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Be hep to your pet.

C.K., my cat, and I communicate daily, sometimes orally, sometimes not. I seem to know when he is hungry or wants to go out. He "knows" when I am displeased about his climbing on my living-room chair. We have learned to read each other's tone of voice and body movements.

Animals communicate, for the most part, through body language. Suppose that your neighbor asks you to turn off the sprinkler system in his backyard. You open the fence gate and see his German shepherd standing on the patio, not far from the sprinkler. As you approach, the animal avoids eye contact with you and appears to be "grinning" with its lips retracted. As you get closer, the animal urinates, lies on its side and lifts a rear leg. This animal is exhibiting signs of submission. You should respond by moving slowly and talking calmly and quietly to the animal so that it does not become apprehensive. Such an animal may become frightened if you approach aggressively. Signs of fear include trembling, salivation, and panting. The animal may also tuck its tail between its legs and avoid you. Remember: a frightened dog may bite if cornered.

Suppose, on the other hand, the dog stares at you as you approach. It bares its teeth and snarls, and its hair seems to stand on end. The dog's tail begins a rapid transverse flagging motion, and its ears flatten against its head. This dog is telling you that you are invading its territory and that you had better leave. Lower your eyes to avoid eye contact with the dog and calmly back out of the yard. Better that your neighbor have a wet yard than that you suffer injury.

Cats, too, convey meaning through their behaviors. When my friend Agnes approaches her Persian cat for grooming, the cat lowers its body, and its ears lie back. If Agnes continues her approach, the cat runs away. When cornered, the cat will hiss and attempt to scratch and bite. The cat is fearful when she sees the comb in Agnes' hand because its previous owner once hurt the cat when removing mats. Agnes has had to bring the cat to me, and I tranquilize the cat to cut out the mats. I instructed Agnes to show the comb to the cat every day so the cat no longer associates the comb with pain. Then she should begin gently combing the cat daily while petting it. The cat will gradually learn that the comb is not painful, and the problem of matting will be solved.

Sometimes pets try to deceive us with their behavior, and often they succeed. When Fifi Jones, the pampered poodle of an elderly lady, caught its paw in a screen door, it required three small sutures and a bandage. The injury was minor, but Fifi seemed to take a long time to heal. She continued to limp periodically months after the bandage and sutures were removed. I finally suggested to Mrs. Jones that Fifi was fine and that the limp was a plea for attention. I urged Mrs. Jones to ignore Fifi when she limped and to give her attention when she acted normal.

Most enlightening for pet owners, perhaps, is the message to be learned when a pet fails to communicate at all. Twelve-year-old Jason bought two parakeets and spent hours trying to train them to talk. But after a year, neither Laverne nor Shirley had uttered the first human sound. Actually, few parakeets ever learn to mimic humans. Only individual birds, separated from other birds early in life, become strongly enough attached to their human companions to learn to talk. Getting Laverne and Shirley to talk was a losing project from the start. Laverne and Shirley had each other to talk to in "parakeetese"; they didn't need anyone else.

Questions for the Vet

Dear Dr. Whiteley,

My children, ages six and ten, have no fear of animals, yet my oldest son has been bitten twice by neighborhood dogs. Should I be concerned? I hate to make them afraid of animals.

Alice Bertrum Great Falls, Montana

Dear Alice,

Most animal bites are preventable. I believe that all children should be taught the "Ten Commandments" of animal-bite prevention.

1. Never bother an animal while it is eating or sleeping.

2. Never approach a mother animal with young.

3. Never attempt to take toys or food from an animal.

4. Never try to pick up an injured animal. Consult an adult for help.

5. Never attempt to stop a dog or cat fight with your bare hands.

6. Never play roughly with your pet. The animal may become excited and bite.

7. Never approach a dog in its own yard. A dog is naturally protective of its property; it may bite.

8. Never attempt to pet or pick up strange animals.

9. Never attempt to catch wild animals.

10. If a large dog comes after you, do not run. Stop, face the animal, remain calm, and talk quietly. Once the animal appears calm, back out of the area slowly. If you are bitten, keep track of the animal and call a responsible adult for help.

Responsible pet ownership helps prevent animal bites by domestic animals. Train your dog to respond to the basic obedience commands. Restrain your animals at all times by leash or within the boundaries of a fenced yard. Parents can teach children respect and safety for themselves and animals without instilling fear. Adult supervision is encouraged for all children too young to understand these rules.

Dear Dr. Whiteley,

I am confused about a point in your July/August 1987 article in the Post concerning heartworms in dogs. You said that if a dog has heartworms, it can be put on a daily medication. When my dog had heartworms, it had to go through a series of arsenic injections to kill the heartworms before it could be put on the daily oral preventive medication. Please explain.

Maureen Fairbault, Mobile, Alabama

Dear Maureen,

Thank you for catching the error in the article about summer concerns for pets. The statement you refer to should have read, "If your dog does not have heartworms, it can be put on an oral medication during the mosquito season in order to prevent heartworms."

Dear Dr. Whiteley,

I am concerned for my pet, a 12-year-old Chihuahua-terrier mix. The past five years she has been developing tumors, and her vet doesn't seem concerned about them. She has one on her right flank the size of a grape and two or three small ones developing in other parts of the body.

The tumors are ugly looking, with fluid and veins and divided segments like cauliflower. She is in very good health otherwise--eats good once a day, drinks a lot of water, and is on a routine that takes care of eating, sleeping, and bowel movements.

This dog was an eight months' stray, found starving in a large city. We took her home, had her vetted and spayed, and built her back up. Her vet says she has a life span of possibly 13 years.

Can anything be done about these tumors? Should I change my vet?

Other pet owners must have this problem, although I have never seen an article on it in any publication.

Mrs. Daryl Mouser, Eveleth, Minnesota

Dear Mrs. Mouser,

Old age does seem to bring more tumors to dogs, as well as people.

You are describing skin papillomata, usually more unsightly than dangerous. These tumors can be surgically removed, especially if located in areas of the body that suffer irritation from rubbing, etc. However, your veterinarian may feel that the anesthetic risk for surgery is greater than the risk from the tumors. Please discuss this matter further with your veterinarian before giving up and changing vets.

Send your questions for the vet to: Vets on Pets, The Saturday Evening Post, 1100 Waterway Blvd., Indianapolis, IN 46202. Because of the volume of response, the editors regret we cannot reply personally to all letters.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:understanding an animal's body language
Author:Whiteley, H. Ellen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1987
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