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

HOME FOR THE HOWLIDAYS

During the holiday season, people travel to be with family and friends. Despite all the best and warmest of intentions, the potential for friction is always there, and one area of possible conflict comes with a collar: the visiting dog.

While it's natural for a dog lover to want to bring a pet to a family gathering, it's not always a good idea. Before you consider bringing your dog home for the holidays, be realistic about how others might view your furry family member. For example:

-- Is your dog comfortable in new situations? Many pets aren't all that keen on being dropped into a houseful of strangers. If your pet's the nervous type, and especially if he's the snappy type, he's better left off the visitor's list.

-- Is your dog well-behaved? A dog who loves everyone is wonderful, but only if his loving exuberance is tempered with good manners. A dog who's going to bounce up to toddlers or jump on older folks who aren't steady on their feet shouldn't be given the opportunity to do either. And of course, any dog who isn't reliably house-trained has no business visiting someone else's home.

-- Is your dog clean? If you want to live with a smelly dog, that's your choice, but you shouldn't expect others to tolerate it. A bath before visiting is the minimum requirement. Even better: a professional grooming and a nail trim to reduce the possibility of any scratches.

Even if your dog is a model of clean-smelling decorum, he may still not be well-suited to a holiday visit. Are there friends or family members who are allergic to dogs, or afraid of them? Mild allergies may not be triggered if your dog is freshly bathed, but the holidays are no time to be dealing with the dog-phobic. Will you be visiting a house that already has pets? If the resident pets aren't welcoming or at least tolerant, your dog isn't a good addition to the mix.

If everything checks out, your dog is ready and your family or friends are welcoming, do everything you can to make the visit a pleasant one. Remember that people without dogs don't need to be as careful about keeping food out of reach, so watch for temptations, whether it's a candy dish on a coffee table or a holiday turkey just a little too close to the edge of the counter. Better still, crate your dog during family meals, especially if he's used to being fed from the table. Your relatives may not think food-stealing and begging are as cute as you do.

Feed your dog his meals away from the crowd -- in a crate is ideal (see sidebar) -- wash his dishes separately, and when you take him outside, don't neglect your cleanup responsibilities. A supply of plastic cleanup bags is necessary for when your pet is away from your own home.

If you keep on top of all the potential problems, your well-mannered dog may be the hit of the holidays. And that means you'll both be welcomed back again.

SIDEBAR

Crates are great for traveling, visiting

Not too many years ago, my dogs traveled loose in the car, and I thought nothing of it. And then, the most minor of fender-benders opened my eyes to the danger I was putting us all in.

One hard tap on the brakes and the small dog riding in the front seat slammed into the windshield. The big dog in the back seat thudded into the back of my seat with so much force I thought I was heading for the windshield, too. Neither the dogs nor I were damaged beyond a few bruises. But these days, my dogs travel secured, either in crates or harnessed to the seat belts.

Crates are the most versatile pet protection you can have. A sturdy crate and a dog trained to be comfortable inside one can travel safely in the car and be left alone for a while in a hotel room or strange house.

A dog who's used to being crated will be able to handle the relatively routine overnight stay at the veterinarian's with less stress for all. Finally, crates are also essential emergency gear in time of disaster. Because, well, you never know.

Q&A

Rabbits? Buy hay by bale

Q: Our household has been home to many pets over the years. At one point, we had a small flock of hens, a beehive and a fish pond outside. Inside were a dog, a cat, two bunnies, a guinea pig and a newt who lived to be 9 or 10.

The bunnies, Mr. Bun and Basil, had big cages with multiple levels and litter boxes for when they were inside. They each would get time every day to scamper in our very secure back yard. They would have their fun, and then come to the patio door and scratch to be let in, just like a cat or a dog. Mr. Bun would go out in the early morning to enjoy the garden, and then come bunny-leaping when I called to give him his breakfast.

I have a tip I hope you will pass on. Bunnies need timothy hay for digestive reasons, and they are supposed to have fresh hay every day. The hay in the pet stores is sold in a tiny bag and won't last long, while a bale of timothy hay from the feed store costs about the same and will last a whole summer. I used to peel off a flake at a time and give the bunnies all they wanted. -- J.D., via e-mail

A: I do exactly the same as you do, buying hay by the bale and providing my bunnies with all they want to eat every day. As you note, the roughage is essential to maintaining the health of the rabbits. I don't give my bunnies commercial pellets at all. Instead, I provide fresh hay and green leafy vegetables daily, with constant access to clean water and occasional treats of root vegetables and fruits. (Apples and carrots are favorites with my rabbits, Velocity and Annie.)

The biggest problem with buying hay by the bale is storage. If there's room on a covered patio or in the garage, the hay will keep for months, as long as it's protected from direct sunlight or moisture.

Your rabbits -- and mine -- are the truly lucky ones. The care of most pet rabbits is inadequate, because people just don't know enough about proper husbandry and because these lovely pets are often seen as little more than throwaway pets for children. And that's a real shame, because with proper care, room to roam and time to bond, rabbits can be surprisingly affectionate and wholly entertaining.

The best source of information on keeping happy, healthy rabbits can be found on the Web site of the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org). Membership in the society is $18 a year and comes with a wonderful quarterly newsletter.

PET BOOKS

Cat celebration in lovely verse

This time of year it seems we're all looking for little gift books. For the cat lovers on your holiday list, you'll find few books sweeter than "Catku: What Is the Sound of One Cat Napping?" (Andrews McMeel, $10). Writer and designer Pat Welch has a good sense of what makes a cat tick, and sums it all up in this collection of clever haiku. Some samples:

"Your friend's sudden moves

And loud voice are amusing.

We'll be dumping him."

"The cat's motto is

Live and let live. Exceptions

Are not infrequent."

"Am I in your way?

You seem to have it backward:

This pillow's taken."

Amazing how a cat's personality can be summed up in just three lines. Nice work!

PET BUY

Dress-up collars for fine canines

My Mascot (www.mymascot.net) is a small company with a passion for innovative design in well-made collars and leashes. The designs in canvas, braided polypropylene and leather feature bright colors and fastening hardware in the shape of bones and horseshoes. Collar prices range from a suggested retail of $28 to $68; leashes cost from $48 to $88. Clever charms and ID tags complement the line.

The company sent me a Sailors Knot collar in red, white and blue ($38). The weave was smooth, the colors were true, and the collar looked great on Woody, my 2-year-old black retriever. Although the collar seemed more than sturdy enough for everyday use, I wouldn't leave a pretty, pricey collar on dogs with as much fondness for swimming and mud as my retrievers have.

It's great-looking gear for city dogs, or as special-occasion wear for those pets with more opportunities to get their collars dirty.

DOGMOBILES

Toyota off-roader can handle it all

Finally, a true dogmobile challenge -- 14 hours of driving over a holiday weekend with light off-roading at the destination. Packed up inside: two retrievers, plus crates, leashes, training tools, dishes, food, water jugs and more.

The new Toyota FJ Cruiser was up for it all, delivering a comfortable freeway ride and an effortless off-road performance at the site of a competition for hunting dogs. Fuel economy was reasonable as well, with a rating of 17 city, 21 highway, although the growly V-6 insists on premium fuel. At the end of the trip, the upholstery was easy to brush clean of dirt and debris.

The Cruiser even had one of my favorite dog-friendly features: flip-up rear glass that allows for cool-breeze cross-flow when the vehicle is parked.

But no vehicle is absolutely dog-perfect, and the Cruiser is no exception.

The rear seats don't fold flat, and the cargo space was too narrow for my side-by-side dog crates. Those problems won't be an issue for someone with dogs smaller than retrievers or fewer than two in number.

The most serious drawback to the FJ is thankfully an option: Toyota has the most dog-unfriendly alarm imaginable. You can't leave the car unlocked, or lock it and leave the alarm disengaged. The Cruiser will lock itself and set the alarm.

Once it's set, any motion inside the vehicle -- such as dogs left briefly inside while the driver takes a bathroom break -- triggers the horn and headlights. Only the dealer can turn off this dreadful feature, although if I could have found the right wires, I swear I would have ripped it out myself at the second rest stop.

The blinged-out version I test-drove topped out around $30,000, but the basic FJ starts at a tick over $23,000. In all, this Toyota with its head-turning retro styling is well worth considering -- without the alarm -- for any dog lover who needs a rugged four-wheeler.

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Treats and more treats

Too much food and not enough exercise add up to overweight dogs and cats. Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of people who give treats to their pets is increasing in tandem with reports of obese pets by veterinarians:

Dogs given treats

2000 79 percent

2002 81 percent

2004 88 percent

Cats given treats

2000 54 percent

2002 56 percent

2004 65 percent

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PETS ON THE WEB

Urban Hound offers help for all dogs

Even if you don't live in one of the three cities covered by the Urban Hound Web site (www.urbanhound.com), you'll find great information on dogs and their care. The site is one of the most attractive and well-organized pet-care sites I've ever seen, with content developed by professional writers and editors.

The professionalism shows, especially in one of the best features on the site, an analysis of the pet insurance companies. The Urban Hound staff takes a real dog -- a healthy 5-year-old Labrador named Quigly -- adds in hypothetical health problems, and looks at payoffs and problems with each plan.

The site also offers solid advice on health, behavior and laws pertaining to dogs, along with areas for discussion and shopping. If you live in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, you must visit. Even if you don't, the Urban Hound is well worth browsing.

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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