If you keep your cats inside, they'll definitely be safe. But will they be happy? On this point, cat lovers disagree.
I'm reminded of the controversy every time one of my friends loses a cat, which seems to happen on an annual basis. She has had them hit by cars, pulled apart by dogs, poisoned, but mostly they just disappear.
She writes me when they die, her e-mails a blend of sadness and defensiveness. She tells me that she knows I think she should keep her cats inside, but she believes that her cats' lives, though short, were better for being allowed to roam. She doesn't know anyone who keeps cats inside, and so she hasn't seen for herself that it's possible for cats to be happy without free access to the outside.
Keeping a cat inside is more difficult, both in terms of the time spent maintaining the animal, and the effort and imagination required to keep the animal mentally and physically happy. But I've seen enough indoor cats to know that they seem perfectly content, especially if they've never been allowed to roam.
The basics include food and water dishes, of course, and a litter box. But it's not enough just to buy these things and put them where you think it's convenient. As is typical of an animal whose wild relatives are often meals for larger predators, cats need to feel comfortable where they get their essential tasks done. Litter boxes, especially, should be in protected areas, filled with litter the cat prefers and kept clean.
But that's not all you need to do. Since you've taken away a large part of the cat's natural world, you need to put in "environmental enrichments" to make up for the loss. Think about ways to make your home more entertaining to your cat, engaging as many senses as possible.
Your first investment should be a cat tree, a place for your pet to scratch, climb, perch and generally feel superior to the beings below. Cats love to scratch -– it keeps their claws sharp, gives them a good stretch and allows them to mark their territory with scent -- and with patience most cats can be trained to use a cat tree or post instead of furniture.
Next up: toys. You'll need an interactive toy you can play with your cat, such as a "fishing" pole (as I've written recently, The Galkie Co. makes a great one, $15 including shipping and handling from P.O. Box 20, Harrogate, TN 37752, www.kittytease.com or 423-869-8138). Add some toys for batting, such as small stuffed animals or balls with bells in them. You don't even need to spend money: Cats can be kept entertained with empty boxes or shopping bags, corks from wine bottles or the tops of milk containers.
Don't forget to jazz up the scent of toys with catnip or valeria, both of which you can grow yourself, so you'll always have a fresh supply. And while you're planting, be sure to keep fresh grasses growing for your cat's nibbling pleasure.
You can also work on ways to give your cat safe access to the outdoors, such as with a cat door into a screened-in porch. You can also buy kits for portable outdoor pens, completed with tunnels for connecting to the house. I know of several people who have put together some grand outdoor spaces, including a two-story enclosure clinging to the side of the house with areas for climbing, sunbathing and hiding. These needn't be expensive, especially if you're a capable do-it-yourselfer.
Lose your guilt and use your imagination. Whatever your cat loses by not roaming free he'll gain from the pleasures you can pack in your home. And he'll really benefit from the long, healthy life enjoyed by so many indoor cats.
Birdbaths aren't just for wild birds. Most pet birds enjoy getting wet on a regular basis too -- and it's good for them. Some birds enjoy being misted with a spray bottle, while others will happily share your shower, with the help of any number of perches designed to affix to the wall of the stall. Some birds would rather bathe and enjoy access to a shallow dish of water. Experiment until you find out what suits your bird best, then allow your pet a drenching as frequently as every day.
PETS ON THE WEB
More than 1,000 dog parks can be found in the United States and Canada, according to the Dogpark Web site (www.dogpark.com). That's a nifty bit of news and reason to celebrate. And, you'll find lots more on this site, such as information on dog care and health, tips on toys and games, and features on dogs and their people. There's even a store for picking up necessary dog-park equipment, such as the Chuck-it, which allows for slobber-free tennis ball throwing.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Thank you for writing about fat dogs! My husband and I currently live with his mother, and she has a 20-pound dog who should ideally weigh less than 14 pounds. Everything my mother-in-law eats, her dog eats, from meat, potatoes and cheese to ice cream, cookies and cake. The dog will bark if her begging is not responded to immediately.
We have a very active and healthy mutt who loves to play and will fetch a ball for hours on end. He also weighs 20 pounds, but that's what he's supposed to weigh. He doesn't beg since we almost never give him anything but dry dog food.
Our dog would love nothing more than to play ball with my mother-in-law's dog, but she can't keep up. She has stopped even trying to run for the ball and instead barks because she feels so left out.
It's apparent to everyone but my mother-in-law whose dog is happier. I gave the article to my mother-in-law in hopes that your words will get through. Please keep reminding people that they don't do their dogs any favors by letting them get fat. -- A.D., via e-mail
A: Having struggled with weight for nearly all of my life, I am too well aware of what it feels like to be disabled by excess pounds. And I know what it's like to go from not being able to walk across a parking lot without losing my breath to being able (as I am now, after losing most of my extra weight) to ride a bike for hours or walk for miles.
I have to believe the experience of being able to move freely and without pain is joyous to all beings. I know my life is a million times better these days, and I can imagine the same would be true of any obese pet brought lovingly back to fitness.
Denying pets the pleasures of movement by letting them become grossly obese is no kindness. It's difficult to say "no" to the big brown eyes of a pet who has been taught to beg constantly, but doing so is truly an act of caring -- stuffing your overweight dog is not.
Q: I'm thinking of adopting a puppy in the next couple of weeks, a male Pomeranian who was born without eyes. Our veterinarian looked at the baby today and says he has a strong heart and can see no other problems.
I'm 57 years old, and I'm home almost all the time. The breeder said she was hoping someone with disabilities -- I'm blind in one eye and have some mobility problems -- would take him because that person would understand the dog's limitations.
What are your feelings on taking in this puppy? He already has my heart, but my daughter thinks I need to do more research. -- S.C., via e-mail
A: I've known several blind dogs over the years and have seen for myself the happy lives they lead. Remember, dogs rely on their noses first for sensory input, to the extent that if they see something their nose won't confirm -- like a dog in the mirror, or on TV -- they won't pay it much mind. Remember, too, that although we need our eyes for reading, driving, etc., dogs do none of these things.
If you love the little guy and he's healthy, I say adopt him! He will adapt well in the house if you don't keep moving the furniture around. Outside, keep him in your arms or on leash at all times for his protection.
I think you'll both do splendidly, and bless you for opening your heart to this special dog. May you both be very happy!
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. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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