By Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp
Universal Press Syndicate
What is more adorable than a tiny kitten pedaling soft paws on your chest and purring up a storm? Enjoy your kitten, but never forget to make the most of this special time to ensure you'll end up with a wonderful cat.
Kittens begin to learn life's lessons at an early age -- 3 weeks is the start of a critical period in their lives as companion animals. From the time their eyes open until the fluffy babies are about 10 weeks old, kittens are developing impressions of the world that will stay with them for life.
These early experiences shape an adult cat's personality and attitudes about strange people, pets and places, wearing collars or harnesses, getting baths or nail trims, being examined, or riding in a car or carrier. Within this period -- about 5 to 8 weeks of age -- is a wonderful and important time for teaching a kitten to use the litter box and scratching post, and to play with toys instead of fingers and toes.
But most kitten owners are completely unaware of this small window of teachable moments. Instead of actively and deliberately creating experiences to shape their kittens' perceptions and household behaviors, they let their kittens grow up mostly on their own.
When the owners aren't watching, kittens form bad habits by trying out stretches and nail-sharpening on the furniture, or finding a bath mat or shag carpeting that seems as good a place as any to potty. On their own, they learn to jump on counters and explore tables, and to chew on houseplants and their owners' food. And when no cat trees are to be found, kittens may climb curtains for fun or to perch up high -- both are normal feline behaviors.
And it's not all fun and games: Curious kittens may swallow small objects or fall out of windows if screens are not secured.
All these missed opportunities and potential hazards underscore the need for getting involved in training your kitten. Here are some basic tips to help make the most of this special time in any cat's life:
-- Place your new kitten in a small room or bathroom for at least a week with the litter box on one side of the room, food and water on the opposite side, and a tall cat-scratching post and climber somewhere in the middle. If you limit the options, your kitten will make better choices. Place your kitten in the litter box often and praise him. Use cat toys to encourage your kitten to use scratching posts and cat trees. Praise all behaviors you want to continue.
-- Give your kitten places to hide, to reduce the stress on your youngster. Look for a cat tree with a cubby hole, and provide a carrier both as a hiding place and as transport for visiting friends or the veterinary hospital. Feed your kitten in the carrier and make it a place for surprise treats. Get your kitten used to short car rides with treats, toys and positive attention.
-- Look for every opportunity to shape your kitten into a relaxed, confident, friendly, affectionate and well-behaved member of your family. Hand-feed your kitten before and in between meals. When your kitten is already relaxed, use special treats to introduce new experiences such as gentle handling, wearing collars, harnesses or getting one nail trimmed. Think of teeny-tiny baby steps and of creating a positive first impression. Provide your kitten's favorite treats and finger-scratch your kitten in favorite places to help offset small amounts of stress. Help your kitten recover and relax by going slowly without using any force.
Always keep in mind the cat you want your kitten to be, and create a socialization checklist that gives you homework for shaping your kitten's personality and perspective on life one day and one baby step at a time.
Pick a healthy kitten
Kittens are all adorable, and every shelter and rescue group has plenty at this time of year -- colors, coat lengths and markings galore. But how do you know you're picking a healthy baby?
General impressions are important. You should get a sense of good health and vitality from the kitten you're considering adopting. The baby should feel good in your arms: neither too thin nor too fat, well put-together, sleek and solid. If his ribs are showing or if he's potbellied, the kitten may be suffering from malnutrition or worms. Both are fixable, but signs of neglect may indicate deeper problems with socialization or general health.
With soothing words and gentle caresses, go over each kitten you're considering from nose to tail, paying special attention to the following areas:
-- Fur and skin. Skin should be clean and unbroken, covered thickly with a glossy coat of hair. Part the hairs and look for signs of fleas: The parasites themselves may be too small and fast for you to spot, but their droppings remain behind. You shouldn't count a cat out because of a few fleas, but a severe infestation could mean an anemic kitten.
-- Ears. These should be clean inside or, perhaps, have a little bit of wax. Filthy ears and head-shaking are signs of ear mites, which can require a prolonged period of consistent medication to eradicate.
-- Eyes. Eyes should look clear and bright. Runny eyes or other discharge may be a sign of illness. The third eyelid, a semitransparent protective sheath that folds away into the corners of the eyes nearest the nose (also called a "haw"), should not be visible.
-- Nose. Again, no discharge. The nose should be clean and slightly moist. A kitten who is breathing with difficulty or is coughing or sneezing may be seriously ill.
-- Mouth. Gums should be rosy pink, not pale, and with no signs of inflammation at the base of the teeth. The teeth should be white and clear of tartar buildup.
-- Tail area. Clean and dry. Dampness or the presence of fecal matter may suggest illness. Of course, even a healthy kitten will need your veterinarian's help to stay that way. Schedule a new-kitten exam and preventive-care consultation as soon as you get your new family member adopted. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Sandpaper tongues have a purpose
Q: My 8-year-old daughter asked me a question that I'd like to ask you. Why does a cat's tongue feel so rough? And why does it need to be like that? -- M.R., via e-mail
A: If you look at a cat's tongue with a magnifying glass (and good luck trying to do that, by the way), you'll see it's covered with row after row of barbs. The little structures that line the surface of a cat's tongue are called "filiform papillae." They're hooked (like the wiry half of Velcro) and are directed toward the throat.
These barbs help to hold prey while eating, and they also help a cat keep her fur in perfect (or should we say purrfect?) condition, pulling out dead and dying hairs along with any debris picked up in the day's travels. Cats can actually feel when a few hairs are out of place, so that tongue is also a convenient, built-in hairbrush.
Other papillae of the tongue are involved with taste detection. The filiform papillae can't taste food, but they do hold food in contact with the tongue long enough to enable the cat to taste it.
Cats can function with no teeth -- and some of the older ones have to -- but they must have at least half their tongue to survive. -- Dr. Marty Becker
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or visiting PetConnection.com.
Women take over vet med
-- Following the graduation of the class of 2007, there will be more female than male veterinarians for the first time in U.S. history. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, this year's class of 2,489 students in the nation's 28 veterinary schools is 75.3 percent female. Only 5 percent of veterinary students were women in the 1960s.
The Boston Globe reports that while there is little research into the gender shift, some theorize that women are drawn to the field (and that men have left it) as the focus has shifted from large animals to caring for pets and the feelings of pet owners. Another possibility is that veterinary medicine is considered a more flexible career, making it attractive to women who want more time with families.
-- Veterinarians say they chose their careers early, falling in love with the idea of working to care for animals by the age of 9.
-- Dogs are living longer and are affected by cognitive aging signs, but treatments are available. According to veterinary behaviorist and author Dr. Karen Overall, the most common behavioral changes clients bring up are: disorientation (pet gets lost in the house or confused outside), changes in social interaction (plays less, ignores toys, interacts less with fellow pets and withdraws from owners), sleep-wake changes (pets often pace and vocalize at night), and changes in elimination patterns (a loss of house-training).
-- The Humane Society of the United States estimates there are 40,000 professional dog fighters in the United States and 100,000 street-dog fighters.
-- Dog owners take their pets to the veterinarian more than twice as often as cat owners do: The average number of annual veterinary visits is 2.3 for dogs and only 1.1 for cats.
-- When actress Jessica Alba was asked for the September issue of Cosmopolitan what would surprise people, she replied, "I pick up my own dog poo." -- Dr. Marty Becker
Pets give blood for others
The use of blood products for treating sick and injured pets has increased so dramatically that there is a growing shortage of canine and feline blood.
The donated blood is used in the same way that blood is used in human medical facilities: as whole blood, plasma and packed red cells. The blood is collected in sterile plastic bags and is handled and stored in the same way as human blood.
Although most stored blood comes from "professional" donors -- typically dogs living in a veterinary hospital or, more recently, retired racing greyhounds kept in colonies as blood donors -- in some areas, canine blood drives are held. The blood is donated (you can't earn money from your dog's donation), but it's certainly for a worthy cause.
Most dogs kept as blood donors are adopted out after a relatively short period of service. Since they're chosen for their size (bigger dog equals more blood) and temperament (must be easygoing), these dogs make wonderful pets.
Feline donors are also a mellow lot. They normally are given a mild sedative for the blood draw, and they can donate every three months. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Some people are remembered in a breed's name
A handful of breeds were named for people. Ludwig Dobermann, a German tax collector in the mid-19th century, developed the elegant and protective breed that bears his name to, in the words of Britain's Kennel Club, "protect him and ... 'encourage' slow payers." In the United Kingdom, the second "n" is retained in the name of the breed, but it's missing in the American name of the dog -- as are part of the breed's ears, since ear cropping is common in the United States but illegal in England.
The Parson Russell Terrier -- more commonly known as the Jack Russell -- was named after the Rev. John Russell, a Victorian-era clergyman with a fondness for hunting terriers. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was named after King Charles II -- although the breed was named centuries after his death because the dog was redeveloped by fanciers in England after World War II, separating it from the King Charles Spaniel, which is known in the United States as the English Toy Spaniel, a favorite dog of the British gentry for centuries. There's also the Gordon Setter, named after the Duke of Gordon.
Arguably, you can say that the Saint Bernard was named after a person. But the breed was more likely named after the monastery where the dogs became famous for their heroic rescue efforts. (This is no longer practiced, by the way. The monastery now "borrows" Saint Bernards from nearby towns for tourist season but doesn't keep any otherwise.)
Then there's the Dandie Dinmont Terrier, who isn't named for a real person at all, but after a character in Sir Walter Scott's "Guy Mannering." There's something else fairly unusual about the long-bodied, short-legged dog with a puff of fur on his head and whiskers on his muzzle: Dandies are so rare that the breed is considered on the verge of extinction. Every year, more pandas are born than Dandies. -- Gina Spadafori
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Forget Fido: Max is No. 1
The Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. lists its top pet names, based on a survey of its policy holders. The days of "Fluffy" and "Rover" are clearly long gone:
ON THE WEB
Straight from the source
Veterinary Partner (www.veterinarypartner.com) is the information source for pet owners provided by the Veterinary Information Network, an online service by veterinarians for veterinarians.
Although I've long been associated with VIN and Veterinary Partner (the latter side holds the Pet Connection archives), I continue to be impressed by the depth and scope of the articles available to pet lovers.
The site is especially strong in its advice on pets such as rabbits and other small mammals, thanks to the offerings of one of the nation's top rabbit vets, Dr. Susan Brown. Veterinary Partner also offers solid information on medications commonly used in veterinary practice and behavior advice for dogs and cats.
The Internet offers a lot of information for pet lovers -- a lot of it self-serving, wrong or both -- but Veterinary Partner always has the best, most current information. It's a great resource that should be bookmarked by every pet lover. -- Gina Spadafori
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
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