Universal Press Syndicate
Everyone wants a cat who'll spend these cold evenings serving as a purring lap warmer. But some cats need help to learn how to be that contented companion.
Feline aggression is often misunderstood and even more often mishandled. Never hit a biting or scratching cat, since putting your pet on the defensive will only make matters worse. Instead, learn to understand why cats bite and scratch, and learn to react in ways that will teach your cat rather than terrorize him. With time and patience, you can turn most quick-to-hiss cats into a pet who loves attention.
Make sure your cat is healthy before starting a behavior-modification program. A cat who's sick or injured will lash out, and can't learn. For cats who are completely out of control (as opposed to just a little claw-happy), getting a referral to a veterinary behaviorist is also a good idea. A veterinarian behaviorist can prescribe medications that can ease your cat through the rough spots as you get help with the program.
For most healthy cats, though, all that's needed is to learn why cats lash out when being petted and how to deal with them properly and patiently:
-- 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 tabletop, 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. (See the sidebar on how and where to pet an easily overstimulated cat.)
-- 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.
With a scratch-happy cat, always work to eliminate the triggers for unwanted behavior and work on your cat's tolerance levels for being petted. If you're patient and consistent, your cat can learn to play nice.
Learn your cat's favorite places for petting
Some kinds of petting are easier for cats to tolerate than others. 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. -- Gina Spadafori
Planning keeps parrots neater
Q: Do you have any suggestions to keep a parrot from pooping all over the house? I read in your "Birds for Dummies" book that parrots need playtime outside the cage, but I'm having a hard time dealing with the mess. -- B.D., via e-mail
A: If you don't want your bird to mess all over the house, don't let him roam all over the house. Instead, limit him to areas of the house that can be lined with paper or have easy-to-clean surfaces such as tile, hardwood or laminate flooring, and cover furnishings in those areas with old towels. (Caution: Kitchens may have those easy-to-clean surfaces, but they're not safe play areas for your parrot.)
House-training your bird may also help. 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 lined wastebasket, newspaper, paper plate or whatever "poop zone" you've chosen. Give your potty command and praise him when he obeys -- even though the response is just a coincidence at first, of course.
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 hold it for several hours or more. Be aware that no bird can ever be expected to be perfectly reliable: Sometimes a bird just has to go.
Another suggestion is to use "birdy diapers" to catch some of the mess when your bird's not in his cage. One such product is the FlightSuit, a body-hugging harness with an absorbent liner. The product (starting at $16) comes in many colors and patterns and can be purchased from pet-supply retailers or from the manufacturer, Avian Fashions (www.birddiaper.com, 888-412-7667).
The best you can hope for is to minimize any mess and cleanup. Parrots are very messy pets, and cleaning up after them is part of having them around. -- Gina Spadafori
(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.
Secondhand smoke bad for pets, too
-- Secondhand smoke poses a severe health risk to pets, causing oral cancer and lymphoma in cats, lung and nasal cancer in dogs, as well as lung cancer in birds. One of the reasons cats are so susceptible to secondhand smoke is because of their grooming habits: As they groom, they literally "eat" the carcinogens that accumulate on their fur.
-- A family of proteins known to fight off microbes surprisingly also helps determine whether or not a poodle's coat will be black, white or somewhere in between. Researchers at Stanford University studied the DNA of hundreds of dogs, looking for a gene that controls coat color. They found, surprisingly, that the coat-color gene also controls a family of proteins that are thought to defend the body from invading microbes.
-- Robert Draper (author of "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush") interviewed President Bush for thoughts on his presidency and found that he conveyed a level of sanguinity about his approval ratings. Draper recalled that in their last meeting, Bush pointed to his dog, Barney, and said, "That guy who said 'If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog' knew what he was talking about. ("That guy," by the way, was Harry S Truman.) -- Dr. Marty Becker
Making the most of senior years
Senior dogs and their owners can keep enjoying walks, favorite activities and tummy rubs well into the dog's old age. In fact, the golden years can be the best years of a dog's life, says Diane Morgan in "The Living Well Guide for Senior Dogs" (THF Publications, $20).
Morgan debunks myths about older pets, gives nutritional information based on the most recent studies on aging in dogs, and shares tips on grooming, behavior and health issues for older canines. Standout sections include adopting senior pets, travel, coping with disabilities and fun activities for aging dogs.
If there's an old dog on your sofa, this handsome book, with its pages of glossy photographs, is for you. -- Christie Keith
Birding a great activity for animal lovers
People who share their lives with pets are obviously animal lovers, so it's probably only natural that many pet lovers are active bird-watchers as well.
If you're not yet, it's easy to get started with birding.
Whether you're curious about who's showing up at your bird feeder or if you'd like to be involved in a more active form of bird-watching, "The Sibley Guide to Birds" (Knopf, $35) should be in your reference collection.
David Allen Sibley's book is notable for his truly astonishing illustrations -- nearly 7,000 in all. The guide is also well-organized and easy to use. Every beautiful, informative page in this book is a delight, a masterly work by one of the nation's top painters of wild birds.
"Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding" by Scott Weidensaul (Harcourt, $25) is another must-read for the would-be birder. The story of how birding grew in America from the days of the Pilgrims to today is as compelling as a good novel.
You'll also want to consider participating in the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch (www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/index.html). The Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count (www.audubon.org/bird/cbc) started on Dec. 14, but you can keep an eye on the progress on the Web site (through Jan. 5, 2008).
These two winter projects have been running for years now and let "citizen scientists" do their good deed for the birds of the world and those who study them. -- Christie Keith and Gina Spadafori
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Rabbit races to be a top 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 GOOD BEHAVIOR
Skip the collar for easy walking
A leash-pulling dog is one who often never gets taken for walk. In recent years, head halters and front-clip harnesses have helped people get the upper hand without punishing or hurting their dogs. The head halter can also make it easy to teach dogs other good behaviors such as "sit."
Although most pets come to enjoy or at least tolerate their head halters, initial introductions normally meet with resistance. (Front-clip harnesses seem to be accepted more readily.)
Introduce the head collar with treats and praise. Ignore any efforts to remove it, and praise your dog for moments of acceptance. With either of these tools, you'll soon be walking your dog with pride and pleasure.
(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)
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.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600