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No shame in grieving the loss of a pet

My wife and I have been truly touched by the enormity of your response offering condolences on the passing of my cat, Ricky. The e-mail and snail mail continues to come in.

Readers understood the pain we were in. Well, mostly! Of the hundreds of notes we've received so far, two readers questioned mourning the loss of a pet. Here's one:

"I stumbled across your column for the first time yesterday, and read about Ricky the cat. Good God, it's only a (expletive) animal. You're really screwed up. It amazes me how (expletive) like this can be published." _ Atlanta, Ga.

My reply: My advice to you is to visit a local shelter (somehow, I'm sure you don't have a pet). Sit down in a quiet place and gently stroke a dog or cat. Pry your heart open just a crack, and despite all your best efforts, the unadulterated joy of the moment will sneak inside just a little bit. It feels good, and medical science is now discovering that opening your heart to a companion animal is good for you.

However, when it comes down to it, you're right. My cat was an animal, not a person. I'm not suggesting Ricky was more "valuable" than a person, but why do we have to quantify loss? Where is it written that you can only mourn the passing of a person? The fact is, my wife and I fully realize we didn't lose a child. Still, by any definition, Ricky was a member of our household, and a totally dependable friend. He just happened to be a cat.

Ten years ago, readers like you were the rule. Today, you're the exception. Even people who don't have pets are starting to understand the profound sense of grief owners feel when they lose a beloved animal. And, by the way, it's okay to mourn _ even if it is a cat.

Please know, readers, how grateful Robin and I are for your responses. We received several pictures of Ricky drawn by children (they're on our refrigerator) and even an original poem. I've tried to thank all of you personally, but if I've missed anyone, I hope you understand.

Here's one more Ricky-related question, plus several other notes about other issues. Keep those letters coming:

"I actually used your column to help housebreak my dog. Please don't be insulted; it's just the page of the paper I happened to pull out. I want to contribute to the Ricky Fund for research on heart problems in cats. My cat died of the same problem Ricky had, and my vet agrees with what you wrote; it's a very common cause of death in cats. Can you print that address and e-mail again?" _ Carlsbad, Calif.

The WINN Feline Foundation is a not-for-profit organization that awards money to study feline health issues. They've established the Ricky Fund and proceeds will benefit research to learn how to better treat and ultimately prevent feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Checks should be made payable to the Winn Feline Foundation. Also, write "the Ricky Fund" on the memo line of your check.

Mail donations to: Winn Feline Foundation Inc., c/o "The Ricky Fund," 1805 Atlantic Ave., P.O. Box 1005, Manaquan, NJ, 08736-0805. You can also give directly at a special "Ricky Fund" Web site through WINN Feline Foundation:


Why does Lhaso apso nip?

Question: I'm an 80-year-old woman living with my daughter, who has a 15-year-old Lhaso apso-mix. Whenever my daughter and I stand in the kitchen talking, and if my daughter touches me in conversation, the dog jumps up and tries to bite me. I'm with the dog all day long while my daughter is at work. The dog is wonderful then _ trustworthy and loving. What's going on?

Answer: Chicago dog trainer Kathy McCarthy-Olshein says: "The dog gets attention from you all day, every day. The dog has you all to herself, until your daughter appears. This dog is saying, "Darn it, pay attention to me.' You can call it jealousy, or not. But that's what's going on.

McCarthy-Olshein says when your daughter comes home, put a leash on the pooch. One of you needs to step on the leash before you begin your kitchen discussions. When your daughter reaches for you, the dog will try to jump up but won't be able to. Don't bother correcting the dog; that may only feed her insatiable need for attention. When she finally settles down, offer her praise and a treat. As she's chewing, continue an animated discussion with your daughter _ and make sure your pooch sees it. Now, as your daughter touches you, the dog will be eating something yummy.

If you have any difficulty, or your dog doesn't seem to respond, get hands-on training assistance.

How to quiet a chatty cat

Question: My mixed-breed cats, Kate and Allie, are littermates but their personalities are so different. Why? Allie won't shut up; she's always saying something. I used to think this was cute but now it's driving us bonkers. Both cats are spayed and get along fine, although I think even Kate is losing patience with Allie's big mouth. What can we do?

Answer: My sister is always saying, "I'm nothing like my brother." I don't know why she feels the need to explain this. In any case, in people, cats, dogs and most animals, siblings can have a variety of personalities. If Allie's vocal expressiveness is recent or has increased noticeably, see your vet. She may literally be trying to tell you something's wrong.

Your family may have encouraged Allie to express herself by telling her how cute she was when she began her soliloquies. Now, when she launches into a recital, totally ignore her. Just turn up the volume on the TV or walk into another room.

When she quiets down, reward her with a treat and praise. Tell her how much you appreciate her thoughtful silence. (This training technique will work with some cats, but just as some people like to hear themselves talk, so do some felines.)

Long-lived and much loved

Question: We have a 22-year-old cat named Ritchie. I think his eyesight is going and he sleeps more than ever but he's basically a healthy guy. We play with him every day and he still loves his 22-year-old mouse toy. I've never had a cat live so long. How is this possible?

Answer: You must be doing something right. The fact that you play with Ritchie daily is excellent. My guess is, he's not obese, as are so many cats because they never exercise. You can also thank your vet and the pet food companies since advances in health care and better diets no doubt contribute to our pets living longer. You can thank Ritchie's mom and dad; genetics play a role in longevity.

At Ritchie's advanced age, I recommend he see a vet twice a year. One year for such an elderly cat is equivalent to 6 to 9 human years. Certainly, elderly people should see their doctors more than once every 6 to 9 years. Take one day at a time, and enjoy Ritchie.

Reduce fiber in diet

Question: My 9-year-old Yorkiepoo (Yorkshire terrier/poodle mix) has been having involuntary bowel movements in his sleep. The vet examined him and prescribed Prednisone and an increase of fiber in his diet. I've increased his walks to strengthen his hindquarters. Despite all these efforts, his condition has not improved. Any further suggestions?

Answer: Dr. Colin Burrows is a specialist in internal medicine and chairman at the small animal clinic at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, Gainesville. He actually suggests you reduce the amount of fiber your dog consumes through a low residue diet. Also, speak with your veterinarian about using Immodium to increase sphincter tone. If this doesn't help, other drugs can be used to control fecal incontinence.

Dogs who have seizures commonly suffer them overnight. When they have seizures, losing bowel and/or bladder control isn't unusual. You may want to consider a neurological exam to rule out that possibility.

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.