Q: Our German Shepherd looks like the most intimidating dog in the world when we walk down the street, but she's actually afraid of her own shadow. She jumps at any noise, and the problem is getting worse. Fireworks are her biggest fear. Last year, on the Fourth, she even screamed; it broke our hearts. What can we do? -- F.J., via cyberspace
A: Most animals, including humans, jump at sudden unexplained loud noises. It's an adaptive behavior. Our cavemen ancestors had a better shot at surviving if they feared and avoided inexplicable loud sounds.
Human babies are also bothered by fireworks because no one can explain to them that what they're hearing is a sound to be celebrated, not feared. The same is true for dogs. Many cats also fear fireworks.
Keep in mind that fireworks sound louder to dogs because their hearing is keener than ours. Also, dogs can hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies and a greater distance than people. They may respond to the local fireworks display we hear -- as well as a distant celebration we can't even detect.
Some dogs are mildly fearful of fireworks, perhaps pacing, whining and seeking out a place to hide. For dogs who find their own hiding places, let them be. Others can be directed to a quiet spot, such as the basement. Turning on the radio or playing a CD specifically created to help sooth rattled canine nerves can also help. Examples include:
--Victoria Stilwell's Noise Phobia CD: http://positively.shop.musictoday.com/Product.aspx?cp=5483455890&pc=YPCD04. Stilwell is a dog trainer, and host of Animal Planet's, "It's Me or the Dog."
--"Through A Dog's Ear: Using Sound to Improve the Health and Behavior of Your Canine Companion," by Joshua Leeds and Dr. Susan Wagner (2008 by Sounds True). This is a book with CD. Additional music is also available at http://throughadogsear.com/
You can also distract a fearful dog with games and/or toys stuffed with treats like low fat/low salt peanut butter. Here are some other helpful tools to relieve anxiety:
1. Pheromonal therapy: Adaptil is an analog of the naturally-occurring calming pheromone found in the milk of mother dogs. One format is a plug-in, which diffuses Adaptil into the room, and the other is a collar.
2. Anxtiane: A chewable that contains L-Theanine, an amino acid that acts neurologically to help keep dogs calm.
3. Thundershirt (and similar products): While meant to calm dogs during storms, this vest, which fits snuggly around a dog, can help with any anxiety-related issue. It may take a week or more to get a dog accustomed to wearing one of these shirts.
4. For dogs who go totally out of their minds with terror, the best and most humane solution is pharmacological intervention. (I'm not referring to a sedative, which makes a dog drowsy but doesn't affect its feeling of sheer terror.) Don't wait until fireworks start to administer the drug. Once the drug takes the edge off, you can employ the above products and behavioral techniques to further diminish stress.
Q: I realize our kitten is only playing, but she chases us down the hall, sometimes nipping at our pants legs. My husband and I are both over 80, and we're afraid we might trip over her. Any advice?-- P. M., Hollywood, FL
A: It's true that your kitten is only playing. To keep things under control, try keeping a stash of little balls in your pockets, and when your kitten is about to get underfoot, toss the toys in the opposite direction. If this doesn't work, toss bits of kibble from your pockets instead. It will be fun for your kitty to hunt down the snacks. Be sure not to add to her total daily food intake, however, or your kitty will soon be overweight.
If neither technique works, you may need to give your kitty a time out for chasing. It's best to catch her as she's about to chase, pick her up, gently place her in a separate room and shut the door. There's no need to scold her, although you can certainly say, "Bad kitty."
It's important to offer your kitten an appropriate outlet for her energy. Play with her twice daily using an interactive toy. Enrich her environment with self-entertaining toys. These can be simple track toys (available at pet stores and online) featuring balls set in grooves that cats can bat around. You could also make your own toys, such as dropping Ping Pong balls in a tissue box, or creating tunnels by taping paper sacks together.
Q: We recently adopted a 6-month-old cat. We've bought her about 100 cat toys, and now feel like we wasted our money. She'd rather play with string dangling from a doorknob, or paper sacks from the grocery. She's like the child who prefers the wrapping over the gift. What should we do? -- V.D., Charleston, NC
A: Do nothing. Just as children have individual preferences when it comes to toys, so do kittens and cats. Most love little balls and mouse toys, but not all. I've always contended that the best cat toys can cost nothing, including empty boxes, plastic milk cartons with holes cut into the side where kibble or catnip can tumble out, even toilet paper rolls folded at the ends and stuffed with treats that can dribble from little holes.
What's important is not how many toys a cat has but how many are new. Put some toys away for a week or two. Then, when you reintroduce them, they'll seem new all over again.
(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)
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