Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

PICTURE OF GOOD HEALTH

Beauty is more than skin-deep when it comes to your dog. Keeping your pet well-groomed not only gives you a clean-smelling companion, it also helps keep your dog more comfortable and allows you to spot health problems before they become serious, even life-threatening.

How important is grooming to your pet's comfort? Consider a simple mat, so easy to overlook. Have you ever had your hair in a ponytail that was just a little too tight? A mat can feel the same way to your dog, a constant pull on the skin. Try to imagine those all over your body, and you have a good idea how uncomfortable an ungroomed coat can be.

Your dog need never know what a mat feels like if you keep him brushed and combed -- but that's the start of the health benefits. Regular grooming allows you to look for lumps, bumps and injuries, while clearing such things as mats and ticks from his coat. Follow up with your veterinarian on any questionable masses you find, and you may detect cancer early enough to save your pet's life.

For shorthaired breeds, keeping skin and coat in good shape is easy. Run your hands over him daily, a brush over him weekly, and that's it.

For other breeds, grooming is a little more involved. Breeds such as collies, chows, Keeshonden and Alaskan malamutes are "double-coated," which means they have a downy undercoat underneath harsher long hair. The down can mat like a layer of felt against the skin if left untended. To prevent this, divide the coat into small sections and brush against the grain from the skin outward, working from head to tail, section by section. In the spring and fall -- the big shedding times -- you'll end up with enough of that fluffy undercoat to make a whole new dog. Keep brushing and think of the benefits: The fur you pull out with a brush won't end up on the furniture, and removing the old stuff keeps your pet cooler in the summer and lets new insulation come in for the winter.

Silky-coated dogs such as Afghan hounds, cockers and Maltese also need constant brushing to keep tangles from forming. As with the double-coated dogs, work with small sections at a time, brushing from the skin outward, and then comb back into place with the grain for a glossy, finished look. Coats of this type require so much attention that having a groomer keep the dogs trimmed to a medium length is often more practical.

Curly and wiry coats, such those on poodles and terriers, need to be brushed weekly, working against the grain and then with it. Curly coats need to be clipped every six weeks; wiry ones, two or three times a year (but clipping every six weeks will keep your terrier looking sharper).

Good grooming is about more than keeping your pet looking beautiful and clean-smelling, although that's certainly one of the pleasant payoffs. Regular grooming relaxes the dog who's used to it, and it becomes a special time shared between you both. A coat free of mats, burrs and tangles and skin free of fleas and ticks are as comfortable to your dog as clean clothes fresh from the wash are to you. It just makes you feel good, and the effect is the same for your pet.

Some added benefit for you: Giving your dog a tummy rub after every session is sure to relax you (and your dog, of course) and ease the stress of your day. And for allergy sufferers, keeping a dog clean may make having a dog possible.

SIDEBAR

Dirty dog? Call a groomer!

As I get older, busier and arguably lazier, I rely on a professional groomer to keep my longhaired Sheltie in top form.

Fortunately, I live right across the street from one of the best groomers in town, a neighborhood amenity I happily discovered after I moved into the house. I keep up the regular brushing, and Judy picks up Drew for a bath, trim and de-shedding at monthly intervals. My shorter-coated retrievers I groom myself.

Going to a pro can get a home-grooming program back on track for any dog. If your dog's coat is overgrown and matted, start fresh by having a groomer take it down. Once the mess is removed, you'll have an easier time keeping your pet's coat in good shape.

Q&A

Unspayed dogs cause problems

Q: Too many people have unspayed female dogs, and they walk them where other dogs walk, never dreaming that anything is wrong with what they're doing. Every time a dog in heat urinates, the smell drives male dogs crazy, even the fixed ones. They stop and sniff much harder than usual, making you yell and tug at them to get them to move. Then they look at you with that withering "you spoiled my fun" look.

Please explain that when an unspayed female is in season, the scent is broadcast to all the male dogs within a mile radius. Their lives (and ours) would be so much easier without fertile females being "saved" to have one litter of puppies -- just to know what motherhood feels like! -- D.F., via e-mail

A: Of course, it's always a good idea to spay and neuter pets. In addition to helping to fight pet overpopulation, spaying and neutering have significant advantages to any pet and pet owner. In males, neutering reduces aggression, roaming and marking. In females, spaying protects them from serious cancer and infections. (Spaying before the first heat cycle virtually eliminates the risk of mammary cancer.) Spayed and neutered animals are easier to live with and less expensive, too, without veterinary costs for roaming- or aggression-related injuries and reproductive-related cancers and infections.

That said, I have a better cure for the problem you're experiencing: training. There's no reason why even an unneutered dog cannot be trained to mind, to walk without pulling on the leash and to come when called. The world is full of temptations, and one way to control them is through training.

One of my four dogs is a young, unneutered male retriever. I'd much rather have all my pets neutered, but since this fellow is a show dog, that's out for the foreseeable future. I don't have any behavior problems with him, however, not even if the beguiling scent of a female in heat wafts through the neighborhood. My fences are secure, my dog is not allowed to roam, and when on leash, he knows not to pull me.

Instead of complaining about what you cannot control, get control of what you can -- your own dog. Any trainer will be happy to help.

Jump on agility

Q: I have a 17-month-old springer spaniel mix who is driven to please. He will climb and jump and do everything I ask him to. I wanted to put him in a canine agility class, but I can't find any in my area. Also, I know it's called the AKC agility competition. Does he have to be purebred to compete? -- R.D., via e-mail

A: Agility is a wonderful sport, as its growing popularity testifies. At the top levels, dogs compete over obstacle courses to see who can go fastest and run cleanest -- not going off course or knocking down jumps.

While the elite teams at the top of the sport -- which mostly include border collies -- can give the impression that the sport is only for the fittest and fastest, any dog is welcome to train and compete. Agility can build confidence in dogs, strengthen the bond between owner and dog, and provide a good source of exercise for all.

The American Kennel Club's agility competitions are just for purebreds, but there are also places for you and your dog. The U.S. Dog Agility Association welcomes all dogs. The group lists agility clubs and events on its site (www.usdaa.com) to help interested dog lovers connect. And the Dog Patch (www.dogpatch.org) and Clean Run (www.cleanrun.com) sites also have lots of information on agility.

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

PET BUY

Giving old pet a helping hand

When big dogs age, they often find it difficult to get up on their feet and manage everyday challenges such as stairs. Even young dogs can have temporary problems with mobility, such as after recovering from surgery. While a large bath towel slipped under a dog's middle can help in a pinch, well-fitting aids with handles for easy use are a good investment when it comes to giving an old dog a lift on a regular basis.

The Pet Zone Lift-n-Aid harness is one of several products on the market designed to help old dogs get around easier. The washable nylon device has adjustable straps and a sturdy handle, and is easy to put on and take off after a practice run or two.

The medium aid is designed for dogs 55 to 80 pounds, and the large is for pets up to 125 pounds. Both have a suggested retail of $28 and are available through pet-supply outlets.

THE SCOOP

Why do cats go for cat haters?

Why, in a room full of people, will a cat invariably make a beeline for the one person in the room who hates or is allergic to cats?

Cats don't like eye contact from strangers -- they find it intimidating. When a friendly cat wanders into a room, he'll notice that all the people who like cats are looking at him. So he heads for the one who he thinks is being polite -- the person who isn't looking at him. The cat doesn't realize that the person isn't looking because he doesn't want the cat near him. It's just a little bit of cross-species miscommunication.

That's one theory, anyway. Or maybe putting cat fur on the slacks of a cat hater really is the ultimate in feline fun.

PETS ON THE WEB

Common sense pet care prevents disease

If you think about all the diseases one can contract from animals -- from rabies to worms and more -- it's almost enough to make you want to go pet-free and wrap yourself up in plastic.

In fact, it's pretty mind-boggling how many diseases and parasites can be passed from pets to humans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control helpfully supplies a pretty scary list of them. The CDC's Healthy Pets, Healthy People Web site (www.cdc.gov/healthypets) offers an in-depth examination of these so-called "zoonotic" health risks, and it includes special advice for people at higher risk, including those with immune-system weaknesses and those whose jobs involve working with animals.

At the top of the list of concerns would likely be rabies, a deadly disease more common in wildlife than in pets, thanks to decades of aggressive vaccination laws. Other worries are bacterial, with pets capable of transmitting salmonella, leptospirosis and campylobacteriosis, to name a nasty trio. Diseases caused by parasites include tapeworm, hookworm, roundworm, Lyme disease and giardia. And there's even ringworm, which is really a fungus. Toxoplasmosis is a special concern for people sharing their lives with cats.

Pets are not the only source for many of these diseases -- in many cases, improper food handling is a bigger risk. You can reduce the chance of your animal or bird companion making you sick by keeping your pet free of disease and by making sure all family members wash hands frequently when around animals.

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Kids and pets

Some pets just seem to be a natural fit with children. In 2004, a study asked people with small pets what kind of pets they kept, and if the household included children (multiple answers allowed):

Home with children Home without children

Rabbit 40 percent 48 percent

Hamster 25 percent 41 percent

Guinea pig 22 percent 13 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PETS Rx

Quarantine, exam for new pet bird

Thinking of adding another bird to your flock? For the safety of the pet bird you already have, skip any introductions until your new bird has been examined by a veterinarian with experience in avian care.

Even a seemingly healthy bird needs to be quarantined for about six weeks before meeting any other feathered family members. As heartbreaking as it would be to lose a new pet to an infectious disease, having that illness passed on to established pets would be even worse.

After you get the OK from your veterinarian, maintain the birds in their own cages in the same room. Some may mingle eventually, but size and temperament differences may require separate cages for life for others.

(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.)

Award-winning writer Gina Spadafori has two new books out, which were co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker: "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet?" 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 petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.petconnection.com.

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