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The Straight Dope

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Our cat seems to be left-handed. Is that possible? Are animals right- or left-handed, as humans are? If so, how come, and what can be inferred from that about the meaning of life? --Pierre and Daniella, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Life is meaningless. However, if you play your cards right, it can still be a million laughs. Proof: the carefree existence led by your humble columnist, who gets paid big money to answer questions like this.

And I'm not the only one. I have before me a research paper entitled "Paw Preference in Cats Related to Hand Preference in Animals and Man" by J. Cole, University Laboratory of Physiology, Oxford, England. Professor Cole sounds like a personage (we will hereinafter assume a male personage) after my own heart. If he represents the cream of the British intelligentsia, it's no wonder they lost the Empire.

To test feline handedness, or pawedness as you prefer, Professor Cole had 60 randomly-selected cats reach into a glass tube for some rabbit meat. Of the 60, 35 showed a noticeable preference for one paw over the other (i.e., same paw used in at least 75 out of 100 tries). Of the 35, two-thirds were left-pawed. Cecil finds this interesting because he himself is a lefty, a much-oppressed minority. I have not previously had much use for cats, but now I feel a definite kinship.

Paw/claw/whatever preference is actually pretty common in the animal world, having turned up in most species tested, including parrots (mostly lefties) as well as rats, monkeys, and chimpanzees (50-50 right versus left). Why should there be a preference? One plausible guess is that it helps the animals learn faster. Professor Cole noticed that cats with a dominant paw figured out how to get the rabbit meat out of the tube faster than the ambidextrous cats. Presumably if you practice constantly with one paw, you become more skillful than if you squander your playing time on two.

Now if only we can stamp out this righty fixation humans have. My feeling is, if it's good enough for cats, parrots, and Cecil, it ought to be good enough for you.

I have some leg problems and some workmen in my building told me to give my creaking joints a squirt of WD-40. He said they all swore by it and that it had been written up in a medical journal but he was unable to be more specific. Is there any basis to this? --Jeanne B., Chicago

What do these guys figure you are, the Tin Woodsman? WD-40, a petroleum distillate, is for mechanical joints, not human ones. The WD-40 folks say that while they've heard of this folk remedy (it was on the cover of a supermarket tabloid a couple years ago next to a story about the Human Bigfoot from Outer Space), they've done no studies on it and "we do not recommend it." An arthritis specialist was equally unencouraging. When we broached this subject on a radio talk show recently (hey, anything for a laugh) we did turn up one guy who'd tried it and said it helped. But he freely admitted he might have been imagining things.

Got an earful about some other home remedies, too:

Putting cayenne (hot) pepper in your boots will keep your feet warm. There may actually be something to this, because a mild local irritant like pepper (or Ben-Gay, for that matter) will bring warmth to the skin surface. Interestingly, there's a cream on the market called Zostrix containing capsaicin, the active ingredient of pepper, which in addition to being an irritant apparently inhibits a neurotransmitter that conveys pain. Zostrix is used for shingles and arthritis, so perhaps you should heave that WD-40 and sprinkle hot pepper on your extremities instead. Maybe a little A-1 sauce, too. It might not cure what ails you but you'll leave a mighty tasty corpse.

Touching your earlobe with a burned finger will ease the pain and prevent blisters. I get this from Bonnie, who says a heating repair guy she told about it laughed at first but now swears by it. Bonnie also reports that a friend burned her palm on a hot plate. Figuring this was too much dermal acreage for the ear lobe trick, the friend applied said palm to her stomach. Same miraculous results. Hey, if people believe in psychoanalysis, why not this?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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