A little dog named Callie has been much on my mind. She was one of the hundreds of pets saved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a sweet-natured mixed breed whose foster family fell for her so hard, they were ready to become her forever home.
That never happened, because Callie died.
What killed her wasn't anything related to the hurricane. She didn't die in an accident nor from a communicable disease. She died pointlessly, needlessly -- killed by a disease that's easily prevented. She died because the people who once owned her didn't spend a few extra dollars a month on her care.
Callie died weeks after the hurricane, from the complications of treatment for heartworm disease. A single dose of medication every month would have prevented her death by keeping her free of the parasites.
She will not be the only such casualty. Rescue groups estimate that some 80 percent of dogs taken from the disaster zone are infested with heartworms.
A criminal level of neglect, I'd say, except ... well, it isn't criminal at all. The laws spelling out the humane treatment of pets set the bar very low, mandating little more than the most basic of sustenance and shelter. The only preventive care required is a rabies shot -- and that's more for the protection of people than animals.
Is the problem a lack of knowledge or a lack of money? Anyone who takes an animal to a veterinarian, especially in the heartworm-infested South, will get a rundown on heartworm disease, how dangerous it is and how to prevent it. To me, that suggests the problem in many cases is money, either to go to a veterinarian in the first place or to purchase the monthly heartworm preventive medicine.
Pets are not cheap to care for. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the total cost for basic care of a small dog was almost $12,000 over 15 years; larger dogs run $23,000 for their average of 12 years.
It's easy to say that if you cannot afford to care for a pet properly you should not have one, but that's a little too glib. In the more than 25 years I've been writing about animals, I have seen the difference they have made in the lives of people who really cannot afford to keep them. For isolated seniors on fixed incomes, the companionship of a pet is a godsend, and so is the nonjudgmental love that an animal gives to a child who has little else.
Still, I cannot believe that all of those heartworm-infested dogs pulled out of the disaster area belonged to people so impoverished they could not afford preventive care for their pets. Many of these people simply made other choices.
Which brings me back to little Callie.
If, like Callie, your dog isn't on heartworm preventive, get your priorities straight when it comes to this deadly disease. Have your dog checked by your veterinarian to make sure heartworms aren't already in place, and if they're not, put your dog on heartworm preventive.
Callie died on the verge of a new life with people who truly cared about her. She died because other people did not care about her enough. If out of the sadness of her death, and the deaths of others like her, people will finally get smart about heartworm disease, then maybe something good will come from her loss.
If you love your dog, protect him. It's really small price to pay for the companionship of a pet.
Heartworms easily preventable
Pets become infested with heartworm when bitten by a mosquito carrying immature parasites picked up from another animal. Once in the bloodstream, the parasites migrate to the heart and mature into worms that can cause heart failure. Dogs are most susceptible, but cats and ferrets can also be infested.
A pet with heartworms can be treated, but the cure is difficult, expensive and sometimes fatal. This is one case where prevention is much, much better than the cure, which is why heartworm prevention is so important. The American Heartworm Society estimates that 27 million dogs are not on preventive medicine -- leaving them at risk for this deadly disease, which is present in all states except Alaska.
For more information, visit the AHS (www.heartwormsociety.org) or the heartworm information section on www.veterinarypartner.com (search for "heartworm" from the homepage).
Choosing between flying, driving
Q: I'm planning a trip from Indiana to Florida this spring to visit family, and I'm planning to take my dog. I'd prefer to fly, but I will drive if I decide flying is too dangerous for my pet. What's your opinion? -- S.P., via e-mail
A: You didn't say what size your dog is, but if your pet is small enough to fit in a carry-on pet bag, you should have few worries about flying. Your pet will never be separated from you, and he will likely spend the flight sleeping in the carrier.
If the carry-on option isn't available, your pet will have to fly in the baggage compartment. That means you'll have to determine your own comfort level when it comes to the flying vs. driving question. Consider, though, that driving is not without risk either.
I have put pets on airlines for trips across the country and halfway around the world, and have fortunately never had a bad experience. At least in the United States, the overwhelming majority of pets fly without a hitch, but of course the statistics won't console you if your pet is one of the unlucky ones. If you decide to fly with your pet, here are some things to do to help minimize the risk:
-- Talk to the airline well in advance. Some carriers, especially the no-frills companies, don't take animals at all. Even those that do may have limits on the number of animals on a flight. You also need to know where and when your pet has to be presented, and what papers -- health certificate and so on -- you need to bring.
-- Be sure your pet is in good health. Air travel isn't recommended for elderly or ill animals, and is likewise ill-advised for the short-nosed dogs or cats. These animals find breathing a little difficult under the best of circumstances, and the stress of airline travel may be more than they can handle.
-- Choose a carrier designed for air travel. If your pet will travel in the baggage compartment, the crate should be just big enough for your pet to stand up and turn around in. Check and double-check that all the bolts securing the halves of the carrier are in place and tightened.
While your pet cannot wear a collar in his crate -- it's not safe because it can get hung up -- put an ID tag on a piece of elastic around his neck. Be sure the crate has contact phone numbers for both ends of the journey prominently displayed.
-- Consider travel conditions. Don't ship your pet when air traffic is heaviest. Choose flights that are on the ground when the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, not only at the departing airport but also at the connecting and arriving airports. If you're flying into or out of traditionally hot locales during the summer, you may not be able to ship at all because airlines often put embargoes on pet travel.
-- Choose a direct flight. If that's not possible, try for a route with a short layover. If you can get a direct flight out of another airport, choose that flight, even if the airport isn't the most convenient to you. Most animal fatalities occur on the ground.
Contrary to popular belief, it's generally better that your pet not be tranquilized before flying. The combination of high altitude and limited oxygen is a challenge that your pet's body is better prepared to meet if he's not sedated. Still, your pet may be an exception. Talk to your veterinarian about this issue.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Strategies help with allergies
It hasn't been very long since the first and often only advice allergists offered to people sneezing around their pets was: Get rid of the animal.
These days, the strength of the human-animal bond and the desire of people to share their lives with pets is well-established. And although perhaps many allergists, if not most, would still say a home without pets might be best, they're likely to be more understanding of people who refuse to dump a family pet at the first sign of a sneeze or wheeze.
Still, there's no denying that allergies can make a person miserable, which is why I'm surprised I've never before seen a book like Shirlee Kalstone's "Allergic to Pets? The Breakthrough Guide to Living With the Animals You Love" (Bantam Books, $8). A book like this is long overdue.
Kalstone sets the record straight on what causes allergies, and how an allergy sufferer can best cope with living around animals. She offers general suggestions, and then specific ones having to do with each kind of pet, from dogs and cats to birds, rabbits and even horses. The slender guide is amazingly thorough -- a worthwhile investment for anyone who loves pets and hates allergies.
Salt-free de-icer protects pet paws
Salt and other ingredients in traditional ice-melting products can cause problems for pets who come in contact with these solutions. Veterinarians say salt-based de-icers can cause severe dermatitis, inflammation of the paws and serious gastrointestinal problems, including vomiting and internal burns of the mouth and digestive tract. Dogs are especially vulnerable to such contact and the potential health problems that result.
Safe Paw (www.safepaw.com), a no-salt alternative to traditional ice-melting products, is said by its manufacturer to be safe for use around pets. The product is available in home- and pet-supply stores, and comes in an 8-pound size that retails for between $13 and $15. A 5-gallon pail is also available.
Because you can't count on your neighbors to use pet-safe products, it's always a good idea to wash and wipe off your dog's feet after winter walks.
House-training requires consistent approach
Successful house-training requires setting up a potty schedule and limiting your puppy's roaming options to areas you can supervise by using a crate and baby gates.
You must take your pet outside to the area you've chosen for his relief, and praise him for doing the right thing in the right place. Don't punish your pet, and above all, don't shove his nose in the mess.
Here are a few additional house-training tips:
-- Understand your pet's physical limitations. Puppies have little storage capability and need to be taken out frequently. Rule of thumb: A puppy can "hold it" for as long in hours as his age in months.
-- Understand how a puppy works. Young dogs need to relieve themselves after they wake up, after they eat or drink, and after playing. Make sure to take your puppy out after each of these events. Do not offer food and water on demand. Instead, offer them at regular intervals to help you predict when your pet will need a trip outside.
-- Clean up mistakes promptly and thoroughly. What you can't see, a pet can still smell, and smells invite repeat business. Keep commercial products on hand that use enzyme action to break down the smell.
-- Limit your puppy's territory. Keep your puppy where can supervise him. That way, if you see him start to make a mistake, you can whisk him outside and praise him for finishing the job where you want him to.
-- Be patient! Some puppies catch on right away, while others take more time. If you're persistent, consistent and fair, your puppy will soon understand the household rules.
-- If you just don't seem to get anywhere after a few weeks, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist who can help you get your puppy on track.
BY THE NUMBERS
'Max' top pet name
According to an analysis of its 360,000 policy holders, Veterinary Pet Insurance Co./DVM Insurance Agency (www.petinsurance.com) says "Max" is the top pet name for the third year in a row. The top 10 names for dogs and for cats:
Hand-washing a must with pet reptiles
Households with young children or immune-compromised family members should not keep reptile and amphibian pets because of the danger of salmonella.
For others, the risk can be minimized with commonsense precautions. Do not allow these pets into food-preparation areas. After handling these reptiles, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water. If hand-washing immediately is not possible -- such as at a reptile show -- carry and use a disinfectant hand solution.
When cleaning reptile enclosures, use rubber gloves and goggles, and be sure any wound on your body is covered. Don't clean reptile housing, bowls or toys in food-preparation areas. Bathtubs or shower stalls must be disinfected afterward if used to clean reptile gear.
A veterinarian with experience in the care of reptiles and amphibians can provide additional guidance on safe handling.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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