Advice from the Experts

The dangers cats face outdoors can lead to tragedy

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Q: I know you advocate keeping pets indoors, and I'm writing to urge your readers to do so, as dangers exist that we don't even realize.

Dakota the cat came into our lives eight years ago. He was about 6 months old, with an infected toe that our vet had to amputate. He probably entered our home because he was injured and knew he needed to heal, and as soon as he did, he went back to being mostly an outside cat.

Dakota was never that comfortable in our house. He was soon eating and sleeping at a neighbor's house, and was often found sunning himself at the edge of their yard. People walked by with their dogs and children. When they stopped to see Dakota, he'd get up and greet them, rubbing against human and animal alike.

Dakota was a friendly character with a sweet disposition, nonchalantly enjoying living mostly outdoors, and we were complacent about it. After all, we live in a well-populated, non-rural city, in a safely-lit neighborhood. It never occurred to us to worry about coyotes. Unfortunately, for our beloved neighborhood cat, we were wrong.

Readers, please keep your pets inside (especially at night), safe from vicious predators, so you won't have to experience the grief we're dealing with now. -- C.W., Palm Harbor, FL

Q: Sometimes we see cats wandering around outside, presumably pets let out for the night. We know that these poor cats can be hit by cars, poisoned by chemicals, or even attacked by rats. (No kidding; have you seen the size of Chicago rats?) Now, with coyote sighted even in Chicago, why don't people realize that letting their cats outside is a death sentence? -- C.F., Chicago, IL.

A: I don't blame the coyotes; they're merely trying to survive. Coyotes are highly adaptable and will dine on anything they can find -- which can include our pets. I'm sorry for your loss, C.W., but enormously grateful you decided to tell your story.

Recently, coyotes hanging out in Chicago were photographed near the Ernie Banks statue at Wrigley Field. They were apparently not bothered by street traffic and city noise.

Healthy coyotes are not so brazen as to attack small dogs on a leash. If a coyote does approach, however, simply scoop up your dog and holler at the coyote. Small dogs may be attacked when left unsupervised in yards. Cats who can't scamper to a tree fast enough have also been killed by coyotes. Of course, cats cannot be hit by cars, or attacked by birds of prey, stray dogs, or coyotes if they're kept indoors.

Coyotes can be pesky, getting into garbage. But also in many places, their diet features rodents. I can't speak for other cities, but due to last year's mild winter and budget cuts in rodent abatement, the rat population in Chicago has surged. Aside from feral cats, coyotes are the only other significant predator for these pests.

While feral cats will hunt small, younger rats, C.F., as for those rats on steroids attacking cats, I find that highly unlikely.

Q: We are owned by three cats and two dogs. As fans of your column for many years, we've learned about enrichment toys. Also, based on your advice, we no longer leave out food for our cats.

Our overweight cat is not nearly as heavy now because we control what she eats and when. Still, based on your advice, we periodically hide treats so all our cats can "hunt" for them indoors. They love this activity. With Christmas around the corner, could you suggest some food-dispensing toys as pet gifts? -- D.G., Henderson, NV

A: I love that you're feeding your cats on a schedule. Too many owners think their cats have an automatic shut-off valve, and will stop eating when they're full. Not so. What's more, with little else to do -- they eat. And eat. And eat. Then we will fill up their food dishes, not knowing which cat ate how much.

Feeding dogs, cats, parrots, or ferrets from enrichment toys is a great idea, unless the pet is elderly or has special needs.

I'm a fan of the Nina Ottosson toys, which I call "brain games for pets." The Dog Miracle is a new one, a complex puzzle, as dogs must use their snouts or paws to move a maze of puzzle pieces of various shapes and sizes or order to get at hidden food. If your dogs are food-aggressive, and might do battle over food, this isn't a good idea. Otherwise, it's great -- like a chess game for dogs, but with great rewards when they make the correct moves. This toy is $29.99, available at some pet stores and

The Cat Slim by Pet Safe is a little ball with a hole for kibble to fall from when your kitty rolls the ball around. Over time, most cats can learn to search for hidden balls, and therefore "hunt" indoors. Each Cat Slim ball is $7.95, available online and at many pet stores. With dogs around, the balls should be kept up high, and in places where cats aren't likely the drop them to dog level. These balls are made for cats, but dogs can easily crack them open.

Teach your dogs to sit and stay in one place. Then stuff kibble or treats inside Kong toys. At first, simply place the toys in plain sight. Over time, make the game harder by hiding the toys under beds, in open closets, behind doors, etc. This is fun for dogs, and for us to watch them ferret out the hidden treasure.

Q: I've always wondered if dogs recognize one another's barks. What do you think? -- S.M., Appleton, WI

A: Psychologist Stanley Coren, author of "How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication" (the Free Press, New York, NY, 2000; $24), says, "We know dogs recognize each other's barks through observations. Let's say you're out in a field, and a familiar dog barks in the distance. Even if you dog can't see the other pet, he'll go running in the direction of his barking friend. However, if a strange dog barks, your pet may stop what he's doing for a moment, but he won't go running with excitement. Similarly, dogs recognize voices belonging to (human) family members."

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.