Do you pause when a black cat crosses your path? I sometimes do, and then I laugh at myself for being influenced by such a silly old myth, even for a second. But that's the funny thing about cats -– more than any other domestic animal, they are the subject of countless myths, legends and old wives' tales.
While some stories about cats are harmless, others are too dangerous not to debunk. Here are a handful of stubborn old myths about cats -- and the facts to counter them:
-- Black cats are bad luck. Black may be an unlucky color all right, but it can be for the cats themselves too. Humane society officials have warned for years that black cats are often the targets of those who practice rituals that include the torture and killing of animals. (Many shelters refuse to allow black cats to be adopted around Halloween, for this very reason.) Black may be an unfortunate color for another reason: visibility. Thousands of cats are killed by cars every year, and the difference between a hit or a near miss may be the driver's ability to see the cat darting across the road. At night, patches of light-colored fur are a distinct advantage.
-- Cats need to drink milk. Is cow's milk the perfect food for cats? Not at all! On the contrary, some cats (like some people) can't tolerate milk well. For these animals, a saucer of milk means gastric upset and diarrhea.
In the wild, kittens never drink milk after they're weaned, and domestic cats have no reason to either. On the other hand, if your cat likes and can tolerate milk, feel free to offer it as an occasional treat. Milk's a good source of protein and other nutrients for those cats who don't find it upsetting.
-- Cats purr when they're happy. Expert cat observers know that purring isn't just a sound of contentment. Cats also purr if they're injured, while giving birth -- even when dying. British zoologist Desmond Morris has observed that purring is "a sign of friendship -- either when (the cat) is contented with a friend or when it is in need of friendship, as with a cat in trouble."
As an aside: Big cats roar; little cats purr. On balance, I think little cats got the better end of that deal. Or at least we, as their companions, did.
-- Cats are a danger to babies. So many cats find themselves looking for new homes when a baby is expected that you could put it the other way: that babies are a danger to cats. But the fact is that you don't need to find a new home for your pet if you become pregnant. Cats do not maliciously smother or suck the breath out of babies, as the myths hold. That doesn't mean some considerations aren't in order, however. Pregnant women have to take special precautions when cleaning the litter box –- or have someone else do it -- because of the risk of disease. And even animal advocates remind new parents that common sense dictates no animal be left unattended with a small child -– for the protection of both.
-- A well-fed cat won't hunt. The ability to hunt is hardwired into all cats, but the level of desire varies by each cat's genetics and early experiences, not by the rumbling in his belly. The play of kittens –- pouncing and leaping on anything that moves –- is really hunting behavior. Observers of feline behavior believe that if the mother is an eager hunter, the kittens may be, too.
Although the desire to hunt may be undeniable, whether your cat kills his prey may have more to do with hunger than anything else, argues Morris. He says that the cat's much-observed tendency to play with its prey is really a matter of the animal's not being hungry enough to eat but still being instinctively driven to hunt.
PETS ON THE WEB
Those who love big dogs will get a kick out of the Web site of Morgan the Great Dane (www.morgandane.com), which celebrates the triumphs not only of Morgan, but also other Great Danes who compete in the sport of agility against legions of Border collies, shelties and other smaller dogs. The site is a labor of love for Morgan's owner and trainer, Keri Caraher, a Colorado-based Web designer and avid agility competitor. Be sure to check out the pictures and videos of Morgan and other Danes in action. For $25, you can also buy a T-shirt with the nifty "Air Morgan" logo on it -– until Nike gets wind of it, I'd guess.
Annual vaccinations are becoming a thing of the past for most dogs and cats as an increasing number of veterinarians are choosing to follow new recommendations that space booster shots years apart. The reason? New thinking holds that the immunity levels remain high for years longer than previously believed, and that the vaccinations themselves come with health risks.
Such cutting-edge thinking is reflected in the protocols of the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, which does not offer some vaccines at all and limits others to every-three-year events, after pets have gone through a series of shots as youngsters. The complete recommendations are available at www.vmth.ucdavis.edu/vmth/clientinfo/info/vaccinproto.html.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I'm 63 years old, a widow, and I'm facing some surgery in the next few weeks. The surgery is routine, I've been assured, but you never know, do you? I worry about what will happen to my pets if something happens to me. Do you have some advice about what I should be doing to protect them? I have a 12-year-old cat and a 4-year-old dog, both in good health. –- W.O., via e-mail
A: Nobody likes to think about the "what-ifs," and you've done a very good thing for your pets in doing so. When someone is disabled or dies, the welfare of that person's pets is often not even a major concern of the people left to deal with the situation. The result: A lot of animals are promptly dumped on shelters or rescue groups.
Every pet lover, regardless of age or health, should have a plan for the care of pets in case of death or disability. Remember, even if you're young and healthy, something could happen to change that in a heartbeat. (Humane groups were part of the post-9/11 response effort, locating, caring for and in many cases finding new homes for the pets of those people who would never come home again.)
In most cases you'll be relying on friends and family to look after your pets if something happens to you. You can't leave money to a pet; instead, you'll be leaving your pet to someone else, and providing that person with enough money (if you can) to cover expenses for the rest of the animal's life.
In addition, every pet owner should also have some form of "durable power of attorney" ready, designating someone to make immediate decisions for your pet should illness or accident incapacitate you.
Your best bet is to talk about this subject with an attorney as well as with friends and family, to make arrangements in advance and keep them current. Never assume that a member of your family will take your pet as his or her own. Make sure you have found a willing adopter and that the details you've arranged are known to all. Also, talk to your attorney about how to structure any money you leave for care.
When I had surgery a couple of years ago, I made arrangements for my friends to take my pets if something happened, and had an attorney formalize the arrangements. In turn, I'm also the "what-if" person for the pets of at least a half-dozen other people, to either keep the pets as my own, find them new homes or (if age and illness dictates) oversee the saddest decision of all -– to euthanize the pet.
Q: What can we do to keep our cat and strays from getting on our cars? This has become a big problem lately with paw prints appearing almost daily. We want to keep our cat but we also want to keep our cars from getting damaged. -- K.R, via e-mail
A: While you can keep your own cat from walking on your cars by keeping him inside, you won't be able to do much about the neighborhood cats. Since you can't control the cats, control their access to the cars: Protect your vehicles by garaging them or by using car covers.
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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