We don't like declawing, and we don't recommend it as a first reaction to any behavior problems in cats.
That said, we understand how in some cases it's a cat's last chance to stay in a good home rather than face uncertain prospects at a shelter. And we know, too, that a well-done veterinary declawing with full pain control is no worse in the short-term than many other surgeries. But we still don't recommend it as anything except a last-chance alternative to losing a good home. In other words: It shouldn't be a preventive or immediately reactive approach to a behavior problem that can be dealt with in other ways.
That's because scratching is a natural and satisfying behavior for cats. It provides a good stretch, marks territory and keeps the claws in good shape. If at all possible, we'd rather a cat be allowed to be a cat in all ways, and that includes enjoying the pleasures of scratching.
If you absolutely, positively have no tolerance for scratching, one great alternative to declawing is to adopt a cat who has already been declawed rather than taking home a kitten and having him declawed. If you already have a cat who's driving you crazy clawing your couch, try the carrot-and-stick approach to changing the behavior to one you can live with.
The carrot: Offer your cat alternative places to scratch.
The stick: Make your furniture unattractive to a clawing cat.
The best investment you can make for your pet's enjoyment -- and your furniture's preservation -- is a cat tree with a high perch for your pet to look down on the family. (Cats like being above it all!) Sisal, a natural ropelike covering, is a good covering for cat trees, as is carpet with loops that aren't too shaggy. If you're even a little bit handy, you can make your own cat tree by using scrap lumber, sisal or carpet remnants.
You can make a cat tree even more appealing by playing games with your cat on the tree and by petting and praising him for scratching there. Some cats may enjoy having fresh catnip rubbed onto the cat tree as added enticement.
Cat trees aren't the only options. Add other approved places for your cat to scratch, such as vertical or horizontal posts, scratching trays filled with corrugated cardboard or scratching pads hung from doorknobs. Experiment to see what your cat likes best.
Once you have approved scratching areas in place, make the places your cat shouldn't be clawing unattractive by putting double-sided patches (such as Sticky Paws) or tape on the furniture. If the furniture fabric is too delicate, put the double-sided material on a piece of cardboard that wraps around the corner of the furniture. Cats hate to touch anything sticky, and so anything mounted sticky-side out will discourage scratching.
Start with your scratching alternative near the problem area. Your cat may shift his attention away from your furniture to the scratching post or tree. Offer praise and treats for good behavior.
Once your cat understands what the scratching post is for, you can slowly move it to the part of the room where you'd like it. Leave the sticky deterrent on the furniture during the retraining and be patient.
Keeping the sharp tips of claws blunt will also help to minimize damage from clawing. It's best to start clipping nail tips when your cat's a kitten, but most adult cats can learn to tolerate the procedure. Use a regular human nail-trimmer, and be patient as your cat learns to tolerate having the very tip nipped. Treats and praise are a must!
Declawing shouldn't be the first strategy for solving a scratching problem. Give your cat a chance to learn and follow the rule, and you will likely be pleased with the results.
Keep toxic plants away from all pets
Q: Our cats like to shred houseplants, so obviously we want to make sure we have safe plants around. Can you offer any suggestions? -- D.P., via e-mail
A: If your cats love to nibble on houseplants, you're smart to make sure poisonous plants are not on the menu. Many common houseplants can make your cats ill, and a few can be deadly. Among the most dangerous are dieffenbachia, lily of the valley and philodendron. Various ivies and yews can be troublesome, too, and the bulbs of plants popular for "forcing" into early indoor bloom -- such as amaryllis, daffodils and tulips -- can cause problems for the cat who likes to dig and chew.
The Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc) maintains a list of problem plants, and you should also be able to find such lists in most basic cat-care books. Check your household inventory against the "bad plant" list and replace any dangerous plants with safer ones.
You don't have to give up all your plants to your cats, however. Instead, keep some plants for nibbling and put other safe plants off-limits to maintain a lush indoor environment you and your cats can both enjoy.
Indulge your pets by keeping planters of sprouting grasses growing in an accessible place for nibbling. Special blends of seeds for cats are available in pet stores and specialty shops, or you can purchase rye grass seeds at the nursery. Catnip, too, is something that's always better when fresh, as is valerian. While not all cats react to the pleasures of these plants, those who do will appreciate your keeping it in-house and using fresh cuttings to recharge cat posts and toys.
When your cats have their own plants, you can work on keeping them away from yours. Plants on the ground or on low tables are the easiest targets, so make your houseplants less accessible to the bored and wandering cat. Put plants up high, or better yet: Hang them.
For the plants you can't move out of harm's way, make them less appealing by coating them with something your cats find disagreeable. Cat-discouragers include Bitter Apple, a nasty-tasting substance available at any pet-supply store, or Tabasco sauce from any grocery store. Whenever you find what your cat doesn't like, keep reapplying it to reinforce the point.
Pot your plants in heavy, wide-bottomed containers, and cover the soil of the problem plants with rough decorative rock to end digging. Foil, waxed paper and double-sided tape are also effective digging deterrents, but I don't like to recommend them as much because you're going to get tired of looking at these materials. Attractive, rough-edged rocks can stay in place forever. -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Halloween a fright for veterinarians
-- Halloween is to veterinarians what April 15 is to accountants, reports Pet Connection contributing editor Christie Keith in her twice-monthly pet-care column for the San Francisco Chronicle's Web site (www.sfgate.com). She cites veterinary toxicologist Dr. Steven Hansen of the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc) in referencing that candy -- both chocolate and goodies sweetened with xylitol -- can sicken and kill many pets. Hansen says calls about pets who have become ill after eating candy spike to their highest levels around Halloween, noting that the center manages several thousand of these calls at this time every year.
-- Dogs do look like their owners. In a study from Bath Spa University, a group of non-dog owners was asked to match photos of 41 dog owners with one of three different breeds: the Staffordshire bull terrier, poodle and Labrador. Owners were matched to their dogs above the level of chance, showing truth to the statement that dogs look like their owners.
-- Care for therapy and service dogs can be pricey. Trained service costs range from $5,000 to $50,000, with some organizations donating dogs free of charge to those who need them, although the waiting list is usually long. Regardless of how the dog is acquired, the patient has the responsibility of keeping the dog fed, groomed and healthy. An average yearly food and routine veterinary bill is $1,500, according to Canine Companions for Independence -- and of course any health problems beyond routine care can increase the veterinary bills considerably. The high costs associated with service animals present a real challenge to many of those who rely on them, since 70 percent of disabled people are unemployed. -- 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.
Rabbits need help with pain control, too
In the last decade, the veterinary profession has made huge strides in advancing the proper care of pet rabbits.
Rabbit medicine and surgery are taught in an increasing number of veterinary schools, and much more published and lecture materials are available to keep in-practice veterinarians up to date.
Despite these advances, there is still confusion regarding the use of pain relief for sick or injured rabbits. Some veterinarians do not use pain-relieving medications in their rabbit patients even though they routinely use these drugs in dogs and cats. But pain management is as important to a sick rabbit as it is to any other pet. Chronic moderate to severe pain can slow the healing process in addition to making life miserable.
Like other prey animals, rabbits will try to hide their pain, tending to become immobile in an effort to hide unusual behavior from any predator. That doesn't mean they're not hurting.
There are acceptable pain medications available for rabbits, and they should be given to help these animals with recovery. Talk to your veterinarian! -- Dr. Marty Becker
BY THE NUMBERS
What reptiles eat
If you're not comfortable feeding live prey to pets, you're probably not meant to keep lizards. Most of these pets like their food live, and their owners accommodate them. According to a 2004 study, top choices for feeding lizards include:
Crickets 72 percent
Worms 34 percent
Fruits/vegetables 31 percent
Dry formula 16 percent
Source: American Pet Products Association
Sharp puppy teeth go at 4 months
If you have a puppy in your home now, you will be delighted to know that those sharp little baby teeth will start being replaced by adult teeth by the age of 4 months -- going from 28 deciduous teeth to 42 permanent ones. But problems can occur with the changeover.
Sometimes baby teeth are retained after the adult ones come in, a situation that can cause many problems, including the misalignment of permanent teeth, incorrect development of the jaw and infections. Check your puppy's mouth daily while adult teeth are erupting to ensure that the baby teeth aren't being retained -- a double row of teeth, especially in the front, tells you that they are.
Have your veterinarian check any suspicious developments. Baby teeth that refuse to fall out on their own may need to be removed by your veterinarian. -- Dr. Marty Becker
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.