Here's a rule to remember when it comes to dealing with feline aggression: Never, ever hit your cat.
While it may make you feel better -- at least in the short run -- a smack won't help you change a cat who appears to delight in sinking teeth and claws into you at seemingly unpredictable moments.
Fear and pain can cause a cat to lash out. The best way to deal with a scared cat is to let him be, while a sick cat surely needs a veterinarian. But most times what we see as "meanness" in a cat is just part of being a cat. You can change this behavior, but only if you understand what's behind it and react properly. Here's what makes cats go crazy and how to correct the problems:
-- Overstimulation. You're petting your cat, and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Not a full-powered attack, but you still have those sharp tips around your hand. What to do? In the short run, freeze. Don't struggle or fight back, or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes smacking your other hand hard against a hard surface -- a table top, for example -- may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he will usually calm down and release you.
That's the solution if you've gotten to the attack stage. The better option is to be familiar with your cat and his body language and stop petting before he becomes overstimulated. Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but they've missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, it's time to stop petting.
-- Play aggression. Sure, it hurts all the same, but the cat who pounces on your feet and then careens off the wall isn't trying to hurt you -- he's playing. Instead of punishing your cat, redirect his energy. Increase your play sessions with your cat with an appropriate toy, such as a cat fishing pole or toy on a string, to help your cat burn off his excess energy before you try for a quiet petting session.
No matter what, never let your cat view you as a plaything, not even when he's an adorable kitten. Wrestling bare-handed with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you're setting up a bad precedent. A stuffed sock is a great substitute for a human hand when it comes to playthings -- let your cat bite, claw and bunny-kick to his heart's content.
What if he persists in seeing you as a plaything? As with an overstimulated cat, stop the behavior by freezing. Don't give him a reason to continue the attack. You can also inform him that attacks on you are not permitted by letting him have it with a shot of water from a spray bottle.
-- Redirected aggression. Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living-room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you. What gives? You were just the victim of redirected aggression.
This one's tough to fix. Try to discourage strange cats in your yard. Thump on the window, turn on the sprinklers, or put an air horn out the door and give them a blast. If you can't keep the intruders out, block your cat's access to the window through which he sees the other cats. And again, be aware of your cat's body language. A cat who's looking for trouble is one who's best avoided.
With all feline aggression, the trick is to eliminate the triggers and work on your cat's tolerance levels. If you're patient and consistent, your cat will improve over time.
Heavy petting, feline style
While a cat who's angry or afraid should not be handled (and an injured cat should be handled with extreme care and caution), other bite-happy cats simply need to be petted in a way that avoids overstimulating them.
For a highly reactive cat, restrict your caresses to behind the ears, under the chin or the base of the tail. A long stroke down the back is too much for some kitties, and you're really taking chances when you decide to tickle your cat's tummy. The cats who enjoy it are greatly outnumbered by the cats who'll quickly tire of a tummy rub and will seek to stop it with teeth and claws.
Always watch the tail. Miss the tail-twitching of a cat who's getting overstimulated, and you have only yourself to blame if you suddenly find yourself in your cat's unfriendly embrace.
No need to panic over 'canine flu'
Q: We take our border collie mix to the dog park two to four times a week, where Matty loves to play. But now we're worried about this new killer canine flu that has been all over the news, and we wonder if we should keep her home. She'd go insane without her outings, but we're worried about her catching something from another dog. Can you tell us if we're overreacting? -- S.N., via e-mail
A: You're overreacting. Dr. Cynda Crawford, the veterinarian at the University of Florida who is considered the leading expert on this virus, has said the new flu won't keep her from taking her dogs where she always does, including grooming salons, boarding kennels and dog parks.
If she's not keeping her dogs home, you shouldn't either.
The new viral strain came from horses and has killed a relatively small number of dogs. (It's not considered a risk to humans, by the way.) Symptoms of the new virus are similar to those of "kennel cough" -- coughing and nasal discharge -- although the new flu is more infectious and potentially more serious. It's scary stuff, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of dogs exposed to the disease will have a mild, short-term illness. Even those dogs with a severe case of the disease will most likely survive with veterinary care. (It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Any dog who starts coughing should not be exposed to other dogs and should be seen by a veterinarian right away.)
You didn't say how old your dog was or what kind of shape she's in. I'm guessing since she's a dog-park regular, she's a fit and healthy adult dog, which is exactly the category of pet who has the lowest risk of serious illness or death from this virus, even if exposed.
Puppies younger than 4 months have always needed to be protected from infectious disease, because these youngsters don't yet have a fully functioning immune system. Dogs enfeebled by old age or illness should also be protected from exposure to dogs of unknown health status.
But healthy adult dogs? Grab your leash and go have fun. After all, you don't stay home yourself because you're worried about catching the flu, do you? Life is too short to stay home in fear, especially when there are tennis balls to chase.
Q: My little cockatiel is 18 years old. I got him when I was 12 years old, and now I'm a married woman with two young children. Sammy the cockatiel is still going strong. Do you think he's in contention for some kind of record? I didn't think they lived this long. -- A.F., via e-mail
A: Sammy has had a good long life, but he's not quite setting records yet. If well cared for, cockatiels routinely live into their late teens and early 20s. It's not unheard of for a cockatiel to hit the big 3-0, either.
Of course, a lot of cockatiels don't make it that long, mostly because of improper care. Like all parrots, cockatiels need a varied diet, with plenty of wholesome "people foods" in the mix, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain foods such as breads and pastas, and even such things as scrambled eggs and cottage cheese. (Seeds should be a treat, not a dietary mainstay.)
Other contributors to longevity include a clean, properly sized cage, toys to keep mind and body exercised and, of course, social interaction. A working relationship with an avian veterinarian is also recommended, to help spot and treat health problems before they become serious.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Tips for helping a finicky feline
Although some cats have never met a dish of food they didn't love, others are very picky about what they eat. Feeding a wide variety of flavors and brands can help keep cats from fixating on one particular food. Warming canned food to just about room temperature can also tempt a finicky feline.
Be aware, however, that your cat may not be as finicky as you think. If you leave dry food down all the time, he may be nibbling constantly throughout the day and thus never eating very much in any one observed sitting. The amount of food any one cat in a multicat household eats can be especially difficult to determine if food is always available.
Cats with access to the outdoors may additionally be mooching off the neighbors, or supplementing the rations you give him by hunting.
Finickiness is not a reason for concern as long as your cat's not losing weight. A half-pound or even a pound gradually up or down is no big deal, but more than that and you need to call your veterinarian. Weight loss is often one of the first indications that something is wrong with your cat.
Birds can learn to go on command
With patience and consistency, many birds can be taught to relieve themselves on command, in a place of your choosing. Young birds seem to pick up the skill most quickly and reliably, but you can sometimes teach an older bird new tricks, too.
Start by observing your bird, noting the times of day he's most likely to relieve himself and the body language he uses just before, such as wagging his tail-feathers. Pick your desired command -- "go potty" or "hurry up" will do, as will anything, just as long as you're consistent.
When you see your bird getting ready to go or you know it's the usual time he does (such as first thing in the morning), ask him onto your hand and hold him over a wastebasket, newspaper or whatever "poop zone" you've chosen (some people use paper plates). Give your potty command and praise him when he obeys -- even though the response is just a coincidence at first, of course. Praise for correct behavior.
The larger the bird, the longer the time he can "hold it." Budgies and cockatiels aren't good for much more than 15 to 20 minutes, tops, while large parrots can wait for several hours or more.
For those birds who are resistant to training, you can find "birdy diapers" to catch the mess. One such product is the Flight Suit, a body-hugging harness with an absorbent liner. The product ($20 to $28) can be purchased from pet-supply retailers or from the manufacturer, Avian Fashions (www.birddiaper.com; 1-888-412-7667).
Smart little Sheltie an active companion
Leveraging the lasting appeal of "Lassie," the Shetland sheepdog, or Sheltie, offers movie-star looks in a small package. No matter that fanciers of this breed insist the term "miniature collie" is not appropriate -- it's still how many will identify the smart little herding dog.
In fact, the Sheltie is indeed his own breed, a sweet-natured, gentle and agile little dog who delights in learning and loves to show off. The breed is characteristically energetic, engaged and enthusiastic about every task. Shelties can always be found in the top ranks of canine obedience and agility competitions.
The breed comes in three basic color patterns. Sable, the classic "Lassie" pattern, is by far the most popular, but the Sheltie also comes in tri-color (black overcoat, white ruff and tan highlights) and in blue merle (mottled black-gray overcoat, white ruff and tan highlights).
The Sheltie's double coat is soft and fuzzy at the skin, covered by protective layer of long, thick hair. Shedding is no small matter with this dog, and people who don't like picking hair off their clothes will not like this breed. Regular grooming is a must to prevent matting.
A well-bred and properly socialized Sheltie will typically not enjoy strangers, but should tolerate them well enough. Poorly bred Shelties can be shy or fearful, and all Shelties tend to be yappy. As with any breed, congenital health issues are a serious problem that can best be minimized by dealing with a reputable breeder who has all breeding dogs certified free of hereditary health problems.
More information on the breed can be found on the Web site of the American Shetland Sheepdog Association (www.assa.org).
BY THE NUMBERS
Rabbits prove popular
Image: Rabbit (no credit)
Optional cutline: Rabbits are the most popular small mammal pet.
When it comes to small mammals as pets, rabbits are the most popular, followed by hamsters and guinea pigs. All small mammals are common children's pets, but most have considerable followings among adults as well. Among those households with small mammals as pets, here's how the animals ranked in 2004 popularity (more than one answer allowed):
Rabbit 43 percent
Hamster 36 percent
Guinea pig 20 percent
Mouse/rat 8 percent
Ferret 7 percent
Gerbil 5 percent
Chinchilla 4 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
ON THE WEB
Lab site offers necessary advice
At the age of 5, the Labrador retriever is about as calm, sensible and good-natured a canine companion as can be imagined. At the age of 10 months (12 months, 14 months, 16 months, etc.) the Labrador retriever can be a high-energy ball of adolescent mayhem. This normal adolescent period can be as hard on the dogs as it is on the owners -- it's no coincidence that young Lab and Lab mixes are among the most commonly found dogs in shelters nationwide.
Exercise and training for your dog, patience and a sense of humor for you are absolutely necessary to get a Labrador from adorable puppyhood through adolescence to calm adulthood. A constant supply of safe, sturdy chew toys is also recommended.
The Web site of the Labrador Retriever Club (www.thelabradorclub.com), the American Kennel Club's parent organization for the breed, offers plenty of information on choosing and caring for this popular breed.
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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