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

FRESH STARTS

Are your pets on your list of New Year's resolutions? They should be, along with plans for making the world a little bit better not only for your animals, but also for others in need.

Although problems can seem overwhelming, especially when it comes to animal cruelty or homeless pets, the fact is that every little bit helps. After all, if every one of us animal lovers did one small thing a couple of times a year, the total effort would be grand indeed.

Here are a few suggestions for helping animals in the months to come:

-- Take better care of your own animals. Studies show that, just like many of us, a lot of animals desperately need to lose weight and exercise more. Remember: Food is not love, and lay off the treats.

You and your pet will both do better with a walk or some otherwise active playtime together. Don't neglect other aspects of preventive health care. Use your pet's regular exams to go over those areas that need improving. In addition to weight loss and exercise, your veterinarian should evaluate your pet's vaccination schedule, dental health and parasite-control strategies. Preventive health care saves money, makes your pet more comfortable and helps extend life span. Make that veterinary appointment today!

Part of taking better care of your own pet is making sure your animals are "good citizens" to your neighbors. Don't let your cats roam or your dogs bark constantly. In addition to being inconsiderate, people who allow their animals to be a nuisance give ammunition to communities looking to pass laws against pets.

-- Help others take better care of their pets. If you have a friend, neighbor or relative who is having difficulty caring for a pet because of advanced age or illness, offer to help out. Pets are extremely important to those who are cut off from social activities. Helping people keep their pets is a kindness to both pet and pet owner.

What can you do? Pick up food or litter, or offer to take the pet to the veterinarian when needed. Many times, people who rely on others for assistance are reluctant to ask for more help on account of a pet. So ask if you can help. After all, if you're already going to the pet-supply store or veterinarian, is it really that much trouble to pick up some extra supplies or stay for an additional appointment?

-- Make a call for animals. Animal cruelty should not be tolerated, not only for the animals but also because of the proven link between animal cruelty and crimes against people. Too often, though, animal cruelty is shrugged off by the judicial system as a lesser crime.

Don't accept the attitude that animal cruelty is a normal part of adolescence. Call, e-mail and write to prosecutors and judges in animal cruelty cases. Demand that young adults get the help they need to break the cycle of cruelty and that adult offenders are punished to the fullest extent of the law. Public opinion counts in these cases!

-- Pay to spay. Don't place an animal in a new home unless you've made sure the pet won't reproduce. You may think you're doing a good deed in finding a home for a pet you cannot keep, or for a litter of kittens born in your garage to a semi-wild mother cat. But if you don't pay to spay, you really aren't helping.

Instead of placing a pet for free, spay or neuter the animal and then charge an adoption fee to cover the cost of the procedure. You'll save the adopter time and will ensure that the pet you place won't add to the overpopulation problem.

-- Help a shelter or rescue group. Volunteers are always needed to help with the animals in the shelter or to foster pets who need a home environment. But if you don't want to contribute on a regular basis, then see if you can help on a short-term project.

Many groups have fund-raisers throughout the year. They need volunteers to help with ticket sales, setup, concessions and cleanup. You can also help by finding out what your local shelter or rescue groups need in the way of services or supplies and then calling to ask for donations.

Shelters are in constant need of pet food, litter, old newspapers and towels, as well as office and janitorial supplies and building materials. Get a wish list from your shelter and get to work!

Q&A

Safe carriers for cats, too

Q: I read your column with the advice about putting dogs in crates when traveling, and I'm wondering: Why didn't you mention anything about cats?

Cats and kittens also need to go in crates, especially if they have to be transported by car. Otherwise, they'll seek a safe spot and may end up lodged under a seat or somewhere in the wiring under the dashboard -- and they might lacerate someone with their claws on the way there.

Lots of people I know say their cats hate getting into crates. Of course they do if the only time the crate comes out is when the cat has to go to the vet!

We've overcome that little problem for our cats by keeping the crates in a corner of the living room, with a towel or soft piece of fleece inside. The crates are a favorite napping spot for all three of our cats. When it's time to go to the vet, instead of the crate being that "awful thing" they have to get into when they go to that "awful place," the crate is a piece of home that goes with them. It gives them a familiar, safe place to hide. I usually cover the crate with a towel when we're at the vet so the cats feel more hidden and secure. -- K.B., via e-mail

A: That particular piece was about holiday travel with dogs, but you can bet I've written plenty about how important crates are for all pets. That includes not only cats, but also birds, reptiles, rabbits, ferrets and more. Having a secure way to take a pet out of the house is always important, but never more so than during a time of emergency.

Your tips are wonderful, by the way, and will help many cats be more relaxed in their crates no matter the circumstances.

No outside dogs

Q: I wholeheartedly agree with your stand against "outside dogs" and hope that people take your advice not to get a dog if it is not going to be part of the family. How sad it is to think of all the lonely dogs outside alone year after year, especially in the coldest parts of the country. What's the matter with people, anyway?

Could you mention one more reason not to abandon a dog to the outdoors? In addition to all the points you made, these dogs are probably denied prompt and proper medical care because their owners do not notice their ailments. -- K.H., via e-mail

A: Happily for the dogs of the world, there are lots of pet owners who agree that dogs are not happy living their lives completely alone outside. Their numbers are bolstered by people who agree for a different reason -- they live near outdoor dogs, and have to listen to the barking of these neglected pets day and night.

Humane societies, behaviorists and other experts have long agreed that making a dog part of the family makes them not only happier, but also less likely to be a nuisance or a danger. This is especially true if the dog is maintained outside on a chain.

And yes, I've neglected in the past to mention your point that dogs who live completely outdoor lives may not get the attention they need when it comes to medical care. That's because it can be difficult to spot the sometimes subtle early signs of serious illness in an animal who isn't living underfoot.

CHANGES COMING TO THE PET PAGE

Starting with next week's issue, you'll see some changes to Pet Connection.

Becker is also the host of "The Pet Doctor With Marty Becker," which has been airing on PBS stations around the country since early December. In association with the American Animal Hospital Association, Becker hosts a nationally syndicated radio program, "Top Vets Talk Pets," on the Health Radio Network. He has appeared on Animal Planet and is a frequent guest on national network and cable television, and on radio shows. He has also been interviewed for countless magazine and newspaper articles.

He is an adjunct professor at both his alma mater, the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Additionally, Becker has lectured at every veterinary school in the United States, and has been named Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year by the Delta Society and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Becker is co-author of the fastest-selling pet book in history, "Chicken Soup for the Pet-Lover's Soul," and is either sole author or co-author of other top-selling books, including other animal books in the Chicken Soup line. With Gina Spadafori, he is co-author of "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and the New York Times best-seller, "Why Do Dogs Drink Out of the Toilet?"

Pet Connection is also gaining the contributions of other pet-care experts. Behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp of AnimalBehavior.net are writing "On Good Behavior," a series of tips to make living with a pet easier. In addition, Christie Keith will be contributing to the Pet Connection on a regular basis. Keith is a longtime pet-care writer with a special interest in health and nutrition.

All members of the team will contribute to the frequently updated Pet Connection Web log. Information on all Pet Connection contributors, the Web log, column archives, popular "dogmobile" reviews and more are all available at PetConnection.com.

DOGMOBILES

Newest Jeep offers dog-friendly value

When did DaimlerChrysler become such an innovative, value-oriented car company?

First, the Stow 'N Go seats on the Dodge and Chrysler minivans knocked my socks off, enabling very comfortable vehicles to go from hauling a soccer team to hauling a team of sled dogs in about the five minutes it takes to fold all the seats into the floor.

Then I get the Jeep Compass Limited 4-by-4, the new "cute ute" from the venerable line of rugged off-roaders. This one's a great dogmobile at fantastic price -- starting below $16,000 for the two-wheel-drive version, with the four-wheel-drive vehicle I test-drove optioned out for a tick under $25,000.

What's to like? Just about everything:

-- The back seats fold flat easily.

-- The cargo area has rubber matting instead of carpet, making cleanup after dirty paws easy.

-- Fuel economy is a 23 mpg city/26 mpg highway (and up to 30 mpg for the two-wheel drive model).

-- Good cargo space for a little SUV.

-- Well-placed cargo anchor hooks.

-- Good ground clearance and easy changeover to the four-wheel drive, both of which you'd expect in a Jeep, after all. This vehicle would have no problem with the fields where I'm often training my dogs.

The only dog-related complaint? The cupholders are down low between the front seats, easy for a dog to put a foot in (or a tongue, in the case of my youngest retriever, McKenzie, who loves coffee with cream.)

Aside from the doggie aspects, this little SUV is fun to drive and very responsive. Pretty darn cute, too.

The Jeep Compass would be a great dogmobile at a higher price. As it is, it's one of the best value-oriented dogmobiles I've driven.

ON GOOD BEHAVIOR

Dogs need to play

Puppies learn from play to be friendly and relaxed about the world around them. And playtime is a wonderful way to help develop a rich and rewarding relationship with your dog.

Initiate play with your dog by imitating a canine "play bow," front down, rear up and slapping the floor with your hands. Feel the day's tension melt away as you wiggle and giggle, and watch your dog light up in response.

Lead gentle play by example. Make sure canine teeth grab toys -- not flesh -- during play. Use treats and new vocabulary to create new games and keep all play lighthearted, fun and interesting. Vary play, and stop play sessions before your pet shows signs of losing interest.

(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Roland Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)

PETS ON THE WEB

Is raw food good for dogs?

While home-prepared dog diets will never give commercial manufacturers much competition, there's no doubt that the trend toward "species appropriate" food for dogs has been growing for years.

One such diet is called BARF, which stands for Bones and Raw Flesh, or Biologically Appropriate Raw Food. The diet is controversial and hotly debated, with passionate people on both sides. Is raw food a good way to feed your dog, or a serious health risk for dogs and people?

The BARF for Beginners Web site (www.njboxers.com/faqs.htm) won't settle the dispute, but it does offer a great deal of information on the diet, the theories behind it and the balancing act involved in preparing meals. Other fresh-food advocates are less dogmatic (if you will), promoting home-prepared diets of human-grade meats that are not necessarily raw.

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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