Massage expert shows how to work out the kinks in your relationship with your cat
Bodacious is one scaredy-cat, a gray-furred bundle of anxiety who eyes humankind with apprehension that escalates rapidly into terror. Get close to him and ... whiffff, Bo is gone in less time then a tail twitch.
"He was one of 27 cats rescued from a hoarder," says Maryjean Ballner, feline massage practitioner and Bo's savior, describing the cat's previous life of neglect. "The first time I picked him up at the shelter, he peed all over me. He was so afraid. The first three months here, he stayed in a closet, too terrified to come out. We've had him five years now, and you can see he's still scared."
Oh, but wait.
Ballner takes a long-handled bath brush in her hand and corners her skitty kitty, cradling him gently against her before setting him on the couch in her living room. Body tightly crouched, eyes slitted anxiously, Bo remains ready to run as she presses the brush to the side of his face and starts to stroke, slowly.
At the touch, a transformation begins. Pushing against the caressing bristles, Bo starts to purr, almost reluctantly. The tenseness in his face slowly disappears as he melts into a puddle of pure feline bliss.
To Ballner, such transformation is more routine than amazing. Certified as a human massage therapist, she long ago turned her skills toward animals, eventually producing how-to videos and a pair of books on techniques for massaging cats and dogs. She continues to practice her craft, giving massages not only to her own pets but also to the stressed-out homeless ones at a nearby animal shelter where she works as a volunteer.
While Bo purrs through his massage in his owner's San Francisco Bay Area home, Ballner explains that a brush is less threatening than a hand to many cats, especially ones who, like Bo, have cruelty or neglect in their past.
"The brush allows me to make contact without being intimidating," she explains. "It's just a plain bath brush, nothing fancy. It costs you six bucks at the drugstore, but it's the best tool for socializing a cat."
At some point, the massage seems to become almost as pleasant for Ballner as it is for her cat. The lids on her wide blue eyes start to drift downward, and her posture, like Bo's, loses any sense of strain. Her brushing becomes rhythmic, unconsciously timed to the cat's relaxed breathing as she talks.
Ballner's other cat, Minka, watches impatiently as his housemate gets all the attention, his tail twitching with some inscrutably feline blend of amusement and annoyance. Ballner gives Bo a break, and hauls the happy Minka into her lap. There, he demonstrates his total trust in her, as she pulls the orange tabby into a position most cats don't much like -- an inelegant and vulnerable belly-up.
Minka's not at all concerned; on the contrary, he starts drifting off to sleep as Ballner massages him. The key is to go slowly, she says, counting to five or six for each stroke and repeating over and over. Once a cat understands that you mean no harm, you can use your hands, or even a steel-loop-and-handle grooming tool, the latter providing the additional benefit of keeping shed cat fur to a minimum.
As she works, Ballner demonstrates the places where cats like to be touched: under the chin, along the cheeks, at the base of the tail. The benefits, she says, are more than physical. She's convinced massage strengthens the bond between human and cat.
"The more I paid attention to the way I petted my cats, the more they paid attention to me," she says, in what may be the strongest case of all for giving massages to cats.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Maryjean Ballner's "Your Cats Wants a Massage" and "Your Dog Wants a Massage" videotapes are available from her Web site (www.dogandcatmassage.com) for $10 each, plus $1.95 shipping. Her "Dog Massage" and "Cat Massage" books (St. Martin's, $12) are also available on the site, or from retail book outlets.
New baby, old cat can coexist safely
Q: We're expecting a baby and we're worried about our cat. A lady where I work says cats are dangerous around babies and that we should get rid of Evie. This same lady said we should have gotten rid of Evie when I got pregnant. But after I talked to my doctor, I just had my husband clean the litter box as a precaution.
Assuming Evie stays (and she certainly will unless we're totally convinced otherwise), how can I ease the transition for her? She has been our "only child" up to now. -- M.W., via e-mail
A: Cats do not maliciously smother or suck the breath out of babies, as the old myths hold. Still, to best protect your child, you do need to be aware of the facts and exercise a little caution -- just as you did with the litter box.
Common sense dictates that no animal be left unattended with a small child -- for the safety of both. The Humane Society of the United States, which keeps statistics on injuries inflicted by animals on people, knows of no documented case of a cat smothering an infant by resting on the child's face. Other experts, however, point out that such a scenario, although unlikely, is marginally feasible and suggest taking precautions, which makes perfect sense. You don't want your baby to be the first to be harmed in such a way.
Some parents have gone so far as to install a screen door on the nursery to keep pets out, a simple and relatively inexpensive solution. You could also confine Evie to one part of the house when you or your husband are not around to supervise.
As for Evie herself, she should be fine. If possible, bring home an item from the hospital with the baby's scent on it and put it where Evie likes to sleep. And get into a routine as quickly as possible. Cats thrive on familiarity and routine, so getting the household settled down as soon as you can will help Evie.
Put aside a little time for her every day, for petting, grooming and interactive play, such as with a string toy. Some cats stop using the litter box when under the stress of change. If that happens, set her up in a small bedroom -- with litter box, food and water, and toys -- to retrain her and let her chill out for a few days. Then gradually expand her territory.
Having a pet will benefit your baby. In addition to the unconditional love and listening a pet offers, recent studies suggest that children who grow up with animals may be less susceptible to developing allergies.
Q: I read somewhere that carrots are good treats for dogs on a diet. Is that true? It seems as if a dog would prefer a meat treat. -- T.G., via e-mail
A: You might have read it in this column. Small bits of carrots, green beans and mini rice cakes are all good treats for dogs, whether they're on a diet or not. And yes, most dogs like them just fine.
For overweight dogs, cutting calories in any way you can is a good idea. Lower the number of times a day you give treats, and give smaller treats, the tinier the better. Buy the smallest available and then break them up into even tinier bits. Where you can, substitute vegetables -- yes, like carrots -- and bits of rice cake for commercial treats.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Help With hairballs
Hairballs are normal for cats, as is watching where you walk to avoid the disgusting "gifts" that always seem to be left on the best rugs in the house. If the problem is severe, your veterinarian may suggest the use of a mild laxative to help the hairballs pass through your cat's system.
You should also try combing your cat more frequently to remove excess hair. And you might try increasing the fiber in your cat's diet -- adding a little canned pumpkin daily is a great way that many cats enjoy.
Don't let your cat become a laxative junkie, as daily use decreases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Hairball remedies should not be used more than twice weekly except on the advice of your veterinarian.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Check out e-mail warnings before worrying
Every pet lover with an e-mail address has at one time or another -- or time and time again -- received warnings on potentially deadly pet hazards. Recent warnings have ranged from produce (grapes and raisins) to garden products (mulch made of cocoa hulls) to name-brand household cleaning products (Swiffer WetJet and Febreze).
Problem is, not all warnings are what they seem to be. Some may be well-intentioned but wrong; others may be possibly motivated by a campaign against a company, and also wrong. And then there are those that are legitimate concerns.
How can you tell the legit from the bogus?
The first stop for any pet lover investigating an Internet warning should be the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' poison information site (www.aspca.org; click on "Animal Poison Control Center").
The APCC veterinarians respond quickly to Internet warnings, providing information on which reports are a real concern and which should not be. Recent Net scares covered by the APCC include grapes and raisins (potentially toxic), cocoa-hull mulch (potentially toxic) and Swiffer WetJet and Febreze (safe when used as directed).
If you don't find what you're looking for at the APCC Web site, check out Snopes.com, arguably the best resource for checking out urban legends and e-mail hoaxes of all varieties. The site offers an extensive collection of information on common animal-related myths.
In the name of fairness, don't forward any kind of e-mail warning without checking it out on the APCC and Snopes.com Web sites first. If you cannot verify the claims in any e-mail, the only proper thing to do is hit "delete."
The Animal Poison Control Center Web site is more than a resource for debunking questionable Internet warnings, by the way. The site also functions as a key resource for any veterinarian trying to save the life of an animal who has been exposed to or ingested a dangerous substance. It's also a prime place for information on how to prevent accidents in the home, with lists of poisonous plants, dangerous household chemicals and more.
ON THE WEB
Pet loss site offers assistance, advice
Yes, it's more than a little sappy. Yes, the music is beyond dreadful. And yes, the design is ... well, we're clearly not dealing with Web-savvy professionals here. But when you've just lost a member of your family, you don't tend to care about anything other than finding a place where you can be with people who understand. On the Web, that place is Pet Loss Grief Support (www.petloss.com).
The Pet Loss page also offers links to resources such as articles and books to help get through a difficult time. Message boards allow for one-to-one advice and consolation, and a candle ceremony celebrated worldwide every Monday night marks the passing of many a cherished pet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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