The common wisdom used to be that we didn't "own" cats.
We fed them, admired their beauty and enjoyed their company. We let them in and out of our homes with a degree of good humor, and we grieved for them after they left us, sometimes without ever really knowing what happened to them.
While we wouldn't suggest telling your cat that he's "owned" -- because he still doesn't think so -- we can do a lot better by our cats than we ever have before. And that's really true for older cats.
The popularity of cats has led to an explosion in knowledge of how to care for them at all stages of their lives, and geriatric care is no exception. Barring accidents, cats can live healthier, happier lives years longer than they ever have before -- 10, 12, 14 years. Protected from the outside world, cats can live even longer, with 16, 18 and even 20 years -- or more -- a possibility.
But longer, happier lives do require effort on the part of cat owners. Sadly, study after study shows that cats aren't seeing that effort: Pet owners dedicate more time and money into keeping their dogs healthy than their cats.
You love your older cat, right? So change that. Why throw away good years you could share? The place to start: a visit to your veterinarian.
Regular physicals -- for geriatrics, twice a year is best -- are even more important as your cat ages. These need to be more extensive than when your cat was younger: Your veterinarian may suggest blood and urine tests, for example, to determine what's normal for your cat so that subsequent changes in the test values are more apparent.
Work with your veterinarian to address chronic health issues, or those that can lead to them. Key among them: Don't let your cat be fat. Obesity shortens a cat's life and makes the time they have less enjoyable.
You'll need a plan, though, because you can't starve a cat thin without risking serious health problems. So talk to your veterinarian and take it slowly.
Once you and your veterinarian have addressed all the health problems, you'll want to keep your cat active and comfortable.
Play is important, even to older cats, but especially to indoor ones. You don't have to spend a lot of money on toys to come up with ways to keep your cat busy. Cats can chase, hide, climb and explore with an endless variety of toys, many of them recycled household objects. Keep your older cat active, but avoid the flying leaps of youth. Shoot for low-impact play more often.
You'll also want to make rest easier. Your cat may have problems getting up on to high beds or cat trees, so make sure there are plenty of low-level spaces for your cat to enjoy a good nap. Make litter boxes easier to get to as well, perhaps by adding them on every floor, even if your cat has been used to using stairs over the years.
The bottom line: Look at your aging cat in a new way, and do what it takes to accommodate the changes brought on by aging, with the help of your veterinarian.
You and your cat will both be happier for it!
Never let a puppy grow up unguided
Q: I'm a college professor, which means I have time off over the holidays. My kids are grown and gone with their own families far away, and my marriage is a thing of the past. I have done my homework, and I know "the experts" say Christmas isn't a good time to raise a puppy. I get the reasons why, but I'm not expecting company and I have time to get things off to a good start.
I have a dear friend who's a veterinarian, and she knows of a litter by a good breeder, a longtime client. The breeder shows and does all the health tests, and it's a breed I had growing up -- a cocker spaniel. I'm going to get my puppy mid-December. Your best advice? -- W.P., via e-mail
A: My problem with Christmas puppies is twofold, neither of which applies to you. First, a lot of the puppies sold at Christmas come from puppy mills or small-scale, quick-buck breeders who either don't know or don't care what it takes to develop a healthy, well-socialized family pet. Your breeder doesn't fit into this category, it seems.
My other concern is that the holidays can be just too much stress for getting a puppy started. Too much noise, change, company -- not your situation, so it's all systems go.
My best advice: Forget everything you ever heard about starting training at 6 months. Your puppy starts learning the moment he's born. And by the time you get him, he's as absorbent as a bath towel, taking in the sights and sounds of his world and trying to figure out his place in it.
The position he decides he has may be quite different from the one you want him to have, which is why you need to be involved in the process as he learns to live with his new family.
It's not that complicated, really. Your puppy wants to be part of your family, and he craves loving leadership. Just keep a few things in mind as you enjoy your youngster:
-- Bond with your puppy.
-- Socialize your puppy.
-- Never let your puppy do anything you wouldn't want a grown dog to do.
-- Teach your puppy using positive methods; make training fun. (Sign up for a good puppy class now, even if you don't start until next month.)
-- Realize your puppy will make mistakes, and don't get angry when he does.
-- Remember always that preventing bad habits is easier than fixing them later.
Every minute you spend with your puppy is not only delightful but also an investment in the future. Best wishes and enjoy every moment. As with children, puppies are grown before you know it!
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" 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 more. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Grant helps keep pet food coming
-- The nonprofit Meals on Wheels has struggled in this economy to continue the delivery of meals to the elderly and pet food to their animals because rising gas prices have decreased the number of volunteers able to deliver the food. Meals on Wheels provides for pets in more than 100 of their locations, understanding how important animals can be to the socially isolated. To help keep the food deliveries on track, Meals on Wheels has collaborated with Banfield Charitable Trust to start "We All Love Our Pets," a program providing grants nationwide both to create new pet food delivery programs and also to assist volunteers with the costs of distribution.
-- Microchipped pets within the shelter system were able to be reunited with their owners three out of four times, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Microchipped felines were 20 times more likely to be returned to their owner than their non-microchipped shelter counterparts, and dogs were 2 1/2 times more likely to be returned than non-microchipped shelter dogs.
-- "Love dolls" aren't just for lonely men -- lonely dogs will soon be able to get a fake mate as well. The DoggieLoveDoll, the world's first "sex doll" for dogs, comes in three sizes, is made of soft rubber and is easy to clean. The more than vaguely disturbing new product will be in stores by the end of the year.
-- People can rest with their pets forever -- at least in one church-run cemetery. Members of the Church of the Epiphany in Norfolk, Va., approved allowing cremated pets to be laid to rest in the same columbarium niche with the cremains of their owners. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon.
Stop the bite: Watch feline body language
Human stupidity (from the cat's point of view, that is) in misreading or ignoring body language earns more than a few cat lovers a scratch or bite from time to time -- the result of misinterpreting a cat's "I've had enough" signs.
The classic example of this phenomenon is the cat who, while being petted, "suddenly" grabs the hand that pets him with teeth and claws, to the shock and sometimes anger of the human doing the petting.
In fact, these "out of the blue" attacks rarely are. Before the biting or clawing, a cat gives out subtle (subtle to us, anyway) signs of diminished tolerance. Primary among them: an increase in the stiffness and twitching of the tail.
Often, the problem starts with petting your cat's tummy, a very vulnerable area for any animal. Your cat may even offer his belly out of love, but after you start to pet, he may become increasingly uncomfortable with the attention. Most cats just don't like tummy rubs, although exceptions to this rule certainly do exist.
Watch your cat's body signs: If he's tensing or that tail starts twitching, stop petting immediately. Not only does doing so save you claw and teeth marks, but stopping before your cat strikes also slowly builds up his trust in you and his tolerance for physical attention. -- Gina Spadafori
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Where'd you get that cat?
Cats just seem to show up, at least a lot of them do. According to the American Pet Products Association's 2008 pet owners survey, more than a third of all pet cats adopted their owners. Here are the top reported sources for getting a cat (multiple responses allowed):
Friend/relative: 39 percent
Stray/found: 34 percent
Shelter/rescue group: 22 percent
Owned mother: 13 percent
Private party: 8 percent
Bite wounds always potentially serious
When it comes to little pets -- rodents and birds -- bite or claw wounds inflicted by cats or dogs are always a potentially deadly situation, even if it doesn't seem so at first. Dogs and cats are able predators, and their jaws are quite capable not only of piercing the skin of smaller pets, but also of crushing internal organs and breaking bones. Even a little pet who seems to have escaped an attack with "only" a small bite or scratch can fall victim to infection -- as can small pets with no visible signs of injury at all.
If your small pet is attacked by your cat or dog, attempt to control the bleeding, and contact your veterinarian. Your little pet may need to be treated for shock, infection or internal injuries, and very likely should be started on antibiotics as soon as possible. -- 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 email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.