Every year as spring approaches, shelters and rescue groups face a daunting challenge: Find homes for the cats before the kittens arrive.
That's because once kitten season starts, even the sweetest, handsomest and most well-mannered cats may run out of time before anyone recognizes them for the wonderful companions they are and adopt them.
The sole reason: Cats just aren't as cute as kittens. Being overlooked at the shelter is bad news for the cats, of course, but it's also unfortunate for many people who don't realize that an adult cat may, in many cases, be a better choice than a kitten. Sure, kittens are cute, but they also can be a bit of a trial as they grow up. They need extra time, extra training and extra tolerance for all those crazy things that kittens do.
An adult cat can slide quickly into your life. You know pretty well what you're getting with a grown cat -- activity level, sociability, health, etc. Given time in a loving environment, a grown cat forms just as tight a bond with his new people as any kitten can.
With adult cats, knowing a little of the animal's background is important, especially if your family has other pets, or children. (A cat who has never experienced them may have a more difficult time adjusting to a new family that includes either or both.) You can ask questions directly about the cat's background if you're adopting from the original owner. And most shelters or rescue groups also try to provide some basic background information, which they ask of the people giving up their pets.
What if the information isn't flattering to the cat? For example, what if he became available for adoption because of his failure to use a litter box? Give the cat the benefit of the doubt, if you have the time and patience to work on solving the problem. And remember, too, that you don't know the contributing factors. Maybe the litter box was never cleaned or was left in a spot that was convenient for the owner but disconcerting for the cat.
If at all possible, take each adult cat you're considering away from the caging area of the adoption center. Sit down with the animal in your lap, alone in a quiet place, and try to get a feel for the cat as an individual. Shelters are stressful places, so the cat may need a few quiet minutes to collect herself. A calm, confident and outgoing cat will respond pretty readily to your attention, relaxing in your lap, pushing for strokes and purring.
No matter how promising the initial meeting, remember that cats don't react well to change, so be prepared to give your new pet time to adjust to new surroundings once you take her home. Experts advise starting out your cat in a small, enclosed area -- a spare bathroom or small bedroom equipped with food and water, litter box, toys and a scratching post. A few days of quiet seclusion with frequent visits from you will relax your new pet and re-establish good litter-box habits.
If you're even considering bringing a pet into your life, please don't wait for kitten season -- take the plunge now. This is the time of year when adult cats in shelters get to shine a little extra, and there are enough of them around to give you a chance to bring home a pet you'll adore for years to come.
PETS ON THE WEB
Adult cats aren't the only shelter pets facing some spring deadlines -- adult rabbits are under pressure, too. That's because spring means Easter, a time when baby rabbits show up in pet stores, advertised as the perfect holiday gift for children. Later, many of these darling babies will end up in the shelter when their novelty wanes, adding to the overcrowding.
The House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org) has named February "Adopt a Rescued Rabbit Month," with plenty of information on these pets -- which contrary to popular belief, are better suited for adults than to children -- at one of the best pet Web sites around.
My friend Peg has a houseful of pets and children, as well as a near-religious devotion to a single kind of household cleaner: bleach. Her faith is justified, for this cleaning staple can't be beat when it comes to keeping animal-related objects and surfaces clean. Cages, perches, litter boxes, nonporous toys and more can be cleaned with bleach -- diluted a half-cup to a gallon of water -- then rinsed with clear water and left to air dry. Be sure to use bleach and all household cleaners far away from pets (especially birds, who have very sensitive respiratory systems) and in a well-ventilated area.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We adopted a 4-year-old female Boston terrier last August, and we're having a hard time getting her to eat. I've changed her dog-food brand three times, hoping to find something she would enjoy enough to want to eat. (I know I'm not supposed to change foods, but I'm desperate.)
If I put dry food in her bowl, she'll smell it and walk away. If I take it out of her bowl and put a few kibbles at a time on the floor she'll eat it all. Sometimes she'll eat late at night from a dish that has been there since morning, but other times she won't eat at all. She will eat treats and human food. Can you help? -- M.T., via e-mail
A: The first step is to make sure your dog has no health issues that may be contributing to this problem, so please take her to your veterinarian for a checkup. If all checks out, you must then start to retrain her to eat what she's given, when she's given it.
Rule No. 1: No treats and no human food. Absolutely, positively none. What you've done, you see, is teach your dog that if she turns up her nose at a bowl of perfectly fine dry food, you'll hand-feed it to her a kibble at a time. And if she turns up her nose at that, she'll get something even yummier. No wonder she's picky!
Rule No. 2: No free-feeding. She will now eat two meals a day, one in the morning and one at night. Absolutely no food in between. Water, of course, should be available at all times.
Rule No. 3: One half-hour for meals, no more, no less. Put her dish down in an area with few distractions, such as a laundry room with a baby gate across the opening. Set a timer for 30 minutes. Whatever she hasn't eaten at the end of that time goes back in the bag until her next scheduled meal.
It will not hurt her if she misses a couple of meals, or goes a couple of days without eating -- assuming, of course, that she is healthy to begin with. She won't miss many meals before her hunger will have her eating what you set in front of her, on a regular basis.
During this retraining phase I would stick to one brand of food. Once your dog starts eating regularly you can change brands, but introduce the change gradually. I'm convinced that the idea that a dog should be on a single brand for life was the creation of some clever chap in a pet-food company's advertising department.
Q: I have a 3-year-old cat who really took a liking to the tinsel on the Christmas tree this year. I imagine that it wouldn't be good for him, but I'm curious to what extent. And what is it that attracts them to devour it, not just play with it because it sparkles? -- B.W., via e-mail
A: You're lucky you didn't end up with a trip to the emergency veterinary clinic, or a dead cat. Tinsel, string and other such objects are both incredibly appealing to cats -- and incredibly dangerous.
The appeal is based on their hunting instincts. As any cat lover knows, cats love to follow motion, pouncing on toys as if they were prey. When string and similar substances are eaten, however, they can bind up in their intestines and often must be surgically removed.
Next year, leave the tinsel off your tree, or put such holiday decorations in an area off-limits to your cat. In the meantime, find a fishing-pole type toy for you to play with your cat. Any cat who's fascinated by tinsel will surely flip for supervised play with a toy of this type.
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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