04/24/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2013

Veterinary Confidential

Some tips from the vet’s office about how to greet, what not to eat, and what’s funny to a cat.

Dog meets dog Girl with pug on leashUnlike us humans, who value face-to-face introductions, dogs prefer some latitude and movement when they meet. Meeting nose-to-nose may seem the most polite way to us, but it’s the least preferred approach. Some pointers:
  1. You don’t have to meet every dog on the street. Especially if the approaching dog is pulling on its leash while the owner pleads “Be niiiiice!” That’s your cue to hightail it. “Be nice” means the dog isn’t so nice, so it’s wise to forgo any interaction. Just smile and make a silent wish that the unfortunate owner and dog get themselves into a behavior class, pronto.
  2. Dogs like to move when they meet. When they stop moving and turn stiff, it can be a sign of tension.
  3. Meet one dog at a time. There’s a lot going on in a canine handshake. Also, it’s hard to keep all those leashes from getting tangled up when everybody is sniffing and running around at once.
  4. A loose leash is best. Tight leashes and prong collars add tension, stress, and pain to the meeting. Imagine someone yanking on your collar while you’re meeting a person for the first time. Not the way to make a good impression.
Emergencies Some of the most common reasons for a trip to the emergency room:
  1. Vomiting
  2. Diarrhea
  3. Being hit by a car
  4. Dystocia (difficult birthing)

Many of those vomiting and diarrhea cases are due to “dietary indiscretion” -- i.e., a cat or dog eating something it shouldn’t have. The good news is that these are often preventable -- just as the road accidents are, if you’re careful to keep kitty indoors and your dog in a safe place. Put tasty, tempting things well out of reach, and never underestimate how skilled a paw can be at opening cabinets or tipping over the trash. Even earthbound pooches can develop a marvelous ability to leap up onto tables and countertops for forbidden treats. (If you haven’t found a dog opening a refrigerator door on YouTube, you’re not trying.) And, of course, spaying is the surest way to prevent birthing complications and help end the unnecessary euthanasia of dogs and cats in shelters.

Three of the most common toxicities we see in veterinary medicine involve ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol) and chocolate. By now most people have heard about the chocolate danger -- and it's no myth. The culprit, the chemical theobromine, is named after the genus of the cacao plant, theobroma (which means "food of the gods' -- not food of the dogs). It’s much easier for a small dog to ingest a harmful or lethal dose than a large breed, but no amount is safe. Symptoms of a dog that has eaten chocolate include not just vomiting and diarrhea but high blood pressure, tremors, and seizures. Incidentally, cats are also affected by theobromine, but they rarely have a taste for chocolate.

Pondering cats
Cats have an odd sense of humor. Unlike dogs, who roll over and offer their soft spot to you out of deference, cats do it out of some perverse pleasure. My friend calls this the Venus flytrap move -- kitty will ensnare you and devour you.

If cats send mixed messages with their bellies, they don’t want you to get the wrong idea about their necks. Cats have loose skin in the neck area known as the scruff. Mama cats tote their kittens around by the scruff, no harm done. But adult cats should never be held or carried by the scruff alone.

Last, purring. Nobody really has a good grasp on it. There is no obvious anatomical feature unique to the cat -- no special flap, no purr box. It can be tricky to study because when a cat is placed in a cold, sterile laboratory, guess what? It doesn’t purr. Vibrating the larynx is one theory for the how. Some researchers think the why includes communication with other cats, appeasement, and comforting themselves. There are farfetched ideas about “healing vibrations” arising from certain frequencies. Purring, it seems, means almost as many things as “Aloha.” It might even mean an apology for biting you when you went in for that belly rub.