Universal Press Syndicate
What do you know about cats? A little mystery can be a wonderful thing, but sometimes misinformation can be deadly.
Even though cats have shared our lives for countless generations, there's a lot we think we know about them that's wrong. Here are a few enduring myths and the facts to counter them.
-- Cats have nine lives.
Cats are survivors, no doubt of that. More so than any other domesticated animal, they keep their wildness about them, slipping back and forth across the line that separates the feral from the tame.
Finely tuned to the slightest hint of danger, the cat can run fast, climb faster and, if cornered by an adversary, defend himself with a formidable array of claws and teeth. With all this, is it any wonder people came to believe that the cat had not one chance at life, but nine?
The truth is that cats are more fragile than we think. Cats as a species have proven resilient, but as individuals, they are every bit as mortal as we are -- and very vulnerable in the world.
Cats have but one life, and they need our help to make that life a long, healthy and happy one.
-- Cats purr whenever they're happy.
Cats purr if they're happy, but also often when they're not. They purr while giving birth, and they may even purr while dying. British zoologist Desmond Morris has said 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."
Although the experts are pretty clear on why cats purr, they're not yet certain as to how. The most common explanation has the sweet sound originating in the voice box, with what are called the "vestibular folds," or "false vocal cords." The passing of air across these structures is thought to produce the purr all cat lovers adore.
-- Cats are dangerous around babies.
It doesn't matter what well-meaning relatives say. You don't need to find a new home for your pet if you become pregnant. Cats do not maliciously smother or suck the breath out of babies, as the myths hold. While common sense dictates that no pet be left unattended with an infant, you can rest assured that your cat doesn't present any special danger to your child.
A bigger concern involves not infants but pregnancy and the risk of toxoplasmosis. Miscarriages and birth defects can result when pregnant women are exposed to cat feces containing the organisms that cause this disease.
Because of this risk, someone else should take over the maintenance of the litter box for the duration of the pregnancy, and even before the pregnancy in the case of couples who're attempting to conceive. (Litter boxes aren't the only way to contract the disease, so talk to your doctor about additional precautions.)
-- A well-fed cat doesn't hunt.
Hunting behavior in cats is very controversial, especially if the prey is songbirds or endangered rodent species. Some cats hunt, some cats don't, and it has more to do with what a cat learned from his mother than from the rumbling in his belly. Plenty of well-fed cats are very active hunters.
Putting a bell on your cat has little effect on his ability to hunt. Turning him into an indoor dweller is the only way to protect wildlife from your cat -- and to protect you from his thoughtful "gifts" of dead mice and birds.
-- Black cats are bad luck.
Black may be an unlucky color all right -- for a cat. Black cats have been associated with the forces of evil for hundreds of years, and humane societies warn that this myth has cost many of them their lives. Black cats have been the target of those who want to practice rituals that include the torture and killing of animals.
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.
Is there a cure for finicky cat?
Q: I know cats are supposed to be finicky, but I am sick of throwing out perfectly good cat food. Any suggestions for how to get my cat to eat what I'm offering him? -- I.R., via e-mail
A: Although some cats have never met a dish of food they didn't love, others are very picky about what they eat. Missing a meal now and then is quite normal and nothing to worry about. But the cat who flat-out stops eating or starts losing weight is in urgent need of veterinary attention.
Before you hit the panic button, though, be sure you're seeing the true picture of what, when and where your cat is eating.
If you leave out dry food all the time, your cat may be nibbling more than a dozen times throughout the day, thus never eating very much in any one observed sitting. If your cat has access to the outdoors, you need to consider that he may be getting meals from a kind neighbor, or may be stealing from another cat's dish at a home down the street. He might even be picking up some meals the old-fashioned way -- by hunting them.
If you're sure you know the big picture on your cat and know he's not eating, or if he's lost more than a half-pound or so, you'll need a veterinarian's help to find out if your cat is sick. This is true even if your cat can stand to lose weight: The cat who suddenly stops eating or starts losing weight can be seriously at risk.
Some healthy cats are truly finicky, however, and it takes a little bit of work on your part to keep them eating.
One strategy is preventive in nature. Feeding them a wide range of foods, from kittenhood on, helps keep cats from insisting on one brand or variety. Other cats can be jollied out of finicky behavior with canned food, warmed up to be even more tempting. Serve it fresh and warm on a clean plate, and use the smallest cans possible, since you may well be throwing out the leftovers. Finicky cats don't much like leftovers, of course! -- 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." Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Chickens take flight as suburban pets
-- Chickens may be the hottest new pet for suburbanites, who appreciate not only their birds' colorful antics, but also their fresh eggs. Cool chicken coops are popping up everywhere, as cities scramble to consider changing laws to allow handfuls of hens to roam the backyards -- noisy roosters need not apply. The trend may seem new, but chickens are sure not. The fowl were domesticated by the Chinese in 1,400 B.C., and came to America with the pilgrims. In fact, one of the most popular breeds of chicken is the Barred Plymouth Rock.
-- The residents of the tiny town of Tuscarora, Nev., anticipating an imminent attack, will be ready with a perimeter defense: rock music. Loud music has proven to be one of the best defenses against an annual invasion of Mormon crickets. The huge flightless insects advance across the desert in armies of millions that march over, under or into anything in their way from May to August. Besides destroying crops and other leafy vegetation, they crawl all over houses and swarm the roads, where cars cause them to become slippery messes that can cause accidents. So many dead ones piled up on a highway last year that Elko County, Nev., called in snowplows to scrape them off. Every half century or so, plague-like numbers hatch, and this year looks to be particularly bad. Not content to just play rock music full blast from dawn to dusk, residents also use poison bait, chalk dust and Lemon Joy. They have a fallback strategy to make even more noise if the rock music isn't enough: The townsfolk plan to crank up their lawn mowers and weed whackers, according to The Wall Street Journal.
-- Blue whales spotted in Alaska could be re-creating an old migration route decades after they were nearly wiped out by commercial whalers. The endangered whales, possibly the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth, have a long way to go to recover from the worldwide slaughter that reduced their numbers by 99 percent, says the American Cetacean Society. The hunting peaked in 1931, with more than 29,000 animals killed in one season. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
Safe pet-handling starts with soap and water
Reptile pets can be wonderful, easy-care companions for all ages, but families do need to take extra precautions with them.
Because most, if not all, reptiles carry salmonella in their digestive tracts, these pets are generally not recommended for homes with children under 5 or with family members whose immune systems are compromised. For other homes, the risks can be greatly reduced by properly handling these pets. The Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians suggests these basic safety precautions:
-- Wash hands with soap and hot water after handling reptiles or after cleaning reptile enclosures.
-- Limit the part of your home that your reptile is allowed to be in, and wash your hands after being in that area.
-- Never allow reptiles in areas of the home where food is prepared. Don't share food or drink with reptiles, and don't eat, drink or smoke while handling them. Don't kiss these pets, no matter how cute you think they are.
-- Do not put reptiles into bathtubs or sinks. Buy a separate tub for bathing these pets. Pour the water down the toilet, and do not use sinks or bathtubs to clean the reptile bathing tub -- or any reptile housing or gear.
-- Supervise older children to be sure they don't touch the pets and then put their fingers in their mouths. Make sure thorough hand-washing follows each exposure to these pets.
The ARAV stresses that the precautions do not mean reptiles shouldn't be kept as pets, but rather that by following basic common sense in handling them, the potential for human health problems can be kept to a minimum. For more information, visit the ARAV Web site (www.arav.org). -- Gina Spadafori
BY THE NUMBERS
This chew's for you
Dogs like to chew, and people like them to chew in ways that won't destroy things around the house. That's why chew toys are tops on the list of items purchased by dog lovers within the last year. Items purchased (multiple answers allowed):
Chew toys 52 percent
Stain remover 32 percent
Leash 22 percent
ID tag 20 percent
Bed 18 percent
Source: American Pet Products Association
Keep fetch games safe for your dog
Retrieving games are great for getting your dog some exercise and for strengthening the bond between the two of you. But sometimes those rousing games of fetch can end in serious injury if you're not careful about how you play the game.
Never throw things for your pet in a way that makes him leap high in the air or twist to catch them. If you do, your pet might seriously injure his legs or back upon landing, with the kind of damage that often requires expensive and painful surgery to correct.
Instead, throw the ball or other toy so it stays low and in front of your pet, to help him keep his body near the ground, running instead of leaping. And at this time of year, don't push your dog to play in the heat. Strenuous activity needs to be limited to cooler parts of the day. -- 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.