One of my friends has a cat who adores her so much that he follows when she walks the family dog. A notorious cat-about-town, he stops his prowling at exactly the time his beloved human should be coming home from work. If she's home, he's home, and usually within 20 feet of her.
But his adoration doesn't stop him from grabbing her arm while she's petting him, digging in his claws and delivering a not-so-gentle bite.
My friend is quite certain her cat is crazy. I know he's just one of those cats who don't handle stimulation well. The good news: Her cat thinks she's the center of the universe. The better news: The cat can be trained to treat her that way, too.
Both genetics and social factors contribute to how likely a cat is to bite or claw while being petted. Some cats are born with short fuses; others are made that way (or made worse) through a lack of early socialization or proper training in their kittenhoods. That's why it's important to never let a kitten come to believe fingers are for chewing on, even in play. Redirect your kitten's playful energy to toys instead. And never hit a kitten or cat for biting, since you'll make it more likely, not less, that your pet will strike faster in fear and self-defense the next time.
Natural activity levels also play a part in how much petting a cat will tolerate. Cats from large-breed backgrounds (think Maine coon) are generally mellow in temperament, willing to sit quietly while being petted. So-called Oriental breeds or mixes (think Siamese or Burmese) are usually more interested in being on the go.
But no matter how hair-trigger the setting on your cat's attack mode, you can work to increase your pet's tolerance for petting by paying close attention to his body language as you slowly increase the amount of time during which he'll calmly accept your attention.
You should also be aware that some places are more sensitive than others. For a highly reactive cat, restrict your caresses at first to behind the ears, under the chin or the base of the tail. A long stroke down the back is too much for some kitties, and you're really taking chances when you decide to tickle your cat's tummy. The cats who enjoy it are well-outnumbered by the cats who'll seek to stop it with teeth and claws.
Work to build your cat's tolerance to touch over time. When you pick your cat up for a petting session, don't surprise him. Come up on him slowly and pick him up gently, making sure his whole body is supported with a hand under his chest and one beneath his legs.
Pet him in less-reactive areas on his body, watching for the first sign of a tail twitch. When you get that early warning sign, stop petting and let your cat leave if he wants to. The idea is to work up to just short of the point where your pet becomes uncomfortable and then stop, so you can gradually increase his tolerance for petting. For some cats, the addition of treats during petting can also help the reconditioning process.
If you miss the signs and end up in your cat's nonaffectionate embrace, just freeze. Providing no resistance will help calm your cat so he'll just let go, usually in a few seconds. If you fight back or physically punish your cat, you are more likely to get bitten or scratched in the short run, and damage your relationship with your pet in the long run.
Be patient, and be satisfied with small improvements as you go. As any cat lover will tell you, teaching your cat to tolerate petting is well worth the effort -- for both of you.
PETS ON THE WEB
Every year I get a lush color catalog from Doyle New York, drumming up publicity and business for the company's annual auction of fine art with a canine theme. Every year I flip through the catalog, sighing heavily both in appreciation and resignation -- I adore looking but, like most of us, I'm not one of those folks who can write a check for tens of thousands of dollars for a 19th-century portrait of some spaniels. (Last year's top dog, a painting of two English setters, fetched $96,000.)
Fortunately, the folks at Doyle have promised to put the entire collection online for those who'd like to look, in hopes of attracting those who can buy. The auction starts at 1 p.m. EST on Feb. 12 on the mega-rich Upper East Side of Manhattan. The offerings will appear on the Web site (www.doylenewyork.com) sometime before the opening bid.
If you're looking for sweet songs, choose a male canary over a female. Males are more likely to sing, an attribute designed not to amuse human caretakers but rather to attract a mate and ward off competitors. A bird must be in good health to sing, so if your male canary's consistently quiet, see a veterinarian with experience in avian patients to get your bird back on track.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We bought a puppy from a pet store. Within an hour she was coughing. I took her to a veterinarian, and he said it was kennel cough. A couple of days later, the puppy had pneumonia. I got my money back, but now I have no puppy and four upset children. I need to find them a miniature schnauzer puppy quick! Can you help? -- S.M., via e-mail
A: I'm so sorry for what you went through and for that poor pup. I can't offer you a puppy, but I can surely offer you some very important advice: Slow down.
Finding a dog "quick" might mean a repeat of what you've already been through. If you're looking for a purebred puppy, you need to find a reputable breeder, work with that breeder, and take your time.
Purebred dogs are well-known for their expensive health problems, everything from skeletal disorders to congenital deafness and blindness. A well-bred and properly socialized purebred pup is healthy and has wonderful pet potential. Unfortunately, too many purebreds are a risk from the start.
Why? Because many of those selling dogs don't know or don't care about screening breeding stock for congenital health defects, and they don't bother to ensure that puppies are safely socialized, gently exposed from birth to the everyday sights, smells and sounds of normal human life. Even a pup who is otherwise healthy can become a difficult pet if not handled properly from day one, forever shy, aggressive or difficult to house-train.
A dog show is a good place to start your search for a reputable breeder, and so, too, is the Web site of the national breed club. You can find out about upcoming dog shows on the InfoDog Web site (www.infodog.com). More information on choosing a breeder and links to breed clubs can be found on the American Kennel Club's Web site (www.akc.org).
Q: My husband and I are considering getting two puppies. We've had mixed feedback about this and would like your advice.
I've found that animal shelters and veterinarians recommend getting two pups at the same time so they can play together while we're away from home. However, dog trainers have been very negative about getting two puppies at the same time.
If you recommend only one pup at a time, how do you think we should keep the one puppy occupied while we're at work during the day? -- K.U., via e-mail
A: I'm with the trainers you've consulted: Two puppies are one puppy too many for most people.
Two puppies who are raised together will often bond more tightly with each other than with the human members of the house, especially if they spend a lot of time alone together. House-training can be a challenge with two puppies, because fresh messes from the one who's not getting it quickly may prompt backsliding in the other pup. Obedience training and all-important socialization can also be hard, since you have to find the time to work with each puppy individually.
If you wish to have two dogs relatively quickly, I'd recommend adopting an adult dog and then a puppy. Give the adult dog a couple of months to settle before bringing in the pup. You'll still need to work with both individually, but if you choose properly, the adult dog should slide easily into your life, giving you ample time to work with the puppy. If you want to start with puppies, wait until the first puppy is a year to 18 months of age before adding another pup.
What will one puppy do alone when you're at work? For the most part, sleep. Set the baby up in a small, secure area with safe chew toys and he'll be fine.
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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