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Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page C10

Dear Dr. Fox:

I adopted a sweet, 9-year-old male cat named Yoda (he's black and he's my little "panther"), and I'm concerned about him being lonely when I have to be away. I might have to work full-time, including some nights, and I might go to school at least one night a week in the future.

I can't afford another cat to keep him company and I have a little efficiency apartment, so I don't have room, either. I was wondering if you could suggest any toys or other things that would keep him occupied so he wouldn't feel so lonely. I'd appreciate any advice you can give.

F.W., Washington

I appreciate your situation and wish that all people with animal companions would show the same loving concern that you do.

Cats do get lonely and can suffer from depression and separation anxiety. Sometimes they yowl a lot, start grooming themselves excessively (even to the point of mutilation), become un-housebroken (urinating outside their litter box), and even develop phobias toward strange outside noises or visitors. In some instances, they may develop stress-related health problems such as high blood pressure, heart enlargement and recurrent bouts of cystitis.

So leave a radio or television set on when you are gone; check out various cat toys at the pet store; set up a carpeted window shelf; and put a bird feeder outside so your cat can look out and be entertained. Many cats like sunny windows to bask beside, spending hours in what seems like meditation.

Dear Dr. Fox:

Would you please give us some guidelines on caring for the male betta fish? I follow the guidelines on the Hibari Betta Bio-Gold fish food package. I would like information about the size of container needed for these fish.

It concerns me that some people may not be taking proper care of them, as the male betta must be kept alone. An acquaintance of mine put his male betta in a community fish tank (among fish that are not fighters), and he killed them all.

G.R., Lanham Seabrook

Male bettas (also known as Siamese fighting fish) were selectively bred many years ago in Siam (now Thailand) to be highly aggressive for the dubious "sport" of competitive fish fighting (like cockfighting and dog fighting, which are still popular in some circles in the United States and elsewhere).

Beautiful as these males may be, they have to be kept alone since they do kill other fish. Because of human manipulation that has made them into killers they are doomed to a solitary existence, all too often in barren glass decorator vessels and even in vases filled with flowers.

Like any creature in captivity, they should be given a large living space that mimics natural conditions as closely as possible, with gravel, decorative rocks, vegetation cover and tank-dwellers that can't be harmed, such as snails. The water quality and temperature for all tropical fish must be maintained using a filter, aerator and immersion heater.

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