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Creature Feature: Red-knee or pink toe, tarantulas are colorful but not cuddly

25 Oct

Special to the Democrat-Gazette
My son thinks he wants a tarantula for a pet. I don’t know anything about them. Are they hard to take care of? The main thing I want to know is if they bite and are poisonous.

Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula

These hairy arachnids bite and are venomous but the effect on humans is described as similar to the sting of a honeybee. They’re painful but cause complications only in people who are allergic to tarantula venom.

Tarantulas are low-maintenance pets — more of a hobby, really — and interesting to watch, but if your son wants a pet that he can handle frequently or play with, he’ll disappointed.

Spiders aren’t “interactive” pets. They can be picked up or stroked but it’s not recommended, primarily because of the possibility of harming the spider.

The American Tarantula Society  says there are more than 850 species of tarantulas worldwide and you need to be sure of what you’re getting to know how to care for it properly. Most people buy their spiders from online breeders (although some pet stores carry them) so you should be able to get specific care information for the type you choose.

Burrowing tarantulas, for example, will need material in the bottom of their housing (typically a 2-gallon tank or aquarium) that they can dig in. The burrow material (or substrate) should be a peat/vermiculite mix. Trees are the natural habitat of arboreal tarantulas so instead of burrowing material, they need some kind of wood that’s like a tree branch where they can make their tube-like webs.   

The Tarantula’s Burrow  offers a library of information about how to care for several tarantula species, such as the Costa Rican Zebra, Peruvian Pinktoe, Greenbottle Blue, Thailand Black and Mombasan Golden Starburst. There also a trio of Mexican tarantulas — Red-knee, Red-leg and Red-rump. CQ All

You can find more care information at and, which specializes in breeding tarantulas.

The Chilean Rose tarantula (native to Chile, as its name suggests) is one of the most common species kept as pets. It and other “starter” spiders (like the Red-knee and Pinktoe) are burrowers, docile and require little attention.

“Wild” tarantulas — you’ve probably seen at least one creeping around outside — aren’t considered pet quality. Sometimes they’re crawling with parasites or they may have been injured when captured (have lost a leg, for example). In fact, it’s a good idea to check out a tarantula before you buy to make sure it has eight legs and two pedipalps, the arm-like things on the front of the spider’s body.

Other things to know about tarantulas:
■ Different species grow to body lengths ranging 2-12 inches.
■ The largest tarantula in the world is the Burgundy Goliath Bird Eating Spider (native to Guyana), which has a leg span of 12 inches. They’re not recommended for beginner spider enthusiasts.
■ Most eat crickets but larger tarantulas can eat baby mice — or birds, as in the case of the Goliath.
■ Water in a shallow dish should be available at all times.
■ They’re not social so each spider needs its own house.
■ Spiders native to humid climates need to be misted regularly.
■ Humidity and temperature have to be regulated; this differs depending upon the species.
■ Spiders can “bleed” to death if injured; their blood (hemolymph) is pale blue to cloudy clear.
■ Female tarantulas live longer than males. A male might live as long as two years, but a female can live more than 20. Some dealers will guarantee the sex of a spider.
■ Tarantulas grow by molting, shedding the old exoskeleton for a new one. Shedding the old exoskeleton take several hours, then the new one needs several days to harden. The spiders are fragile and easily injured when molting.
■ They aren’t cheap. Prices found online for adult tarantulas range from $29 to $75 each. They’re often sold in lots of three.
■ Young spiders can be kept in small plastic boxes instead of the larger aquariums.

Mating season for tarantulas in the wild starts in July-August and continues through November, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Heritage and Culture.

Tarantulas in Arkansas (we have the Texas brown variety) typically keep to their burrows, but the males venture out during mating season. One may travel as far as a mile to find his perfect hairy-legged girl. So romantic.

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Creature Feature appears weekly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


Creature Feature: Secret to pottytraining small dogs is owner commitment

22 Sep

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

 Is it true that small dogs are harder to housetrain than large dogs are?

"Of course we can be trained!" (Simone/RO)

Housetraining a small or toy breed of dog is more challenging than training larger dogs — it’s not the impossible task many people believe it to be although the process is longer and requires more time and attention from the owner.

“They are more difficult to housetrain. With little dogs, you have to take more responsibility about them going to the bathroom outside,” says Lisa Mantle, a certified professional dog trainer in Little Rock. “Instead of just assuming that the dog is going to let you know when he needs to go outside, you have to be an equal partner in the process.”

Small dogs have a poor housetraining reputation primarily because owners don’t stick with the training program for the long haul, she says. Because it takes longer to train a small dog, “people get tired of it. They don’t want to keep going outside with their dog.”

Mantle, owner of Running Dog Academy, has five dogs in her home. “I have big dogs and little dogs. I don’t treat them remotely the same. If my big dogs don’t ask to go outside, I don’t worry about it. On the other hand, if my little dogs haven’t asked to to outside for a while, I put them out.”

Theories about why small dogs are more difficult to train range from their smaller bladder size to breeding to owner expectations, Darlene Arden says in Small Dogs, Big Hearts.

“There are a lot of variables, including the fact that some breeds do take a little longer,” Arden says. “It’s not a measure of intelligence, but more likely an indication of behavioral tendencies.”

Training small dogs to potty outdoors requires vigilence, consistency and commitment, Mantle says. “It’s do-able but you have to stick with it. You can’t cut corners. You have to go through all the steps.”

With small dogs, training requires some type of containment when the owner can’t be with the dog. Some people use a dog crate while others put up a baby gate to confine the dog to a specific room or area of the house.

Another tactic is tethering, which requires an owner to keep the dog with him on a leash at all times. This keeps the dog from wandering off into another area of the house to potty out of his owner’s sight, plus helps the owner learn to read when his dog needs to go outside.

The downside of tethering, Mantle says, is that most people don’t want their dog attached to them continually. “It’s just not very realistic” unless the owner is committed to it.

I agree, although I had excellent results by combining crate training with tethering when Simone was a puppy. At home, I put the leash on her and she shadowed every step I took in the house and outdoors for months. When I took a shower, I hung the leash handle on the door knob and she would settle down on the floor. In the kitchen, she laid on a mat while I washed the dishes. At night, Simone stayed in her crate except for when I got up to take her outside at about 3 a.m. (during the early weeks of training).

Simone wasn’t bothered by being on the leash. It got tiresome for me at times, but the positive results were worth the effort. Not only is Simone well-trained, but she and I are bonded for life.

A key thing to remember about tethering: The dog is attached to you and within a few feet of you at all times. You never tie the dog to piece of furniture or anything else and leave her alone.

Mantle offers this advice for training a small (or any size) dog:

** Don’t let the dog out of your sight.

** Go outside with the dog and praise him every time he uses the bathroom in the right place. Mantle says to continue doing this even after the dog consistently goes outside to potty.  “I do this all the time and  my dogs are 13, 14 years old.”

Why is it important to go outside with your dog? First, so he’ll know why he’s out there. Second, so you’ll be there to praise and reward him for pottying in the appropriate place.

**If the dog makes a mistake indoors, “just clean it up,” she says. “If you see the dog in the process of going to the bathroom, try to calmly interrupt without scaring the dog. Then take the dog outside and reward the dog for going outside.”

** The most important thing to remember is “to stick with it until housetraining is complete. Don’t look at it like the dog is now such-and-such age and should be housetrained by now. Dogs complete housetraining at different ages.”

When the dog is consistently asking to be taken outside for bathroom breaks, he’s trained. But, Mantle says, if the dog is still having accidents indoors, training is incomplete.

“Some people expect dogs to just know things like they should go outside,” she says. “But remember, dogs don’t care where they go to the bathroom. We care where they go.”    

If you have questions about training, email me at        

Creature Feature: All eyes on the ears

31 Aug

Dog owners can often be heard saying they wish their pets could talk. They don’t talk like we do, but dogs do communicate with us through their body language.

Last week’s Creature Feature looked at the “tail language” of dogs. Today, let’s see what dogs say with their ears and eyes.

What's Ashley saying here?

Stanley Coren, a psychologist and animal behavior expert, explains the language of ears and eyes in How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication. Unlike humans, whose ears are in a fixed position limiting their usefulness in expressing emotions, dogs can send a variety of messages by flattening, perking up, pulling back and flickering their ears.

“Pricked ears,” or those that stand up and sometimes look like pointed satellite receivers (think German shepherd or Chihuahua ears), are easier to read than floppy or “lopped ears,” Coren says. Signals from lopped ears (like those of Labrador retrievers and beagles) can be ambiguous because the movement is more subtle — or muted — and less visible than pricked-ear movement.

He also says that ear signals have to be read along with signals from other body parts, such as the mouth, to put them into context. In his book, Coren explains what different ear positions mean.

I hear ya

■ Ears erect or slightly forward: The dog is alert or gathering information about the environment. This is the “what’s that?” signal. If the dog’s mouth is slightly open and relaxed, and his head slightly tilted, he’s probably noting that something is really interesting.

■ Ears pulled back and flat against the head: If accompanied by a relaxed mouth and a high tail, this is a sign of friendliness. But this ear signal can indicate anxiety if the dog is also baring his teeth.

■ Ears pulled back slightly so that they look like they’re spread sideways: A sign of ambivalence that means the dog doesn’t like something, wants to run or may fight.
“This position of the ears indicates that the animal may quickly turn from uneasy suspicion to aggression, or to fear and escape behaviors,” Coren says.

■ Ears flickering, usually slightly forward, then quickly down or slightly back: Flickering in this manner signals indecision that may contain a fearful and submissive aspect. It could also be read as pacifying, as if the dog were saying “I’m just looking the situation over, so please don’t take offense.”   

Regarding eye language, the direction of a person’s gaze can tell us if someone is paying attention, interested, bored or threatening. The same can be said of a dog’s gaze, Coren says, explaining three ways that dogs speak with their eyes.

■ Direct eye-to-eye stare: This a threat or an expression of dominance. Between dogs, a dominant dog will use it to say he’s the boss or tell another dog to back off.

Coren points out that dogs also use the direct stare to control the behavior of their owners. One example is when a dog sits and stares at you at the dinner table, looking so “hopeful” or “pleading” that you give him a bite of your food.

“When you respond by giving him what he wants, the dog interprets that as a submissive gesture on your part.”

■ Eyes turned away to avoid direct contact: The opposite of the stare, this can be seen as submission or sometimes fear. But it can also indicate boredom or a break in attention.

■ Blinking: This breaks a dominance stare and shows submission, but isn’t as submissive as when a dog averts his eyes fully. Blinking also can be part of a greeting ritual or a signal of friendliness.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This column was published July 6, 2011.

Creature Feature: Tails tell the tale

24 Aug

    Would you tell people that just because a dog is wagging his tail doesn’t mean he’s feeling friendly? I learned the hard way.  

A dog speaks volumes with his tail, but you’re correct that a moving tail doesn’t always mean a dog is relaxed or happy.

“The tail is the loudspeaker of your dog’s emotions — and one of the most misunderstood canine communicators,” according to the June issue of Your Dog, a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

There are tail wags for different emotions, such as fear, aggression and happiness. Your Dog provides a guide for interpreting tail language:
■ A low tail that’s wagging quickly means the dog feels fearful and uncertain.
■ A low tail that’s moving slowly can indicate the dog is a little relaxed, but still uncertain.
■ When the tail wags slowly at half-mast, the dog is relaxed and comfortable.
■ At tail at half-mast that’s wagging quickly means the dog is happy and excited.
■ When a dog makes circles with his tail, he’s extremely happy and excited. In fact, the dog may make such vigorous tail circles he does a full-body wag.
■ A tucked-in tail means a dog is frightened or unhappy; the degree of tucking reveals the level of his fear or anxiety. If he’s extremely scared, he may tuck his tail between his legs so much that it almost touches his stomach.
■ A tail that’s straight up and moving slowly indicates controlled tension. When the tail is held high and wagging rapidly in a narrow range of motion, the dog is feeling even more tense and shouldn’t be approached.

The straight-up, rapidly wagging tail is called “flagging,” says the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ virtual pet behaviorist. A dog “flags” his tail when he’s standing his ground or threatening someone or another animal.

When interpreting a dog’s tail language, look at the rest of the body to get the full picture. For example, an assertive (but not necessarily aggressive) dog will try to make himself appear larger by standing tall, perhaps even rising up on his toes. He’ll hold his head high and center his weight on all four feet or lean slightly forward.

An aggressive dog’s body language looks similar to that of an assertive dog, but he’ll center his weight on his front feet so that he can lunge quickly.

Here are a few more clues to reading a dog’s emotions:
■ Hair — When a dog is scared, he may “blow” his coat and seem to suddenly shed bags of hair. A dog may also “raise his hackles,” the hair along his shoulders and spine, which can mean that he’s angry, uncertain, nervous or excited.
■ Feet — When a dog lifts a paw off the ground, he’s communicating deference. A happy dog will do a little dance by rapidly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. A nervous dog may leave sweaty paw prints.
■ Eyes — Direct eye contact is an assertive statement while looking away is a sign of appeasement or deference.

People often believe a dog looks away out of guilt but what’s really happening is that the dog is reading and responding to their body language. If the dog believes someone (such as his owner) is angry, he’ll look away to try to ease the tension.

Creature Feature appears in the Family section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette every Wednesday. This column was published June 29, 2011.

Creature Feature: Prevent heartworm infection

10 Aug

I’ve been told that I have to give my dog medicine all year long to keep him from getting heartworms. Is that true?

Pet owners often question the necessity of giving their pet heartworm preventive medication year-round, but it’s the only way to protect an animal from getting heartworms.

All it takes is one bite from one mosquito to infect a dog or cat with heartworms, says veterinarian Wallace Graham, president of the American Heartworm Society.   

Mosquitoes breed in standing water so given this year’s heavy rain and flooding, Arkansas could have more mosquitoes than normal. Plus, the state lies in the area of the country that the society describes as “heartworm endemic,” meaning there’s a high rate of heartworm cases reported annually.

“Anything that will enhance the mosquito population will enhance transmission of heartworms,” Graham says. “We know that weather conditions do impact, to some degree, heartworm transmission.”

How heartworms develop: Mosquitos pick up heartworm microfilariae (tiny larvae) when they bite an infected animal, then those mature into an “infective larval stage” in 10-14 days. At that point, if a mosquito bites a susceptible animal, the larvae enter though the bite wound.

Heartworm larvae then migrate through the body until they reach the heart and lungs, where they mature. Adult heartworms — thin, stringlike  and 10 to 14 inches long — clump together in arteries serving the lungs. As their numbers grow, they spread into the right chamber of the heart, which could weaken the heart and cause congestive heart failure in dogs. (Photos of this are on the heartworm society’s website; be warned, they’re gruesome.)

Cats are just as susceptible as dogs to contracting heartworms, Graham says, but heartworm disease in cats is a “whole different ballgame.”

“In dogs, the primary effects are in the lungs and heart while in cats, it’s almost completely a lung disease. The pathology in the lungs of cats is completely different. Cats have severe respiratory signs generally at two times during infection,” he says.

The first “crisis period” for cats is when a heartworm first emerges in its lungs. At that point, the infection can appear to be asthma or allergic bronchitis but is actually a syndrome known as “heartworm associated respiratory disease.”

“If a cat survives that, then the heartworm will die of old age,” Graham says. “But the death of the heartworm causes tremendous problems.” When a cat’s body tries to get rid of the dead heartworms, the cat may go into shock and die.

Dogs with heartworms can be treated successfully in all but the most advanced cases, but there’s no treatment for cats, Graham says. ‘That’s why it’s important for cats to be on a heartworm preventive even in they live indoors.”

A dog in the early stages of heartworm infection won’t show any symptoms but as the number of heartworms grow (sometimes to more than 30), signs appear. They include coughing, tiring easily, lethargy, loss of appetite and weight loss. If they aren’t treated, it becomes harder and harder for them to breathe — death by heartworms is slow torture for an animal.

A cat’s symptoms mimic those of other diseases and can include rapid breathing, gagging, vomiting and weight loss.

Blood tests will reveal if a dog or cat is infected, Graham says. Owners sometimes resist having their pets tested because they are certain that they never missed giving their pet the preventive. Often, they misremember so it’s better to test and be certain that the dog or cat hasn’t been infected.

For infected dogs, treatment is expensive and takes at least two months during which the dog must be kept inactive — no running, jumping or playing although walking on a leash is allowed.

During treatment, the heartworms die and decompose and “are eaten up by the white blood cells,” Graham explains. “That process takes some time and we have to do what we can to manage the side effects.” 

The main side effect is that the decaying heartworms may block the animal’s arteries and lower blood flow to the lungs. “We have drugs and protocols that minimize effects on the dog, but it’s critical that the dog not get any exercise throughout the entire course of the treatment.”

Most dogs can be treated successfully, but some experience complications and don’t survive. Vigilance by an owner can prevent this, Graham says.

Preventives work simply by killing the infected larvae when they enter an animal through a mosquito bite. Dead larvae mean no heartworms.

Heartworm preventive is available in pill form, as a monthly topical treatment applied to the skin, and as a shot given every six months. Your vet can explain how each works and what may be best for your dog or cat.

While heartworm preventives have always been considered effective, the American Heartworm Society is currently conducting a study to determine if there are any strains of heartworms that have become resistance to a specific chemical compound now being used.

The study doesn’t cover a specific type or brand of preventive, but there has been controversy about the effectiveness of HeartGuard Plus. In 2005, the federal Food and Drug Administration ordered the maker, Merial LLC, to stop claiming 100 percent effectiveness on its labels.

Graham says he can’t address the controversy because there is no scientific evidence to “definitively answer” all the questions about the effectiveness of any specific product. Scientific studies in this area are only in the early stages.

“People ought to be having conversations with their veterinarians about what they ought to do in terms of preventives,” he says. “This needs to be between the pet owner and veterinarian. He may have reason to believe one product is better in their area.”

He notes that veterinarians tend to recommend the preventive they’ve had success with.

Creature Feature appears weekly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This column was published June 15, 2011.   

Creature Feature: No fleas, please

3 Aug

    We’ve been having a problem with fleas on our indoor/outdoor cats. Will treating the lawn get rid of our problem?
    Fleas in your yard aren’t the real problem — fleas don’t live in sunny areas but breed in shade under shrubs, trees and porches.
    The American Animal Hospital Association says treating your cat for fleas is the most effective way of dealing with them but if you decide to treat areas outside your home, follow the safety directions on the package and focus only on areas where your pets sleep or run. Ask you veterinarian about products that are safe for pets. You may also want to consult with or hire a professional exterminator.
    Inside your house, the assocation suggests using an insecticide in crevices, plus washing your pet’s bedding and vacuuming the floor regularly. But be judicious about where you apply insecticides in your home and keep them away from your cats. As you know, cats groom themselves by licking their so whatever gets on their fur goes into their mouths.
    The key element to combatting fleas is using a flea preventive such as a spray or monthly topical product on your cat. Take care to get an anti-flea product labeled specifically for use on cats. Avoid anything that’s labeled “for dogs only” because these products contain permethrin, a chemical that can be toxic to cats. Some outdoor insecticides also contain permethrin, so read labels before buying anything.
    In fact, veterinarians recommend using products that are clearly labeled “for cats only.” Revolution and Frontline both have products that are safe for cats, but it’s best to ask your vet for a recommendation before buying anything.
    The June issue of Catnip, a publication of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, addresses misconceptions about dealing with fleas. Among them is that one application of a flea product will get wipe out a flea infestation.
    The reality is that you have to treat every animal in the household for three consecutive months to eliminate fleas.
    Another misconception is that  “flea season” occurs during during the spring and summer months. Actually, fleas are more active in September, October and November whether it’s in the colder northern states or on the Gulf Coast. So pet owners are encouraged to not quit using flea preventives when summer ends.
    Catnip’s veterinary experts say natural flea remedies such as mixing garlic and yeast into a pet’s food don’t work. Also ineffective are electronic flea collars.
    Flea collars in general have only minimal effect, according to They might kill adult fleas in the area of the head and neck, but not on the rest of the body. That means the collars have no effect on the flea’s favorite hangout — the base of your pet’s tail. Flea collars are most useful when vacuuming the floor. Just put them in the vacuum bag and they should kill any fleas sucked up.
    Powders and sprays that are applied to a cat’s fur kill adult fleas and are effective for one or two days. However, topical preventives applied to the skin between an animal’s shoulder blades are effective for a full month. Some not only kill adult fleas but also affect flea larvae to interrupt the reproductive cycle.

Originally published June 22, 2011. Creature Feature appears weekly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Creature Feature: Treadmill exercise for dogs

20 Jul

I have a dog that’s part border collie and lately I haven’t been able to walk him every day like I know I should. I’ve heard that dogs can be taught to use a treadmill. I have a treadmill and would like to do that if it’s possible. Is it?

A dog definitely can be taught to walk on a treadmill, says Karen Kelley, a professional dog trainer in North Little Rock. Not only can a dog learn to use a treadmill, but he also may come to love the activity.

Kelley has trained her own dogs — among them a standard poodle, a pit bull terrier mix and a French bulldog-shar pei mix — to accompany her on treadmill walks as well as do it by themselves with supervision.

“I have three treadmills and sometimes I’ll be on the middle one and have a dog on each side,” she says.

She points out that treadmill exercise shouldn’t always substitute for going on walks outside. A dog needs the mental stimulation of new scents and sights as much as he needs physical exercise. Treadmill exercise is great, however, for when a outdoor walk isn’t possible or as a supplement to the dog’s other activities.

While there are many treadmills on the market made specifically for dogs, one you use yourself works just as well.

Kelley says the key to successful treadmill training is a slow start — actually one with the treadmill off and at a standstill. The dog needs to be comfortable just stepping onto the machine before it’s ever turned on.

When training, “take baby steps,” she advises. Start by putting a treat on the treadmill belt while it’s turned off and let the dog step onto the machine to take the treat. Do this for several days so your dog considers getting on the treadmill to be a positive thing.

The next step is to start the motor while the dog is standing on the belt. If he’s comfortable with that, then you can set the speed so that the belt is slightly moving. Let the dog walk a few seconds or a minute. It may help if you sit in front of the treadmill and encourage him to come toward you, all the time praising him.

Keep the first sessions short and as the dog becomes accustomed to walking on the treadmill, you may speed it up. The speed depends upon the dog. The goal is for the dog to walk at a steady pace that’s comfortable for him.

Some dogs, especially working breeds who like to have a job to perform, may prefer to run. Kelley says one of her dogs, Dakota, runs at a speed of four miles per hour. (A video of Dakota running on the treadmill is posted on Kelley’s web site, Click on “Karen’s exercise tips.”)

A dog walking on a treadmill should look like he’s moving with purpose. He’ll hold his head low and forward. His tail should be raised — it may even be wagging as Dakota’s does in Kelley’s video.

When training a dog on a treadmill, Kelley says, there are several steps to lessen the chance of a dog being injured:

 ■ Make sure the treadmill belt in seated properly, runs smoothly and has no tears or loose places where a dog could snag his claws. Test the treadmill yourself before letting your dog onto it.

■ Always use an electric treadmill.

■ Keep the dog leashed — and supervised. He should not be left unattended on the treadmill.

Attach the treadmill’s safety key to the dog’s collar. (The safety key is the plastic stick that goes into a slot at the front of the treadmill. When it’s pulled out of the slot, the treadmill stops automatically.) Kelley says dogs learn quickly that when they pull out the safety key the machine will stop. She says having the power to stop the machine increases their confidence.

The dog’s owner’s demeanor and attitude can also affect the dog’s confidence on the machine, Kelley says. If you’re nervous, your dog will be nervous. You may even want consult a professional dog trainer for help.

Keep in mind that every dog has his own pace — in learning as well as walking.

This column was originally published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sept. 9, 2010. Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Family section.

Creature Feature: On the road with Simone

7 Jul

A version of this was originally published June 16, 2010, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

When traveling with a dog, it’s a given that you’ll need to stop every two or three hours to let him stretch his legs and have a potty break. Depending on where you stop, this can be pleasant or stressful.

My dog, Simone, and I recently took a two-day car trip that involved being on the road about eight hours each day. So we had several stops, some more enjoyable than others.

One of our more pleasant breaks was at this Colorado rest stop, which had plenty of grassy areas as well as rocks for Simone to explore. (2010/RO)

Truck stops and gas stations, we learned, are just fine for people but not so good for pets. Wide expenses of concrete, diesel and gasoline fumes, and tractor-trailer rigs roaring in and out of the parking lot distract and may scare small dogs like Simone, a not easily intimidated Pomeranian. Dogs not bothered by the noise and activity can still be distracted from doing their business.

Also, at these places, there’s usually only a strip of weed-dotted dirt next to the parking lot that’s suitable (barely) for walking a dog. Much of the time, the area is littered with trash or animal waste left by other travelers.

Government-maintained rest stops present the possibility for more pleasurable breaks in interstate driving. Most have large grassy areas, with space marked specifically for walking dogs. There are also covered picnic areas where you can set out water and food bowls away from the parking lot and other travelers.

At rest stops, you’ll encounter all kinds of people. Some like dogs, some don’t. As a courtesy — and for your dog’s safety — keep your dog on a leash. It’s tempting to let your dog run free after he’s been cooped up in the car, but don’t. No matter how well trained a dog is, he may not be able to resist dashing after any critter he may see. Squirrel! Or he might run off when spooked by a loud noise such as the roar of a diesel engine.    

Of course you packed plenty of plastic bags for picking up after your dog during rest stops. Use them. It’s rude, not to mention unsanitary, to leave a mess.

Don’t force your dog on other dogs or people. And if you have a large-breed dog, please keep it at a distance from small and toy dogs, who can be intimidated by the presence of a larger animal. Or vice versa. People with children should do their best to make sure the kids don’t rush up to an animal and startle it.

If you’re taking a long trip, you may have to stop and spend the night at a motel or hotel. Fortunately, more and more motels welcome pets. Most charge a pet fee of $10-$20 above the standard room rate, although a few let pets stay for free. Some charge a $10-$15 fee per night per pet. Therefore, it’s a good idea to do some research before you hit the road.

The website can help you find pet-friendly accommodations, plus you can check out the websites of specific motel/hotel chains to learn their policies. But even if a chain accepts pets, it’s advisable to contact the motel at which you plan to stay to verify its policy. Motel managers can set policy for individual establishments and some prohibit pets.
    ★ ★ ★

Whether driving across town, state or country, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says the primary rule of travel is “never leave your pet alone in a parked car.” An animal can suffer heatstroke in a matter of minutes.

“It only takes 10 minutes on an 85-degree day for the inside of your car to reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit, even if the windows have been left open an inch or two,” the ASPCA warns.

Even on a mild 70-degree day, the interior temperature of a vehicle can become as much as 20 degrees hotter as the outside.

Wishing you all safe and happy journeys.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat.

Creature Feature: Naughty torties & fiery gingers

22 Jun

My two girls, Missy and Carrie, loved curling up together for a snooze. I wouldn't call Missy a 'naughty tortie' but she was mischievous, hence her name. Carrie, who had the look of a Balinese, was a cuddler and liked to be carried around on my shoulder. (Photo/RO)

(Originally published 7/29/09 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)


Does the color of a cat’s fur say anything about its temperament? Is an orange cat calmer than cats of other colors?

Some people believe that you can predict a cat’s temperament by the color of its fur, but just as many others are quick to dismiss the notion. The fur/temperament issue is probably like the stereotypes we apply to people based their hair color — blondes have more fun, redheads have hot tempers, brunettes are even-tempered — in that sometimes they’re valid, but more often they’re not.

Animal scientist Temple Grandin would seem to be among the believers that fur color is significant. The Colorado State University professor says in her 2009 book, Animals Make Us Human (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt), that people looking to adopt a cat with a “friendly, bold temperament” should consider one with black fur. 

“Shelter workers in England call black cats ‘laid-back blacks,” Grandin says, noting that conversely the workers describe tortoiseshell cats as “naughty torties.” The description of black cats “is supported by a handful of studies showing a relationship between fur color and behavior. Black cats especially are friendlier than other cats, more able to deal with crowding and urban life, and have greater aggregative tendencies, which means they’re more inclined to live in groups of cats.”

She also mentions orange male cats, saying that they are more aggressive than black male cats. “That’s logical because orange cats are shyer than black cats and you would expect fearful cats to have more fear aggression. I’ve noticed that neutered orange males and females can be very affectionate,” Grandin says. “Some orange cats will rub on you all day. However, orange cats can startle and scare easily.”

After making these statements, Grandin backpedals: “Fur color isn’t a guarantee that a cat will have one kind of personality or another. When you choose a kitten, you have to go by the individual personalities of the kittens regardless of color.”

Sarah Hartwell of UK’s Cats Protection writes on that she’s one of those shelter workers who refers to black cats as laid-back and torties as naughty. She also says that “ginger cats” (orange cats) are “said to be spirited and fiery (and sometimes mean-spirited and sly) — very apt considering their fiery color.”

There are other stereotypes, she says: White cats are “dim” or “a little timid,” black-and-white cats like to wander, and “blotched tabbies” are homebodies or curl-up-by-the-fireplace cats.

“Most color/personality ‘information’ is anecdotal,” Hartwell explains, “but there have been studies where owners or veterinarians were asked to associate particular colors with particular personality traits. Profiles are only available on two particular breeds and these ignored the breed-specific traits and concentrated on traits associated’ with the color/pattern.”   

Other sources offer similar explanations about possible or imagined links people make about fur color and temperament, but they also note that genetics and, perhaps more significantly, early socialization of kittens play more of a role in shaping a cat’s personality.

I’ve had neutered and spayed cats of different colors and most conformed to no stereotypes. I’ve had two black cats: the female was skittish, the male never met a stranger. Both of my male tabbies (one orange and one gray) were aggressive and tried to dominate the other cats in the household. My blue-eyed female Siamese mix was a love, as was my female tortoiseshell. The black-and-white male was spirited and extremely sociable.

The skittish black cat was dumped on a busy street when she was about 6 weeks old, so I assume she didn’t come from a friendly and loving environment. The same goes for my gray tabby. The other cats, however, all came from shelters or homes and had lived the first couple months of their lives with littermates, and had been handled gently and often by many people. So my vote for what affects a cat’s personality and temperament goes to early socialization rather than fur color.

Is it OK to walk my dog on pavement in the summer or will the heat hurt his paws?

Arkansas summers can be brutal, so it’s recommended that dogs be walked only in the evening or early morning when temperatures or cooler. Walking on hot pavement can burn their paws, the same way it can burn your feet, so the general rule is: If it’s too hot for you to walk barefoot on the sidewalk or street, then it’s too hot for your dog.

Creature Feature appears weekly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Family section.

Creature Feature: Taking a cat from ‘fraidy to friendly

1 Jun
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 1E, Family, June 1, 2011
Rhonda Owen, Special to the Democrat-Gazette

You wrote about cats and dogs being afraid of storms, but I have a different problem. My cat, Jackson, seems afraid of people. When I have company, he hides in another room or behind the sofa. Sometimes he’ll come out after 10 or 15 minutes but he’ll run away if anyone tries to pet him. We got him from a rescue outfit and think he’s about a year old. Can we get him to be friendlier?

Cats are individuals so the way each reacts to people usually reflects his unique personality. Some cats are gregarious and love to give and receive attention, while others are timid and shy away from unfamiliar people and situations.

Still other cats are watchers. They’ll come into a room, find a perch and enjoy observing the social activity but prefer not to participate.

Some cats are fearful of visitors, which can be related to temperament but often can be traced to a lack of socialization early in life. A rescue or stray cat’s background often is a mystery and owners won’t know if the cat was abused or simply didn’t get enough exposure to humans during the first couple of months of kittenhood.

Since Jackson is a rescue pet, it’s reasonable to assume that he may not have had much experience with people during the most critical socialization period of 3 to 9 weeks old. If he’s calm and friendly around family members but hides only around strangers, then this could be the case.

There are steps you can take to make him more comfortable around visitors, but keep in mind that he may never be an extroverted cat.

Here are tips from personal experience and animal behavior experts at Best Friends Animal Society (bestfriends. org), the American Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ( and

Make your cat more comfortable by providing him with a safe area where he doesn’t have to interact with guests. Set up an out-of-theway area, like a back room, with a resting area, water and a litter box. Before guests arrive, put him in this space and give him a treat and an interactive toy.

After guests arrive, you can bring your cat out of the safe room and into the room with other people. Just pet him and give him treats but don’t make him interact with anyone unless he wants to. After a few minutes, take him back to his room. The point isn’t to force interaction but to let him know being around people can be pleasant.

After several sessions like this, you may move closer to your guests with your cat. If he’s not distressed, move closer the next time. Gradually, you may have people speak to him or offer him treats.

In the room where you have guests, make sure there are perches such as cat trees in case Jackson prefers watching people from a distance. If so, he may sit and watch until he decides he wants to participate or desires attention.

Offer your guests some tips for dealing with your cat’s shyness:

  • Ask them to let Jackson approach them.
  • Tell them to avoid eye contact. Cats don’t like direct eye contact and feel threatened by it. Conversely, they’re often drawn to the person who seems least interested in them. Ever hear people talk about how their cat always seems to prefer the friend who doesn’t care for cats? That’s why.
  • Have guests squat down to the floor or get closer to the cat’s level when speaking to him to make them seem less threatening.

    If Jackson’s naturally reserved, he’ll never be as outgoing as you might want him to be. But as long as he feels secure and doesn’t seem stressed out by visitors, continue the socializing process and you’ll make progress over time. Just remember to not force situations, because that could set back any progress.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Send your pet questions to