When cats attack . . . the furniture

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And answers to other puzzling pet behavior

The problem with pets is they can’t talk.

OK, sure, that’s also an advantage. They can’t repeat what you said to your boyfriend last night and they can’t laugh at your dorky living room dance moves. (You really should draw the drapes, by the way.)

But Fido also can’t tell you why he suddenly feels the need to stop and sniff. Every. Single. Tree. Fluffy can’t say why she’s decided the couch must die.

To devoted pet parents, it’s a bit frustrating.

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But wring your hands no more! We talked with local veterinarians and pet experts to get answers to some of the most common pet questions — as well as a few uncommon ones submitted by readers. (Their questions have been excerpted.)

How do you choose a pet food these days? How do you handle a scaredy-dog? Why is Gracie the cat suddenly intent on using one door only for “out” and another door only for “in”?

We found out. And now you will, too. 

(Without the risk of anyone repeating that thing you said about your mother.)

Bonus: It’s National Pet Health Month! As if you didn’t already know.

Help! The pet food aisle is so confusing, what with its “Natural!” this and “Grain-free!” that. And all the bags and cans show a tail-wagging dog or a happily eating cat — so that’s no help. How do I choose? (By the way, the cheaper the better. I’m on a budget here!)

Unfortunately, experts say, cheaper isn’t better. But more on that in a bit.

First, talk to your pets’ vet about what they need. Active dogs need more protein, for example. Elderly cats may need nutrition-packed food that doesn’t require a lot of chewing. An underweight pet needs one thing, an overweight pet needs another and a pet with allergies may need something completely different. Find out where your pet falls.   

Second, if you’re giving store-bought food, read the bag or can. In particular, the first five ingredients.

Ideally you want meat (chicken, fish, beef, etc.) to be at the top of the list. Any “by-product” named? Run, experts say. And not to the checkout line. Same for corn, whey, wheat or soybean, among other fillers. And try to stay away from dyes. (Hint: Dyes are often listed as a color and a number, such as “Red 40.” Still not sure? If the food is colorful, it’s probably artificially colored.) 

And price? Price often matters.

“The more expensive foods generally are the better quality foods,” said Michael Binette, a vet at Taylor Brook Animal Hospital in Auburn. He recommends DogFoodAdvisor.com for more information.

You don’t have to take out a second mortgage in order to pay for your dog or cat food, but you shouldn’t be able to buy it using the change you scrounged from the couch cushions either. The better the quality the food, the healthier your pet will be.

And the healthier your pet, the fewer vet bills you’ll have long term. Score!

My cat is happy and healthy. Do I really need to take her to the vet? She never goes outside, so she doesn’t need any shots, right?

By law, all dogs and cats must be vaccinated against rabies, whether they go outside or not. It might feel like a ridiculous requirement . . . right up until a rabid bat gets in the house, your cat catches it and gets bitten. Local vets have seen it happen.

Your vet may recommend other vaccines as well, even for an indoor cat. That brings up another point.

Your cat deserves to see the vet regularly — at least once a year. Maybe twice. Even if she seems healthy.

That’s because while humans moan and groan about something as minor as the sniffles, cats soldier on with things like debilitating kidney disease.

“What’s so frustrating for vets is that most of the diseases that kill our companions, our animal companions, are 100 percent preventable if you catch them soon enough,” Binette said. “Dogs are not as bad as cats. Cats are horrible. Cats hide it when they’re not feeling well.”

He prefers an exam every six months.

“If you think about it, their life expectancy is so much shorter than ours. A pet having a yearly physical is like a person going to the doctor like every eight years. Imagine how many things change in your health in eight years,” he said. 

Speaking of cats . . .

Our darling Gracie is 11 years old and coon cattish. This summer she  started going outside through the upstairs door and coming inside through downstairs door. One for in, the other for out. Only. 

Gracie had surgery on a hind leg last year. We thought that might be the problem, but she comes up from downstairs and the steps are much like the outside steps.

You might have hit on something about Gracie’s leg. Area vets say a change in behavior, especially behavior involving stairs, can signal arthritis or another painful condition. Even though she’s using both sets of stairs, something about them — steepness, material, location, etc. — may make it harder for her to go up the “down” stairs and down the “up” stairs.   

However, there’s also a chance it has nothing to do with her leg. (Hey, vets aren’t psychic.)

Cats are very good at sensing changes around them. In the house. Outside the house. Because a new cat moved into the neighborhood. Because a dog has started marking the bushes outside. Because someone moved into the house. Because someone moved out. Because something has been placed on the steps or taken off the steps or the lighting is different. Any changes can make cats behave differently. They know why they’re doing it, but humans don’t have a clue. 

If arthritis or leg pain are a concern, experts recommend talking to your vet. A glucosamine supplement could help with arthritis. 

If Gracie’s leg is ruled out as a problem, play detective. Try to figure out what has changed inside or outside the house, with the stairs or the doorways. You might be surprised to find why she likes going out one door and coming in another.

Speaking of doors . . .

We adopted our dog a year ago from the Franklin County Animal Shelter. He was about 7 years old and had lived his entire life in a kennel.

He’s come a long way, but he still won’t come through the door and into the house. We’ve tried everything, from treats to gentle coaxing. We have to lead him by his leash into the house. The only time he’s ever come in on his own was during a thunder storm.

You’re right to call this a fear. It could remind him of a doorway at the kennel, or maybe something bad happened to him involving a door. Either way, only a terrifying clap of thunder was enough to get him through the doorway, that’s how scary it is for him.

Experts agree: Never force a dog through a doorway that frightens him if you ever want him to go through on his own. He will panic, not gain confidence.

You were on the right track with treats. Treats and happiness and lots of praise.

“Make it a fabulous experience. And you may have to exaggerate,” said Maria McDonald, who often works with rescue dogs as owner of Bed-n-Biscuit Kennels in Hebron. “You’re going to have to override those (bad) memories.”

She and others recommend starting small. Try walking through doorways that don’t frighten your dog. (You go first, be confident, don’t pull on the leash. Praise the heck out of him. And don’t be stingy with the treats.) Graduate to doorways that are similar to the one that frightens him. Then go after The Door.

Never coddle your dog when he’s scared, experts say. (No “Oh, poor puppy! It’s OK. Mommy and Daddy won’t let the big bad thing get you.”) It will only reinforce his conclusion that there’s something to be scared about.

Instead, praise any positive steps. He walks toward the door? Good boy! He pauses and doesn’t run away? What a great dog! When it feels like he’s close to a breakthrough, go first, be confident and call him to follow. 

The most important thing: Be patient. It could take a while for your pup to get over his fear.

Our Chihuahua-pug mix, Ben, is 14 and pretty healthy. Lately he’s started pulling on walks (he’s strong!) to get to a spot he likes, apparently to check things out. Sometimes he stops every few steps. What’s up with this?

At 14, Ben is getting to an age where his senses might be dimming. His eyesight may not be as good, he may not be able to smell as well as when he was a young pup.

So he could be stopping to smell that telephone pole . . . and that tree . . . and that other tree . . . and that patch of grass . . . because he needs a closer look to figure out what’s up. You know how your grandfather held the morning newspaper up to his nose so he could read the small print? That.

It could also be, sadly, that Ben is getting a little senile. Elderly dogs and cats — like humans — sometimes forget what they’re doing or where they’re going.

A check-up would be a good idea. Your vet can tell you if Ben’s eyesight is getting cloudy, for example. 

Other than that, the answer is easy: Let him have his sniff. Nudge him along on those days you’re in a hurry, but take your time when you can . . . to, well, stop and smell the roses.     

My dog loves other dogs! And hates other dogs! Sometimes she’s friendly when she meets them, other times she’s not. What should I do (and not do) when we’re walking on leash and come upon another dog?

Experts suggest reading body language — your dog’s and the other dog’s.

Tense? Raised hackles? Standing higher on their toes? Ears flattened? Answer yes to any of these for either dog and you should walk in the other direction.

Happy tail wagging? Relaxed movement? Ears held naturally? Answer yes for both dogs and you’re probably OK to meet and greet.

If you decide to  meet, walk with confidence and think happy thoughts. (Your dog will pick up on your nervousness and it will make her nervous.) Praise your pup. Make the meet-up a great experience. 

“You have to project calmness and ‘This is going to be a fun interaction.’ Not, ‘I’m worried about what my dog is going to do to that dog over there,'” said Barbara Perkins, veterinarian at Turner Veterinary Service.

If you decide not to meet, that’s OK, too. Keep your dog moving and walk away with confidence. Distract your dog, praise her for her good behavior. 

My cat is scratching our couch/chair/table/bookshelf into oblivion. What do I do? What do I do?

Scratching is a normal cat behavior. Not that it helps your favorite recliner any. 

The best way to stop your cat from scratching something you love is to get her to scratch something she loves. Present a scratching post.

You may have to try a few different types. Some cats like vertical posts, others like horizontal. Some love to rake their paws along sisal rope, while others prefer carpet and others like cardboard. Sometimes a sprinkle of catnip can help turn a post into your cat’s new best friend.

Placement matters, too. Put the post near the furniture that’s getting scratched. It won’t do any good to get your cat the Cadillac of scratching posts only to shove it in a dark corner in the back of the room.

If Fluffy is still shredding the couch, double-sided tape can help break the habit and encourage her to move on to that new post. Just lay the tape across her favorite furniture scratching spots and walk away. Cats don’t like things sticking to their paws (honestly, who does?), and it will probably only take a swipe or two for her to get annoyed enough to stop. 

But make sure you have a post in its place or your cat may simply move on to another piece of furniture. Like the legs of Grandma’s antique kitchen table. Fluffy heard you never liked it anyway.

ltice@sunjournal.com

Have questions of your own? Check out:

DogfoodAdvisor.com for dog food information

ASPCA.org to learn more about dog body language

WayofCats.com for answers to your cat questions

AVMA.org for information on senior pet care

HomewardTrails.org for tips on helping the shy or fearful dog

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