Too many people think "punishment" first and foremost when it comes to dealing with a pet's behavior problem. These folks want an easy answer and are often all too willing to smack, shock, scream at or even mutilate their pets to get the desired result, sometimes without even considering approaches that are far kinder.
That's often true when it comes to cats who scratch furniture. Many people insist on declawing their cats before even finding out if they have a problem. Others declaw at the first sign of a trouble. Those who try to let their cats keep their claws often insist on yelling at them or hitting them when the animals claw furniture.
Cats needs to scratch, for physical and emotional reasons, and we need to provide our cats with places to dig in their claws joyfully. The primary requirements for a scratching post or cat tree are that it's sturdy, stable and well-placed.
If you're going to have any success in getting your cat to scratch where you want -- instead of somewhere you don't, such as the corner of your couch -- you need to choose a scratching place that's not only sturdy, but also made of a material your pet can enjoy digging into.
Stability is important, because the first time a scratching post or cat tree comes crashing down on your pet is the last time he'll ever use it, rest assured. As far as material, sisal, a natural ropelike covering, is popular with cats, as is a carpet with loops that aren't too shaggy.
Scratching posts are usually small, less than 3 feet in length, and either vertical on a wide base or horizontal, like a log. While posts are fine, many pets prefer large cat trees, especially those with shelves or perches. If you're even a little bit handy, you can make your own post or tree by using scrap lumber, inexpensive sisal and carpet remnants. The Amby's Declawing: Issues and Answers Web site (http://amby.com/cat_site/declaw.html) offers a wide variety of posts and trees, with links to free plans.
Scratching boxes offer another alternative, as do doorknob hangers made of cat-friendly scratching material. The shallow boxes are widely available, are filled with material that's pleasant to dig into, and are not quite as big a distraction from your decor as a large cat tree might be. Try to offer as many choices, in as many places as possible.
Be sure to place scratching items in places your cat frequents. A cat tree won't be of any use if it's hidden in a garage or basement, after all. You can ease the transition by positioning the scratching post, tree or box near the place where you're discouraging scratching. If that's not an aesthetically attractive spot, you can slowly move the scratching material to a more eye-pleasing location after your cat gets in the habit of using it.
You can make scratching posts, trees and boxes even more appealing by rubbing fresh catnip on them, adding toys, or by playing games with your cat on (or near) the scratching material. These strategies will help make your cat comfortable with preferred scratching areas, and will help to encourage return business.
Once you have pleasant places for your cat to scratch, you can discourage use of the furniture by covering the corners (or other scratched areas) with double-sided tape or panels of foil. The use of such materials is temporary: Once your cat gets in the habit of scratching where you want and leaving the unpleasantly padded furniture alone, you can remove the tape or foil and enjoy the look of your furniture again.
Always, remember to reward your cat with treats, praise and gentle physical attention when he or she scratches in a suitable spot. Keeping the tips of your cat's claws clipped will also help keep any damage to a minimum while your cat is learning.
Above all, be positive! Why punish your pet when you can offer alternatives, and reward your pet for using them?
PETS ON THE WEB
"For every cute, cuddly (non-human) creature out there, there is something horrible that you can potentially catch from it," warns Dr. Daniel Shapiro on his reference page (http://medicine.bu.edu/dshapiro/zoo1.htm) listing dozens of scary diseases domesticated animals can pass to people. On the more upbeat side, the Centers for Disease Control notes on its Healthy Pets Healthy People site (www.cdc.gov/healthypets/index.htm) that you are more likely to get sick from contaminated foods or water than from handling a companion animal.
While Shapiro's site is a simple, sobering list of what you can potentially pick up from a pet, the CDC's offering goes further into prevention (think hand-washing, lots of hand-washing). It's all information that every pet keeper should know, especially parents with pet-loving young children, since youngsters are particularly at risk.
Allowing a dog to ride without restraints in the back of a truck is never safe, which is why it's illegal in some states. During hot weather, the metal of a truck bed becomes as hot as a griddle and is painful for a dog to stand on. The best situation for the comfort and safety of your dog is to bring him into the cab of the truck.
If you must transport your pet in the back of a pickup, do it in an airline shipping crate, properly secured to the truck bed. A crate will keep the animal from jumping or being thrown from the truck, and will provide shade and cooler footing until you get where you're going. Remember, though, that a crate isn't much protection against the baking sun and should not be used to hold your dog once you've reached your destination.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I've come to notice that there is a population of parrots in my neighborhood -- former pets, apparently. I find this appalling. How callous can people be to deliberately release their pets into the wild?
I don't have much sympathy either for folks who fail to keep wings trimmed, and then their birds accidentally escape. Would you mention that people need to keep the wings of their pet birds trimmed and not to let birds fly free? -- F.N., via e-mail
A: In many parts of the country, colonies of former pet birds survive and even thrive in their new habitats. Although warm places such as South Florida and Southern California are most hospitable to newly wild birds, parrots have been known to survive even in places that can get bitterly cold, such as Illinois and New York.
Although it's quite likely that some were set free by people who didn't want their birds any more (and were not responsible enough to make other arrangements), chances are that others accidentally got out of the house, as you've guessed. (The "set 'em free" approach to unwanted pets spells the end to many pets, not only birds but also mice, rats, rabbits and more.)
Some birds will make the transition to feral living, but many will not. And those who do will sometimes displace native birds, causing damage to the natural ecosystem. Both situations are compelling reasons to make sure your pet bird remains in captivity -- and that means keeping wings trimmed.
Wing trims also protect birds in the home. My "Birds for Dummies" co-author, avian veterinarian Dr. Brian Speer, reports treating a constant flow of pet birds who have been injured after flying into ceiling fans, sliding glass doors and even pots of boiling water on the stove.
So, yes, it's very important to keep wings trimmed. Because an improper trim can be physically and emotionally damaging to a bird, it's important to learn from someone who knows proper technique, such as an avian veterinarian or experienced bird groomer.
Q: We're trying to wiggle out our puppy's front tooth, which is loose with the new tooth growing in behind it. We don't want to pull too hard and hurt him, but we don't want it stuck there forever. What should we do? -- R.E., via e-mail
A: By the time you read this the tooth will almost certainly be gone on its own. Retained baby teeth are fairly common and nothing much to worry about, and most do work their way out without assistance. For the rare stubborn tooth, mention the problem to your veterinarian when your puppy goes in for the last round of vaccinations. Your veterinarian may choose to yank the tooth.
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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