A vet answers readers' questions about helping a kitten stop biting, canine nutrition, why dogs scoot, what to feed a pregnant pet, and housetraining a puppy.
Now that we are approaching the time when autumn slides into winter, your pets are most likely entering their most comfortable time of year. Parasites are dormant, the temperatures are pleasant for furry creatures, and the air is crisp and cold. Dogs love to root in the dirt for new and interesting scents. Cats enjoy this time of excellent hunting, as mice and other rodents are out squirreling away food for the winter.
Fall is the best time to take walks with your animals. Free from the heat, you can enjoy the outdoors together. Hiking is great with your dog, especially when she or he can carry food and water in a dog backpack. The cooler temperatures mean longer bike rides with Toto in tow, though be careful of the pavement wearing down the pads on your dog's feet. Cats love to walk, too, though at a slower pace. Learn to appreciate nature from the distinctive feline perspective.
As a side note, I would like to take the opportunity to thank people for writing me. I love to hear from you, and I'd love to hear from more of you. I do my best to answer your questions—if not in the column, then by letter. No question is silly. Ask!
Dear Ms. Miller:
I have adopted a little kitten named "Tonto" (I first thought she was a he). I have had her for almost three weeks and she is driving me mad! The problem is that she is always biting, scratching, and attacking. I care for her very much, but she makes it difficult for me when she starts that darned biting. The truth is, she can be very loving but all too often the biting begins anew. I do want to keep her. What can I do to get her to stop? Please help me!
—S. R. Kitcher
Dear S. R.:
That's a tough one, because cats are not always immediately responsive to behavioral training. I don't know how old Tonto is, nor at what age she was taken away from her mother, but I will do my best.
First, I want to share my own experience with you. My cat, Sam, was a complete jerk as a kitten. He scratched and bit, as you have described, as well as attacked my ankles continually. I can understand your frustration. Two things helped Sam (and me). First, we moved to a house where I could let him out to explore and hunt; second, he grew up.
If you live in a place where you can't let Tonto out, or if you feel she is too young to venture into the great outdoors, there are still a few alternatives. You can give Tonto a playmate, since cats are frequently happier in pairs. They often enjoy the social interaction. You can also try getting Tonto to play with a scratching post, balls, string, or a Cat Dancer toy. Finally, negative reinforcement during the behaviors you want to discourage can help. Keep a squirt gun or plant mister nearby and vocally tell her "No!" while misting her with water.
Most importantly, give Tonto lots of love and lots of patience. She will grow up.
Dear Ms. Miller.
In your last column, you mentioned cooking for your dog. I've always heard table scraps aren't good for dogs. What is okay to feed them and do you have any recipes?
—B. Benson, Natchez, TN
Basically, only feed your dog or cat human food that is easily digestible and contains no sugar. The best table scraps are rice and other cooked grains, beans, chicken and lamb, potatoes, peanut butter, and vegetables such as carrots, garlic, onions and parsley. Dr. Pitcairn's Natural Health for Dogs and Cats (Rodale Press, 1982) has recipes for all stages of development, as well as diet-specific recipes for pets with heart problems, allergies, pregnancy, etc. Another great source book is Joan Harper's Healthy Cat and Dog Cook Book (Dutton, 1979). If you don't have time to cook for your pet, you can do what I do for my dog Spencer: add whatever I'm eating that is appropriate for him to his food. Variety, even for dogs, is the spice of life.
Dear Ms. Miller,
My dog, Banjo, has been doing this weird "scooting" maneuver lately. I'm not sure how to explain this, but he sits down and then pulls himself along the floor or grass or pavement by his front paws, sort of scooting his rear along the ground. What is this and should I be concerned?
—Vince Nyerges, Durango, CO
There are many reasons why dogs scoot and none, I'm afraid, are very palatable.
Dogs who scoot are attempting to scratch the itch or irritation they are feeling on their behinds. Frequently, their rectum is being irritated by parasites. While roundworm and flatworm are easily seen in dog feces, there are other parasites that aren't as readily visible. Your vet can test Banjo for parasites and give you remedies for them. If Banjo tests positive for parasites, and you have any other animals in your home, make certain they get tested as well. Worms are easily transmitted from one animal to another.
A second reason for Banjo's behavior may be that he has impacted anal glands. Dogs have two glandular sacs on either side of their tail (in short-haired dogs, these sacs are detected by the circular pattern of hair growth directly over them) that release scent to mark territory, send information to other dogs, etc. Sometimes these glands get impacted, or overfilled with scent. When this happens, the gland openings become inflamed and irritated, causing the scooting you described.
Vets, and some groomers, can release, or express, the glands for you. This is a thankless task. The great regret of having this done is that generally, if it is done once, it will have to be done over and over.
Finally, this behavior is a sign that your dog is uncomfortable. Be sure that he sees a vet to determine the problem.
Dear Ms. Miller:
I just found out my cat, Cleo, is expecting kittens. Should I feed her differently? What can I expect during her pregnancy?
—Cecilia Huante, Providence, RI
Congratulations! Cleo will be pregnant for about 63 days. You may find that she is eating more, which is normal. You should increase her food intake by about 20 percent during the second month of pregnancy. If Cleo eats commercial food, supplement with a little meat, egg, milk, or cottage cheese. Try to give her high-quality protein rather than carbohydrates. Vitamins and garlic will help keep her immune system up.
As Cleo's labor progresses, you may find her slinking off into corners to prepare her nest for kittening. Just before she goes into labor, she may stop eating for a day, she may exhibit shredding behavior, and you may see an increase of nesting.
Frequently, cats will do their utmost to give birth in secrecy. If you happen to catch Cleo in the act, do not interfere. Let her do what nature tells her to.
If an emergency arises, however, interfere. For instance, if the membrane or sac around a kitten is not removed within 30 seconds, tilt the kitten's head down and remove the membrane. If a kitten is not breathing, and doesn't begin breathing when Cleo's licks its body, try massaging its chest gently or, if that doesn't work, a little mouth-to-kitten resuscitation might.
Place your mouth gently over the kitten's nose and mouth. Blow a little puff of air every two seconds until the kitten is breathing independently (remember: only a little puff of air is needed for such a tiny creature!). Look for signs of problems in the mother, like glassy eyes, discolored gums, and temperature. Look for irregularities in the kitten's stool, blue tongues or gums, irregular breathing, discolored or missing afterbirth. These problems may warrant veterinary attention.
After the kittens are born, Cleo may be somewhat more territorial. Don't overhandle the kittens or move them from where she chose to give birth (unless it's at the foot of your bed, as it was when my cat's kittens were born). Feed Cleo lightly for the first few days so as not to urge her to overproduce milk. Then, start giving her some fresh meat, liver, egg whites, and milk, as well as the vitamins you've been supplementing her diet with.
For more information, get yourself a copy of The Common Sense Book of Cat Care (Quill, William Morrow, 1992) by Louis L. Vine, D.V.M. It's an excellent book and definitely one that belongs on the shelf of any cat lover.
Dear Ms. Miller:
My husband and I just got a three-month-old puppy who is cute as the dickens, but has one little problem. Barny gets tremendously excited when we return home after leaving him alone for a few hours and he pees on the carpet. We're not exactly sure how to modify this behavior and we're getting kind of frustrated. Can you help?
—Erica Monroe, Fort Lee, NJ
This is wolf cub behavior, according to animal trainer, Bashkim Dibra. Wolf cubs, in showing submissive behavior to the adult wolves (that would be you and your husband), release a little urine. Given that your home is not a den, I'm sure this behavior has been trying. However, there are measures you can take to teach Barny to express himself in other, less messy ways.
First, remember that to ask a young pup to regulate his bodily functions is asking quite a bit from him, and will take some doing. Try giving Barny water for just 15 minutes, four times a day. Dogs will learn to drink as much water as they need in the time that you give them. Structure Barny's day so that he knows his water sessions are followed by walk time. When he does relieve himself in the right place, praise him lavishly.
When you return home, don't get all excited to see Barny. Walk in calmly, ignore his jumping and tail-wagging, and bring him straight outdoors. When he pees, be sure to praise him. If you find that Barny can't make it out the door without peeing, scoop him up quickly and carry him, holding his tail tightly against his body.
Bashkim Dibra's book Dog Training (Dutton Publishing, 1990) is an excellent resource manual for training dogs of all ages and for understanding the motivation for their behavior.