Q: We live in the woods, and the bear population has been increasing here. A neighbor actually had a bear nearly walk into her home. Her dog began to growl and bark, and the bear ran off. Her dog is a large mixed-breed, and so is mine, but Charlie Horse is so sweet that I worry he'd do nothing and the bear might attack. To test my theory, I asked a neighbor to put on a bear costume I saved from a Halloween party. Charlie Horse wagged his tail and kept a safe distance, but seemed amused more than afraid. Could I train him to at least alert me if a bear came near the house? -- B.C., via cyberspace
A: Charlie Horse was likely entertained when your friend attempted to threaten him wearing the bear costume. Charlie totally knew this was no bear. In fact, he might have even recognized your friend by sniffing under the costume.
There's no way to predict how your dog might respond to a real bear. However, it's unlikely Charlie Horse would wag his tail and say, "pet me." There's a good chance he'd offer warning barks. Some dogs will do what they can, holding their ground, as perhaps your neighbor's dog did. Others will quietly, or not so quietly, attempt to hide or escape.
Experts say to keep trash securely closed (in bear-proof trash bins) and never leave food in the yard. Remove plants with berries (a bear delicacy). Some contend wolf urine (available online or at some feed stores) can be a deterrent. You could dribble it around the perimeter of your property.
While a large dog can be a deterrent, I still recommend not allowing your dog outside unsupervised. Install outdoor lighting and make lots of noise when you go outside at night.
You could encourage your dog to bark at any unusual sound, which many dogs routinely do. However, be careful what you wish for. In a month, you might be writing another letter, telling me Charlie Horse's barking has become unbearable.
Q: We adopted a 6-month-old kitten who'd been abandoned at a nearby farm. The lady who found him bottle-fed the kitten. The problem is, he's a biter. Whenever I walk by, he attacks my ankles. He also bites my hands. I've tried to distract him and offer toys, but he seems he prefers me to toys. Any advice? -- M.A.F., Palm Harbor, FL
A: "To a great extent, this is normal kitten behavior," says Dr. Brian Holub, Boston, MA-based Chief Medical Officer of VetCorp and board member of the Winn Feline Foundation (a non-profit that funds cat health studies). "Instead of hunting you, the kitten needs to learn to hunt toys. Keep trying, using interactive toys (fishing pole-type toys with feathers)."
It's important to do this when you suspect your kitten may be in play mode, such as when you return home from work. As you walk down the hall, be prepared with a stash of cat toys in your pockets (such as little balls or mouse toys). If your kitty looks like he's about to go for your ankles, toss a toy in the opposite direction. If that doesn't work, go into the nearest room and close the door. He'll soon learn that you vanish when he behaves this way.
Be sure all family members agree to never use their fingers or any body part when playing with the kitty.
"Dr. Beth Licitra's response to a recent reader question on FIP (feline infectious peritonitis) was based on what Dr. Niels Pedersen (at the University of California-Davis) hypothesized in the 1960s about the disease not being contagious," one reader writes. "FIP (is caused by a virus) and the most common virus associated with FIP is the feline corona virus. It is hypothesized to be the main cause of FIP. There's no proof that the FIP virus is not contagious. I suggest that your researchers may like to query more on FIP." -- R.W., via cyberspace.
There's no doubt that FIP kills cats, particularly kittens. An accurate diagnosis is considered fatal.
Pedersen, in fact, was among the first to describe this complex disease. Dr. Beth Licitra, who assists in Dr. Gary Whittaker's lab at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, is among a dedicated group of researchers working to reveal the secrets of FIP, with the goal of finding an effective medication.
"You said that 'the most common virus associated with FIP is the feline corona virus.' In fact, that's the only known virus associated with FIP," Licitra commented. "The feline enteric coronavirus is easily transmitted between cats. It replicates in the intestines and is shed in the feces. Cats become infected after ingesting viral particles, generally through contact with litter."
Then, within the intestines of the affected cat, the benign corona virus mutates into deadly FIP.
"It's important to keep in mind that multiple factors are at play in determining which cats will develop FIP," Licitra adds. These include:
1. A cat's age. Kittens are most susceptible to FIP.
2. Environmental factors, such as crowded living conditions. Cats living with many other cats are simply more likely to be exposed to corona virus. It's a numbers game; the more cats with the corona virus, the greater the odds of some developing FIP. Scientists don't believe they're contracting FIP from one another, though it's possible there may be rare exceptions. Also, cats living in crowded conditions can be stressed, particularly in a shelter setting. Stress reduces the immune system's ability to fight off infection.
3. "The genetic make-up of the cat may be important, as we know some cats are resistant to developing FIP," says Licitra. "But we know the virus is also important. It is possible that some enteric coronaviruses are genetically more likely to mutate to FIP. This is a question our lab is very interested in studying."
Licitra adds, "Unfortunately, it seems like FIP always leaves us with more question than answers."
As for researchers learning more, you can help by supporting FIP studies via the Winn Feline Foundation Bria Fund: http://www.winnfelinefoundation.org.
(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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