The truth about cats and dogs is that while a few of them will fight like ... well, you know, most of them can learn to live together peacefully, even happily, in the same household.
The key to such blissful cohabitation is getting the relationship off to a good start -- by introducing the animals slowly and carefully.
Are you starting with a dog and adding a cat? You can makes things easier by teaching your dog two basic behaviors: "leave it" and "stay." You'll ask for both behaviors frequently as you insist that your dog give the new cat some space.
All training classes teach "stay," and many will also teach "leave it," since it's one of the most useful commands around. (For one thing, it can keep your dog from scarfing up something disgusting while you're out on a walk.) If your dog doesn't know basic obedience, or you both need a little brushup, find a class in your area and complete the course before kitty comes home. Having a well-mannered dog will make the transition a great deal easier.
While you're working on your dog, get in touch with a rescue group or shelter that can help you find a cat or kitten who's comfortable being around dogs -- or at least is tolerant of them.
When you and your dog are ready to add to the family, don't be in a hurry to push the animals together. Bring your new cat or kitten home in a carrier, and put the carrier in a bedroom set up for your cat to stay in during the settling-in period, complete with all the things he needs to get by: food, water, toys, litter box, scratching post.
Let your leashed dog sniff the cat in the carrier, but if he's getting overly excited, use the "leave it" command and praise him for minding. Then take the dog out of the room, close the bedroom door, open the carrier and let the cat choose when to explore the new surroundings.
After the cat seems to have relaxed -- which may take a couple of days or a couple of weeks, depending on the cat -- put a baby gate across the bedroom door. This will allow the cat to choose how much interaction he'll have with the dog, and leaves an escape route. The gate can come down when everyone has adjusted to the addition, and when you're sure the dog isn't going to chase the cat.
Although it doesn't seem quite fair to the pet who was there first, confining your cat to a single bedroom also works well if you're introducing a new dog to an established cat. Cats don't like changes in their territory or routines, and having a small, safe area that can then be expanded helps them to adjust.
And speaking of adjustments, chances are you'll have to change the litter box and food dish arrangements of your cat when you add a dog to the family.
Many people allow their cats to feed freely from floor-level bowls of dry food that are never allowed to empty. If this is true in your home, you're going to have to teach your cat to find his dishes in a place where the dog can't get to them -- on the washing machine or a utility-room counter, perhaps.
Litter boxes must likewise be placed in spot inaccessible to the dog, to prevent the disgusting desire many dogs have to munch the contents. Again, a baby gate can provide the necessary barrier, or a cat flap cut into an interior wall or door. Covered litter boxes can also be an option, but some large, strong dogs aren't deterred by them, and these boxes aren't recommended for cats with respiratory problems.
Be alert for conflicts and be creative in solving any problems that arise. While some cats and dogs will never get beyond a truce, there are plenty more who will enjoy the companionship -- as will you.
PETS ON THE WEB
Want to write about dogs or cats? You might want to check out the Web sites of the Dog Writers Association of America (www.dwaa.org) or the Cat Writers Association (www.catwriters.org). I've been a longtime member of the former, and a charter member of the latter. I've found them both to be supportive of new writers, especially through a jointly held annual conference and separate writing contests with individual prizes ranging as high as $1,000.
Members of both groups -- there's a lot of crossover, as you may imagine -- also maintain e-mail lists where questions are answered, victories celebrated and losses consoled. Nice folks!
This is the time of year where I can count on people writing in to make fun of friends, family or neighbors who put sweaters on their dogs. Then they'll ask me to publicly announce that clothes for dogs aren't necessary.
While it's true that young, healthy dogs with good coats don't need a sweater or jacket, other pets may benefit from the additional warmth. Count among them lean-bodied dogs -- greyhounds, whippets, Italian greyhounds -- as well as any dog kept clipped relatively short, such as poodles. Older pets will also appreciate the extra padding.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My husband and I just got back from vacation with our dogs. Unfortunately, we had to endure dirty looks from people at the parks and beaches, because there always seems to be a dog owner up ahead who wasn't observing the leash laws or picking up the mess. Some places that used to accept dogs now don't. I can't say I blame them.
I'll admit it seems counterintuitive to bag the waste when you're in a forest or on the beach, but having seen evidence where someone didn't, we do. I don't like seeing the piles by the side of the trail, and I love dogs. Imagine how people without dogs feel about it!
We've had NDO's (non-dog owners) stop to praise our pups for being on leash, for heeling to let strangers pass on the trail, etc. It always catches us by surprise. While we can see not everyone uses good travel manners, somehow it's hard to accept people can be so stupid. Bad travel manners equal fewer opportunities for dogs and their people. Would you please pass along the word? -- J.J., via e-mail
A: Consider it done. While I'm in favor of off-leash exercise for dogs, I believe it should be in areas set aside for such. And all dog mess should be cleaned up as soon as it hits the ground.
Good manners are the only way to fight anti-dog sentiment, and every ill-behaved dog and left-behind pile makes it more difficult for responsible dog lovers to find places that welcome their pets.
Kudos to you both for setting such a good example with your well-behaved dogs.
Q: There is much controversy regarding seeds and pellets as the best diet for parrots. If the seed mixture comes with pellets already mixed in it and you fortify their diet with plenty of greens, fruit and some table food, do you feel that is sufficient?
Our veterinarian recommends a pellet-only diet for our parrots with only occasional treats of fruit and veggies. What is your take on this? -- L.O., via e-mail
A: I'm not aware that it's much of a controversy anymore. Seeds are a bird's junk food, best left for use as occasional treat or training aid. They should not be a dietary staple. Pelleted foods have gained near-universal acceptance as a foundation on which to build a healthy diet.
My "Birds for Dummies" co-author, Dr. Brian L. Speer, is past president of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and one of only a handful of veterinarians board-certified in avian care in both North America and in Europe. He's a strong believer in a diet as varied as possible. Start with a high-quality pelleted food, supplemented liberally by every kind of healthy "people food" imaginable -- a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, pasta, bread and more.
Your question gives me the opportunity to share my friend Joanne's recipe for "Sweet Potato Cupcakes," a favorite of her African gray, Layla, and, now, my little caique parrot, Eddie. Bake or microwave a sweet potato, then scoop the flesh into a bowl. Mash with a little orange juice (a sprinkling of seed optional), spoon a small amount into paper cupcake shells and freeze. I give Eddie his cupcake half-thawed; he loves the food and happily rips the paper to bits when he's done eating.
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.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600