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No need for toothbrush; have your kitty's teeth cleaned by veterinarian

Dear Matthew: I saw a friend brushing her cat's teeth. She says that it's the only way to keep the animal's breath fresh and her teeth white. Is this something I should be doing with my cat? I'm a little puzzled by the whole thing.

- Gina in Spokane, Wash.Dear Gina: Your friend seems to be taking her concern for her cat's oral hygiene in the wrong direction. Although you shouldn't have to brush your cat's teeth, you really ought to take the feline to a veterinarian on a regular basis to have its teeth professionally cleaned.

This process should include scraping off any tartar and a cleaning with an ultrasonic cleaner and polisher. Usually, this involves anesthetizing the cat so a more thorough job can be done. It's definitely worth the time and the effort, and I recommend every cat owner make this a part of his or her cat's regular health schedule.

Dear Matthew: Whenever I take my dog outside to play with her, both she and I have a grand old time.

Sometimes, however, she seems to get a little too worked up during our running and stick-tossing games and starts to emit a low, guttural growl. She never bites me or anything, but she sometimes scares the other people in the park.

Is she an aggressive dog just because she growls? And, if so, should I be nervous about her having an outburst sometime soon? She's always been a sweetheart around me, but I guess that's no guarantee that she won't grow more mean-spirited in her old age.

What do you think, Matthew? Am I worrying too much over nothing?

- Stuart in Trenton, N.J.

Dear Stuart: In most cases, growling should not be taken lightly. When dogs growl, they usually raise their upper lips into a snarl and bare their teeth. It is an indication that they may bite you!

Growling is an aggressive behavior, similar to biting, and with the same general causes: poor breeding, lack of early socialization, environmental influences and abusive human behavior. Most dogs growl as a response to punishment, to someone near their food bowl or to someone doing anything perceived as a threat.

Having said this, it seems your case is a little different. Growling in this instance may be the way your dog has learned to express her excitement and energy. So, it may not be all that bad a response, but it certainly isn't an indication of anything good.

Unfortunately, most dogs over 10 months and older are unresponsive to training not to growl. They're pretty much set in their ways, as far as this is concerned, and firm correction may make them growl more and perhaps become violent.

I'd recommend you keep a close eye on your dog and make sure she doesn't display any violent behavior. As long as she's just growling, you'll probably be OK. But she starts nipping or biting, I'd take her to a professional dog trainer for some intensive instruction, or you're risking injury to yourself or someone else your dog comes into contact with.

Dear Matthew: I'm preparing my house for the arrival of a 2-month-old kitten, and I'm a little worried about all the electrical cords in my house. Specifically, I have a computer station and an audio-visual center that have lots of wires, and I'd hate to have kitty hurt herself by chewing on one of them.

Is there anything I can do to prevent any accidents from happening? What do you suggest?

- Troy via the Internet

Dear Troy: An electric cord could turn into a rather painful plaything if your cat mistakes it for a toy. Fortunately, cats usually find the rubber used in coating the wires distasteful and so they avoid them.

If you see your cat playing with any of these cords, a quick verbal reprimand or a shot of water from a squirt gun should do the trick. If the feline persists in this dangerous habit, I recommend you wrap your wires in duct tape or coil them through a cardboard tube to keep them safely out of reach.

A thorough safety inspection of your house is a necessary task before you bring your cat home, and it appears that you're giving the matter the appropriate amount of thought. Be sure to put valuables out of reach, make sure your plants aren't poisonous to your cat, and stow away any household cleaners and other toxins, among other things to check.

Enjoy your new pet!