Ever curious and quick to pounce, cats are the perfect small predator. They're even equipped with the amazing ability to right themselves in midair if they fall while hunting, rotating their bodies from the head back like a coil to align themselves for a perfect four-paw landing.
But what works for a supple small animal falling from a tree branch doesn't cut it in the modern world, where a cat's more likely to fall from a window than a tree.
"When cats evolved, there were no high-rise buildings. There were trees," says Dr. Louise Murray, director of medicine for the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in Manhattan. "Their instincts work against them now. They have a strong instinct to go after any moving object. When they fall ... a cat could grab the bark of a tree and save himself, but he can't grab concrete and metal with claws."
Murray says the problem of cats falling out of windows is a seasonal one, timed to the first nice days of spring and, later, to the attempt to get any fresh air in a home on a hot summer day.
"At this time of year, we get five cases a week, and that's just us," she says. "Think how many other veterinary hospitals there are in Manhattan."
While the problem would seem to be one for big-city cats only, she says that's not really the case. In fact, cats are more likely to survive falls from higher stories -- and be killed from falls as low as two stories. The reason is what veterinarians call "high-rise syndrome," according to Murray.
"We know that the worst falls are from second to sixth stories in height," she says. "Over six stories, the cat has time to right himself. Landing on four feet instead of one point, the impact is spread out. And when they get in that correct falling position, they become more relaxed for landing."
Murray says that cats have survived falls of up to 30 stories or more -- although they certainly haven't walked away from such falls uninjured. Broken bones, broken jaws, collapsed lungs are common in falls from higher stories, but these cats survive. The ones falling from lower floors, without time to get themselves relaxed into a proper landing position, often do not.
That means cats can be killed falling from the window of a two-story home, or from the balcony of a third-story apartment. In other words, "high-rise syndrome" is as much a problem in the suburbs as in the city.
Many cat lovers assume their pets would be smart enough to be careful when up high enough for injuries, but Murray says it's just not in an animal's ability to make that kind of judgment call. Cats are comfortable in high places, and they cannot understand the difference in risk between a one-story fall and a six-story fall.
"People think that cats know not to jump or fall out of a window, but they just don't," says Murray, who believes that some cats fall because they lose their footing, while others are chasing something and jump while in pursuit.
"If you think about a cat's instinct," she says, "you'd buy screens."
Screens can save a life
It's possible to give a cat fresh air safely, no matter what kind of housing you have.
If you're in multifamily housing, you can't alter a fire escape because of safety issues, but you may be allowed to screen in a balcony to give your cat access to fresh air and a good view.
If you're in a detached home, you can put in a more permanent structure, such as a screened-in multilevel cat playground. I've seen several, and none were especially elaborate or expensive -- just simple framework, sturdy wire enclosures, and a system of sisal-wrapped posts and platforms to give cats a safe place to play.
If none of that's possible, you don't even have to pop for built-in screens. Most home centers have low-cost adjustable screens that fit into windows and can expand to fill in the gap. These will allow fresh air to flow while keeping cats safe.
Little dog best left in house
Q: I have a 3-year-old male Chihuahua. I'd like for him to be outside during the time I'm at work, which is from 5:30 a.m. until about 3:30 p.m. How can I do this safely? My dog's accustomed to roaming inside the house, but I think he may prefer to be outside in good weather. -- M.S., via e-mail
A: I suspect your dog is plenty comfortable lounging around in the air conditioning while you're at work. And I'd be loath to recommend leaving him out all day for a couple of different reasons.
First, the neighbors. A lot of dogs, especially small ones, tend to be more than a little bit yappy when left alone. Keeping a dog in the house buffers noises that trigger barking and, of course, muffles whatever barking there is.
Second, your dog. Even with shade and water, summer afternoons can get pretty hot. And if your dog gets bored, he won't need to find a very big hole in the fence to slip through to search for more interesting activities. Finally, it's not unheard of for a small dog (or cat) to attract the attention of such urban wildlife as a hungry coyote.
All in all, your dog is probably better off indoors while you're gone. If the length of time he's left alone is a problem, consider the possibility of an indoor canine litter box or potty zone.
Q: We made a mistake in putting in the cat door. We didn't follow directions to leave the flap off at first, and we just pushed our cat in and out. Now he won't go near the door. Any ideas? -- C.S., via e-mail
A: Tape up the flap securely for a few days so that he comes to appreciate the fact that he can conveniently come and go on his own schedule through this magic portal. (And I do mean securely. If your cat gets clobbered by the flap, it'll take a long time to coax him near it again.)
Then put the flap down and put a little butter or margarine on the bottom edge of the flap and encourage him with tasty treats and praise from the other side. You can also drag through toys on a string, encouraging him to chase them.
Repeat in very short intervals over the course of several days, and your cat will get the hang of it, sure enough.
If you have another cat who already knows how to use the cat door, you usually don't need to do anything. Just be patient.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Picking may be medical issue
Feather-picking is a symptom, not a disease. Any one or any combination of the following can be the problem when a bird starts picking himself bald:
-- Health problems. Medical conditions include allergies, parasitic infections, bacterial infections, abnormal growths in the feather follicle, internal health problems, vitamin deficiencies and hormone-associated problems.
-- Low humidity. Many pet bird species come from tropical environments. The dry air of most houses can be a factor in feather-picking and can also set the stage for some secondary medical problems.
-- Boredom and pent-up energy. Birds are active and intelligent, and they don't handle the strain of being forced to sit around in a cage all day very well. Without things to play with and stuff to destroy and without being able to get out of the cage and exercise, birds may direct all their energy toward self-mutilation.
-- Psychological problems. Obsessive-compulsive disorders or even a bad wing trim can also trigger feather-picking.
-- Attention-seeking. Some birds learn that their owners pay attention to them when they're pulling on their feathers. So they pick more for attention.
Veterinarians with experience in avian medicine will be able to diagnose any medical problems and help with behavioral ones. The sooner you take your bird for help, the better a chance you have at seeing your pet full-feathered again.
(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.)
ON THE WEB
A smart site for smart dog
You don't have to have a sheep ranch to keep a border collie happy, but it helps. If not a sheep ranch, then maybe a couple of acres with canine agility gear. Or you could be the kind of person who likes to train for marathons with a dog at your side.
In short, if you're a couch potato, this isn't the dog for you. But the border collie is a breed that can fit into many active homes, whether in a city, a suburb or in the country. The key word: active.
That's the message of All About Border Collies (www.bordercollie.org), the informational Web site of the U.S. Border Collie Club, a group dedicated to keeping the breed's working heritage intact. The site offers good information on what it's like to live with a border collie and how to keep one busy. Anyone thinking about adopting one of these dogs ought to visit here first.
NOTE: Last week the Web address of the Companion Parrot Quarterly was left out. You can find it at www.companionparrot.com.
Lifelong friendships can start young
Children and cats are natural together, but you need to lay some ground rules for the safety of both.
Cats can bite or scratch children, and animals can be injured by the well-meaning attention of children, especially young ones. The key to keeping children and cats together safely is to make sure their interactions are supervised, and to teach children how to handle and respect cats.
Under no circumstances should a cat -- or any pet-- be left unsupervised with an infant. While the idea that cats "suck the breath of babies" is a myth, keeping your cat away from an infant while you're not present is just good common sense.
Toddlers can really try a cat's patience, even though they aren't being anything but normal. Young children can't understand that poking, squeezing and patting aren't appreciated. Although most cats figure out quickly that children this age are best avoided, your child could be bitten or scratched if your cat is cornered or startled. Keep an eye on all interactions. And consider putting a baby gate across the entry to a "safe room" for your cat, so he can have a place to go where he isn't pestered.
School-aged children can learn to care for a cat and take an increasing amount of responsibility -- under supervision, of course. One way to teach younger school-aged children is to play the "copycat game." If your child pets the cat gently, stroke his arm gently to show how nice it feels.
Teach your children, too, how to hold a cat properly, with support under the animal's chest and legs. A cat who feels secure and safe is far less likely to scratch or bite.
BY THE NUMBERS
Watch out for summer
According to the Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (www.petinsurance.com), hot weather triggers an increase in certain health problems. The company reports claims from summer 2005, compared with February 2005 for context:
Feb. June July Aug.
Insect bites/stings 68 207 256 311
Heat stroke 4 36 50 31
Ear infections 3,629 4,285 4,578 4,756
'Just in case' plan for pet
You should have formal plans designating a friend or family member to make decisions should you become incapable of caring for your pet because of illness, injury or death. In case of the latter, you'll need to talk to an attorney to set up a plan giving the pet to a trusted person, along with money for care.
If you have no one willing or able to take responsibility in the event of your death, you might consider leaving your pet to a program that will provide lifetime care for a fee. Typically, these programs are affiliated with veterinary schools or humane societies. (I'm not sure I would trust any organization that wasn't a veterinary school or established humane society, to be honest.)
Making arrangements can be emotionally difficult. But you owe it to your pet to have their care arranged for them, just in case.
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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