Pet Connection

Puppies Make Poor Christmas Gifts

I am no fan of Christmas, to the bemusement of my friends and family, who consider my attitude some strange personality quirk. I neither give gifts nor accept them -- aside from an exception I make for my young niece and nephew. And I do my best to avoid malls and other places where the trappings of Christmas are on display from Halloween on.

Christmas is too much stress, too much hustle, too much spending, and I prefer to avoid the January hangover by not imbibing in the season at all. Now that you know how I feel about Christmas, you can imagine how I feel about the idea of giving children a puppy for Christmas. I simply cannot recommend it, and in this aspect of "bah humbug" I am not alone.

Despite the warnings from experts, every year parents give in to the begging of their children and pop for a Christmas puppy. The attraction is understandable: Who doesn't love a puppy, and who wouldn't want to delight a child? But there are reasons why shelters, rescue groups and responsible breeders are uniform in their advice to think twice about a Christmas puppy.

Puppies are not toys. They are living, breathing (not to mention eating and urinating) beings who need a lot of attention. Who has time for a pup during the holidays? With a houseful of guests and a holiday dinner to prepare, who will make sure the puppy isn't being mauled by overly enthusiastic children and guests? Who has time to get his house-training started right?

Let's back up a little and look at another Christmas reality. Many reputable breeders and shelters flat-out won't cooperate with holiday puppy dreams. The sellers who have puppies for Christmas delivery are often motivated by money. Such breeders are less likely to cut into profits with pesky screening for genetic diseases and are less likely to know or care about the importance of early socialization. These attitudes may cost you in the long run, both in dollars and heartbreak.

But say you find the right puppy anyway. It's still a bad time to get a puppy. Try house-training a puppy when it's cold and stormy. Are you really so keen on the idea that you want to be out on winter nights, shivering while a puppy carefully contemplates whether he'd rather sniff or pee?

What about the rest of the training? The first few months of a dog's life are crucial. Bad habits are far easier to prevent than they are to break later. Will you really feel like training your pup when the holidays are over, the days are short and the kids are back in school? And how will you socialize your young dog?

Dogs who grow up unmannered, unsocialized and without house-training often never get a chance to grow up much at all. In the months after Christmas, I get many letters from people who are tearing out their hair over their now-adolescent Christmas puppy. Some people work with the dogs, but many just dump them. You want to find a Christmas puppy? Just check with shelters and rescue groups this summer and fall. You'll find plenty of them, half-grown and waiting for the second chance many will never get.

Dogs can be great for children, and children can be great with dogs. But Christmas is not the best time to launch such a promising relationship. Somebody has to be the grown-up here, and if you're the parent, it should be you. Wait until late spring or early summer to find the perfect pup (or an adult dog, which is a better match for many families), so you can get your new pet off to a great start.

PETS ON THE WEB

"Iguanas for Dummies" author Melissa Kaplan says these

pets are "the No. 1 dumped reptile in the United States and, increasingly, around the world." Further, she notes, the ones who aren't dumped often wind up dead. The problem? Few looking for a "cool pet" are willing to meet the expensive and time-consuming care requirements of the commonly available green iguana. If you're thinking about getting one of these pets, the best thing to do is read, read, read to find out if you have what it takes to care for one. Kaplan's book is a great start, and so is her iguana information Web site (www.anapsid.org/iguana). The site contains hundred of useful articles about the care of these interesting pets.

THE SCOOP

The United Kingdom is finally opening the door to pets from the United States and Canada. Starting Dec. 11, dogs and cats with valid rabies vaccinations and permanent microchip identification will no longer face a six-month quarantine. This is great news for people whose jobs or personal lives require relocation to Britain, a move that previously meant either finding a home for pets before leaving or putting them in miserable confinement for months on arrival. The change is the result of a long campaign by some big-name pet lovers, including celebrity jet-setters such as actress and model Liz Hurley, who complained at not being able to take her pets with her when traveling.

Pet lovers can now hope that Hawaii, which still insists on 30- or 120-day quarantines, will follow the U.K.'s lead and let science, not fear, guide the laws in this area.

QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK

Q: My mother read one of your columns recently where you described some sort of device or product that was used to keep cats within a certain yard area. Unfortunately, not being a cat person, my mom can't seem to recall any details other than that. Does it ring a bell? I'm moving soon and am concerned about keeping my three cats near the house to avoid seemingly inevitable encounters with cars and other animals. -- A.R., via e-mail

A: Cat fencing works on the principle that cats can't stand unsteady material under their paws. Using loose netting with lots of "give" convinces cats that they're better leaving the fence alone and staying put. The main ingredient of cat fencing is 1-by-1-inch garden mesh, a polypropylene net product available at nurseries, hardware stores or by mail. On a low fence, such as a 4-foot chain-link, 7-foot poles are used to rig the net high enough to thwart any jumping. On 6-foot wooden privacy fences, flagpole-mounting hardware keeps the net screen at an angle, low and out of sight. Fishing line is used liberally between poles as the top "frame" for the netting.

The feral cat advocacy group Alley Cat Allies says cats will usually spend a couple of weeks trying to figure a way out before deciding there's no place like home. Although many cats can and do live healthy and happy lives indoors, if your pets are among those who won't give up the outdoors, cat fencing is certainly worthy of consideration. I'm for anything that keeps cats safe and neighbors happy. Remember, though, that the fencing likely won't deter any predators -- such as coyotes -- who consider a well-fed cat to be an easy meal.

Complete instructions, including sources for the netting and other materials, are on the Web at www.feralcat.com/fence.html.

Q: I would like to take my dog to dog parks, but she is aggressive to other dogs. Ginger can't even walk past the park without showing signs of aggression. If she sees another dog when we're walking she will bark and growl. All other times she is as docile as a lamb. What can we do so we can all go on walks and to the dog park without having a problem? -- E.L., via e-mail

A: A couple of months ago I got a letter and a photo from a reader whose dog had been ripped open in a dog park by a dog with known aggressive tendencies. The victim lived, but the incident was horrifying and expensive. (The people with the aggressive dog disappeared, never even offering to help with the veterinary bills.)

The picture was stomach-turning to view, a post-surgical snapshot of a dog who clearly was suffering, with more stitches than Frankenstein had needed to close numerous gaping wounds.

All of which is my not-so-subtle way of saying: If you know your dog is aggressive toward other dogs, you should not bring her into an off-leash dog park. By working with a trainer, you can gain some control over her while you're walking, and may even be able to take the edge off the worst signs of her aggression. But I do not believe she will ever be trustworthy enough to take a chance on her in a dog park. The risk of injury is just too high.

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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