The trend toward keeping cats indoors is generally a good one, but many cat lovers resist because they know instinctively that an indoor life probably wouldn't be what a cat would choose for himself. After all, who would want to be kept cooped up when the wide world offers so much in the way of sights, smells and sounds?
Cabin fever may be the bane of an indoor cat's existence, but you really don't have to open the front door to provide your cat with a more interesting life. In fact, by just looking at your home from a cat's point of view and adding a few environmental enrichments, your cat can be both safe and happy indoors. Here are five easy ways to get going:
-- Think vertical. Cats love to climb, so give them the opportunity. Cat trees mounted floor-to-ceiling, wrapped with sisal rope and studded with platforms for perching, will give your cat the opportunity to look down on the rest of the world. This is especially satisfying if there are dogs in the household, because what cat wouldn't like to look down on the dog?
The best example of creating an overhead world for cats is the famous "Cats' House" in the San Diego area. Bob Walker and Frances Mooney put in a series of cat trees that connect to an overhead network of catwalks. The installation even cuts through walls with special cat-sized portals. Take a look at the possibilities on the couple's Web site, www.thecatshouse.com, or pick up one of their books, including "The Cats' House" and "Cats Into Everything" (Andrews McMeel Publishing).
-- Add toys. The cat with the most toys wins. Every indoor cat should have toys for batting around, toys for chasing, toys for hiding in and toys for interactive play. And don't forget that some of those toys ought to have catnip in them. While not all cats can enjoy the fragrant herb, those who do find it blissful in the extreme. If your cat is a catnip junkie, indulge him frequently. Rub fresh catnip onto cat trees or scratching posts, or stuff it into toys. It's perfectly safe for your cat to enjoy the buzz.
Some of the most enjoyable toys for both people and cats are the interactive ones. Every cat lover should have a "kitty tease" toy, typically a flexible rod with a line that ends in something furry or feathery to engage a cat's prey drive. Other interactive toys include gloves with goodies dangling from the fingertips, or laser pointers that offer cats a spot of light to chase. (Just be careful not to aim the beam in your cat's eyes.)
-- Provide rooms with views. No matter how big your house, your indoor cat will know every one of its sights and sounds within just a few days. Provide a little visual stimulation by putting a bird feeder outside a window fitted with a cat-sized ledge for comfortable viewing.
Be aware, though, that a view of the world isn't always going to work for your cat. If your yard is attracting other cats from the neighborhood, your own cat may become frustrated by seeing them, and he can even turn that frustration into attacks on people in the house. Blocking visiting cats from your yard or discouraging them with sprinklers may solve the problem. Otherwise, you may have to make certain windows off-limits to your own cat.
If a window view isn't going to work, try a TV. A handful of companies offer DVDs for cats. Pop one of these in and your cat can be entertained with a lively mix of feline-friendly images and sounds, including those of birds and rodents.
-- Go green. Cats love nibbling on plants. Any decent feline reference book will provide a list of which plants should not be in a pet-friendly house, or visit the Animal Poison Control Center (www.ASPCA.org/APCC) for information on dangerous plants.
After you get the unsafe plants out of the way, protect your decorative houseplants by hanging them up or otherwise putting them out of reach. Keep cats from digging in your decorative pots by putting a layer of small, rough stones over the dirt.
You can then add a collection of accessible plants for your cat to nibble on, such as grass shoots, or to enjoy rubbing, such as catnip, valerian or rosemary.
-- Give face time. Of course, one of the best things you can do for your indoor cat is spend time with him. Playing, grooming, petting or just plain hanging out -- it's all good. Your cat loves you and loves spending time with you.
Keeping a cat inside is one of the best ways to ensure a long and healthy life, but it won't be that happy an existence unless you're going to add some interest to the surroundings. It doesn't take much in the way of time or effort, so get going. Your cat will thank you!
CORRECTION: In a recent column on a top-winning show dog, Lyn Sherman's name was misspelled as "Sherwood."
Weight loss needs checking
Q: I don't know exactly how old my cat is, but he's at least 12, maybe older. He seems in good shape, has really high energy, eats very well and has a great appetite. But he is losing weight. Is this just normal for an older cat, or should I be concerned? -- S.D., via e-mail
A: Your cat needs to be checked out by your veterinarian. Although your letter is pretty lean on specifics, in general when an older cat seems to have high levels of energy but is steadily losing weight, the culprit is often a malfunctioning thyroid gland. This overabundance of the hormone is called hyperthyroidism. The average age at diagnosis is 13, making your cat right in the target area.
When a cat produces too much thyroid hormone, the animal's metabolic rate soars to the point where he can burn off more than half of his body weight. If thyroid production is not checked, cardiac and liver problems develop, and the cat can die.
The good news is that the problem is treatable, allowing a cat to regain full health and expect a normal lifespan. Your veterinarian will be able to discuss treatment options if this is indeed what's going on with your cat. Choices range from a daily medication to the surgical removal of the thyroid gland to radioactive iodine therapy to "zap" the troublesome overproduction.
Radioactive iodine treatment is considered the best treatment option, with a cure rate of 90 percent to 95 percent, with no further treatment necessary. The cat gets one dose of a radioactive substance that kills the overproducing cells without harming any of the body's other functions. It's a one-day matter, but what follows presents a dilemma for many owners: The treatment creates a radioactive cat who must be kept on site at the veterinary clinic or college for seven to 14 days, after which the animal is considered safe.
Because of the expense and the fact that some cats just aren't good candidates for confinement, many people opt to go the medication route, at least at first.
The first step to sorting it all out is to call your veterinarian and see what's causing the weight loss in your cat. It may be hyperthyroidism, or it might not be. Anytime a cat starts losing weight, it's time for a checkup from the veterinarian. Don't delay!
Dog jumping gate
Q: How can I limit my 8-month-old Italian greyhound to a room where there are no doors? There's only a baby gate, which she can jump over. -- S.L., via e-mail
A: When I have puppies or foster dogs in the house, I use an extra-tall gate to make sure they learn from the first that they can't get over the barrier. The problem with most gates is that for large puppies or dogs, or especially agile ones like yours, the common 29- or 30-inch barrier is no barrier at all.
Sometimes people make the mistake of adding height in increments, starting with a standard gate, then getting one just a little higher, and then higher still. This sometimes has the effect of training a dog to jump higher and higher. That's why I prefer to start with a tall gate.
Several companies now make pet barriers that are as much as 44 inches high. Other gates are designed to accommodate additional panels to increase height on a standard gate. Pet supply Web sites and catalog companies are probably your best bet to find the widest selection.
Your dog may be agile, but he'd have to have springs for legs to get over a gate that tall.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Covering cords for pet safety
Puppies and kittens often outgrow their desire to nibble on electric cords, but for other pets, the need to gnaw is lifelong. Rabbits, especially, like to chew on anything and everything.
For young pets or lifelong chewers, tucking electric cords, cables and wires into protective sleeves makes good sense. Pets will be protected from harm, and electrical equipment will be kept in one piece.
Cableorganizer.com offers sturdy, reasonably priced covers for cords and cables. They're perfect for use indoors and provide a neat look to the areas behind computer and home-entertainment equipment. The supplier says its metal covers are good for outside use as well, to protect wiring from wildlife.
Prices start at $6 for an 8-foot section of wire loom in a durable polyethylene cover that comes in a variety of colors. The sturdier metal-braided sleeving is more costly, of course.
Cat bite wounds a common malady
Bite-wound abscesses are one of the most common cat health problems seen in any veterinary practice. After cats fight, an abscess often forms when an infected wound heals over on the surface, sealing the infection inside. These infections need veterinary attention to heal.
If the abscess has not ruptured, it will need to be lanced. Once the abscess is open, it will need to be flushed clean of infected debris. If the abscess is large or especially painful, sedation may be required. Older wounds may need more extensive surgical attention, possibly along with the insertion of rubber to help keep the wound draining as it heals.
Home care involves giving antibiotics to your cat, and may additionally require warm compresses or keeping the wound flushed. Your veterinarian will explain what's needed to help your cat recover. To prevent a repeat of the problem, consider keeping your cat inside.
(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.)
Multiple dogs need individual training
Bad behavior is contagious, as any schoolteacher or dog-trainer can tell you. That's why, if you're going to live with more than one dog, you'll need to work individually with each one to get well-mannered pets.
Having more than one dog has its advantages, especially for the dogs involved. In many families, a dog is left alone for hours at a time, as family members attend to work, school and recreational activities. For a species as intensely social as the dog, all that time alone can be very difficult indeed. The companionship of another dog can help make the hours when the family is gone pass more quickly.
That said, two dogs can be more than double the trouble. One dog who's marking territory in the house will encourage the other to do likewise. Walking two dogs on leash can be like walking a team of draft horses, with each dog encouraging the other to pull harder. Other bad behaviors such as barking can also be made worse with two dogs to egg each other on.
If you're going to have more than one dog, you can't just snap leashes on them and expect good behavior on walks. Basic obedience must be taught individually, from walking on leash to "sits," "downs" and "stays." Each dog needs one-on-one training time with human family members, as well as individual "special time" that can be as simple as taking one dog alone to run errands.
Once each dog knows the obedience basics, practice the exercises together. One of the best is the "stay," which teaches each dog that although they may be members of a pack, the leader of the household is you. My own dogs do a group "down-stay" for a half-hour a couple of times a week.
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Feline spending trends
Keeping your cat inside can help with the cost of cat care. According to a 2004 survey, the top costs reported by cat lovers and the average annual expenses for each are:
Surgical veterinary visits $337
Routine veterinary visits $179
Other supplies $91
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
PETS ON THE WEB
Good advice on guinea pigs
The guinea pig is an often unappreciated pet that has a lot to offer if provided with room to roam, a few toys and some social interaction. But like too many other animals in the "children's pet" category, guinea pigs are often given little of what they need to showcase their sweet personalities.
Catch the Cavy Spirit (www.cavyspirit.com), a guinea pig rescue and adoption group, points out that many parents consider the animals as little more than toys for younger children and projects for older children. In both cases, the animals are often neglected and ultimately dumped when a child's interest wanes.
The site offers solid information on caring for these pets (known as cavies outside the United States). Especially helpful are tips on inexpensively providing decent housing. This site is a must-visit, preferably before a guinea pig is purchased. -- G.S.
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