Explainer: Is ‘people food’ ever OK? 7 pet myths debunked

  • International Cat Show
    Tomasz Wojtasik  /  EPA

    When pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton recently advised a reader of his syndicated newspaper column that cats were known to be jealous of babies and would smother them by lying on them, cat lovers arched their backs and hissed. As Dr. Brazelton demonstrated, many long-disproven myths about pets still have legs.

    We asked some pet experts to give us the lowdown on what’s true and what’s not when it comes to dog and cat behavior and care.

    — By Kim Campbell Thornton, msnbc.com contributor

  • Myth 1: Never give pets 'people food'

    Image: dog
    Dylan Martinez  /  Reuters

    When it comes to pizza, Kung Pao chicken and onion rings, it’s true; you shouldn’t be sharing high-fat, spicy or potentially toxic foods with your pet. But cantaloupe, crunchy raw or lightly steamed vegetables, and meat with fat and gristle trimmed off are favorites of many animals and shouldn’t be off limits. For instance, baby carrots, apples and popcorn are excellent low-calorie treats for dogs. And as long as you’re using high-quality ingredients and a good recipe that meets a pet’s nutritional needs, “people food” is perfectly healthy as a regular meal for your dog or cat.

    “The biggest concern with feeding (pets) ‘people food’ is that most people feed too much and create an unbalanced or incomplete diet,” says veterinary nutritionist Sally Perea, who is a co-owner of Davis Veterinary Medical Consulting in Davis, Calif., and senior nutritionist for Natura Pet Products. “As a rule, treats or human foods fed to a pet on a commercial diet should be limited to no more than 10 percent of their daily calories.”

    Of course, there are some foods you should never feed your pets. Find a list here.

  • Myth 2: Your cat hates your baby

    Image: Cat in a bucket
    Uwe Zucchi  /  EPA

    The rumor that Dr. Brazelton helped repopularize goes like this: Families with infants should get rid of their cats because the animals will harm the baby by sucking its breath or lying on it and smothering it.

    But experts say this tale probably began because cats, attracted to soft, warm bedding, probably curled up near babies who died from other causes. Because they were found near the babies, the cats got the blame for the death.

    “I tell my clients that millions of women for thousands of years have had healthy babies and lived with cats,” says feline veterinary specialist Elaine Wexler-Mitchell of Orange, Calif. “I think the only danger of a cat around a baby is that cats like to snuggle next to warm things in small areas, and a cat will not know if this position is dangerous for the baby.”

    She advises keeping cats out of the room where the baby sleeps. If the cat is used to spending time in that room, start restricting its access at least a month before delivery, and don’t allow it to nap in the bassinet.

    “Most cats stay away from babies, especially when the baby first comes home,” Wexler-Mitchell says. “They are scared of the crying and the changes in the home environment."

    She recommends letting interaction between cat and baby occur naturally, under supervision. Never leave babies unattended in the presence of cats or dogs, and give pets plenty of attention away from the baby so they don’t feel abandoned.

  • Myth 3: Dogs and cats eat grass when they're sick

    Image: Dog in grass
    Submitted By Michelle Sheely  /  FirstPerson

    Nope, they’re just connoisseurs of the green stuff, says Marty Becker, DVM, author with Gina Spadafori of “The Ultimate Dog Lover” and “The Ultimate Cat Lover.”

    “They love the taste and texture of grass,” he says. “The newer shoots with a little water on them from the sprinklers or rain is even better.”

    He adds, however, that sometimes dogs will consume large amounts of grass, which then propels food through the intestinal system, either back up or out the other end, so that may be the source of the belief.

  • Myth 4: Bad breath is normal

    Image: Golden retriever puppy
    Shannon Stapleton  /  Reuters

    A healthy pet has fresh breath. Just as in people, bad breath is a sign of a serious health problem.

    “Periodontal disease is the number one most commonly diagnosed problem in veterinary medicine,” Dr. Becker says. “By having good oral health, pets can live up to 15 percent longer, which is an average of two years.”

    Brush your pet’s teeth regularly, making sure to use a toothpaste that's intended for your dog or cat. Daily is best, but even weekly is better than nothing.

  • Myth 5: Tail-wagging means a dog is friendly

    Image: dog
    Junko Kimura  /  Getty Images

    Don’t count on it. Tail wags have lots of different meanings, some friendly and some not.

    “You have to look at the body posture of the animal and everything else it’s doing,” says veterinary behaviorist Melissa Bain, chief of the clinical animal behavior service at the University of California at Davis. “How is the tail wagging? Stiffly, tucked and wagging, nice and flowing, is the whole body wagging? That all has to be taken into consideration.”

    Some signals to consider:

    • Relaxed, comfortable dogs generally have a gently wagging tail held horizontally or slightly lowered.
    • Confident dogs carry their tails up.
    • Dogs with their tails down may be stalking prey, feeling cautious or indicating friendliness and respect to the one they’re greeting.
    • Together with a lowered head, direct stare, closed mouth, ears held back and eyes wide open, a lowered tail is a clear warning to back off.
    • A tucked tail indicates anxiety, avoidance or caution.
  • Myth 6: Rub a dog's nose in its 'business' to housetrain it

    Image: Boy with dog
    Will Chandler  /  Anderson Independent-Mail file

    That only makes your dog afraid of you. Instead of learning to potty outdoors, it will find hidden places to go in the house and avoid relieving itself in front of you, even outdoors.

    “Punishment is often overly harsh and used incorrectly,” Dr. Bain says. “The best way to train any animal is to reward the appropriate behavior.”

    To successfully housetrain a dog, always take it out on leash so that when it potties outside, you will be right there to reward it with a treat, praise, a favorite toy or playtime afterward.

  • Myth 7: Cats always land on their feet

    Image: cat
    Michael Nagle  /  Getty Images

    That’s almost true, Dr. Becker says.

    “When you see fast-motion studies of cats, they rotate their heads and find the ground and twist their body into position,” he says. “The one thing they do that is remarkable is that right before they reach terminal velocity, they spread out like a flying squirrel and relax right before impact so they don’t hit rigidly, they hit with flexibility.”

    But not all of them land on their feet. Every once in a while, a kitty klutz comes along.

    “You’ll see a pile of kittens out there playing and climbing up something and falling or jumping off. Several of them land on their feet and then one of them klunks down on its head,” Dr. Becker says.

    Kids, don’t test this at home.

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