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Splashing cat might just be playing

Question: My cat puts her paws in her water bowl and flicks the stuff all over the kitchen. I've scolded her to no avail. Any ideas on how to stop her?

Answer: Proving she knows how to think like a cat, feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett of Nashville, Tenn., says your pet may not be able to distinguish the water level in her bowl _ so she sticks her paw in to find out. You can alleviate the problem by placing a floating plastic ice cube in the bowl. Be sure the cube (or any other floating object you use) is too large for the cat to swallow. You could also buy a water bowl with a design along the sides and consistently fill it to the level of the design. Your cat would then have another gauge to judge the water level.

On the other hand (or paw), Johnson-Bennett, author of Think Like a Cat, says water level might have nothing to do with your cat's interest in splashing water.

"Your cat might simply be playing," she says. "Play with an interactive toy more frequently with your cat, and playing in the water will become less interesting." Kitty may also be doing this just because you don't like it. Cats often do things because they enjoy our reactions. That's why scolding your cat may only encourage her splashing.

Housebreaking an iguana

Question: How do you potty train a baby iguana?

Answer: Iguanas are naturally clean, according to James Hatfield III, author of Green Iguana: The Ultimate Owners Manual. He says one iguana owner who read his book phoned to disagree, pointing out that her lizard walked in its own waste. "The iguana was being kept in an aquarium," says Hatfield, who told the caller, "Well, no wonder; if you lived in a phone booth, you'd step in it, too." That's when she hung up.

Rule No. 1: An iguana's enclosure must be spacious, giving the pet a place to do its business, away from the other living areas.

Stack three pieces of paper towel together and place them inside two full pages of newspaper (folded paper towel size). Tape the edges together with masking tape. You've just created an absorbent igua na toilet. Make several of these toilets so you always have replacements handy.

Place toilets in two corners of the iguana's habitat. Choose places where your lizard is already doing its business. Encourage the pet further by putting a sign on the toilet that says, "Go here!": Drop a piece of feces on the toilet. "If it smells like their toilet, it will be their toilet," Hatfield notes.

Once your lizard is walking around outside her enclosure, do the same in the corner of any rooms she visits.

"You can tell when an iguana is about to do business," says Hatfield. "When you see the tongue flick at a specific direction and they do that rumba action with their rear end, pick up the iguana and gently place her on a toilet." Hatfield insists that iguanas are easier to housebreak than dogs.

When your iguana outgrows the paper towel-sized toilet, tape two toilets side by side in a plastic storage container. Cut out the sides of the container so the lizard can easily climb inside. Make sure there are no sharp edges. (Never use kitty litter for an iguana.)

A cure for shedding?

Question: My Labrador mix has a beautiful coat but sheds unmercifully. I've tried commercial products, but they haven't worked and are expensive. Is there any natural or home remedy to cut down my dog's shedding?

Answer: Brush. There's no pill that can replicate daily or twice daily brushing. Also, you can blame the weather. The roller-coaster weather in the South this winter, from seasonal to unseasonably cold, may also be to blame for sudden shedding. However, if the shedding appears unusual, see your veterinarian to rule out thyroid or adrenal gland disease.

As for natural remedies, Dr. Shawn Messonnier, author of Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, says Omega 3 and/or Omega 6 fatty acid supplementation can improve coats. Both are available through vets and at health food stores in liquid or capsule form. Ask your vet about plant enzymes, also available at health food stores, that can be sprinkled in powder form over a dog's food.

Grieving pet

Question: I had to put one of my two boxers to sleep. She was 12 and had a tumor in her jaw. Her death was very hard on me, my 5-year-old daughter and most of all, our surviving 5-year-old boxer, Trixi. Even though my daughter is young, I was able to talk with her about Mystee's death. I can't do that with Trixi. She's showing signs of grief, panting when she sees us leaving the house, and digging. She has little appetite and acts obsessively toward a squeaky toy she previously showed little interest in; she walks around the house with that toy and sleeps with it.

I even bought one of those treat balls you've written about that dispense bits of food, trying to catch Trixi's interest, but no luck. Is my dog grieving? If so, what can I do to help?

Answer: Yes, dogs do grieve. Sure some scientists might not appreciate me using that term, but clearly chimpanzees and elephants mourn _ no matter what you call it. Some parrots get so upset when their owner dies or moves that they refuse to eat and become gravely ill. For at least a short period of time, animals as divergent as the wildebeest and killer whale exhibit a kind of sorrow when their babies are killed by predators or die in some other way.

Just as different people mourn differently, the same is true for individual pets. Some animals barely notice the passing of a housemate. Others go into a major funk.

If your dog continues to exhibit these symptoms, particularly decreased appetite, see your veterinarian. Sometimes stress can awaken an underlying disease.

Dr. John Ciribassi is a Carol Stream, Ill., veterinarian with a special interest in behavior. He says, "Try to maintain your (surviving) dog's schedule as much as possible. Even better, spend extra time doing something with her. Leave your dog toys she can play with on her own, such as the food-dispensing toy. But if that's not working, try something else. Stuff lowfat peanut butter, baby food or moist dog food inside a sterilized bone or Kong toy. Boxers usually love tennis ball games."

Another possible explanation: If your dog is not spayed, carrying around a toy may be a sign of false pregnancy.

Dogs often pick up on our emotions. It's expected for Trixi to observe and get a sense that you and your daughter are upset. As time passes and you both begin to feel better, Trixi will, too.

Bird's behavior bites

Question: Our 4-year-old African grey parrot bites _ and he means business. He even bites our dog. This bird has a good life and gets lots of attention. He seems content when he's in his cage in the kitchen, and we let him on the floor anytime he wants. We love our bird, so why does he bite?

Answer: Kitchens are generally the least safe room in your home for a bird. If you burn food on nonstick cookware, such as Teflon or Supra, your parrot could die because of chemicals emitted when the synthetic coating is heated. Even the fumes from overcooking oils can kill a bird.

"All birds need to know what their boundaries are, and it sounds like your bird rules the roost," says legendary avian researcher Irene Pepperberg, of Waltham, Mass.

Avian behaviorist Chris Davis, of St. Charles, Ill., says, "You must decide when the bird can come out, and where he goes." Relocate your bird out of the kitchen into a room where family members congregate, but put his cage off in a corner. Buy a free-standing jungle or activity gym for the bird to climb around. Add toys to the gym and rotate them to maintain interest.

If your parrot flutters to the floor, offer a stick for him to step onto. Use the stick when your bird wants out of his cage, and say, "step up." When he performs correctly, reward him with a treat. When you reverse the process and say, "step down," your bird should do so knowing there's a treat in store.

If the parrot is on the floor and refuses to step onto the stick, don't make a fuss. Gently drape a large towel over the bird and scoop him up. For a time, Davis suggests keeping your bird off the floor. Ultimately, you and other family members can determine when he's allowed on the floor and exactly where he can go on the floor.

"The good news is, greys are very smart," says Pepperberg. "But that's the bad news, too. Sometimes I think they're smarter than we are."

Infection or behavior?

Question: I have a 2-year-old dachshund and an 11-month-old beagle. The beagle lets you know when he has to do his business. I have to coax the dachshund to go out, and then when I go to pick him up, he urinates. Any advice?

Answer: If this is a recent phenomenon, see your veterinarian to determine if the dachshund has a urinary tract infection. If your dog checks out physically, New York City dog trainer Sarah Hodgson says, "For some reason, your little dog is overwhelmed, overly excited or overly submissive,"

Some simple training may help. Use a plastic cup with Cheerios or carrot pieces, Hodgson suggests. Gently shake the cup and drop a few yummies. Your pooch will associate the shaking sound with treats. "Play games using the shake cup, and in one game lead your dog to the door," says Hodgson, author of Dog Tricks for Dummies (IDG Books, New York, N.Y., 2000; $15.99). Put the dog's leash on 10 minutes in advance so you don't have to bend over to attach it as you leave, which might trigger the piddling.

Shake the cup and lead your dachshund to the door. When he goes out and he does his business, offer lots of praise and a treat from the cup. Always take your dog to the same place, on a leash, to relieve himself.

Meanwhile, attach a bell _ at the dachshund's nose level _ next to the door leading outdoors to his special "spot." Smear peanut butter on the bell about the time you know your pooch has to "go." When he rings the bell, out you go. Eventually, your dog will learn to ring the bell when he has to go.

Write to Steve Dale at Tribune Media Services, 435 N Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611, or send e-mail to Include your name, city and state. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column.