Advice from the Experts

Want a well-behaved cat? Start with a socialization class

02/22/2013
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By STEVE DALE
Tribune Media Services


These questions are from readers around the globe, suggesting our world is getting smaller every day.

Q: I'm a feline/canine behaviorist in France. I'm examining the idea of nursery school for kittens, which I believe you helped to create, called Kitty-K. Where did this idea come from? Are the classes popular? -- A.R., Alsace, France

A: I can't take credit for creating kitten socialization classes; that honor belongs to Dr Kersti Seksel, a veterinary behaviorist in Sydney, Australia. While others offered such classes before I did in the U.S., I will take some credit for spreading the word.

I can't speak for France, but in the U.S. veterinary visits are on the decline, particularly for cats. As a result, a long list of preventable illness is on the rise. Many cats go for years without seeing a veterinarian, so early detection of illness becomes impossible. What's more, these visits -- which the cats are not accustomed to -- can be incredibly stressful. If a cat is not acclimated to a carrier, just getting to class can be challenging, to put it mildly.

In order to attend a kitty socialization class, a veterinary exam is required (to clear "students" of potential disease). Thankfully, the destination is fun and kitties get lots of attention and treats. Socialization classes are offered at veterinary clinics (in cleaned rooms or offices, so the association is positive), community centers, humane societies, grooming centers, even libraries.

While kitties do get some time to socialize with one another, and even with a cat-friendly dog, such classes are all about communicating with the pet owner. Typical topics include "Litter Box 101," encouraging scratching in all the right places, why declaw is unnecessary, and basic cat care from how to brush a pet's coat to how to brush its teeth. Proper feeding is covered, since in obesity is epidemic in cats. There's usually a discussion about appropriate play and a demonstration of clicker training, whereby owners can teach their cats to "sit" on cue or do tricks. This isn't only fun, but also seems to help owners bond with their pets.

Unlike puppy classes, kitten classes are intended for pets from about 8 to 15 weeks, when they are most receptive. The challenge can be getting enough kittens for a class (4-5) to make it worthwhile. Increasingly, shelters are offering programs for their resident kittens, and invite members of the public with kittens to participate.

Q: I'm a faithful listener to your radio show, though I have no pets. I've wondered for a long time about people who ride their bicycles with a dog running alongside. It seems like this would stress the lung capacity of the dog. Do you think it's a good idea? -- D.E., St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada

A: When listeners without pets tune in, I'm particularly complimented, so thank you. Of course, should you choose, I can help you find a pet.

Naturally, exercise is a good thing for our generally under-exercised pets. Having said that, of course, you're right. You can have too much of a good thing. The answer to your question depends on the type of dog, the fitness level of the dog, how far and fast the cyclist is going, and the weather.

I cringe when I see people pushing Labrador or Golden Retrievers much over a mile; their hips just aren't meant for that kind of stress. Also, I object when young dogs (generally under 16-24 months) go running. However, a fit Weimaraner or Dalmatian can easily be trained to run several miles. These dogs were originally bred to run long distances, and their long stride allows them to more easily keep pace with a bicycle.

A Vizsla, a Hungarian hunting dog, is also a good choice. Still, these are dogs, and dogs aren't as efficient at cooling themselves as people. Many water breaks are necessary, and on very hot days those runs should be at dawn or dusk, or eliminated all together.

Clearly, a Pug or Pekingese would barely make it a block running alongside a bike. And if you could coax brachycephalic dogs (those with short-muzzles and pushed-in noses) to run, they could suffer serious breathing issues.

Q: I relocated here from the U.S. and am glad to see that many people have dogs and seem to love them. However, I've noticed a trend here to dye dogs' coats different colors. This is not supposed to be harmful. What do you think? -- V.S., Hong Kong

A: From what I've read, the dyes used aren't harmful, though I twinge a bit knowing that dogs groom themselves, and therefore could ingest the dye. Assuming it's true that the dyes are safe, I don't really mind the practice of coloring dogs' coats if it means that somehow owners feel more connected to their canine pals. I'm all about keeping pets in homes, with happy pets and happy people. If coloring their dog's fur makes people happy, who am I to condemn it? I doubt that dogs look in the mirror and text their friends about how ridiculous they look.

Q: I just spent an extended period of time in Tokyo and learned that pet beetles are popular. They even have vending machines that sell beetles. What do you think about this? -- C.J, Chicago, IL

A: While you can't cuddle with a pet beetle, they certainly don't take up much space and make quiet apartment pets -- important in a crowded city like Tokyo. However, I don't like the vending machine idea. Even a beetle is a living thing and requires appropriate care. While I have no issue with beetles born on beetle farms (yes, there are such things), smuggling endangered beetles from other countries is wrong, and sadly only superficially controlled by Japanese officials. Mostly stag and rhinoceros beetle species are sold as pets.

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 www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.

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