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

OLD FRIENDS

People flip over puppies but, to me, a well-loved older dog is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. An older dog has a nobleness about him, a look in the eyes that speaks of years of the special love that only a pet can give -- trusting, nonjudgmental and unwaveringly true.

Your dog's health as he ages is not entirely in your control, but you can have a real impact on his attitude. Your dog doesn't know he's getting older. His gray hairs concern him not, nor does he worry about the other visible effects of time -- the thickening of his body, the thinning of his limbs. He doesn't count the number of times he can fetch a ball before tiring and compare that to his performance when he was a young dog in his prime.

A dog lives in the now. Just as he doesn't reflect on his past, he can't imagine his future. Your dog takes his cues from you. When you're upbeat, encouraging and loving, he'll be at his best no matter his age.

This time can be a special one for both of you, and it's up to you to make the most of it.

As your dog ages, increase the frequency and diminish the intensity of his exercise. Instead of taking your dog to the park once a week to chase tennis balls until he's exhausted, take him for a long walk daily. If your dog is having problems with physical activity, talk to your veterinarian. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications may help, as may supplements such as glucosamine or alternative treatments such as acupuncture.

Your dog has no real sense of shame or embarrassment, so he suffers no loss of face if you come up with some ideas to make his life a little easier. I once bought a wagon so an older dog with bad legs could go to the park -- the best part was the harness that let the younger dog pull the load! Truly, the number of ways you can give your oldster a break is limited only by your imagination. Here are a few tips to get you thinking:

-- Beds. Think soft. Think cushioned. Think low. Think heated. Your dog will thank you for all of these thoughts, especially in cold weather.

-- Clothes. Older dogs, like older people, have a more difficult time maintaining their body temperature. This problem is even more pronounced in slender, short-coated breeds like the greyhound or whippet. So check out the sweater selection at your local pet-supply store.

-- Dishes. Raised food and water dishes are helpful to tall dogs of any age, but they are especially easy on the back of an oldster. You can find them at pet-supply stores, or you can make your own booster for your dog's dishes.

-- Ramps and steps. If your dogs are allowed on the couch and the bed, consider buying or building steps to help the dog who can no longer make it in one jump. You wouldn't want to watch TV without your dog at your side, would you? A permanent ramp going down the back-porch step or a slide-out one to help your dog into the car will also be appreciated.

While you're making household adjustments, don't forget to make an appointment for a senior dog checkup. Your veterinarian may recommend some diagnostic tests in addition to a physical examination -- typically bloodwork and an X-ray -- to spot problems early, or to establish a baseline of what's normal for your dog. You should also consider having your dog's teeth attended to, because gum infections and mouth pain will severely affect the comfort and health of your dog.

The senior dog checkup is also a good time to determine if your dog's slowing down means his diet will need to change to take excess weight off his joints.

Helping to keep your older dog healthy and fit will mean his senior years will be happier and more comfortable. And that will be good news for you both.

SIDEBAR

Should a new puppy wait?

Having an old dog makes some people long for a puppy. If you're among them, you want to be as sure as you can be that your older dog will welcome the new addition.

For some older dogs, a puppy is a big boost to the senior's enthusiasm for life. For others, a puppy's energy and attention are enough to make an older dog want to leave home.

In general, older dogs who are still fit and full of life will probably get the most out of a puppy; elderly or severely debilitated dogs will enjoy it least.

If you do add a puppy, don't let your older dog overextend himself, and put the puppy in a crate or behind a baby-gate now and then to give your oldster a break.

Q&A

Tiny greyhounds hard to contain

Q: I just read the inquiry in your column about pet gates from the owner of an 8-month-old Italian greyhound. Would you pass along some invaluable information?

Italian greyhounds can get into more mischief (intentionally and accidentally) than any breed I know of. Unfortunately, some of their antics result in emergency trips to the vet. As for the baby gates, I'd pass on them. These guys can both jump and climb. They have been known to climb 6-foot-tall cyclone fences, and they can easily climb baby gates.

When our Italian greyhound was just a pup, we had the best luck with using an exercise pen with a canvas top that was lashed on well. That's the only thing that worked with our little Houdini.

I still have to keep a close eye on our dog because she is a kitchen counter surfer. She can jump on the kitchen counters with ease like a cat. As a result, we must take care to put away knives and foods, and to make certain the burners are cool before we leave the room. It's a challenge!

There is a Web site called IG Post (www.igpost.com) that offers guidance, support and much more to Italian greyhound owners. I know that everyone thinks that his or her breed is special, but these guys are truly unique in their abilities and needs. I don't think we would have made it through puppyhood without the IG Post. -- S.J., via e-mail

A: Thanks for the information. I heard from a few other Italian greyhound fans as well, including one who suggested mounting a screen door inside to keep a pup from wandering where he shouldn't.

It's true that Italian greyhounds are extremely athletic, fast and agile, and also very delicate. Broken legs are a real problem in this breed, which is why these animals really need owners who'll look out for them. Like their larger relatives the whippet and the greyhound, Italian greyhounds also have difficulty staying warm. In the winter, a dog sweater on any of these breeds is a kindness.

"The Italian Greyhound Nuts and Bolts Book" by Patricia Kelly is a great addition to the library of anyone with one of these dogs. I got a copy as a door prize at a conference a few years ago and was impressed with the thoroughness of this self-published book. You can buy it for $16 from Dogwise (www.dogwise.com).

Babies and cats

Q: My son and daughter-in-law are expecting their first baby in September. They have an indoor, declawed cat.

I have always heard that a cat can suck a baby's breath away because of the milk smell. Is that an old wives' tale? I've never owned a cat, but it seems logical to me. What can they do to keep their cat? I suggested putting a screen door on the baby's room. -- S.C., via e-mail

A: It's an old wives' tale. Cats do not suck the breath from babies. The idea that they do probably stems from cats being around when babies were found dead from what was likely sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. The idea that the cat was responsible seemed logical then, too, but we know otherwise today.

That said, it's always a good idea to keep an eye on young children and pets. The screen door idea is actually an excellent one that I've suggested before. It allows your son and daughter-in-law to keep their pet out of the nursery when one of them is not in the room, while allowing their pet to get used to the sounds and smells of the infant.

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

PET TIP

Publications packed with great articles

Every year the Whole Dog Journal comes out with a list of its approved dry dog foods, products that offer high-grade ingredients and natural preservatives. The list grows longer every year, as small companies pop up to satisfy the market for high-end kibble, and more established pet-food manufacturers offer products aimed at this niche.

This year's list is the heart of the February issue. The selections, along with the publication's rationale for choosing them, make for thoughtful reading for any dog lover.

The Whole Dog Journal is $20 for 13 issues, or $16 for the electronic edition only (www.wholedogjournal.com, 800-424-7887).

Another notable publication out with a new issue is the House Rabbit Journal, the quarterly newsletter of the House Rabbit Society.

The organization seeks to raise awareness of proper care for pet rabbits, including education about their suitability as pets for adults. The HRS also runs a rabbits-only shelter in Richmond, Calif.

The journal is an unusually eclectic pet publication. Its current issue has a piece on rabbit-proofing the house along with an article on the stereotypes promulgated by rabbit images in the popular media. It also has success stories from successful adoptions, articles on training, and a commentary against the growing popularity of rabbit meat.

The House Rabbit Journal comes with an $18 annual membership to the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org, 510-970-7575).

PET Rx

Don't worry over a broken feather

Blood feathers, or pinfeathers, are feathers just starting to grow out, covered with waxy sheaths and equipped with a healthy blood supply to support growth.

A broken pinfeather is rarely a life-threatening emergency in an otherwise healthy bird, contrary to popular opinion. If one of these feathers gets accidentally broken, it will most likely clot on its own.

Birds with chronic health problems -- usually involving the liver -- may have clotting problems, and these birds may be predisposed to bleeding problems. Talk to your bird's veterinarian if you have a concern.

Blood feathers are sensitive and seem to itch as they mature, so many birds love to have their incoming feathers scratched by their owners. If you kink or hurt one of these developing feathers, though, you may get a protest from your pet.

(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.)

PET TIP

More exercise may help curtail a digging dog

Are you frustrated with your dog's digging? It's essential to understand what's at the root of the problem before you can come up with a fair approach to minimizing the damage.

Digging is natural for dogs, with any number of triggers driving the activity. Among them:

-- Wanderlust. Some dogs, especially unneutered males, have a strong desire to dig their way out of the yard.

-- Prey drive. Subterranean wildlife is irresistible to some dogs, especially to terriers or terrier mixes.

-- Need for shelter. A well-dug den can keep a dog cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

-- Recreation. Digging is just plain fun.

-- Excess energy and boredom. This combination is either directly responsible for or is a contributing factor to most canine behavior problems.

Neutering can greatly reduce the desire to wander, so a trip to the veterinarian should be the first item on your list. If wildlife's a problem, contact your local agricultural extension for tips on how to control pests. And make sure your pet has the shelter he needs to stay comfortable no matter the weather.

Lack of exercise and, again, sheer boredom are often the biggest contributors to this behavior problem. If you make it impossible for your dog to dig -- say by cooping him up in a concrete-floored kennel run -- he may switch to another unwanted behavior such as nonstop barking or self-mutilation. Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise every day.

With your dog's needs covered, design your yard for compromise. Make a less-visible part of the yard a dog-friendly free-dig zone, and limit your pet to that area when you can't be there to supervise. Discourage digging in off-limit areas by filling in holes and covering them with chicken wire and large rocks.

BY THE NUMBERS

Biting the Big Apple

The top dogs will soon be in New York City for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Feb. 13 and 14. All 165 breeds and varieties recognized by the American Kennel Club will be represented at the show. The top 10 entries by breed (note: counts for dachshunds and poodles include all three varieties within the breeds):

Dachshund

Poodle

Samoyed

Cavalier King Charles spaniel

Golden retrievers

Rhodesian ridgeback

Australian shepherd

Chinese crested

Havanese

French bulldog

PETS ON THE WEB

Helping kids love caring for pets

If the How to Love Your Dog Web site (www.loveyourdog.com) seems as if it were put together by someone who loves kids, dogs and helping kids learn how to care for their dogs, it's with good reason. The author, Janet Wall, is a longtime educator who, along with her two therapy dogs, volunteers in a pediatric oncology unit.

Her love of children and animals comes through on every page, along with commonsense advice for children on dog care and training. The most popular page, according to Wall, is the one on trick-training, always fun for kids and dogs alike. More than a dozen tricks are listed, along with instructional video to help understand the steps in training.

For those children who are begging for a dog, Wall helps them to understand that not every home is ready for a dog, and why.

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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