My friend Sonia recently "stole" her uncle's cat for a couple of weeks while he was on vacation. She decided the gregarious orange tabby was lonely in an empty apartment and she took him into her own home for the duration of her uncle's trip.
The cat settled in happily, but Sonia worried, "My houseplants, what if they're poisonous?" After a quick check on the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center Web site (www.aspca.org/apcc). The apartment soon held fewer plants, but still one happy cat. Sonia then started thinking of adding other plants that are safe for nibbling, just to make the cat even happier. A good idea, I assured her, even in the short run.
For the indoor-only cat, plants are an important part of an ideal environment that should also include a variety of toys, cat trees and scratching posts, and screened porches or window perches that allow the intriguing scents of the hazardous world outside safely into a cat's life.
If your cat loves to nibble on houseplants, make sure poisonous plants are not on the menu. In addition to the Animal Poison Control Center's online reference, "The Cornell Book of Cats" (Villard, $35) also lists those plants that have no place in a house with cats. Among the most dangerous are dieffenbachia, lily of the valley and philodendron. Various ivies and yews can be troublesome, too, and the bulbs of plants popular for "forcing" into early indoor bloom -- such as amaryllis, daffodils and tulips -- can cause problems for the cat who likes to dig and chew.
The other problem with cats and houseplants is strictly irritation -- not to the pet's system, but to the owner's. Some cats are industrious destroyers of household greenery, while others like to kick dirt around or even use larger pots as litter boxes. All of which makes perfect sense to your cat, annoying as it may be to you.
Can people, cats and plants coexist? With an understanding of your cat's needs and a consistent approach to the problem, you bet they can.
Understand that your cat needs and wants plants in your home. Indulge your pet by keeping planters of sprouting grasses growing in an accessible place for nibbling. Special blends of seeds for cats are available in pet stores and specialty shops, or you can purchase rye-grass seeds at the nursery.
Catnip, too, is something that's always better when fresh, as is valerian. While not all cats react to the pleasures of these plants, those who do will appreciate your keeping them in-house, and using fresh cuttings to recharge cat posts and toys.
When your cat has his own plants, you can work on keeping him away from yours. Plants on the floor or on low tables are the easiest targets, so make your houseplants less accessible to the bored and wandering cat. Put plants up high, or better yet, hang them.
For the plants you can't move out of harm's way, make them less appealing by coating the greenery with something your cat finds disagreeable. Cat-discouragers include Bitter Apple, a nasty-tasting substance available at any pet-supply store, or Tabasco sauce from any grocery store. Whenever you find what your cat doesn't like, keep reapplying it to reinforce the point. You can also discourage your pet by shooting him with the spray from a water bottle when you see him in the plants.
Pot your plants in heavy, wide-bottomed containers, and cover the soil with rough, decorative rock to discourage digging. Foil and waxed paper are also useful deterrents to diggers, but I don't like to recommend those products because you're going to get tired of looking at that foil. Decorative rock can stay in place forever.
Remember that resolving behavior problems often takes time and involves a bit of compromise on your part. Give your cats the greens he wants, protect him from the ones that might hurt him and make the rest less attractive to him. And one day, a lush indoor garden will be yours for both you and your cat to enjoy.
PETS ON THE WEB
Although purebred cats aren't as popular as purebred dogs, a handful of breeds do enjoy a dedicated following. Among them is the gorgeous Maine Coon, a large, longhaired breed with an easygoing disposition. The Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association's Web site (www.mcbfa.org) offers information on this rugged American cat, which despite stories to the contrary did not develop as the result of matings between raccoons and New England ship cats. (That's biologically impossible!)
The site offers the true story of this special breed – one of whom was the winner of an early North American cat show, in 1895 -- along with information on finding the right breeder, caring and even showing the Maine Coon.
Old dogs sometimes get finicky, and it can be a trick to keep them eating. While you may be tempted to add table scraps such as meat trimmings to their dish, it's really not that good an idea. Foods that are too fatty or spicy can cause a tummy ache, or even an attack of pancreatitis, which could be deadly. Onions must be avoided, too.
When I have fussy oldsters, I rely on simple chicken or beef broth to add interest to their meal. Choose a variety that's low on fat and salt, warm to just above room temperature and add to food for a yummy soupiness. (The addition also helps keep older pets hydrated.) You can also squeeze the juice from a clove of garlic into the mix -- many dogs love the stuff!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Will you remind people about leaving their dogs in cars? The weather got warm in a hurry here in Northern California, but people don't seem to think about the danger that means for their pets until later in the summer when the triple-digit temperatures start.
I have already seen one dog left in a car in a parking lot. He was panting, and I was considering having the owner paged in the store when she came back to the car. I didn't say anything, but I wanted to. (Guess I'm a little shy.)
Will you please spread the word? I don't know why people don't get it. -- P.L., via e-mail, Santa Rosa, Calif.
A: It is indeed remarkable that this warning needs repeating every spring, but clearly, people just don't think about the danger until the weather moves from warm to hot.
A car functions like a greenhouse, and heat can build up to lethal levels in minutes, even on a pleasant day in the 70s or low 80s. Even with the windows rolled down, a dog can show signs of heat stress -- heavy panting, glazed eyes, rapid pulse, dizziness or vomiting, or a deep red or purple tongue -- in the time it takes to carry a carton of ice cream through the "10 items or less" line. Brain damage and death can follow within minutes. Shade is no guarantee of safety, especially on a very warm day.
Many animal-welfare groups have preprinted warning fliers ready to slip under a windshield wiper. You might want to pick up a few to keep in your glove box, along with the number to call if you see a dog who's in trouble. Your local shelter or humane association should be able to give you that information in advance, so you'll have it when you need it, and you won't have to confront someone. (I'm a little shy, too, so I understand.)
If you see an animal is in distress, though, please get help right away. It just doesn't take that long for the heat to kill a pet, and your intervention may save the animal's life.
Q: Is it really safe to use old newspapers in my bird's cage? What about the ink? -- B.D., via e-mail
A: Old newspapers are so commonly used to line the bottom of birdcages that many manufacturers size their products so that sheets of standard newspapers fit the trays exactly. Regular black-and-white newspaper sheets are fine for lining cage trays, although I'd skip the glossy inserts and pages with color inks.
Every morning after I read my newspapers I put the plain "bird pages" in a pile near my parrot's cage and set the color and glossy pages in the recycling bin. Since I take three newspapers, I believe my bird to be one of the best-read pets around!
If you really want to go ink-free, check with your local newspaper. Some sells the ends of the newsprint rolls that go on the presses, usually at a bargain price.
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