Dear Dr. Fox:

I recently adopted two female kittens -- Ashley and Tabitha. They are 4 months old and I have been trying to determine when they should be spayed. I have consulted a couple of vets -- one says it is best to operate while the kittens are 4 to 6 months old; and the other says they should be at least 6 months old.

I think my two older cats, 9 and 10 years old, were fixed when they were over 9 months old. Please clarify.

P.M., Germantown

While puppies and kittens can be spayed and castrated as early as 6 to 8 weeks of age, it is best for several reasons to wait until they are more mature.

With male animals, early castration can result in larger body size and narrow urethras that can be more easily blocked if urinary calculi (or stones) develop later in life. With female animals, spaying before the first heat seems to reduce the likelihood of breast cancer. Some cats first come into heat at 5 months, but most do so after 6 months of age.

So, it's a judgment call. There is more risk operating on a young cat that has come into heat -- more hemorrhaging is likely. When young cats are spayed (and I would opt for 5 months) they should not be given any vaccines shortly before or after surgery in order to avoid potentially adverse reactions.

Dear Dr. Fox:

Mikey, my 15-month-old muted calico cat, has always had itchy ears. She had her routine checkup and vaccinations a few months ago. The doctor checked her ears and put some drops in them. If it helped, it was only temporary.

My question to you is this: Is there a home remedy to deal with ear mites on our own? I thought I'd read somewhere that you can put some kind of oil drops in the ears, massage a little, and then let them shake it out. Can we do this? Would it help her? What kind of oil is appropriate?

M.L., Springfield

Cats with severe, chronic ear-mite infestations (often signaled by intense scratching and a brown, tarry discharge) must be lightly anesthetized to permit a thorough, deep cleaning of the ears. This must be followed by a course of treatment with special eardrops that contain a cat-safe insecticide to kill the mites. Antibiotic treatment may also be needed if a bacterial infection is also present.

Other cats and dogs in the home should also be checked for ear mites, since they may be carriers without showing symptoms. Dogs can suffer greatly from ear mites contracted from an infested cat who shows no evidence of infestation and never scratches.

A bald spot behind one or both ears is a cardinal sign of ear mites or other ear disease that should be seen to immediately by a veterinarian in order to nip the problem in the bud. Left untreated, ear infections can be extremely difficult to clear up.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I have a 7-month-old standard poodle. She has been potty trained since 3 months, but when we get company she gets so excited she sprays everywhere. I was told this was a lack of confidence, so we took her to dog obedience school. It didn't do much good.

What can I do? Other than this problem, she is a lovely dog.

D.P., La Peer, Miss.

The incontinence your young dog displays is a ritual signal of submission. With increasing maturity, most dogs grow out of this infantile display. Keep the faith and be patient -- and do not scold, since discipline will only reinforce this behavior. Simply ignore her submissive urinating and have paper towels handy when visitors come. Have them ignore her until they sit down and speak quietly to her. Do the same when you come home and she has been alone. Do not over-excite her, since that will also stimulate her to urinate.

Dear Dr. Fox:

We dog owners need some information on the symptoms of West Nile virus. Please inform us soon. Thank you.

R.D.A., Fresno, Calif.

The symptoms of West Nile virus infection in dogs follows the usual acute viral pattern of fever, depression, loss of appetite, bloodshot eyes, dry nose and general malaise. Dogs with a compromised immune system due to old age, stress, poor nutrition, recent vaccination, etc., have a more severe reaction to this mosquito-borne infection and slower recovery.

To my knowledge, fatalities are rare in dogs (the horse is the most susceptible of all domestic animals). Of wild species, crows and raptors (hawks, owls) seem most susceptible, and indeed this epidemic across much of the United States has devastated avian and other wildlife populations.

Reduce exposure to mosquitoes by putting a safe citronella insect repellant on your dogs. Also, look around your property to make sure there is no standing water -- even in an old bucket or car tire -- where mosquito larvae may be developing.

Dr. Michael Fox, author of many books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Write to him, in care of United Feature Syndicate, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

(c)2003, United Feature Syndicate Inc.