While you can't completely turn a "skitty kitty" into a lazy lap-cat, you can do a lot to tame a feisty feline -- if you're patient and educate yourself in the basics of cat body language before you start.
All cats are very sensitive to touch, with some disliking it and some revving up the purr machine at the mere promise of a pat. The degree of reactivity has both genetic and social factors. Some cats are born jumpy, while others are made that way because of improper training (such as encouraging a kitten to attack fingers) or a lack of socialization in their first few weeks of life.
Natural activity levels also play a part in how much petting a cat will tolerate. Heavier, larger breeds or mixes are usually more satisfied to be sluggish lap kitties than are the lighter, more willowy cats who like to stay on the move. That's why I like to recommend choosing an adult cat if you have a specific kind of feline personality in mind. After all, one person's adored zoom-zoom cat is another's busybody pest.
The reverse is also true: The laid-back attitude of a couch-potato cat may be disappointing to the person who was hoping for a playful pet.
No matter what kind of cat you have, you can work to increase your pet's tolerance for petting by paying close attention to his body language and slowly increasing the time he spends in your lap.
First, you need to 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 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 a chance when you decide to tickle your cat's tummy. The cats who enjoy it are outnumbered by the cats who'll quickly tire and seek to stop it with teeth and claws.
Work to build your cat's tolerance to touch over time -- a long time, in some cases. When you pick up your cat 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 early warning sign, stop petting and see if he relaxes. If he doesn't, gently put him down or let him leave when he wants to. Don't keep pushing to the point where your cat feels the need 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 ever-longer sessions.
Never, ever hit a cat for biting. If you miss the signs and end up in with teeth or claws around your hand, just freeze. Providing no resistance will help calm your cat so he will let go. If you fight back or physically punish your cat, you are more likely to get seriously bitten or scratched in the short run, and damage your relationship with your pet in the long run.
Stay patient and positive, and one day you'll both learn how special your time together can be.
Do you have a golden retriever? Has anyone in your family ever blamed an awful after-dinner odor on an innocent dog? Have you ever worn out your arm throwing for a dog who seemingly never tires of "fetch"? If you can answer in the affirmative, you'll probably like the cartoons collected in Bruce Cochran's clever little book, "Golden Fever: A Rollicking Romp With Everyone's Buddy, the Golden Retriever" ($10, Willow Creek Press). As a true retriever believer, I found myself smiling at every page and laughing out loud more than once.
PETS ON THE WEB
My friend Phyllis DeGioia, editor of the Veterinary Partner Web site (www.veterinarypartner.com), recommended that I check out the memorial jewelry offered by a little company called Whisper in the Heart (http://whisperintheheart.com/with/). I'm glad I did! The site is run by an animal lover who knows what it's like to love and lose a pet (the story of her dog Whisper is on the Web site). The necklaces are tasteful, discrete and attractive in either small urn or locket styles. The site also offers a page with helpful pet-loss links, although it's hard to find -- scroll to the bottom and click on "Comments/Links."
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I am 14, and for years I have wanted a dog. It is mostly for companionship, but also because I sometimes get lonely in the house (I'm an only child). It almost feels as if I'm the only person in the world.
The problem is my dad won't let me have a dog. I have written essays, made PowerPoint presentations, read books, given him useful dog Web site addresses and flat-out begged. He doesn't want a dog because all he sees are the negatives -- poop, barking, etc.
My mom likes animals, so she's OK with it. But we really want this to be a family thing and he's so resistant!
Today I came home bawling after letting out my feelings to a friend on the bus. I think I want a dog more than the people who have them. Can you help me convince him? -- A.B., via e-mail
A: I'm going to give your dad the benefit of the doubt -- probably because I'm not 14 -- and assume he has some valid reasons for saying "no." Maybe your family is rarely home, with schedules full of work and school, plus lots of social or sports activities filling up the evenings and weekends. Maybe he doesn't like dogs, or doesn't want one in the house and knows a dog will be miserably lonely if left outdoors all the time. Or maybe he remembers that time when you were 8 and didn't take good care of your hamster.
The good news is that the way to get dogs in your life is also the way to convince your father that you're able and willing to do the work keeping a dog entails. My suggestion: Volunteer at an animal shelter. At many organizations, volunteers can start as young as 14 with parental consent.
Set up a schedule of volunteering, and show your responsibility by sticking to it for a minimum of six months. Depending on the shelter, chances are you'll be put to work walking and socializing the dogs, as well as helping staffers to care for, and clean up after the animals. You'll scoop enough poop to convince your dad that you're more than up to the challenge.
You'll meet a lot of wonderful pets. You'll also learn how animals end up in the shelter, so you'll be able to avoid the pitfalls yourself. Not to mention: Volunteering is a great way to enhance your "marketability" when it comes time to apply for college.
Finally, when you have convinced your dad to say "yes" to a dog, you'll be able to use the dog-savvy you've picked up while volunteering to select a well-mannered shelter dog who'll charm your father into wondering how he ever lived without such a wonderful animal -- and such a smart, responsible kid.
Q: You made a mistake in your recent column. My veterinarian handed me a sheet of plants to watch out for when I got my puppy a few years ago and poinsettias were definitely on it. Please tell your readers before someone's pet gets killed! -- F.L., via e-mail
A: I got quite a few e-mails making the same point you have, but happily, there's no mistake. According to the Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc) the poinsettia can cause little more than a bad tummy ache, even if ingested in fairly large amounts. That doesn't mean you should put poinsettia foliage into the food processor and then add it to your pet's dish, but it does mean that you can quit worrying that the plant your aunt gave you for the holidays is going to do in your dog.
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