By Christie Keith
Universal Press Syndicate
It's easy to see why cats are such popular pets. Unlike dogs, they don't need to be walked, usually come litter-box trained by their mothers and rarely dig huge holes in the yard -- or bite the letter carrier. Unfortunately, in a lot of people's minds this translates into "Cats need absolutely no care and exist just to sit on my lap and purr while I watch TV."
Instead of living the challenging life of a hunter, our cats have food delivered to them on a predictable schedule. We rarely do anything to make up for their lack of mental stimulation, and we consider their natural behaviors, such as scratching and nocturnal play, to be behavior problems.
As a result, we've ended up with fur-covered, purring sofa cushions who are fat, flabby and prone to diabetes, kidney disease and boredom.
An exercise program will keep your cat happy and minimize health and behavior problems. But before you begin such a program, make sure there isn't a physical reason for any feline misbehavior by scheduling a visit with your veterinarian. A cat who previously used the litter box and then stops doing so probably has a health -- rather than a behavioral -- problem. Cats who develop aggressive behavior later in life are also more likely to be sick than misbehaving.
Then think about where your cat spends his days. Your home might be cat-safe -- but is it cat-friendly? Are there places for her to climb without knocking over your most precious tchotchkes or unraveling your drapes? A few strategically placed cat trees and a high shelf or two can do wonders for your cat's mind and body. Climbing exercises your cat's muscles, claws and mind.
Next, encourage play. Teaching your cat to play with you has a big payoff. Kittens who are conditioned to respond when their owners instigate play can be enticed to play when they're adults, too. If you don't train your young cat -- and yourself -- to incorporate regular active play into your relationship, your cat will probably not continue playing once he hits middle age, no matter what you do then. You can teach your kitten to play with you by using interactive toys, such as "cat dancers" and other fishing pole-style toys.
If you're not starting out with a kitten but trying to enrich the life of an older cat, your invitations to play may be met with a disbelieving stare. If that happens, try breaking out the laser pointer. Laser pointers are wonderful toys for any cat and the only thing that will get some older cats to play. Be extremely careful not to shine the light into your cat's eyes, and keep the laser away from children.
Lazy cats can be encouraged -- OK, forced -- to climb if their food bowl is moved to the top of the refrigerator or the highest platform on their cat tree. (Be sure your older cat is physically up to it before trying this.) Make your cat work for his food.
There are safe ways to give your cat fresh air and sunshine and allow him to pursue his lifelong interest in ornithology. Wired-in porches, window perches and outdoor enclosures are available as kits or can be custom built by a handy cat owner or contractor. There are also bird-feeding stations that can be mounted outside a window, so your cat can sit and watch the birds in safety -- his and theirs.
No matter how old your cat is, no matter how out of shape, even if he's too ill for any form of play, there is one thing you can do that will improve his quality of life and relieve the stress of boredom: Love him. Pet him, talk to him, cuddle him and hang out with him. Take him with you from room to room, feed him from your hand, tease him with catnip and groom him if he enjoys that.
Cats have given up a lot in the transition from tiny tiger to house pet. Don't let your playful little tiger turn into a purring heating pad with a weight problem. And if your older cat already has gone that route, take steps to fix it. Your cat's life -- and your relationship -- will be richer for it.
Black cats get a holiday bump
Used to be true -- and in some places still sadly is -- that around this time of year black cats were kept out of the adoption offerings of many animal shelters.
The thinking went that sick pranksters would adopt the cats to torture or kill them as part of some Halloween fright-night activities. These stories were mostly urban myths, but the fear of cat mutilation tied to Halloween killed a lot of cats anyway: They died in shelters rather than being adopted out.
The progressive movement that's sweeping shelters -- the building of no-kill communities nationwide -- has many of today's shelters using any reason to highlight pets who need new homes.
That's why this year, you'll be seeing some shelters focus on the holiday by actually featuring their black feline beauties, in order to get these cats in new homes instead of letting them languish or be killed in shelters for lack of space.
The Greenhill Humane Society (www.green-hill.org) of Eugene, Ore., is taking it even further, with a "half-price sale" on the adoption of a black cat -- altering and vaccines included for $27 -- and the slogan, "Going black can save you green."
Of course, all the standard screening for potential adopters will apply in these promotions. But it's a great way to get more good pets in more good homes.
Black pets -- dogs and cats both -- are considered more difficult to place than others. Theories range from the idea that dark-colored pets seem intimidating to some people to the fact that black pets can be difficult to photograph, making them look like a personality-less dark blob on a shelter's Web site or on Petfinder.com.
As a longtime owner of "black goldens" -- aka flat-coated retrievers -- I can vouch for the ebony pets. Go adopt. You'll have a happier Halloween with a new family member by your side. -- Gina Spadafori
Herding as dog sport replaces herding work
-- Since 1945 the number of sheep in America has dropped from 46 million to 7 million. The annual per-capita consumption of lamb has also dropped from 6 pounds annually in 1940 to 1 pound today. One reason for the decline, according to The New York Times, has been attributed to soldiers in World War II who ate partially cooked mutton and became ill, and then refused to eat mutton once they returned home to the United States. Raising sheep became even more difficult after 1972 when the federal government passed a ban on a common poison used to kill coyotes, who are one of greatest predators of sheep. The one thing bucking the trend? Sheep are being kept by some dog enthusiasts to give their animals work to do, and sheepdog trials have become a passion among some dog owners.
-- Dogs' noses aid society in numerous ways, including drug and bomb detection, but now are even able to detect water pollution. Sable is a 3-year-old shepherd mix known as the only detection dog able to reliably detect illegal pollutants that flow into sewer lines. Sable was 87 percent accurate compared to traditional laboratory water tests. The New York Times reports that the dog's sniffing abilities may save money as more pricey and time-consuming dye tests could be in large part replaced by dogs such as Sable. For Sable and his trainer to travel for the week, the cost would run between $5,000 and $10,000, which would be low in comparison to traditional tests, which can run more than $100,000.
-- A spice found in the kitchen could hold the secret to curing feline cancer. Curcumin, a compound in turmeric, stops the growth of cancer in laboratory testing. According to DVM360.com, the herb is closely related to ginger and can be found in foods such as mustard, canned beverages, baked and dairy products, Indian cuisine, including curries, and home-canned foods such as pickles. The benefits of curcumin are found ineffective in humans, dogs and many other mammals, as their livers metabolize the compounds in a way that make it useless in fighting cancer. The livers of cats, however, don't metabolize many drugs as well, which may allow the benefits of curcumin to aid them in the fight against cancer. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
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 monthly drawing for more than $1,000 in pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Veterinary specialists can help your pet
Although not as many specialists exist in veterinary medicine as in human medicine, the number and the kinds of certified veterinary experts grow every year.
Current companion-animal specialties include such "system" areas of expertise as cardiology, dentistry, dermatology and oncology. There are also "species" specialists, such as those veterinarians certified as experts on bird health. Behavior specialists are becoming more common as well. These veterinarians help people and their pets work through such problems as house-soiling or separation anxiety with the aid of medication and behavior-modification techniques.
"System" specialties usually require additional study in a two- to five-year residency program, followed by a rigorous examination. These certifications are handled by a board such as the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, which is why certified specialists are sometimes referred to as "boarded" or "board-certified."
For veterinarians already in practice, the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners also offers specialty certifications, including those in feline and avian practice. The certifications also require passing a difficult examination.
Many urban centers support independent specialists or specialty practices. But in less populated areas, you're more likely to find a full complement of specialists at the closest university with a school or college of veterinary medicine.
The relationship between your pet's regular veterinarian and a specialist is one of cooperation and trust. Your veterinarian will consult with or refer you to a specialist, knowing that when the situation he sent you there for is resolved, you will be sent back to his practice. Without this understanding, your regular veterinarian would be understandably reluctant to refer a client he will not get back.
If your veterinarian is reluctant to refer you to a specialist, remember that the final decision in your pet's care is always yours. Keep the lines of communication open with your veterinarian if you can, but realize your pet's care is your responsibility, and seek a second opinion or specialist on your own. -- Dr. Marty Becker
BY THE NUMBERS
Lucy, I'm home!
Veterinary Pet Insurance analyzed its insured pets list to find the most common names of 2008, with Max turning up at No. 1 for both dogs and cats. Some of the most popular dog and cat names -- Bella, Chloe, Sophie and Bailey -- are also included in the most popular name database of the Social Security Administration for babies. The top 10 names for dogs and cats are:
1. Max 1. Max
2. Bailey 2. Chloe
3. Bella 3. Tigger
4. Molly 4. Tiger
5. Lucy 5. Lucy
PETS ON THE WEB
Check out those Internet scares
Anyone with a pet and an e-mail address receives a constant barrage of "warnings" on products that are said to be deadly to pets. The most pervasive in recent years have been warnings on Febreze and Swiffer. Neither product is dangerous to pets, according to veterinary experts in poison-control. And yes, the "warnings" just keep circulating.
It's neither right nor fair to pass on unsubstantiated claims. When you get such an e-mail, don't forward it automatically to 600 of your closest friends. Instead, check it out.
A good general site for rumors is Snopes.com, which keeps up with all urban myths and e-mail rumors and fairly evaluates them. Specifically for pets, you can usually find out the information from the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/APCC). -- 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.