Dear Dr. Fox:
My 11-year-old snowshoe Siamese is a real love bug, except when she suddenly reverts to a feral animal, stalking and leaping on prey: me!
She used to do this only when we roughhoused. My vet said to distract her when she starts this behavior. That worked sometimes, but she recently started stalking me when I tip her out of my lap to stand up. Now, it seems nothing at all sets her off. Should I keep pheromone spray handy?
I'm getting along in years, and I'm afraid she'll upset my balance and cause me to fall during one of her unpredictable "attacks."
DF: You are wise to be mindful of the risk of tripping over your cat and having a bad fall. One friend tried to avoid stepping on her cat, fell sideways and broke her hip.
A cat pheromone spray, in my opinion, would not deter your cat from engaging in the stalking game you two have established. Your veterinarian is right: You must find a way to distract your cat.
One option is to train her to chase a laser spotlight, which pet stores sell as cat toys. You also could try a wand or cane with a bunch of feathers on the end of a string.
Use a spray bottle of water to inhibit your cat from stalking you when you stand up and are walking around the house. The stalking and hide-and-seek games cats love to play should be restricted to the time and place that are best and safest for you — or stop such games from now on, and use the laser and wand toys instead.
Dear Dr. Fox:
When my brother died suddenly and unexpectedly, I could not take his beloved 14-year-old cat, Miss Miss, home with me because of my extreme allergies. I was forced to place her in a boarding facility.
She was clearly depressed, even though she had my brother's pillowcase, her own belongings, catnip and a three-tiered enclosure. I visited Miss Miss daily. After four or five days, it occurred to me that my brother's home almost always had a radio tuned to a special station. The moment I placed a radio with "her" station playing near her enclosure, Miss Miss visibly relaxed, stretched and started eating.
No one could ever take the place of my brother (both for Miss Miss and me), but having her regular audio environment helped her a great deal.
Miss Miss was adopted into a loving home by a dear friend and is happily ensconced as "Queen of Everything," just as she was with my brother. I also wrote a note of thanks to the radio programmers for their music and voices, which helped soothe this animal's nerves.
R.B., St. Louis
DF: Thank you for being such a mindful caregiver for your deceased brother's cat. I hope animal behaviorists and others interested in animal psychology, well-being and quality of life issues will remember your story, affirming that familiar sounds can be comforting for other animals, as well as for us.
Some kinds of music — generally classical, and instruments such as the harp and flute — can have profound effects on animals. This is an area in which more research would give us further insights into the minds of animals. For more information, I highly recommend two special-edition publications: Time magazine's "The Animal Mind" and National Geographic's "Inside Animal Minds."
Dear Dr. Fox:
In your professional opinion, what are the worst mistakes people make with their cats and dogs that they are not aware of?
R.E., Silver Spring
DF: What a thoughtful question! Maybe if enough readers respond with their top peeves and serious concerns, we will have a list good enough to start a book of proper pet care, like Dr. Spock's was for new parents! Some of the harmful relationships that form between people and their puppies and kittens might be avoided.
Munchausen syndrome by proxy is a big one. On the dark side, there are the bullies and sadists, with their children and companion animals suffering similar fates and afflictions. Also, unacceptable treatments have become the norm: declawing kittens, ear-cropping and tail-docking puppies, and crating lonely dogs all day in empty homes.
There is an even darker side for dogs and cats: commercial breeding and being subjected to genetic manipulation. The goal is to make them more appealing and lovable, making them live the life of an animated toy, a child-substitute, a decorative item or a fashion accessory.
Making dogs physically and psychologically ever more appealing and puppylike as adults might satisfy human emotional needs, but might not be in the best interests of the animals, which generally require considerable veterinary attention because of their deformities.
I would like to believe that most dogs and cats kept as companions enjoy fulfilling relationships and healthy lives. Most animals require, at minimum, an annual wellness examination by a veterinarian. I think this is the right of every companion animal, and should be mandated under laws protecting animals' entitlement to humane treatment.
Community charity organizations should help pay for veterinary services for people who cannot afford them. This would improve both the animals' and their people's quality of life and emotional well-being.
Many people feel their animal companions are their "soul mates," but the devotion of humans can rarely equal the unconditional love that dogs and other animals bestow upon us.
Human love is rarely simple or pure. I once confronted, on an early Oprah Winfrey TV show, a woman who brought onstage one of the American bulldog pups she had bred. The pup could hardly breathe and was walking with difficulty up the few low steps to the stage. While petting the dog, I asked the woman how she could breed dogs who could barely breathe or walk. She said, "I know, but I do love them."
On a lighter note, my top peeves are people walking their dogs and never giving the dogs an opportunity to use their noses, which connect to their minds and spirits. Also, cat owners, whether forgetful or irresponsible, who let their cats' litter boxes turn into minefields. Cats detest dirty paws.
Michael W. Fox, author of a newsletter and books on animal care, welfare and rights, is a veterinarian with doctoral degrees in medicine and animal behavior. Send letters to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106