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

THE VERY LEAST

Not long ago I answered a question from a couple whose four cats were sick, all with similar symptoms. The couple had guessed the cats had worms, and they wanted to know how soon before an over-the-counter medication could be re-administered. A veterinarian hadn't been consulted because finances were tight.

I advised them to ask around shelters and rescue groups for suggestions on finding a veterinarian who'd work with the couple on costs, and to take at least one of the cats in for a diagnosis. Without knowing what the problem was, I argued, worming the cats was a waste of time and money, and likely wasn't helping them.

Fair enough, and no complaints on that part of the advice. But then I suggested that when time finally took one or two of the cats, the couple set their total number of pets at what they could afford to care for. It's better to care properly for one or two cats, I wrote, than to offer inadequate care to four.

For this reasoning, I heard from quite a few readers. Most pointed out that the couple were indeed caring for their cats -- the animals were fed, neutered and out of the cold. The care they got was "better than nothing," argued one reader, who chided me for not being kinder to a couple struggling to keep as many pets as possible.

Here, I have to make a distinction between household pets and feral cats. I know many people who are caretakers for colonies of wild, free-roaming cats. These often-controversial efforts are about keeping the number of cats down and alleviating as much suffering as possible. For these essentially wild animals, neutering and feeding is often about the best you can do.

But once you take an animal into your home as a pet, I believe you must be prepared to provide decent care. That includes shelter and sustenance, as well as the basics of preventive care, such as vaccines and heartworm medication.

The responsibility of caring for a pet must also include working with a veterinarian when the animal is sick.

If you can afford to provide adequate care for only one pet, you shouldn't choose less-than-minimal care for more. Where do you draw the line? I've no doubt those people who end up overwhelmed by a house stuffed to the rafters with cats started out with just a handful. Most people who end up with dozens or even hundreds of starving, sick pets -- in the humane community they're called "hoarders" -- are firm in their convictions that they "love" their animals.

But love is not enough, and neither are good intentions.

I would like everyone who wants a pet to be able to enjoy the companionship of an animal. I wouldn't be writing this column if I didn't believe that people benefit from having animals in their lives -- an idea backed up by countless studies.

But I also believe the road goes both ways, and it's not right to take without giving. We have a responsibility to provide for those animals we take into our lives. One pet or a dozen, we must resist the temptation that substandard care is better than nothing at all.

Reasonable people can disagree on what those minimal standards of care should be. But we should all agree that denying veterinary attention to a suffering pet in your care is not acceptable.

SIDEBAR

Keeping pets in can save money

In the veterinarian's shorthand, it's HBC (hit by car). These accidents are as common as they are expensive, and often, as deadly.

One of the best ways to keep veterinary costs down is also the easiest: Prevent accidents by keeping cats inside and by containing dogs with fences and leashes. Keeping pets from roaming will also protect them against poisoning (accidental or deliberate) and from fights with other animals. When finances are tight -- and even when they're not -- keeping pets restrained is probably the one biggest factor you can control that will spare you from paying for expensive veterinary care.

Accidents can cost hundreds or even thousands to treat, but of course it's not just about the money. Protecting your pet from injury is one way to help you keep your pet's companionship for years to come.

Q&A

No shortage of adult cats

Q: We are looking for two kittens to adopt. We are having trouble finding what we want. We don't want to pay breeder prices, and the shelter doesn't seem to have much selection. We are looking for two kittens from the same litter. We would like black-and-white "tuxedo" markings on one of them. Do you have any suggestions? -- A.N., via e-mail

A: Prime kitten season is a few months away yet, peaking in late summer. By August most shelters will be swimming in kittens, with seemingly endless choices when it comes to coat type and markings. Too many kittens, really, because each year many more kittens will be born than can possibly be adopted. (Which is one reason why the constant effort of humane and animal-rescue groups to spay and neuter pets is so important.)

At this point, you have two main choices: Adopt a pair of adult cats, or wait until the shelter selection is larger later this year if you want two kittens from the same litter. If you don't mind cats who are not siblings, you could also adopt an adult cat now and a kitten or cat later.

The choice is yours, of course. But my advice is to seriously consider adopting a bonded pair of adult cats. Shelters always have a difficult time placing adult cats, and placing bonded pairs is harder still. But since you want to end up with two siblings, adopting adult littermates who are already comfortable with each other seems to me to be the perfect solution. If you're really interested in adopting siblings, I have no doubt you can find that in a bonded pair of adult cats. Just check around with area shelters and rescue groups.

How dry I am

Q: Our house is on the dry side even though we run a humidifier in winter. My cat's skin has been extremely dry. Is there something I can do to eliminate this massive white dander he is scratching out? -- P.T., via e-mail

A: I wouldn't be so certain the low humidity in your house is causing the problem. After all, cats are descended from desert-dwelling creatures, and low humidity alone shouldn't cause a massive amount of flakiness.

See your veterinarian to determine what's causing your pet's skin to be so flaky.

By the way, other pets do have a problem with the dry air of the modern home, most notably birds. Many species of pet parrots originally came from hot, humid environments. For these, dry air presents a problem and may contribute to feather-picking. That's why parrots need to be offered frequent opportunities to get damp, such as by being misted or being allowed to bathe.

Jumping pup

Q: Would you pass another idea along to the owners of the dog who jumps the baby gate?

There's no need to pay for an extra-high gate, which can be hard to find. They could do as we did: Get two cheapo gates exactly alike and fasten one to the top of the other.

My husband used metal bands and tightened them in several places. It worked perfectly, and the gate is eye-high to me (I'm 5 feet, 5 inches). We've used this strategy successfully for many years now. -- S.S., via e-mail

Never underestimate the ability of pet lovers to come up with all sorts of solutions for all kinds of challenges!

Other ideas from readers for keeping high-jumping little dogs out of trouble included canine exercise pens with lids, baby playpens modified with soft mesh material across the top and, as mentioned in an earlier column, an interior screen door. Thanks for all the suggestions!

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

THE SCOOP

Lively terriers remain popular

Terriers are tireless, plucky and stylish, equally comfortable in city, suburban or rural homes. Even small terriers are generally sturdy enough to be a child's pet, but their take-charge attitude can be a problem if they are not socialized and trained. If allowed to rule the roost, some of these dynamos can become little despots.

Other common behavior problems come straight from the terrier's background: They dig and they bark. Both are important skills for a dog trying to rid a place of vermin, but not so appreciated in a suburban back yard. Some terriers may get a little glassy-eyed and drooly over the presence of rodents in the house -- you may call hamsters, gerbils, rats and mice "pets," but you'll never convince a terrier they belong. Terriers may also be less than civil to other dogs.

The most popular terrier in the American Kennel Club rankings is the miniature schnauzer (or the Yorkshire terrier, if you count the breed as a terrier rather than a toy dog). Other popular terriers include the West Highland white, Scottish and Jack Russell (also known as Parson Russell), and the cairn. Terrier owners need a high tolerance for mischief and a good sense of humor, because their dogs will test both.

PET BUY

Pendant contains unique material

A display of jewelry caught my eye at a recent pet show. The pendants were pretty enough to draw me to the booth, where the saleswoman explained that they were more than eye-catching: Each of them contained a sample of an animal's DNA. You couldn't prove it by me, so I'll take the company's word for it.

The Life Jewel pendant is meant to be a wearable memorial to a cherished pet, with the animal's DNA spun onto a sterling silver thread and then suspended into the buyer's choice of 12 colors of resin.

The company says the DNA isn't preserved in a way suitable for potential cloning and isn't meant to be anything more than a way to keep the memory of a pet alive. DNA samples can be taken from a blood or hair sample, or a cheek swab.

The Life Jewel pendant is $55 from www.perpetua.us, or 800-584-2434.

PET Rx

Don't overlook care of teeth, gums in pets

Veterinary associations have made February their month to remind people that pets need healthy teeth, too.

Your veterinarian should check your pet's mouth, teeth and gums as part of an annual physical and make recommendations based on what he or she finds there. For many pets, the next step will be a complete dentistry under anesthesia. The procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour. It involves not only cleaning and polishing the teeth, but also checking for and treating broken or rotting teeth, cavities, abscesses and periodontal disease.

Today's anesthetics are dramatically safer than those of even a few years ago, making the danger and pain of untreated dental problems the bigger risk to health, even with older pets.

After the problems are treated, at-home care can keep things in good shape. Here are some tips:

-- Brush or wipe regularly. Use a toothpaste designed for dogs and cats a couple of times a week at least, although daily is better. Don't use toothpaste made for people, because animals don't know how to rinse and spit. Pet toothpastes contain enzymes that help dissolve plaque and can be swallowed. They also have a flavor that pets appreciate.

-- Offer teeth-cleaning toys and consider teeth-cleaning food. Some pet-food companies now offer kibble with a mild abrasive texture to help keep teeth clean, or with ingredients that help keep plaque from forming. Ask your vet about these if tartar buildup is a chronic problem for your pet.

Good dental health will also go a long way toward preventing bad breath in pets. But, more important, it will help with an animal's overall health and comfort.

(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.)

BY THE NUMBERS

My puppy Valentine

It seems some people are not dreaming of getting a puppy as a Valentine's Day gift, but rather wishing their human mates were more like a dog. And their dogs are helping them look for mates! According to the American Kennel Club's recent survey:

-- 25 percent of women polled wished men were in a perennially good mood, like a dog

-- 15 percent of men polled wished women were just as happy to stay home as go out on the town

-- 58 percent of men said a puppy is a foolproof way of meeting women in a park

-- 46 percent of women said they'd stop and talk to anyone with a cute puppy

PETS ON THE WEB

Gecko fans find plenty to love

The Global Gecko Association's Web site (www.gekkota.com) offers care information, photographs, links and merchandise to any fan of these cute little reptiles.

The information can be a little hard to find because many of the listings use the scientific names of the species, not the common ones. If you're looking for a picture of the leopard gecko, you're going to need to know that the scientific name is Eublepharis macularius in order to find it.

The GGA offers a generous selection of useful links and classifieds to help gecko lovers find what they need. For youngsters with a scientific leaning, the site is both fun and educational. There's enough information here to help any young reptile fan with a school report.

Membership in the GGA can be purchased on the site, and it comes with subscriptions to a gecko journal and newsletter, and discounts on other publications.

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 petconnection@gmail.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.

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