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

IN THE RIBBONS

In the last two decades, the number of organized competitions for dogs and their owners has seen incredible growth in terms of the number of events, participants and the number of sports.

Dog sports are good both for dogs and their people, providing better communication between species, an outlet for canine energy and plenty of fresh-air exercise for all. Most dog sports are family-friendly, encouraging youngsters to compete as well. There's a dog sport these days for everyone and for every dog.

In the months to come, I'll be taking an occasional look at each of the dozens of dog sports, telling you what you need to know to get started.

First up: dog shows.

What seems to be the easiest of canine competitions is in fact one of the most difficult in which to be successful. It's a lot harder than simply trotting a dog around in a circle for a judge, as it may appear to the outside observer.

Dog shows are supposed to be about evaluating breeding stock, with the goal of preserving and improving the dog breeds involved. But over the years the sport has become a high-stakes and high-cost endeavor that's perhaps the most difficult of all canine competitions for beginners to break into successfully.

Even if you have a "show quality" dog with no disqualifying or major problems in appearance, winning is tough. Getting a dog to look his best in the ring is a subtle art that's difficult to master. In many breeds, the work of getting a dog groomed for the show ring takes years to learn. And then there's the final hurdle to winning: Dog shows are one of few competitions of any kind where beginning handlers compete in the same classes with experienced amateurs and polished professionals.

So how do you start? While technically you can enter any registered purebred in any show recognized by that registry -- in most cases, we're talking about the American Kennel Club -- in fact, you won't get very far if you do.

Your dog must match up favorably to the ideal of his breed, called "the standard." Judges mentally compare each dog to the standard, choosing the one who most closely conforms to their vision of a "perfect" dog. Top handlers know how to emphasize a dog's best attributes and minimize his weakest in how they groom him and move him in the ring.

Typically, people who develop an interest in showing start competing seriously with a dog specifically chosen for the animal's competitive prospects. Many times a beginner will co-own a show dog with the breeder: It's a way to get a foot in the door while allowing a breeder to be assured of your good intentions.

A reputable, competitive breeder is the key to entrée in this sport, which relies heavily on mentoring for its infusions of fresh blood. A top breeder will be able to school you on correct grooming (for you and the dog), on how to understand what's going on in the ring and how to show your dog to best advantage.

The first rung of competition is for championships, and it's conducted in the breed ring, where dogs of the same breed compete against each other for championship points. Dogs who are already champions compete against other winners, with the best of each breed going on to challenge other best-of-breed dogs at the semifinal, or "group" level, and finally for best in show.

It'll be hard to get there without a mentor to help. So if you're interested in showing, you'll need to start off with some background knowledge. Then go to the shows, and network in your breed to find someone willing to help you. They're out there -- but in the clubby, tradition-bound and competitive world of dog shows, it will take some time to find yours.

But with the assistance of a show veteran, usually in a co-ownership agreement, you'll be bringing home the ribbons soon enough.

SIDEBAR

Getting started: Where to get help

For more information on showing your dog:

-- The American Kennel Club (www.akc.org) is the governing body for the majority of dog shows in the United States. The group offers information on sanctioned competitions on its Web site, in books such as "The Complete Dog Book" (Ballantine, $35) and in its magazine, the AKC Gazette. The AKC also provides contact information on breed clubs to help you find dog-show competitors and handling classes in your area.

-- The dog-books publisher and retailer Dogwise (www.dogwise.com, 800-776-2665) offers a wide selection of materials on all aspects of canine competitions. For showing, check out titles such as Lynn Hall's "Dog Showing for Beginners" ($20) and D. Caroline Coile's "Show me! A Dog-Showing Primer" ($13).

-- The InfoDog Web site (www.infodog.com) is where dog-show folks go to find show schedules and enter dogs in upcoming competitions. Click on "show information" to find the calendar listings.

Q&A

Ramps, stairs help older pets cope

Q: I live with three older dogs: two 10-year-old littermates and one old dog who was a rescue. The owners claimed he was 5 when they gave him up, but according to his veterinarian, he is probably closer to 15.

The old guy has trouble getting on the couch, frequently failing to make it. Where do I find stairs for him? I know that would help. The other dogs are taller than he is, and their longer legs are helpful in getting up on the couch. -- P.C., via e-mail

A: Few things so perfectly reflect the changing attitudes we have about pets as the kind of questions I get about couches. It used to be that the majority of questions regarding furniture were about how to keep pets off. Many people still don't want to share their furniture with their pets, but more and more I'm getting questions like yours.

The pet-supply market has moved with the times, of course, and you'll find plenty of items geared toward helping older pets. Pick up a copy of any dog magazine and flip back to the advertisements. You'll surely find a couple of manufacturers of small stairs or ramps to help pets onto furniture. I also found a surprisingly large selection of handsome indoor stairs and ramps from the catalog retailers Doctors Foster & Smith (www.drfostersmith.com, 800-381-7179) and J-B Wholesale Pet Supplies (www.jbpet.com, 800-526-0388).

You'll also find stairs and ramps for more than just furniture. When my sweet retriever Ben was in his final decline, he couldn't jump into the van. At 80 pounds, he was more than I could lift comfortably, so I looked for a ramp. I found several lightweight plastic models that were quick to use and could telescope into a smaller size for easy storage.

After Ben died, I took the ramp out of the van and put it in the garage. All the dogs I have now are capable of jumping up into the vehicle, but I know I'll have need of that ramp again, with Heather closing in on 10 years old and me getting even less capable of lifting a big dog.

Of course, if you're handy -- or know someone who is -- it's not difficult to make ramps and stairs at little cost. My neighbor John put together a ramp down the back stairs for Ben with little more than a few dollars' worth of scrap lumber and carpet. After Ben died, I left the ramp in place because all the dogs seemed to prefer it to the stairs.

Inside or out, ramps and stairs just make life easier for our pets -- and our backs!

Old age and birds

Q: Do birds get arthritis? I ask because my 16-year-old cockatiel seems to favor one leg on chilly mornings. Is there anything I can do? -- D.W., via e-mail

A: Birds can and do have problems with their joints as they age. "Arthritis" is a general term for any inflammatory problem within a joint, and the condition could have several causes.

A bird who's consistently lame or who has swelling at the joints should be checked out by a veterinarian with experience in avian medicine. Caught early and properly diagnosed, arthritis may be treatable. Another reason to see an avian veterinarian: Some forms of arthritis, such as gout or infection in the joints, can even be life-threatening.

Because birds are so good at hiding signs of illness until it's almost too late to help them, the best thing any bird lover can do for a pet is to schedule annual "well-bird" checkups to help spot and treat problems before they become worse.

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

PET RX

No easy cure for ear woes

Veterinarians call chronic inflammations of the external ear canal "otitis externa." Caused by bacteria, yeast, ear mites or allergies, these painful problems are one of the top reasons people take their pets to the veterinarian.

The key to getting on top of an ear infection is proper diagnosis by a veterinarian and a commitment to follow-through on the part of the pet lover. Follow-up care is especially important, because it can take dedicated daily attention for weeks to get ear problems cleared up for good.

Home care after the veterinary visit will likely involve thorough cleaning of the ear canal at prescribed intervals, followed by regular application of medication. Squirt the cleaning solution deep into the canal, massaging the base of the ear gently to work it in further. Use a cotton ball soaked in cleaner -- not a swab -- to collect debris. Follow with a dry cotton ball.

Your veterinarian can show you the proper technique for cleaning ears and applying medication. Be sure to ask if you're not sure what to do.

(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.)

PETS ON THE WEB

Feline advice from top vets

The Cornell Feline Health Center has been an influential source of innovation and advice when it comes to caring for cats. The center's Web site (www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc) offers both basic and cutting-edge information for cat lovers looking to provide the best care possible.

The heart of the site is the collection of articles covering topics ranging from house-soiling and aggression to diabetes and senior cat care. Each article provides detailed advice written in a straightforward, easy-to-understand style that doesn't get into too much jargon. The piece on the risks and benefits of vaccinations is especially thorough and helpful in explaining the controversies and concerns of recent years.

The center also offers consultations with staff veterinarians, for a $55 fee, and has various items in its online store, including the notable "Cornell Book of Cats" ($35, including shipping).

PET TIP

Minimize the stress of moving with pets

Moving is stressful for any family, and the addition of a worried dog or frightened cat can increase that stress enormously. What can you do to ensure things go smoothly for your four-legged family members?

Before you start packing up the china, your pets will probably know something is up and will start acting out. Cats may decide this is the perfect time to disappear for a few days, and dogs may suddenly decide to relive the happy days of puppyhood by eating your shoes.

Prior to the move, start keeping your cats indoors. Consider closing them in one room, even if it's for a week or more. That way, they won't slip out in the confusion of packing or loading up the moving van, or just out of anxiety. Be extra vigilant with your dog, too.

The morning of the move, put cats and dogs into carriers or crates. This way they are safe and out of the way. A large dog crate with a litter box and water is ideal as a temporary room for a cat, but a cat's regular carrier will be fine if that's what you have. Confined and stressed dogs will benefit from something to chew, such as a hard rubber toy stuffed with treats.

Upon arriving in the new place, get your cats settled in a secure place, with familiar furniture or objects in the room, and close them in safely. Although it's safest for cats to live indoors, if you do intend to let them outside, begin by keeping them inside for several days. This allows them to adjust to their new home.

The key to a successful move with pets is planning. Get them squared away before chaos descends. Strangers moving furniture, putting everything in boxes and leaving doors open can be a recipe for disaster. Moving is stressful enough without losing your family pet as well. -- Christie Keith, pethobbyist.com

BY THE NUMBERS

Hello, Doctor!

Dogs spend more time at the veterinarian than cats or birds do. That's according to a 2004 survey of pet lovers, which also revealed the total money spent at the veterinarian was higher for canine companions. In a year's time:

Percent who went to veterinarian

Dog 88 percent

Cat 63 percent

Bird 15 percent

Average number of veterinary visits

Dog 2.8

Cat 2.3

Bird 2

Average annual routine (non-surgical) expenses

Dog $211

Cat $179

Bird $71

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

THE SCOOP

Molting normal in springtime

With spring just a month away, many pet birds are getting ready to go through a big change. Worn feathers will be replaced with shiny new ones.

Birds are fastidious in caring for their feathers, but eventually a bird's body switches into replacement mode, and old feathers start falling. Molting happens typically once or twice a year, generally in the spring and fall, when the rapid lengthening or shortening of the days triggers the change.

The words "sitting duck" apply perfectly to a bird who has lost all flight feathers at once -- which is why nature doesn't work that way. These key feathers are usually dropped only one or two at a time. Many birds molt their flight feathers symmetrically: The same one or two flight feathers that are missing on one wing will be missing on the other.

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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