet, loving 2-year-old greyhound. I am amazed at how mellow she is. -- B.W., via e-mail
A: I don't mind at all making the case for greyhounds. They're generally clean, quiet and easygoing, and they seem to be aware of how lucky they are to be in a loving home.
In adopting one, you need to work with a reputable rescue organization that'll match the dog with your household. One of the biggest problems: Some greyhounds -- but not all -- don't mix safely with cats.
A good place to start researching is the Greyhound Project Web site (www.adopt-a-greyhound.org). You'll find lots of information pro and con, as well as links to regional rescue groups.
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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