Dogs and cats populate our language in clever and creative ways
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
When I was growing up, I was a shy, quiet child, and the phrase I heard most often from my grandmother was “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” When I began writing this week’s feature -- on the many ways animals appear in our language -- it was the first phrase that came to mind.
While it seems as if this saying should have a colorful history, its origins are as shy as I was. Its first known appearance in print was in Ballou’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 53, in 1881, where it was described as a phrase said by children. One other theory, unsupported by quality references, suggests that the saying dates to the Middle Ages, when it was thought that a witch’s cat would steal or control the tongue of anyone who saw the witch in action so that she couldn’t be reported to the authorities.
This time of year is notable for its "dog days," known for their scorching heat. The dog days occur in summer when Sirius, the dog star, shines brightly in the sky. Its name derives from the ancient Greek word “seirios,” meaning “sparking,” “fiery” or “burning.” The star, which rises early in the morning in the path of the sun, was thought to be the cause of hot midsummer days. The dog days begin in mid-to-late July and end on Aug. 11.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a "cool cat" as a fashionable person. I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary’s slang definition of the word cool -- composure or poise -- because that so perfectly describes a cat’s normal state of being. The phrase "cool cat" entered the language in the 1940s, associated with jazz music. The digital Oxford English Dictionary says slang references to cats as people who appreciate jazz date to 1936, and the use of cool in reference to jazz music appeared in 1947. The mashup "cool cat" probably occurred soon thereafter.
The metaphor “black dog” as a term for depression has a long history. The negative image of black dogs dates to Roman times, when the poet Horace wrote that the sight of a black dog with puppies was a bad omen. Wordsmith Samuel Johnson used the phrase in the 18th century to describe his melancholia, and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable listed the saying “a black dog has walked over him” to describe a sullen person. In the 20th century, British prime minister Winston Churchill used the phrase “black dog” to refer to his own depression.
Have you ever let the cat out of the bag? This idiom, referring to spilling a secret, has no clear origin, but Barbara Mikkelson of the urban folklore website Snopes.com wrote in 2012 that “it could have to do with a similarity between the behavior of both secrets and cats -- once either is let out, they go wherever they want.” I am reminded of the time our late cat Peter the Gray trapped himself inside a plastic bag and ran frantically back and forth down the hall trying to escape it. In much the same way, a secret-keeper often struggles to contain his or her knowledge until it finally bursts out -- the way Peter did from the bag.
It’s a dog’s life. We all wish we could live that, don’t we? Or do we? What does that phrase mean? In its earliest known reference in a 16th-century manuscript, it referred to a miserably unhappy existence. But considering the multi-billion-dollar pet industry in this country alone, I think that now we can safely say that the phrase refers to a pampered life indeed.
Bicycle can be good
dog exercise tool
Q: I often see people bicycling with their dogs running alongside them. Is that a good way to exercise dogs?
A: Letting a dog run alongside a bike can be a great way to exercise him if he’s in good shape and not overweight. Before you decide to exercise your dog this way, take him in for a checkup with your veterinarian. He shouldn’t be overweight, because running can be hard on his joints. And it’s not something to do with a puppy whose growth plates haven’t closed yet. But if you have a dog who loves to run and has an excess of energy, you have yourself the makings of a bicycling companion.
To get started, your dog should know and respond to the cues "sit," "leave it" and "heel." Start slowly, and gradually build up speed and distance. Keep your dog at a trot, not a run. Make sure he’s not overheating; take a break if you notice that he’s panting hard, slowing down, trying to run toward shade or wanting to lie down. Bring water to give him, and offer it frequently.
Schedule rides for early morning or evening when it’s cool, never in the middle of the day if it’s hot. Avoid busy streets if possible, and make sure your dog wears a flashing collar or orange safety vest so drivers see him. Don’t use an extendible leash or carry the leash in your hand; both can easily lead to a bike wreck. You can purchase an attachment for your bike that keeps your dog alongside it and unable to run off after a bird or squirrel.
Not every dog is suited to running alongside a bike. Skip this type of exercise if you have a bulldog, French bulldog, dogue de Bordeaux or other flat-faced breed or mix. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Algal growth harmful
to pets, people
-- Beware of blue-green algae in water where your pet plays or swims. The algal blooms, often the result of agricultural runoff, produce toxins that affect the gastrointestinal tract and liver, causing vomiting or diarrhea. In severe cases, the animal can suffer liver failure. Blue-green algae blooms look like blue or green paint spilled on the surface of non-moving water, says Steve Ensley, a clinical veterinary toxicologist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Keep pets (and yourself) away from lakes or ponds with blue-green algae, which commonly develops when temperatures are high and rain falls regularly. “Rain causes lakes and ponds to become enriched with an excess amount of nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, causing bacteria to bloom at a more rapid pace,” Ensley said in a news release.
-- Chatty catty? If you have a cat who loves to converse with you, she’s likely a member of the Siamese family. Cats with the gift of gab vocalize seemingly nonstop, telling you about their day, asking about yours, commenting on how you could be doing things better (like feeding them more or pulling out their favorite toy) and complaining about the barking dog next door. Other cat breeds with talkative tendencies include Balinese, Orientals, Bombays, Burmese, Japanese bobtail, Tonkinese, and Devon, Cornish and Selkirk rex cats. Beyond meows, their vocalizations include chirps, chattering, yowls and trills.
-- Not everyone has easy access to a veterinarian. Rural communities often lack options for animal care. Rural Area Veterinary Services steps in with spay/neuter and other surgeries, vaccinations, parasite treatment, porcupine quill removal and other care. The organization helps more than 8,000 animals annually and helps to develop humane animal care and control programs in communities. The organization relies on volunteer veterinary professionals and students to provide services. Donations can be made at ruralareavet.org. -- Kim Campbell Thornton
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.