Dear Dr. Fox:

Several years ago I took my two healthy 12-year-old cats to the vet for checkups. They received booster vaccinations. One cat immediately developed diabetes and was dead from renal failure in three months.

I'm concerned about geriatric care for my now 14- and 15-year-old cats. But, having moved to a new neighborhood, the vet I interviewed insisted on treating my cats as feral, if at all, unless they had rabies boosters first.

I want my cats to continue to live in comfort as long as possible and die dignified natural deaths. Am I being unreasonable to think that elderly, strictly indoor cats do not have rabies and do not need booster shots? They had shots as youngsters.

S.L., Falls Church

The veterinarian has only your word that your elderly cats are "strictly indoor cats" and is perhaps being unduly cautious. Even so, a sick kitten was found recently wandering around Beltsville and tested positive for rabies. Several people who had contact with the cat had to be given rabies antiserum treatment.

I would take your word, consider the age of your cats and take blood tests to determine if they really do need "booster" vaccinations. Why not find another veterinarian who is a bit more accommodating?

Dear Dr. Fox:

Please comment on the condition known as bloat, or gastric dilation-volvulus, in large dogs.

Our 8-year-old German shepherd recently died of this condition. She was a healthy dog, but suddenly became sick with vomiting that progressed to dry heaves, lethargy and abdominal distention. By the time we got her to the animal hospital it was too late.

Why does this condition occur, and are there steps that can be taken to prevent bloat? We recently became the owners of another German shepherd puppy and don't want to go through that experience again.

S.F., Agawam, Mass.

Bloat, as you sadly discovered, is an acute, painful and often fatal condition. It is more common in large, deep-chested dogs.

Many veterinarians advise feeding such bloat-prone breeds three to four small meals a day, and suggest that their owners avoid feeding them dry foods that rapidly swell when water is added, as when a dog drinks after eating. Soak such food in water, gravy or milk before giving it to the dog, and do not let the dog engage in vigorous physical activity soon after eating.

Also, don't feed a dog who has just been very active or is hot and thirsty.

Some ingredients in dry food, like soy, may play a role in the genesis of bloat, but more research is needed on this serious canine crisis before a clear, science-based protocol can be established to prevent it.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I lost my wife a couple of years ago and adopted Fred, a shepherd dog mix.

A friend said I was wrong in letting Fred drink water from the toilet: "There's a lot of germs and bacteria even in a clean toilet."

I see no harm in it. Am I wrong? Fred also has a pail of fresh water outside.

C.B., Lockport, N.Y.

Would you drink out of your toilet? If not, then why let your dog? Bacteria from what you void into the toilet, along with grease from the food you eat, coat the sides of the toilet.

That's why people regularly scrub and disinfect the bowl.

I doubt that you have such a spotless toilet that its water is drinkable; if you do, then your dog is probably also drinking disinfectant. So, please, close the lid and give your dog a bowl of fresh water in the house.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I wonder if my parakeet needs to go to the vet for a checkup.

Every few days he throws up some milky stuff on the mirror in his cage.

I feed him a good diet, including fresh fruits and vegetables and organic seed mix. Please advise.

B.H.M., St. Louis

Your parakeet is doing what many birds do when they live alone: using his reflection as a source of social stimulation.

Some birds will court themselves, fall in love with their own image (like Narcissus), and then start producing what is called crop milk, a secretion from the digestive system of either sex that is used as a source of nourishment when caring for nestlings. Constant production of crop milk can weaken a bird, so you should periodically remove the mirror from his cage to stem this obsessive behavior.

It is a sad response to extreme social deprivation from his own species, and is best rectified by keeping compatible birds together in pairs or social groups.

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) 2004, United Feature Syndicate