Listen to your head or follow your heart? When it comes to choosing a cat, it's possible to do both, as long as you know what you're getting into.
For many, a kitten is the only choice: A healthy feline baby is nearly irresistible, and the choices are many during "kitten season," which is at its height now. But feline experts say that for many people, saving a cat others pass on -- an older cat, or one with special needs -- can be intensely satisfying on a personal level, and that benefit is one that should not be discounted.
"This is all about what you get for the giving, and sometimes when you choose the cat who's being overlooked, what you get is a really deep bond with that animal," said Bonney Brown, director of the Reno-based Nevada Humane Society. "Many have cared for a cat for a lifetime after what started as an impulse decision to save that pet."
Veterinarians know the appeal of special-needs pets -- often because they adopt such animals themselves.
"A lot of us have this desire to nurture," said Miami veterinarian Dr. Patricia Khuly, a popular blogger and frequent contributor to pet-related publications. "I know there are plenty of veterinarians who advise not to take on a sick pet, but we veterinarians are often the worst at taking our own advice."
Khuly herself has adopted more than a few sick pets, but she also said it's essential to approach choosing any pet with open eyes and a sense of what's involved -- emotionally, practically and financially.
The place to start is with a clear-eyed evaluation of a pet's health and behavior.
An initial read on the health of a cat or kitten isn't difficult, said Khuly. "Eyes clear and bright, devoid of crustiness or secretions. Nostrils clean, nice pink gums, a clean, full coat and ears free of debris. Breathing should be easy and not labored," she said, adding that a kitten should also be able to walk and eat on his own, follow a finger and show interest in his surroundings.
Nevada Humane's Brown said asking shelter staff or rescue volunteers for advice can help narrow the choices. "We ask people to think about what they're looking for. A quiet companion? A playful kitty? Are there children in the house? Other pets? The shelter staff usually knows the animals, and can help you choose one to meet your expectations."
Behavior problems can be more difficult to predict than medical ones, since some cats react so badly to losing their homes that they shut down emotionally. Brown said shelters have tried to help cats maintain their true personalities by trading small cages for large rooms where cats share space, or by increasing the number of volunteer foster homes so cats don't have to stay in the shelter while waiting for a new home.
She also notes that the behavior problem that pushes many to give up on a cat -- house-soiling -- is in many cases cured by the change of scenery. "We often find the problem so specific to the cat's previous environment that the problem doesn't shift from one home to the next," she said.
Brown and Khuly agree that knowing what you're getting into is the key to a successful adoption, whether you're dealing with the craziness of a kitten, the normal readjustment period of a newly adopted adult cat or the special needs of an animal with chronic health problems or behavior issues.
"You need a working relationship with your veterinarian," said Khuly, who stresses this is even more true when considering a special-needs cat.
In the end, of course, the decisions are yours. But when you open your heart to a hard-luck kitty, you may find that the one who benefits most from the relationship is not the cat ... but you.
Even if not visible,
fleas can be active
Q: Our bichon mix is always digging at herself and turning her skin into an infected mess. The vet says it's fleas, but we've never seen one on her so we think she's wrong. Do you know what it could be and what will help?
A: In a pet with flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), even one flea bite can cause a cascading reaction of itching, irritation and secondary bacterial infection. Far from being a rare overreaction to fleas, FAD is the most common allergic skin disorder in pets. It's not uncommon for dogs with FAD to have owners who swear they've never seen a flea -- but they're there, regardless.
Your dog's misery is reason enough to work on parasite control, but not the only reason.
Fleas aren't the only parasites that can cause problems to pets and people both. Probably the most dangerous of all the pests is the tick. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and babesiosis. Ticks can be as tiny as the period at the end of this sentence, so relying on combing or hand-searching to control them is not effective. Worse, removing them by hand can increase the likelihood they'll transmit disease to your pets.
Given the seriousness of the diseases caused and spread by fleas and ticks, there's no question that prevention is the best course.
In the past, pet owners had to rely on messy, time-consuming and non-environmentally friendly dips, bombs and sprays. Those days are gone with the introduction of topical preventives that repel and kill fleas and ticks. The safety of these products has long been established.
Talk to your veterinarian about the products in your region that work best to control fleas and ticks, for your dog's comfort and safety and yours as well. Once you truly get a handle on fleas in your pet's environment, you can work with your veterinarian to get her itching under control. -- Dr. Marty Becker
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Pet care volunteer sets
-- An Oakland, Calif., woman made tax and pet history after she claimed $12,068 in expenses for cat care on her 2004 federal income tax return.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Jan Van Dusen, a volunteer for a cat charity called Fix Our Ferals, had 70 stray and pet cats in her home and claimed these expenses, including food, veterinary bills, litter, a portion of utility bills and miscellaneous items, such as garbage bags and paper towels.
The United States Tax Court allowed her to take a charitable deduction for the expenses, setting a precedent that others will surely follow.
-- The Japanese keep 22 million cats and dogs, a number 30 percent higher than the number of children in Japan under age 15.
Japan's population has been declining since 2007 and the country is graying, with one of the world's lowest birth rates and highest life expectancies. Children under 15 now make up just 13 percent of the population, while almost one-quarter of Japanese are 65 or older, according to recent demographic data.
Better pet food and veterinary services have allowed dogs and cats to live longer, spawning an industry that ranges from animal diapers and walking aids to 24-hour emergency care and research into pet tissue-engineering. The pet industry in Japan, including pet sales, pet food and other pet products, is worth $17 billion a year, according to the Yano Research Institute.
-- Approximately 60,000 dogs are being used for tests at medical laboratories in the United States at any given time, according to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for the ethical use of animals in scientific studies.
Beagles are used most often because they are trusting, good natured and small. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the Beagle Freedom Project, a San Jose group that rescues lab animals.
For one beagle, the transition from laboratory subject to pet took about 20 seconds. He tentatively extended a paw, his first foray onto grass. Once out, he looked at the sky and cheering volunteers, and then zeroed in on the dog biscuits. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Mikkel Becker and Ed Murrieta
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 many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.