This is the time of year when kittens begin to show up in shelters, and some cat lovers start to imagine their single cat would like a companion. With visions of frisky felines dancing in their heads, they bring home a new fuzzy baby.
The cat's response: "For me? No thanks!" And that's the polite version, just before the resident cat disappears into the most remote corner of the house in protest. Introducing cats is a delicate operation, with lots of pitfalls along the way. Some cats hide under the bed. Some stop using the litter box. Efforts to soothe others may be greeted with a hiss or a growl, or even a swipe with claws bared.
While these are all normal feline reactions to stress, the bad habits cats may develop while coming to terms with something new could become a permanent part of their routine. Which is why, for your cat's sake and your own, you need to remember one word when introducing any change to your cat.
That word? "Slowly."
Introducing a second cat to the household is a time when patience is never more important. Despite your pet's initial misgivings, adding a companion can be a wonderful idea, especially for an indoor cat. Today, more cats spend their lives inside, protected from deadly hazards such as cars, coyotes and contagious diseases. There are trade-offs though: An outdoor cat's life may be shorter, but it is filled with smells and sounds and other animals. We must make up some of the difference by enriching the lives of our indoor cats.
Cat trees, screened porches, edible indoor greenery and a wide variety of toys are important, but so is a playmate. For pets who spend hours alone while their owners are at work, another cat can help fill a lot of lonely time.
If you don't have a cat yet and know you'll eventually want a couple, it's easiest to adopt two kittens at the same time. Kittens don't have the sense of territory grown cats do, and will settle down together into a new home nicely.
But even a solitary adult cat can learn to enjoy living with a companion. Since the worst territorial spats -- complete with urine-marking -- are between cats who aren't spayed or neutered, your chances for peaceful coexistence are many times greater if the cats are both altered before any introductions are planned.
Prepare a room for your new cat, with food and water bowls, and a litter box and scratching post that needn't be shared. (Separate gear may be a temporary arrangement, or it may be lifelong; it all depends on the cats involved.) This separate room will be your new pet's home turf while the two cats get used to each other's existence.
Take your new cat to your veterinarian first, to be checked for parasites such as ear mites and contagious diseases such as feline leukemia. When you're sure your new pet is healthy, the introductions can begin.
Bring the cat home in a carrier and set it in the room you've prepared. Let your resident cat discover the caged animal, and don't be discouraged by initial hisses. Let your resident cat explore, and when the new cat is finally alone in the room, close the door and let him out of the carrier. If he doesn't want to leave the carrier at first, let him be. Just leave the carrier door open and the cat alone.
Maintain each cat separately for a week or so -- with lots of love and play for both -- and then on a day when you're around to observe, leave the door to the new cat's room open. Don't force them together. Territory negotiations between cats can be drawn-out and delicate, and you must let them work it out on their own, ignoring the hisses and glares.
Eventually you can encourage them both to play with you, using a cat "fishing pole" or a toy on a string. And slowly -- there's that word again -- feed them in ever-closer proximity.
Most cats, but not all, will eventually learn to live together happily. When you see your two sleeping together, playing or grooming each other tenderly, you'll know the effort was worth it.
Springtime is when we all think of gardening. If you're putting in some new plants, don't forget to include a few your pets will enjoy. Carrots are favored by many dogs, and make a great substitute for commercial treats for overweight pups. Catnip is a natural for cats, but also consider valerian, another herb that makes kitties dance with joy. Rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and other rodents will enjoy any leafy vegetable you plant, especially any kind of greens. As for parrots, almost any fresh food that's good for you is good for your bird, too.
PETS ON THE WEB
It had to happen, after the buzz created by networking Web sites such as Friendster: A networking site for dogs called Dogster (www.dogster.com). Nearly 14,000 dogs from all over the world have their profiles online at the site, with their pictures, nicknames, favorite activities, friends and more. Created by self-confessed "dog freaks and computer geeks," the site is free to use after registration. You can search for your favorite breed of dog, or look for dogs in your area. Dogster is an addictive Web site, and great fun to play with.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Our cocker spaniel has the typical long, silky ears of the breed. We like the look, so we don't trim them much (Charley goes to the groomer every month), but we have a problem with keeping those lovely ears clean. When he eats, he drags his ears in his dish, and so they sop up the liquid in his meals. Do you have suggestions for dealing with this? -- C.M., via e-mail
A: The easiest way to keep the fur on long ears clean is to buy or make a snood, which is a simple fabric tube with elastic on both ends. It's designed to slip over the dog's head and keep the ears up and out of the way during eating. (Dog-show people also use them to keep freshly groomed dogs neat until they go in the show ring.) Snoods can usually be found at dog shows, or from merchants who specialize in supplies for showing, such as Cherrybrook (www.cherrybrook.com; 800-524-0820).
They do tend to come in goofy patterns and some even have sequins, but they'll only be on for a few minutes a day so you and your dog won't be hideously embarrassed for long.
Q: Last year we put our dog in a kennel while we were on vacation, and when we picked her up she was sick with kennel cough. Other than using a different kennel, can you suggest ways to prevent this from happening again? Can humans catch kennel cough? -- W.O., via e-mail
A: Boarding kennels take some heat over kennel cough, an upper-respiratory infection that's as contagious as sniffles in a day-care center. In fact, some kennel operators even find the name of the disease a little unfair, insisting that the ailment be called by its proper name, canine infectious tracheobronchitis, or even bordetella, after its most common causative agent.
Kennel operators are right about the bum rap, because dogs can pick up "kennel cough" any place they might come into contact with a dog who has it -- and that means anywhere. Parks, shelters, boarding kennels, dog shows, grooming shops, the waiting room of your veterinarian's office or the fund-raising dog walk thrown by your local humane society: These are all possibilities for infection.
Fortunately, the ailment is not usually serious, even though the dry, bellowing cough can sound simply awful. In most dogs the disease runs its course in a couple of weeks, while other pets may need antibiotics to help them get over it. Most all infected dogs can be made more comfortable with cough suppressants. It's always worthwhile to talk to your veterinarian about how to help speed your dog's recovery.
While it's not completely effective against the disease, vaccines are available. Because it takes some time for the immunity to develop, talk to your veterinarian about vaccination at least a month in advance of boarding your dog (or otherwise exposing her to other dogs). Pets who are often in the company of other dogs, such as at dog parks, should have their vaccines kept constantly current. Also, to better protect your dog, look for a kennel that demands proof of vaccinations from all its clients.
Kennel cough cannot be transmitted to humans.
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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