Pet Connection

Ruff It

SPRING AND FALL DOG CAMPS OFFER OFF-LEASH JOY TO MAN AND BEAST

While I like the great outdoors well enough in theory, I don't like mess-hall dining, community toilets and showers, or sleeping on cots. And yet, last fall, I signed up to go camping -- because of my dogs.

Our destination was a camp specifically planned for the happiness of dogs and those who love them. Despite my reluctance to go (I was talked into it by friends), I now look back on the experience as four of the happiest days of my life. Joyful dogs, relaxed people and lots of clear, pine-scented air in a drop-dead gorgeous lakeside setting, And while my cabin wasn't fancy, it was more than comfortable enough, and the food wasn't bad at all.

What did my dogs think of being off-leash with other friendly, well-socialized dogs? Of nonstop swimming in a crystal-clear alpine lake? Of massages, hikes, games and even crafts? You wouldn't have to know canine body language to have read the joy in their bouncy steps, or the nonstop doggy grins on their faces.

So what, exactly, is a "dog camp"? Nothing less than the perfect blend of dogs (and people) who don't get near enough exercise and campground owners grateful to get a little extra income at the beginning or the end of their normal summer season.

The first dog camp was Vermont's Camp Gone to the Dogs (camp-gone-tothe-dogs.com), founded a couple decades ago and still a popular destination for dog lovers from all over the country. The idea was quickly picked up by other entrepreneurs, including the folks behind Camp Unleashed, whose California camp was my home for a few days last fall. Camp Unleashed has three locations and is scouting for more, with established camps in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, in Asheville, N.C., and the new camp near Sequoia National Forest, in the mountains east of Fresno, Calif.

Dog camp activities can typically be as organized or as relaxed as you choose. There are classes taught by experts in everything from trick-training to agility to reliable recalls, short rambles for dogs who aren't all that fit (or people in the same category) or long, brisk hikes for those who can handle them.

For the more contemplative, there are plenty of benches near meadows or the lake for thinking or reading while enjoying the view. My dogs and I mixed classes with lake time, and I doubt my retrievers were ever fully dry the entire time.

Even my 14-year-old deaf Sheltie enjoyed just walking around off-leash, and he really enjoyed getting a massage, one of the few modestly priced options that weren't part of the all-inclusive cost (which varies by camp, but is typically less than a nice hotel per night) for meals, simple lodging (some camps offer upscale options for a higher fee) and a wide array of classes and activities.

The happiness I took away from Camp Unleashed lasted for weeks. Even now, months later, I can't think of those days without smiling. And while I am signed up for Camp Unleashed (campunleashed.com) again this fall, I'll also be looking at other operations to add more exposure to my newfound love of dog camps, such as Camp Winnaribbun (campw.com) at Lake Tahoe, Calif., and the new Yellowstone Dog Camp (yellowstonedogsports.com) in Red Lodge, Mont. (Other camps can be found advertised in magazines, such as The Bark.)

And yes, I do find my enthusiasm surprising. I guess now I've been bitten by the dog camp bug, I just can't wait to ruff it with my happy pack again.

Q&A

Even agile cats

can slip, fall

Q: My cat likes to sit on the balcony of my apartment. We're not that high up, and she has never shown any inclination to escape. Should I worry? -- via email

A: Yes, you should. Cats are so frequently injured in falls from windows and balconies that there's even a name for the problem: high-rise syndrome.

It's true that cats are equipped with the amazing ability to right themselves in midair if they fall, rotating their bodies from the head back like a coil to align themselves for a perfect four-paw landing. But what works for a supple, small animal falling from a tree branch doesn't cut it in the modern world, where a cat's more likely to fall from a window than a tree. And as soon as the weather warms and windows open to catch spring breezes, veterinarians start treating cats injured in falls.

"When cats evolved, there were no high-rise buildings. There were trees," says Dr. Louise Murray, director of medicine for the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. "Their instincts work against them now. They have a strong instinct to go after any moving object. When they fall ... a cat could grab the bark of a tree and save himself, but he can't grab concrete and metal with claws."

Even relatively low floors, such as yours, present grave risks. Cats are more likely to survive falls from higher stories -- and to be killed from falls as low as two stories. The riskiest falls, say veterinarians, are from stories two to six. Over six stories, the cat has time to rotate and ready for a four-point landing.

Cats have survived falls of up to 30 stories or more -- although they certainly haven't walked away from such falls uninjured. Broken bones, broken jaws or collapsed lungs are common in falls from higher stories, but these cats survive. The ones falling from lower floors, without time to get themselves relaxed into a proper landing position, often do not.

Many cat lovers assume their pets would be smart enough to be careful when up high enough for injuries, but it's just not within an animal's ability to make that kind of judgment call. Cats are comfortable in high places, and they cannot understand the difference in risk between a one-story fall and a six-story fall.

Screens can prevent some accidents, but they're not designed to prevent escape by a determined cat, so don't rely on them. Instead, keep windows closed to keep your cat out of danger. -- Gina Spadafori

Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.

THE BUZZ

No easy answers

to feather-picking

-- Feather-picking in pet birds is a symptom, not a disease. Any one or any combination of the following causes can be the problem when a bird starts picking himself bald:

-- Health problems. Medical conditions include allergies, parasitic infections, bacterial infections, abnormal growths in the feather follicle, internal health problems, vitamin deficiencies or hormone-associated issues.

-- Low humidity. Many pet bird species come from tropical environments. The dry air of most houses can be a factor in feather-picking and lead to secondary medical problems.

-- Boredom. Birds are active and intelligent, and they don't handle the strain of being forced to sit around in a cage all day very well. Without toys and without being able to get out of the cage and exercise, birds may direct all their energy toward self-mutilation.

-- Psychological problems. Obsessive-compulsive disorders or even a bad wing trim can trigger feather-picking.

-- Attention-seeking. Some birds learn that their owners pay attention to them when they're pulling on their feathers. So they pick for attention.

Veterinarians with experience in avian medicine will be able to diagnose any medical problems and help with behavioral ones. The sooner you take your bird for help, the better chance you have at seeing your pet full-feathered again.

-- Considering how much time your cat spends grooming, do you really even need to be involved in the process? Yes! Taking care of your cat's coat keeps her healthier, makes her easier to live with and strengthens the bond between you. Although many cats -- typically longhaired, older or obese -- must have some help with their grooming, any cat can benefit from human intervention.

-- Mikkel Becker and Dr. Marty Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and also the authors of many best-selling pet care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.

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