Dear Dr. Fox:

I have a 17-year-old Chihuahua. For several months he has been having a very bad cough that will last for about one to two minutes. Is there any medication, pills or cough syrup that he should be taking?

D.S.L., Chevy Chase, Md.

Old dogs develop a chronic cough for a variety of reasons, the most common being congestive heart failure. So immediate veterinary attention is indicated here.

Chronic bronchitis or a partially collapsed trachea may also be the cause, but the cardiac problem should be first on the agenda of consideration.

If not properly treated, your dog will suffer terribly, become less and less active, and is likely to die from either heart failure or secondary bacterial pneumonia.

Treatment with appropriate medications to improve heart-muscle activity and rid the lungs and other parts of the body of accumulated fluids will make your dog more comfortable and better able to enjoy his twilight years.

Dear Dr. Fox:

My neighbors have an outdoor cat named Roscoe. They found him in the middle of the street and they neglect him a little. They leave him out in the rain and snow.

I'd let him in when I see him, but he's afraid of my bird, even though he sees other birds outside. Why is he scared?

I would also like to know why he likes the mixed milk and cat food I give him, and if it's good that I do this, because I don't want to hurt him.

D.M., Bellpage, N.Y.

You are evidently a very caring young person, and I wish more grown-ups were like you.

Your neighbor's cat should not be allowed to roam free -- not just in bad weather but all the time, because he could get hit by a car or get a disease from other free-roaming cats. Cats should be conditioned as kittens to enjoy life indoors and not be allowed to wander free because of these hazards. Some cats also kill birds and other wildlife, who have problems enough in many areas due to human encroachment and destruction of natural habitats.

Go easy on the milk you give to this neglected cat. A tablespoon or two is sufficient, because cats are generally lactose-intolerant. It is kind of you to feed Roscoe -- I'm sure he has come to trust and love you.

I don't know why he's afraid of your bird. Even a small bird fluttering around and making a noise in its cage might make the cat feel ill at ease.

Some birds, like blue jays and mockingbirds, will dive-bomb cats outdoors because they see all cats as dangerous; maybe Roscoe was once scared by wild birds who were mobbing him.

Dear Dr. Fox:

A short time back, I read one of your articles regarding an indoor cat who never leaves the apartment and needs no shots. Your advice in this regard is appreciated.

I am a disabled senior citizen on Social Security. There are other disabled seniors who need a repeat of your advice as soon as possible. Personally, I cannot keep up with checkups and shots for my 13-year-old cat.

P.G., Southfield, Mich.

To put your mind at ease, and for those like you who are disabled and have limited financial means, don't feel guilty about not taking your cat in for annual booster vaccinations.

They are not necessary for cats who are 100-percent indoors and who have been vaccinated earlier in life (except for rabies if local law mandates).

Call around, beginning with your local humane society, to find a reputable veterinarian who does house calls and might give you a discount for coming by once a year to check your cat over, especially her teeth and general condition.

Dear Dr. Fox:

There's been a rat problem a mile from my home in a very nice neighborhood for two years.

If they allowed cats to roam free it would be taken care of. I don't mind neighbors' cats in my yard -- I don't have rats.

G.B., Madison Heights, Mich.

Since not all cats are good "ratters," I see no reason to justify allowing cats to roam free as a kind of public-health service to help control rats in human-populated areas. Those cats who do kill rats will also kill other wildlife, can contract diseases and may even put their human families at risk.

Rat control is best done by keeping all garbage containers secure and by making all homes, restaurants and grocery stores rat-proof, paying special attention to foundation cement- and brickwork. Spreading poison bait everywhere puts cats and other animals at risk and is no solution, either.

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 Inc.