Dear Dr. Fox:

Two weeks ago, I followed a faint mewing sound and discovered a newborn kitten in my garage. The day before I found the newborn, the painter left the garage door open when he left. I suspect a neighborhood feral cat had a litter and didn't get the last kitten out before I locked up.

I immediately started feeding the baby. I kept it warm and in a box. It responded well. I'm an ASPCA volunteer and we have several cats in the house. Pip is an unspayed female, not quite a year old. Pip got very excited. Later, she went to the box and moved the baby twice. After the second time I found it, Pip seemed to settle down. I put the kitten back in the box; Pip jumped in, too. Well, it seems Pip is producing milk. She has adopted the infant and is an excellent mother.

I'm at a loss to explain this. I've heard myths about mammals that produce milk apparently at will, but I didn't really believe it. My vet says she's heard of cases of "immaculate lactation," but has never seen one. The kitten expert at our local ASPCA chapter says it is impossible -- cats have to be pregnant to produce an enzyme needed to lactate. However, Pip did it. She is now completely in charge and the infant is thriving.

K.J., Bowie

Many readers will enjoy your account of Pip's "immaculate lactation." A kitten can be a potent stimulus in triggering a female cat's hypothalamus-pituitary gland to produce prolactin and other hormones, which cause her to produce milk. False pregnancies in cats (which are more common in dogs) can also lead to spontaneous lactation. I theorize that, in the wild, social animals who do not conceive may act as wet-nurses or surrogate mothers for other females who give birth and either die, have many offspring, or do not produce sufficient milk for all their offspring.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I have a question that my vet cannot seem to answer. I have a 4-year-old Yorkie-Pomeranian mix that we love very much. You've written before not to give dogs grapes or raisins, as they're toxic. My vet has never heard of this. My dog loves to have a few grapes when we eat them, which is often. We stopped giving them to her after reading your column, but started giving her a few when our vet said it shouldn't hurt her (our dog was very sad when she couldn't have any).

K.M., Houston

Your veterinarian must have missed the recent articles in the professional veterinarian journals documenting how a cupful of raisins can cause kidney failure in dogs. Hence the importance of keeping raisins out of dogs' reach (and chocolate and grapes, too).

It is most unlikely that two or three grapes will harm your dog, and I see nothing wrong with sharing a few with her. All things in moderation. Food sharing is a bonding ritual for dogs -- just keep the grapes out of her reach at all times.

Dear Dr. Fox:

Our vet has diagnosed our 9-year-old cat as having a thickening of her bowel wall. She is constantly vomiting all over our house. The vomit has the smell of bile.

She is currently on prednisone, but it is not helping much. Our cat is very skittish and seems "out of it" quite often. Her coat and demeanor even seem different. Any suggestions?

M.C., Waterford, Mich.

Many cats suffer from what afflicts your feline companion, namely inflammatory bowel disease (the scientific name is lymphocytic-plasmacytic enteritis). The cause of this and similar diseases that result in abdominal pain, vomiting, weight loss, diarrhea and thickening of the intestinal wall may be food allergy, hypersensitivity to bacterial antigens, parasitic infection or immune system dysfunction.

Consider changing her diet and have fecal tests for parasites performed. You may also have to treat your cat with chlorambucil if the prednisone doesn't help improve her condition.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I have two problems with my Jack Russell terrier. The first is a very dry nose that cracks on the outside edge; one nostril will swell up because of the dryness. I treat it with Vaseline or cream, but if I miss a day it gets worse again. I have another dog of a different breed whose nose is normal. The second problem is excessive licking of her front paws, and also the couch, throw pillow, etc. She is 6 years old and started this about a year ago.

I have asked two local vets about this and they couldn't give me a reason or treatment for either problem. What do you suggest?

L.M., Brandsville, Mo.

The nose and paw problems may or may not be related. Obsessive licking of the paws can be linked to boredom, fungal or bacterial infection, or some irritation elsewhere in the body (possibly the nose, in your dog's case).

As for the nose, your veterinarian should consider vitamin A and zinc supplements in your dog's diet. Two over-the-counter products in health stores -- Bag Balm and Bee Balm -- may help her nose to heal.

Michael Fox is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior.

(c) 2004, United Feature Syndicate Inc.