We ask a lot of our cats, and take the adjustments they make to live with us largely for granted -- unless there's a problem.
We ask our cats to relieve themselves in a small tray instead of anywhere in their territory, as would be natural for them. We ask them to scratch in one place instead of marking every surface, as they would in the wild. We ask them to ignore their ability to jump gracefully onto tables and countertops, and to adjust their naturally nocturnal schedule to our daytime ones.
Most cats make the compromises with relative ease. If yours hasn't, you can use tried-and-true strategies to help your cat adjust to the unnatural demands of living in a human-created environment.
The first step in resolving any behavioral problem is working with your veterinarian to make sure it's not a health problem. Illness must be corrected if you're to have any hope of changing the behaviors you abhor.
Cats are good at hiding illness, and we often add to the problem by attributing "bad behavior" to those signs they do give us. A cat with a urinary-tract problem, for example, may come to associate the pain he feels while in the litter box with the location itself, and start eliminating elsewhere.
Even healthy cats can become unhinged by stress and react by altering their behavior. Some cats mark territory by spraying when their home is "invaded" by a new pet or person. In a cat's mind, this behavior makes sense: Making the world smell like himself is comforting to him (though not to you).
Stressed-out cats can be helped with environmental adjustments, such as limiting his territory to a single room for a while. A calming medication from your veterinarian may help ease your cat -- and you -- through a rough time, if combined with those environmental changes.
If it's not illness or stress, you need to look at your own behavior. Are you asking something of your cat that's not possible for him to give? Your cat may not want to use the litter box if it's rarely cleaned, or is in a place with no privacy. Likewise, asking a cat to leave the couch alone is not fair if he has nothing else in the house to scratch. You need to provide him with some alternatives before you can work on getting him to leave the furniture alone.
Do you provide your cat with enough exercise and entertainment? You've asked your cat to give up his whole world, and all you're offering in return is a few hours of your presence a day and maybe a catnip mouse? More toys! More play!
You must also consider that maybe your cat never knew the house rules to begin with. If all you've ever done in the way of training is to scream or hit your cat, you've probably not taught him anything except that you're someone to avoid. Physical correction has no place in changing a cat's behavior; cats just don't understand it. And using such correction just stresses them out, leading to even more problems.
Keeping a journal of problems can help you spot and understand trends while removing some of the emotion involved in living with an animal who is causing you unhappiness. Realizing that your cat's behavior isn't spiteful or capricious can make the problem easier for you to live with while you work on turning the situation around.
The future is grim for a cat whose owner gives up on him. If you're reaching the breaking point -- ideally before that point -- ask your veterinarian about a referral to a behaviorist. A consultation with an expert can provide you with a plan for fixing the problem. It's much cheaper than replacing carpeting or a sofa, and certainly a better option than giving up on your cat.
Rabbits need roughage to stay healthy over the long haul, and one of the easiest ways to put indigestible fiber in their diets is to allow them 24-hour-a-day access to grass hay such as oat or timothy.
In addition, rabbit experts suggest adding a variety of fresh leafy vegetables to the diet, such as parsley, carrot tops, broccoli leaves and dandelion greens, along with other vegetables and fruits such as carrots, melons, apples or pears. Give fruits and veggies a good scrubbing before offering them to your pet, and remove remainders before they go bad.
PETS ON THE WEB
Routine vaccinations are no longer so: Because of cancers associated with vaccines in cats and immune-system concerns in both cats and dogs, the veterinary profession has been rethinking the concept of annual vaccinations.
The University of California, Davis, Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital has a Web page (www.vmth.ucdavis.edu/vmth/clientinfo/info/vaccinproto.html) that explains its new guidelines, with a series of selected vaccines for kittens and puppies and boosters for adults coming at three-year intervals.
Please note: Your pet still needs to see your veterinarian every year, vaccines or not. A thorough annual physical is just as important for your pet's health as it is for your own.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We are having some behavioral problems with our 18-month-old boxer, and we are considering sending her to a two-week course for training. What are your thoughts on training dogs in this manner, removed from her owners and her regular environment? -- J.D., via e-mail
A: The answer depends on what "behavior problems" are troubling you. Will the difficulty you're having be solved if your dog is taught the basic commands -- sit, down, stay, come? Or are the problems those your dog may not exhibit in a kennel environment, such as counter-cruising, destructiveness, aggression or separation anxiety?
If it's basic obedience you want from your dog, then, yes, a couple weeks away with a reputable trainer can be very helpful. The caveat: You need to be willing to learn how to handle your dog when she returns home, and commit to keeping up the training. Otherwise, you're pretty much wasting your money.
If it's any behavior issue other than general obedience commands, I think you're better off working with a trainer or behaviorist who'll meet with your family in the home, observe the both the dog and how you interact with her, and set up a program for you all to follow.
Either way, don't hire a trainer unless you are comfortable with his or her methods, and comfortable, as well, that the trainer will tailor those methods to the personality of your dog. Dog-training was once almost solely reliant on hard-nosed methods derived from the military; recent years have seen a swing to motivational training based on work with performing animals in such environments as marine parks. As a result, you'll find all kinds of trainers with all kinds of methods out there today.
The trainer you choose should be able to explain which methods she or he believes to be best for your dog, and why. I also like to see certification from a dog-trainer's association, which shows an interest in keeping up on current theory and techniques. Finally, check references and, if you're leaving your dog, check the trainer's facilities.
Q: Are there such things as toy cats, like toy dogs? I would like a cat that stays kitten-sized. -- A.C., via the Internet
A: If you consider that many toy dogs weigh about the same as an average 9-pound cat, you can figure that in any cat you already have a wonderful pet in a compact package.
While no breed of cat could really be called a "toy," the so-called "Oriental" breeds are among the smaller and lighter cats you can find, including such cats as the show Siamese, Abyssinian, Burmese and the Devon and Cornish rexes. The smallest breed of cat is probably the Singapura, which weighs about 6 to 8 pounds. Although any of these cats might not be as small as you were hoping to find, they're petite in comparison to such hefty bods as those associated with the Maine Coon and Norwegian Forest cats.
If you adopt an adult cat, you can be guaranteed to know what size your new pet will be, since unlike a kitten, a cat is already mature. I remember a friend's cat who was the tiniest half-starved scrap of fur the world has ever seen. He grew into a very large and lovely companion, the biggest in her multicat household by a good 3 pounds.
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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