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Pets Q&A: Focus on fetch, not squirrels

Q: Jack, our Jack Russell terrier mix, has been terrifying the squirrels in our yard. I’m afraid he’ll catch and kill one. What can I do? – B.D., Nashville, Tenn.

A: Your fear is well-founded. Jack Russells are hard-wired to do what they were bred for: hunting small furry things. Generally, they don’t distinguish rabbits from the squirrels we may not mind having in our yards, or between voles and the city rats we decidedly don’t want.

With their ability to climb trees, squirrels at least have a shot at escape, and may actually taunt their attackers from a safe perch. Should Jack catch a squirrel, the prey will do all it can to survive, including biting your pet.

If you’re not in the yard with your dog, no amount of training will matter. I suggest you keep your dog on a long leash (purchase one triple the length of an ordinary 6-foot leash at a pet store or online) and only allow your dog in the yard with you and wearing that long leash. Also, play fetch with Jack so he’s focused on the game – not squirrels.


Q: Our cat has always been an indoor/outdoor pet. Lately, she’s started bringing dazed but living animals home. Last week, she dropped a mouse in the kitchen. The week before, it was a bird that was so startled it couldn’t fly away, and though we let it outside, it probably didn’t survive. Any advice? – V.H., Holly Ridge, S.C.

A: Your cat is well fed, but hunting remains instinctive and it’s seemingly fun for many indoor/outdoor cats. Some experts suggest cats actually bring their catches home as “gifts” for us. In any case, I can’t tell you how to “train” your cat not to be a cat.

I don’t know your cat’s age, but older cats often appreciate living indoors only. Others will transition if you transform your home into a feline amusement park with lots of places to climb, new and interesting boxes to explore and rotating toys. One day, place a penny inside a milk carton; on another, offer catnip inside a shoe box; on a third, hide tidbits of tuna your cat can “hunt” for indoors.

As enriching as life may be outside, it’s simply not safe. Indoors-only cats don’t get hit by cars or chased by coyotes, stray dogs or other cats. Cats live longer indoors.

There are also ethical issues to consider. While bird protection groups exaggerate the number of songbirds killed by cats, this does occur. Also, cats allowed to wander outdoors may use neighbors’ gardens as their litter boxes. Their mere presence outside a window can wreak havoc among indoor cats.

My advice: Enrich the feline environment in your home and gradually keep your cat inside more and more, until ultimately she’s an inside-only pet.


Q: We recently adopted a 6-month-old cat. We’ve bought her about 100 cat toys, and now feel like we wasted our money. She’d rather play with string dangling from a doorknob, or paper sacks from the grocery. She’s like the child who prefers the wrapping over the gift. What should we do? – V.D., Charleston, N.C.

A: Do nothing. Just as children have individual preferences when it comes to toys, so do kittens and cats. Most love little balls and mouse toys, but not all. I’ve always contended that the best cat toys can cost nothing, including empty boxes, plastic milk cartons with holes cut into the side where kibble or catnip can tumble out, even toilet paper rolls folded at the ends and stuffed with treats that can dribble from little holes.

What’s important is not how many toys a cat has but how many are new. Put some toys away for a week or two. Then, when you reintroduce them, they’ll seem new all over again.

Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Send email to Include your name, city and state.