The e-mails came within minutes of each other, and I was stunned by how perfectly matched they were. One was cause; the other, effect.
Both wrote about golden retrievers: one, the retriever he hoped to buy; the other, the dog she'd just lost.
"I promised the kids a dog, and we've decided to get a golden," wrote the first. "I was referred by a co-worker to a breeder who had a waiting list of six months. Yes, she seems to know what she's doing. She certifies the parents as having good hips, and she offers health guarantees. The father of the litter she's planning is a champion, and both father and mother have obedience and agility titles. But we don't want to wait that long! We found someone with a litter -- no papers, but purebred. They're ready to go now. We want a pet, not a show dog. Is there any real reason we shouldn't get a puppy from the people who have them now?"
The second person had bought a pup a year ago from a breeder such as the one that the first letter-writer is considering -- a backyard breeder, they're called. The result of the breeding of two pet goldens, neither of which had health clearances, was that the puppy developed hip dysplasia and was soon in near-constant pain from the malformed joints. Finally, the owner had to make the decision to end the young dog's life to spare him the pain. With three small children and tight budget, she couldn't afford the thousands of dollars for the surgery that might have helped the dog. "We are devastated," she wrote. "We now know we should never have bought a puppy from a breeder like this. Please, can you warn others?"
Some days that's all I seem to do, and it doesn't help much. I get dozens of e-mails and letters every week from people who made a big mistake when getting a puppy, and they leave me as perplexed as they do saddened. They've bought puppies carrying the time bomb of genetic disease, or puppies destined for temperament problems because of poor breeding and a lack of proper socialization. In goldens alone, careless or clueless breeders have produced dogs with hip disease, blindness, heart defects, thyroid disease and cancer, as well as hyperactivity and aggression. And goldens aren't alone. Every breed has its own problems that dedicated fanciers are working to eliminate.
How can it be that people still don't know the higher potential for problems when you buy a purebred puppy any other way than directly from a reputable breeder? How can intelligent people who spend hours researching a VCR or vacuum cleaner buy a purebred puppy on a whim? Why do so many people spend more time reading the label on a frozen dinner than they do researching the purchase of an animal who will be a family member for years?
I don't have the answers to these questions. But it's easy to find the answers to the questions you (BEGIN ITALICS)should(END ITALICS) be asking if you're considering a purebred puppy. The best writing on finding a good breeder I've ever seen is in Michele Lowell's book "Your Purebred Puppy: A Buyer's Guide" (Holt, $14). But there is a lot more information out there, as close as the Internet or your local library.
When you do make the right decision about where you buy your puppy, you're helping to end the problems caused by bad breeding. When there are no buyers for purebreds with problems, there'll be no sellers of them. No backyard breeders. No puppy mills. And that will make a big difference, not just to the future of purebred dogs, but also to rescue groups and shelters who'll eventually have to deal with so many unhealthy and unstable purebred dogs. Finally, it will spare a great many families the heartbreak of dealing with a sick dog.
If you must have a purebred puppy -- and no one says the dog you get has to be either purebred or a puppy, I hasten to note -- don't buy from anyone but a reputable breeder. Ask about health clearances. Ask about guarantees. Ask about socialization.
If you don't get the right answers, ask where to find the door out. You want to be dealing with someone else, let me assure you.
PETS ON THE WEB
The American Kennel Club's site (www.akc.org) is a good place to start finding out about how to buy a puppy. The AKC itself reminds people that getting a dog is a buyer-beware proposition, and that AKC papers alone are no guarantee of quality. Follow the links to the national club Web sites for the breed you're considering, as well. Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue has an excellent checklist for evaluating a breeder on its Web site (www.dvgrr.org/puppy.html). After you read that checklist, go back to the home page and find out more about rescue: The right dog for you may be one who's looking for a second chance.
Although the beaks of parrots are constantly growing at a rate of 1 to 3 inches per year, depending on the species, a healthy pet does not need to have his beak trimmed. Your bird should keep his beak at the proper length through his normal chewing activities. Contrary to what some bird books still preach, don't accept "beak trims" as a routine health-care measure -- they're not. Overgrowth of the beak is frequently a sign of illness. If you have any concerns about your bird's beak, check in with a veterinarian who specializes in bird care.
Q: Our dog, Webster, has three tags attached to his collar -- name tag, license and vet insurance tag. They are all attached to one hook and then to his buckle collar ring. They are always falling off! We find them in the yard, or the neighbors return them from down the street (they fall off during walks, I guess). How can we keep these tags on securely? -- D.T., via e-mail
A: I've always found the "S" hooks that come with most tags to be completely useless. They're a pain to close properly, always seem to be working themselves open, and catch too easily on whatever a dog brushes up against. And once they're a little open, the tags are gone, as you've noticed.
Get to a hardware store and buy a stainless-steel, split key ring, the kind you have to pry apart to work the keys onto. My local store has a whole rack of them, in sizes ranging from 1/4 inch to 5 inches in diameter. I get the 3/8-inch or 1/2-inch size. These are sturdy and offer nothing to hang up your dog.
Tags are important, but I also believe in permanent identification for pets -- an inner-thigh tattoo, a microchip inserted in the loose skin over the shoulders, or both. Tags can fall off, and collars can slip off (or be removed, if your dog is stolen). But tattoos and microchips offer your pet protection that can't be tampered with. It's well worth considering. Most veterinarians offer microchips, or you can keep your eye out for a clinic. Tattoo clinics are often held in conjunction with dog shows or other canine competitions.
Q: We've adopted a young cat who has been hanging around our house begging for handouts. She's friendly and gets along with the cat we already have, but she has problems with earwax. We cleaned out her ears with cotton swabs, but it didn't help for long. What should we do? -- S.V., via e-mail
A: Take her to a veterinarian. She probably has ear mites -- tiny pests that feed on the lining of the ear canals. A veterinarian will be able to make a correct diagnosis of whatever the problem is and prescribe the appropriate treatment.
One thing to know about these pests: They're hard to eradicate. Be sure to follow medication directions precisely and to continue applications even if the problem appears to go away. If you don't, you'll be almost guaranteeing a reinfestation. Ear mites are very contagious, so be alert for signs of the pests in your other cat's ears as well.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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