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THE PET CONNECTION
By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

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Toys are Essential to Keeping your Cat Active and Happy

Inside every cat is a lion. Or a tiger. Or a lynx. Or, really, all of these great hunters. And in your cat's mind, he's a wild predator, too.
 
In fact, all cats are. They love to lurk and prowl and chase and pounce. An indoor cat doesn't have the opportunity to go after real prey (unless you have mice in your home), but he still has strong hunting instincts. This genetic coding doesn't disappear just because he lives a royal lifestyle in your home and has his meals delivered on the feline equivalent of a silver platter.
 
When a cat's need to hunt isn't fulfilled with live action, he turns to the next best thing: feet moving beneath the covers, hands dangling at an owner's side, arms, legs, you name it. Instead of letting a kitten believe your body parts are fair game, provide him with toys that will satisfy his urge to hunt as well as save your skin.
 
It's all too easy to accidentally encourage kittens to bite or scratch in play, but this type of aggressive behavior can turn into a big, painful problem as the kitten gets bigger. Never "arm wrestle" with a young cat, and keep some distance between you through play with toys that don't involve direct contact with the kitten. When kitten teeth or claws touch human skin, screech loudly and immediately walk away. Kittens learn fast that playing rough ends the game, especially when there are other things to play with.
 
Cats like toys they can stalk, chase, pounce on and bite. Turn your home into an indoor hunting ground with perches for watching the outdoor world go by (such as a window-box bird feeder), scratching posts for paw marking and nail maintenance, cat trees for climbing, resting and observing, and an ever-changing assortment of toys, toys, toys.
 
Puzzle toys are particularly good for giving your cat an outlet for his hunting instincts and ensuring that he keeps his sleek, sinewy physique. Wands with feathers or other dangly bits and wind-up or battery-operated toys that move on their own excite a cat's chase instinct. Balls inside a track let him paw for "prey," just as if he were exploring a mouse hole. The fast, erratic motion of laser pointers and flashlights increase a cat's ability to think and move quickly. (Direct the beam up and down the stairs to give him a real workout.) And don't forget the classic catnip-filled mice for rolling and rabbit-kicking under the influence.
 
To keep your cat interested in his toys, change them out every few days. If he sees the same ones over and over again, he'll get bored and look for something new to play with. Cats being who they are, it will probably be something expensive or fragile that you don't want him to treat as a toy.
 
Those laser pointers, flashlights and wand toys have especially high value to cats because they are just so darn much fun. Bring them out less often than other toys, and limit the amount of time your cat is allowed to play with them. For some cats these toys are addictive, and they will stand in front of the closet where the laser or wand is stored and yowl plaintively until they are brought out.
 
Remember, if you give in even once, you have just taught your cat exactly how to manipulate you. To help soften your cat's disappointment when these favorite toys go up, reward him with a treat afterward or give him another favorite toy, like a catnip mouse.
 
The word "toy" just doesn't seem to cover how important these items are to our pets, especially an indoor cat. Indulge your pet with the gift of play, and you'll both be happier for it. - By Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
   
Q&A
Ignore barking dog to end phone follies
 
Q: When I get on the phone, my dog starts barking. Why, and how can I get her to stop? -- via Facebook
 
A: Anyone who has ever worked as a telemarketer can tell you that lots of dogs start barking the minute their owners get on the phone. Why? Because they've been taught to behave that way -- accidentally, of course.
 
The problem starts when a dog barks at you just once when you're on the phone. Maybe she wants your attention. Maybe she just felt like barking at that moment. If she did it while you were watching TV or paying the bills, you'd probably ignore her. That means no reward for the behavior, which also means it's not likely to be repeated.
 
But if you're on the phone, you don't want the person on the other end to hear your dog barking, or to hear you yell at your dog to shut up. Chances are that you'll pet your dog or throw her plush toy across the room just to keep her quiet. Before too long, you have a dog who starts yapping every time you pick up the phone, because that behavior has been rewarded.
 
Sometimes, it even goes a step further. There are plenty of people who give their dog a treat to shut her up while they're on the phone. This is a big payoff for the dog, who is now rewarded for every yip with a cookie. Why would she stop barking? Dogs are not stupid.
 
The best way to avoid this problem is to prevent it: Don't reward your dog in the short term for behaviors you don't want in the long run. If she barks when you pick up the phone, ignore her. If that doesn't work, or if your dog is already a phone pest, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a dog trainer who can help you re-train her to be quiet on command. -- Dr. Marty Becker
 
Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.
 
THE BUZZ
Antifreeze gets a safety makeover

  • The manufacturers of antifreeze and engine coolant have agreed to add a bittering agent to their products, making them far less likely to poison pets and wildlife. In its original state, these products taste sweet, making them attractive to animals. The active ingredient, ethylene glycol, is highly toxic in small amounts and quickly absorbed, making veterinary response difficult and death common for animals that ingest the product. A number of states have mandated that bittering agents be added before products can be sold, but the voluntary agreement, brokered by the Humane Society Legislative Fund, expands the sale of the new formulation to all 50 states. 

  • Like humans, dogs have two kinds of sleep. The deeper kind is characterized by rapid eye movements, so it's known as REM sleep. We know humans dream during REM sleep. We also know that the whining, heavy breathing, twitching and leg movements we've all seen in our dogs occur during canine REM sleep. So it's not a far fetch to believe dogs are dreaming, too. What are they dreaming about? We'll likely never know. 

  • In veterinary circles, the popular Labrador retriever has the reputation as a breed that it will "chew 'til they're 2, and shed 'til they're dead." Bred to carry things in their mouths, it's no surprise that these dogs sometimes swallow them, too -- and without chewing first, as in the case of Ryder, a Lab puppy in Wilmington, Del., who swallowed an antler. Ryder's antler was safely removed by his veterinarian, and the dog's mishap was named "The Most Unusual Claim of the Month" by Veterinary Pet Insurance. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
       

Date Published: 12/31/2012 12:07:00 PM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 12/31/2012

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Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of Dogs for Dummies, Cats for Dummies and Birds for Dummies. She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her at petconnection@gmail.com.

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