We now know more than ever before about our cats. But a surprising amount of information that's just plain wrong still hangs about in our culture and, worse, keeps popping up as true, and so passes on anew.
Anyone who has ever said goodbye to a cherished companion knows cats don't have nine lives, but some of the other things we think we know about cats sure seem to have at least that many lives. Here are a few of the most enduring feline fallacies:
-- Cats purr when they're happy. Purring is one of the most special elements of a cat, as far as most humans are concerned. Caressing a purring pet has proven to relax the person doing the stroking and lower the blood pressure, too.
But careful observers of the cat know that purring isn't just a sound of contentment. Cats also purr if they're injured, while giving birth -- even when dying. British zoologist Desmond Morris has observed that purring is "a sign of friendship -- either when [the cat] is contented with a friend or when it is in need of friendship -- as with a cat in trouble."
In other words, purring is sort of like smile: Sometimes you smile when you're happy, sometimes when you're hoping a smile will get you out of trouble.
-- Cats will smother babies. You don't need to find a new home for your pet when a baby's on the way, no matter what well-meaning relatives and friends may say to the contrary. Cats do not maliciously smother or suck the breath out of babies.
The myth that they do probably came from their natural curiosity to investigate a new addition to the family, coupled with the tragedy of what's commonly known as crib death. We can easily understand how, in generations past, people may have seen a cat in the crib -- perhaps sniffing at a baby's milk-scented breath -- and later found a dead child and then tried to find an explanation for the loss by linking the two events together.
We now know there's no connection. But common sense still dictates that no animal be left unattended with an infant or small child. And, of course, before the baby arrives, safety dictates that someone other than the expectant mom clean out that litter box to reduce the risk of birth defects caused by the parasites that may be in the cat's feces.
-- Well-fed cats won't hunt. The ability to hunt is hard-wired into all cats. But the level of desire varies by an individual's genetics and early experiences, not by the rumbling in his belly.
Hunting behavior in cats is very controversial, especially if the prey is songbirds or endangered rodent species. Fitting your cat's collar with a small bell has little effect on his ability to hunt. Turning him into an indoor dweller is the only way to protect wildlife from him. (It'll also make your cat's life less likely to end abruptly from the hazards of the outdoors.)
-- All calico cats are female. Almost all calico (and tortoiseshell) cats are female, but not quite all. About one in every 3,000 calico cats is male, with an extra X chromosome -- XXY instead of the XY of a normal male.
The gene that governs how a cat's red/orange color is displayed is on the X, or female, chromosome. Any cat, male or female, can be orange. In males, however, that color is usually expressed in one way: the tabby pattern, often called a "ginger tom" or marmalade tabby. It takes two X chromosomes to make a calico, which is why a cat must have an extra X chromosome to be a male calico.
Females can be orange tabbies, tortoiseshells or calicos. Because orange females are divided among calicos, torties and tabbies, people sometimes think that almost all orange tabbies are male, just as almost all calicos are female. Not true: For an orange tabby to be female is a lot more common than for a calico to be a male.
-- Black cats are bad luck. Black may be an unlucky color all right -- for a cat, not a person. Black cats have been said to be associated with the forces of evil for hundreds of years. Humane societies warn that this myth has cost some of them their lives as the target of satanic rituals, especially around Halloween.
Black may be an unfortunate color for another reason: visibility. Thousands of cats are killed by cars every year, and the difference between a hit or a near miss may be the driver's ability to see the cat darting across the road before him. At night, patches of light-colored fur are a distinct advantage to a kitty.
Hypoallergenic cats don't exist
If people are allergic to animals, their bodies are reacting not to fur but to proteins in skin secretions and saliva, commonly known as dander. These particles are applied generously to a cat's fur by the act of grooming and are liberally applied to every surface she rubs against.
Myths persist about "hypoallergenic" breeds of cats, usually involving the nearly naked Sphynx or lightly coated Devon or Cornish Rex. Their fanciers actively promote many of these breeds as being good for allergy sufferers, but allergists argue otherwise. -- G.S.
This tubby tabby resists slimming
Q: I know you've said there's no reason for a fat pet, but I can't get any weight off our 17-pound cat. I don't think it's possible. Also, I'm not sure it would improve our cat's life to cut back on his food because he's such a happy eater. Any advice? -- S.W., via e-mail
A: Would it improve the quality of your cat's life -- or yours -- if he became diabetic? Because that's one risk of chronic obesity in cats. Overweight cats are also prone to joint, ligament and tendon problems, difficulty breathing and even skin problems because they can't groom themselves properly.
Talk to your veterinarian about your cat's overall health and a plan for slowly trimming down your overweight pet. Quick-loss programs can make you cat ill or even kill him, which is why a vet-approved slow-reduction plan is best.
Pay attention to what you're doing to contribute in ways you may not even be fully aware of. For example: Do you share your meals with your cat, handing him the choicest tidbits off your plate? Do you love to give him cat treats several times a day? These things all add up!
Remember: Food is not love. Instead of interacting with your cat over food, bond over grooming or play. Your cat will love you just as much for a loving session of gentle brushing and combing, or a playful half-hour spent being teased with a cat "fishing pole" or other toy. Time spent in either pursuit is better for an overweight cat than eating, and the exercise will help take the weight off.
Q: I'm a runner. After a close call with a would-be mugger, my husband and I decided it would be a good idea if I ran with a dog. We'd been thinking about adopting one anyway, so the timing was perfect.
We went to the local shelter and found a litter of puppies. Our Hannah was the cutest, biggest and seemed to be the smartest of the bunch. Our best guess is that she's mostly shepherd, probably mixed with Labrador and Queensland heeler. We've had her a month, she's now more than 4 months old, and she's had all her puppy shots.
She's a great puppy, who's sweet and learns quickly. How can I best get her into proper condition as my running mate? -- D.C., via e-mail
A: You need to wait a while before putting the miles on that pup, or risk permanent damage to her developing body. Eight months of age is about the earliest you should start her running with you, and even then, you should figure on only a mile or two at a relatively slow pace at first.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't be doing anything with your puppy now. Use the next few months to make sure your pet is well-socialized. Introduce her to any situation that's likely to pop up, including being comfortable around people of all ages, bicycles, strollers, cars and noisy motorcycles.
Get your pup into a training class now so she'll learn how to walk -- and later run -- on lead without dislocating your shoulder or pulling you off-stride.
Talk to your veterinarian to get a more accurate assessment of your pet's development and suitability as a running companion. When you get the go-ahead to start training together, take your time building up your pet's mileage and speed.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Thick, shiny coat normal for ferrets
A ferret's coat should be shiny and thick, never dull or dry.
Hair loss, and texture and quality changes are cause for concern. External parasites such as fleas, ticks and mites can cause abnormalities, but they are usually visible to the naked eye. The most common cause for hair loss in a mature, neutered ferret is adrenal disease. The most common cause for hair loss in an intact female ferret during its reproductive active cycle is a hormonal imbalance.
Normal ferret skin is smooth and pink without flakes, scabs or discoloration. In the wild, ferrets would spend a portion of their day in underground dens, where there is a constant temperature of 55 degrees with high humidity. In our homes in the winter, the air can be very dry and warm, which can dehydrate the ferret's skin. A cool home humidifier can help.
Your veterinarian should investigate any lumps, scabs or discoloration of the skin as soon as possible. Skin cancer is a common problem in ferrets and can be successfully cured with early treatment.
(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.)
Time for annual collar, tag check
The New Year's neck check will take you less than a minute, but it could save your pet's life.
I've been suggesting the New Year's neck check for years as an easy-to-remember annual evaluation of the state of your pet's collar and ID. A properly fitted collar is important, but so is the right type. For dogs, a buckled or snap-together collar made of leather or nylon webbing is the best choice. The proper fit for a collar should be comfortably close but not too snug. "Choke" collars should never, ever be the choice for everyday wear -- they can be deadly if they catch on something.
Cat collars should have a piece of elastic to enable your pet to get free if the collar catches on something.
Next, look at the holes and the fasteners. The collar is weakest at these spots, so if you see signs of excessive wear or strain, you'll need to replace the collar soon.
Finally, check those tags. In addition to whatever license is required, your pet should have a legible ID tag. Instead of putting the pet's name on the tag, I prefer to put on the word "Reward!" And instead of a home address, I put as many phone numbers -- home, cell, friends, family -- as will fit.
Don't delay in fixing whatever problems you find. Sturdy collars and legible ID tags are the best insurance possible when it comes to getting your pet a ticket home should he ever become lost.
AKC program recognizes good dogs
It's no secret that as a society we have mixed feelings about dogs.
Our hearts warm to those who serve as search-and-rescue dogs or as helpers to those who are blind or use wheelchairs. We can't get enough stories of therapy dogs who bring a smile to the face of an autistic child or an older person with Alzheimer's. But we also can't pass laws fast enough in an effort to protect ourselves from other dogs, after such events as the horrifying attack in San Francisco earlier this year by a pair of animals who were the stuff of nightmares.
A friendly, well-mannered dog is a pleasure to keep and an asset to the community. In my old neighborhood, a park that was inhabited mostly by drug dealers changed dramatically once dog lovers started taking their pets there to play. Places are always safer when people and well-mannered dogs frequent them.
The American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program is about acknowledging good dogs, for the benefit of all dogs and those who love them. The program isn't about trophies or precise and rigid obedience. Its 10 tests are meant to identify dogs who behave with calm, friendly confidence, whether at the veterinarian's, in a crowd or meeting other dogs. They are dogs who know the basics of on-leash obedience, even if they may need gentle encouragement to practice it.
To put it simply, Canine Good Citizens are good dogs, recognized for their owner's efforts and belief that a well-mannered dog does more to protect the interests of dog lovers everywhere than does an army of lawyers and lobbyists.
For more information on the CGC program and how to get your dog certified, visit the American Kennel Club's Web site (www.akc.org) and search for "Canine Good Citizen."
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
What we like about our dogs
According to a 2004 survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, here are the top reasons why dog lovers enjoy having a canine companion (more than one response allowed):
Source of affection 89 percent
Feel safe in home 83 percent
Beneficial to health 78 percent
Helps me relax 77 percent
ON THE WEB
Dog lovers get holistic advice
Month in and month out, the one publication I can't wait to open is the Whole Dog Journal, a newsletter that covers the best in so-called "alternative" health care and nutrition, reward-based training, and great gear for dogs and the people who love them. Their reviews of dog foods are worth the entire subscription and are not influenced by advertising, which they do not accept at all.
The WDJ has a Web site (www.whole-dog-journal.com) that offers subscribers all current content for free and archived articles at a small charge. The site also provides non-subscribers a way to order content article-by-article. Regular mail subscriptions are $20 for 13 months by calling toll-free: 1-800-829-9165. Subscriptions can also be ordered through the Web site.
If your New Year's resolutions include a healthier dog, a subscription to the Whole Dog Journal is a good place to start.
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.
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