Dear Dr. Fox:

I was caring for my brother's cat at my home for four days. On the evening of the last day, the cat went ballistic -- it was like a scene from "The Exorcist"! The only thing she didn't do was the 360-degree head-turn and green projectile vomiting.

She hissed, growled, howled and charged at me more than once (I'd never heard a cat howl before). She pooped on my rug and kept me from entering my own bedroom. I felt so sorry for her. Her owners finally arrived and calmed the little darling down in just 10 minutes.

Two things: I had accidentally startled her and she had eaten part of a poinsettia leaf. The next day I visited the family and the cat licked my hand. I am still very skittish about this, though.

What on Earth happened? I feel terrible that I may have caused an animal that much anguish.

R.P., Arlington

I appreciate your calm concern for the cat. I doubt that nibbling on the poinsettia could have flipped her trigger, since I have never heard of this plant making cats psychologically disturbed and aggressive when a small quantity has been ingested (toxicity scares about poinsettia plants are overblown).

My guess is that this cat had never been in your home before and basically "freaked out," as some cats will do in a totally unfamiliar environment. (More often, they'll run away and hide rather than attack.) Strange smells, sounds, objects, animals and people can trigger the flight-or-fight reaction in cats. In this respect, they are less rational or domesticated than dogs, who are usually more people-oriented and less upset by a change in surroundings. Perhaps you put on some cold cream or body lotion that altered your scent. Or something you were wearing could have altered the image of you in the cat's mind, and resulted in her terror and defensive reaction. But most likely it was your change of scent that set her off.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I need to know if it's safe to feed chicken, ham and oxtail bones to dogs. I don't believe in feeding dogs and cats bones. What about their intestines? Don't bones tear their intestines up?

My grandson has two Rottweiler dogs -- an adult and a puppy. He gets upset with me when I tell him not to feed his dogs bones. So I decided to let you handle this. Please advise.

B.H., Winston-Salem, N.C.

Lay down the law with your grandson because you are absolutely right. Only raw beef marrow bones (soup or shank) are safe for dogs, as they don't splinter and cause internal injury.

Other bones that splinter easily can lodge in animals' throats, perforate the intestines, and cause impaction when a large volume of soft bones are chewed and swallowed. Knotted rawhide chews can also pose a problem when the knot is swallowed and blocks the intestines. Rawhide sticks made of ground-up pieces of animal skin may harbor harmful bacteria, and because they can be easily chewed up may result in severe constipation and intestinal impaction.

Dear Dr. Fox:

I am interested in knowing if a dog that is used for breeding only and kept in a kennel all of her life can be housebroken. She is three years old.

C.G., Hamel, Minn.

Kenneled dogs usually use one area to evacuate -- as far away from their sleeping and laying area as possible. So it should be fairly easy (a few accidents are to be expected) for her to learn to go outside of the home. You can facilitate this by putting some paper towels soaked in her urine (or containing her stools after an indoor accident) outdoors in a spot where you want her to go. Then praise her when she does the right thing in the right place. But if she was housed in a small cage with a wire-mesh floor and no run, like some dogs I have seen, she may be extremely difficult to house-train -- yet nonetheless willing with due patience and understanding from you.

Dear Dr. Fox:

We have a 7-month-old kitten who has been neutered and declawed. We had him declawed because he would scratch my husband and me all the time. Now he wants to bite.

He's like a Jekyll and Hyde -- real sweet one minute, and the next trying to bite one of us. I get it the worst because I'm with him most of the time. He has drawn blood and it really hurts. The only thing that deters him is a water pistol.

Some people say he's just playing and will outgrow it. We're not young but we really love the kitten.

Please tell us what to do.

M.S., Miami

Cats like to go wild when they play, so put down the water pistol and put on a glove and rough-play with your young cat. Also get a string with a fluffy toy on the end, and entice your cat to catch and "kill" the toy that you animate by pulling the string.

Cats who have been declawed often bite more, possibly a compensation for what I consider to be an unnecessary and unethical mutilation because cats need their claws, and soon learn not to scratch while playing.

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) 2005, United Feature Syndicate Inc.