Do you have one of those seemingly crazy cats who loves your petting one minute and bites your hand the next? While you can't completely turn a "skitty kitty" into a purring slug cat, you can work to increase your pet's tolerance for petting. As with all behavior problems, it's important to have your veterinarian rule out any health issues before you start retraining.
If your cat's aggression has a health-related component, you need to address that problem first. Before you start training, you must recognize that if your cat bites your hand while you're petting him, you've missed more than a couple of messages from him asking you to stop. The key one: a tail twitch that becomes more agitated, and finally escalates into a noticeable thump or thrash.
You should also be aware that some places on his body are more sensitive than others. For a highly reactive cat, restrict your caresses 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 greatly outnumbered by the cats who'll quickly tire of a tummy rub and 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 the safe areas on his body only, watching for the first sign of a tail twitch. When you get that first early-warning sign, stop petting and allow him to calm down or leave if he wants to. Don't let it go so far that he feels the need to jump off you quickly or to bite.
The key is to work up to the outskirts of tolerance and stop there, so your cat will learn to trust you in longer sessions. Never hit a cat for biting. If you miss the signs and end up in your cat's non-affectionate embrace, just freeze. Providing no resistance will help calm your cat so he will just let go. If you fight back or physically punish your cat, you are more likely to get bitten or scratched -- he'll feel compelled by instinct and fear to escalate the violence. You'll also undo your good training efforts, and may hurt your relationship with your pet in the long run.
You cat is acting in the only way he knows how. It's up to you to teach him how pleasant petting can be. As any cat lover will tell you, teaching your cat to tolerate petting is well worth the effort -- for the both of you.
What makes one cat more liable to bite than another? The degree of sensitivity has both genetic and social factors. Some cats are born edgy, while others are made that way because of a lack of socialization or proper
training in their kittenhoods. (Never let a kitten come to believe fingers are for chewing on, even in play. Redirect your kitten's playful energy to toys instead.)
Activity levels also play a part in how much petting a cat will tolerate. Heavier, larger cat breeds or mixes are usually more satisfied to be easy-going lap kitties than are the lighter, more willowy ones who like to stay on the move. But with patience, any cat can learn to appreciate petting from the people in his life.
PETS ON THE WEB
Macaws are among our most popular companion birds, beautiful, intelligent and affectionate. From the massive hyacinth macaw -- the largest parrot kept as a pet -- to the more manageable sizes of the "mini" macaws, these birds have plenty of fans worldwide, many of whom no doubt visit Those Majestic Macaws (www.exoticbird.com), a Web site packed with a variety of useful and entertaining information, as well as lots of great avian links. You'll find information on the various species, on macaw-related e-mail lists, breeder referrals, parrot jokes, and recipes for healthy treats and meals for your pet bird. Although I'd like to see a little more information from avian veterinarians -- too much of the health information is from breeders and fanciers, not medical professionals -- the site still has plenty to offer.
How old is your cat in "human terms"? Here's a rough way to figure it out: Count the first year of a cat's life as being comparable to the time a human reaches the early stages of adulthood -- the age of 15 or so. The second year of a cat's life picks up some of that maturity and takes a cat to the first stages of full adulthood in humans -- a 2-year-old cat is roughly equivalent to a person in their mid-20s. From there, a "five equals one" rule works pretty well. A cat of 3 is still young, comparable to a person of 29. A 6-year-old cat, similar to a 41-year-old person, is in the throes of middle age; a 12-year-old cat, similar to a 65-year-old person, has earned the right to slow down a little. A cat who lives to be 20 is the feline equivalent of nearly 100 in terms of human lifespan.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: A couple of years ago you shared a recipe for a cake that looks like a cat's litter box. I thought it might be fun to make for my son's Cub Scout troop. You know how boys love to be grossed out! Will you please share the recipe again? -- L. Z., via e-mail
A: You're right about little boys -- most of them love this cake! Adults, on the other hand, often find the very thought of it so disgusting that I once had an editor argue that the recipe wasn't fit for printing in a family newspaper. I think it was the Tootsie Rolls that did her in.
The recipe comes from the files of the Veterinary Information Network (www.vin.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More than a few veterinarians have used the recipe for open houses in their clinics or hospitals. The most important part of following the recipe? Be sure to use a brand-new litter box and scoop.
LITTER BOX CAKE
1 pkg. spice cake mix
1 pkg. white cake mix
1 pkg. white sandwich cookies
Green food coloring
12 small Tootsie Rolls
1 box vanilla pudding mix (not instant)
1 brand new, freshly washed litter box
1 brand new, freshly washed litter box scoop
Prepare the cake mixes and bake according to their directions. Prepare the pudding mix and chill until ready to assemble. Use a blender on a low setting to crumble the white sandwich cookies in small batches; they tend to stick, so scrape often. Set aside all but about 1/4 cup. To the 1/4 cup of cookie crumbs, add a few drops of green food coloring and mix by using a fork.
After the cakes cool to room temperature, crumble them into a large bowl. Toss with half the remaining cookie crumbs and the chilled pudding. Gently combine. Line a new, freshly cleaned litter box with plastic wrap. Put the mixture into the box. Put three unwrapped Tootsie Rolls in a microwave-safe dish and heat until they're soft and pliable. Shape the ends so that they're no longer blunt, curving them slightly. Repeat with three more Tootsie Rolls and bury them in the mixture.
Sprinkle the other half of the cookie crumbs over the top of the mixture. Scatter the green cookie crumbs lightly over the top so they look like the chlorophyll in some cat-box fillers. Heat the remaining Tootsie Rolls, three at a time, in the microwave until they're almost melted. Taper the ends as before, then plop them on top of the cake and sprinkle with cookie crumbs. Serve with a brand new, freshly washed cat-box scoop.
Q: Our dog's nose is occasionally dry and warm, which I always thought was a sign of illness. He doesn't seem sick, though. Should we be worried? -- R.T., via e-mail
A: Assuming your dog gets a regular check-up and seems fine otherwise, then it's nothing to worry about. If there are symptoms besides "dry nose," though, check with your veterinarian.
A dry nose is not indicative of a fever, despite a widely held belief to the contrary. To determine if your dog's running a fever, insert a thermometer with a little lubricating jelly gently into his fanny. A healthy dog should have a temperature of about 102.5, give or take a degree.
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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