Originally Published: October 5, 2006 4 a.m.
Every year in the fall, I devote space to one of my highest priorities as a pet-care columnist: preventing dog bites, especially attacks on children.
Many people imagine that the biggest threat to their child's safety is an attack by some vicious neighborhood dog and that the risk increases when children start walking to school in the fall. And while it's true those random attacks do happen (and are all over the news when they do), the fact remains that in most cases, children are bitten by dogs they know animals belonging to family or friends.
Much of the risk to children presented by a family dog can be minimized by making sure an animal is just that a member of the family, an indoor dog that's both trained and socialized. The most common description of a dog involved in an attack: young, unneutered and socially isolated, often kept on a chain.
Reversing those risk factors with the help of a trainer or behaviorist, in some cases won't make your dog absolutely safe (any dog may bite), but it will go a long way toward creating a safer family pet.
If you've taken steps to make your family dog as safe as possible, the next step in bite prevention is to teach your child what to do if encountering a potentially hostile dog on the street. This is especially important because our instincts, when faced with a threatening loose dog, could not be more deadly. We want to scream and run, which may trigger predatory behavior in a dog.
The Humane Society of the United States suggests teaching your children how to behave around strange dogs and how to react if attacked. Be sure your children know the following:
Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs confined in yards especially those on chains should also be avoided. If the dog is with his owner, children should always ask permission before petting the animal and then begin by offering the back of the hand for a sniff. Pat the dog on the neck or chest. The dog may interpret a pat from above as a dominant gesture. Teach your children to avoid fast or jerky movements.
"Be a tree" when a dog approaches, standing straight with feet together, fists under the neck and elbows into the chest. Teach your children to make no eye contact: Some dogs view this as a challenge. Running is a normal response to danger, but it's the worst possible response to a dog because it triggers the animal's instinct to chase and bite. Many dogs just sniff and leave. Teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, and then back away slowly out of the area.
"Feed" the dog a jacket or backpack if attacked, or use a bike to block the dog. These strategies may keep an attacking dog's teeth from connecting with flesh.
Act like a log if knocked down face down, legs together, curled into a ball, with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears. This position protects vital areas and can keep an attack from turning fatal.
Role-play these lessons with your child until they are ingrained. Dealing with the dangers in your own yard and teaching your children how to cope may spare your child a bite and may even save a life.
Q: Is it my imagination, or is my cat allergic to milk? It seems to give her the "runs," to judge by the litter box. I thought milk was good for cats. Please advise. W.T., via e-mail
A: Some cats like some people can't tolerate milk products, and for these animals, a saucer of milk means gastric upset.
In the wild, kittens neverdrink milk after they're weaned (and never drink cow's milk at all), and do-mestic cats have no need to either. The inability todigest milk usually starts at about the age of 12 weeks.
For those cats who can tolerate milk, it's fine to offer it as an occasional treat. Milk is a good source of protein and other nutrients for those cats who don't find it upsets their tummy. But if you never give milk to your cat, she's not missing anything important, and for your cat, that's probably good news.
Q: I've had it with hairballs, especially with cleaning them up or stepping in them. I am sick of the sounds of my cat retching. What can I do? S.O., via e-mail
A: You'll have to tolerate a certain amount of hairballs, because that's just part of having a cat. But there are steps you can take to help ingested hair to go through the system instead of come back up.
A great alternative to commercial hairball remedies is canned pumpkin. Regularly adding a teaspoon or so to your cat's diet is a safe, inexpensive way to deal with hairballs. If your cat won't eat the stuff undoctored, try mixing it into canned cat food or with the juice from water-packed tuna. Hairball-remedy cat foods also add fiber.
Commercial hairball products are fine, too, if used as directed. But know that overuse of oil-based hairball remedies can interfere with your cat's absorption of some important nutrients, such as fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
Talk to your veterinarian about your cat's hairball problems, and discuss home remedies, diets and over-the-counter products. If you're sent home with something from the vet, be sure to follow directions and not overdo any medication. Ask follow-up questions of your veterinarian if you have them.