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THE PET CONNECTION
By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

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Many Jumpy Cats can Learn to Accept Petting without Biting

My two cats are both beautiful -- I may be a little biased, but I'm pretty sure it's true. When it comes to temperament, though, their similarities end. One cat is relaxed and easygoing, a born lap kitty. The other is easily aroused, sometimes reacting to petting by scratching the person in whose lap he finds himself -- which, more than likely, of course, is mine.
 
Over the years, I've worked to lengthen his short fuse, starting with the most important rule when it comes to dealing with feline aggression: Never, ever hit your cat.
 
If punishment won't work, what will? You need to understand the reasons why cats lash out and learn to read feline body language, while also retraining and managing your cat to prevent bites or clawing. Here's what makes cats go crazy and how to correct these problems: 

  • Overstimulation. You're petting your cat, and suddenly he grabs you with his claws and teeth. Don't struggle or fight back, or you may trigger a real bite. Sometimes, smacking your other hand loudly against a hard surface -- a tabletop, for example -- may startle your cat into breaking off the attack. If you stay still, however, he will usually calm down and release you.
     
    Cat lovers often think such attacks come without warning, but they've missed the warning signs of a cat who has simply had enough. The tail is the key. If your cat starts twitching his tail in a jerky fashion, it's time to stop petting. And you can often keep him from getting to that overstimulated place by petting along the side of and under the chin only, avoiding touchier spots like the back or the belly. 

  • Play aggression. Never let your cat view you as a plaything, not even when he's an adorable kitten. Wrestling barehanded with your cat or kitten is a no-no, because you're setting up a bad precedent. A stuffed sock is a great substitute for a human hand when it comes to playthings -- let your cat bite, claw and bunny-kick to his heart's content. Give your cat lots of other exercise, frequent sessions that burn his youthful energy, such as playing with a "fishing pole"-type toy.
     
    What if he persists in seeing you as a plaything? As with an overstimulated cat, stop the behavior by freezing if he has you in a painful grip. If he's ambushing you, water from a small squirt gun might help convince him that this is not a game worth playing. 

  • Redirected aggression. Your cat sees another cat, an intruder, outside your living room window. He becomes enraged. You walk by, and he nails you.
     
    This is redirected aggression, and it's a management issue. Motion-detecting sprinklers can discourage strange cats from being in your yard. If you can't keep feline intruders out, block your cat's access to the window through which he sees the other cats. And again, be aware of your cat's body language. A cat who's looking for trouble is one who's best avoided. 

The trick with cats is to eliminate the triggers for biting or scratching and work on your cat's tolerance levels. If you're patient and consistent, your cat may well improve over time. If you're not getting anywhere, talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a behaviorist experienced in feline behavior. Additionally, veterinary behaviorists can prescribe medications that can help ease your cat's anxiety while you work on permanent changes to his behavior.
 
While my jumpy cat will never be the completely relaxed purr-machine his housemate is, he's incredibly more tolerant of petting. His purrs let me know that he's as happy with the changes as I am. - By Gina Spadafori
   
Q&A
Pellets, 'people food' form base of good diet for parrots
 
Q: Our cockatiel has eaten nothing but a seed mix her whole life, and she's 12 years old. We've read in your book "Birds For Dummies" that seed isn't good for her, but she seems to be doing fine. Should we try to change her diet now? -- via email
 
A: Parrots -- and this term includes the little guys like budgies and cockatiels -- should eat a diet of a nutritionally balanced pelleted food supplemented by healthy "people food," such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and pasta. Seed should be an occasional treat, not the foundation of a diet.
 
That said, many people start out with bad advice, or inherit, adopt or buy an adult bird who's already hooked on a diet of seed. Like a person raised on fast food and sweets, these parrots have developed a taste for seeds -- which are the avian equivalent of junk food -- that's going to be hard to shift onto healthier fare. It can be done, but shouldn't be attempted "cold turkey," if you will, because parrots can launch lethal hunger strikes.
 
Your cockatiel is entering her senior years, a process that may have been sped up because of her diet. There's still time for a healthier bird, though, and a dietary intervention could add considerable time to her life span.
 
It would be a good idea to take your bird in for a comprehensive checkup. Once your bird's true health status is determined (birds often hide signs of illness from their owners, which is why diagnostics are particularly useful), you can work with your bird's veterinarian to gradually improve the quality of your pet's diet and overall health.
 
If your bird doesn't already have a board-certified avian veterinarian or one who is comfortable and experienced with treating birds (not all veterinarians are), you can likely find one on the website of the Association of Avian Veterinarians. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
   
THE BUZZ
A thoughtful guide for would-be veterinarians

  • Studies show that "veterinarian" is a profession often chosen in childhood, and for many of those goal-oriented youngsters, nothing will change their minds: not keen competition, not years of schooling, not poor job prospects and not the potential for carrying forward a crushing burden of student-loan debt that may prevent young professionals from owning their own practices, buying a home or starting a family. The VIN Foundation, the charitable arm of the Veterinary Information Network, has developed a brochure that offers young dreamers and parents alike a no-nonsense look at the challenges of becoming -- and being -- a veterinarian. It's free to download at I Want to be a Veterinarian. First thing to know: "A love of animals is not enough to make veterinary medicine a good career choice." 

  • Some adult cats, like some humans, cannot handle milk without ending up with diarrhea. For those cats who can handle milk and like it, though, it's a fine occasional treat, and a good source of protein. 

  • Students of canine history will be fascinated when they enter the word "dog" into the search field at the website for old newsreels from the archives of British Pathe (britishpathe.com). From sled dogs to show dogs to military working dogs, it's astonishing how much dogs' lives have changed in the last few decades -- and how much they haven't. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
       

Date Published: 8/26/2013 9:33:00 AM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 08/26/2013

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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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