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

BUNNY LOVE GONE BAD

A few days after Christmas I was coming out of a pet-supply store when a young girl approached me in the dark parking lot.

"Would you like a bunny?" she asked. "Free."

In her arms was an adorable half-grown rabbit. I asked her why she was giving him up. She said her mom had decided they didn't have time for a pet after all. The young girl hadn't even had him long enough to give him a name.

His "cage" was a cardboard box lined with a plastic garbage bag, and his "food" was yellowed lettuce leaves. I sighed and took him home. Newly christened as Velocity, he joined my other two rabbits, Turbo and Annie. Turns out rabbits multiply, even if they're neutered.

The Christmas bunny incident got on my nerves because it exemplifies everything that's wrong about children's pets. In a word: parents. If parents aren't going to behave like grown-ups and make sensible, responsible decisions, the wonderful promise that is a children's pet too often ends miserably, both for the child and for the animal.

Velocity got lucky, which sets him apart from the majority of cast-off children's pets.

With Easter just around the corner, it's time to remind people that although pets can be wonderful for children, it's up to adults to see that any animal is a proper fit for the family and is not neglected. Don't just give in to a child's demands!

Easter pets traditionally include baby chicks, ducks and, of course, rabbits. Chicks and ducklings are not suitable pets for most families, but rabbits can be good companions for children who are old enough to handle the animals safely.

Rabbits are not low-maintenance pets, however, and they require more than a small outside hutch, a water bottle and some food. In fact, you'll get a lot more out of a pet rabbit if you bring the animal into your house and your life. As with any companion animal, the amount of proper care and time you give is paid back many times over.

Here are some care tips, a basic bunny primer:

-- Equipment. Your rabbit needs a cage that's at least big enough to stretch out and hop around, and tall enough so he can stand on his hind legs without his ears touching the top.

For a food dish, choose a ceramic crock that cannot be chewed or tipped over. A hanging bottle is best for water; make sure the water stays fresh by changing it daily. Rabbits need and love to chew, so be sure there are toys and other items for safe chewing. My three bunnies love hay-filled cardboard tubes and sisal mats, toys that are great for chewing and cheap to find or make.

Don't forget a litter box. Put a shallow layer of absorbent, pressed-paper litter in the bottom and hay on the top. You'll get most of the mess in the box, which will need to be changed regularly, not scooped like a cat box.

-- Nutrition. In recent years, rabbit experts have moved away from recommending commercial pellets as a base diet for pet rabbits. Instead, rabbits should have constant access to fresh grass hays and daily offerings of fresh vegetables such as greens (all kinds), carrot tops and broccoli. You can grow your own greens or harvest them from areas you know to be herbicide-free. Fruit, such as apple slices, makes wonderful treats.

-- Health. Rabbits are better pets if neutered. Annual checkups with the veterinarian are a good idea, and some rabbits have teeth that need regular medical attention.

-- Exercise. Rabbits were meant to run. Indoor rabbits can roam around the house under supervision, and chill in their cages when not being watched. Outdoor activity in a small fenced area is also fun, if carefully supervised to protect these bunnies from predators.

A great resource for rabbit information is the House Rabbit Society, online at www.rabbit.org. HRS founder Marinell Harriman's "House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live With an Urban Rabbit" (Drollery Press, $11) is a good basic reference.

Is your family ready for a rabbit? If the answer's yes, forget the Easter sales push and adopt a bunny from a rescue group or humane society. You'll find lots of great pets to choose from, and you'll be saving a life. (Rabbits have very low adoption rates.)

Have the staff show you and your child how to hold a rabbit safely and firmly, so neither human nor rabbit is hurt when a frightened bunny kicks.

Q&A

What foods are safe for dogs?

Q: I have some questions on feeding dogs. Is it true that: (1) Chicken or turkey bones can hurt a dog's stomach? (2) Dogs should not have garlic, onions, grapes, plums and chocolate? (3) Dogs shouldn't have any kind of bread or pasta? (4) Dogs should eat a beef bone the size of their head once a week? I am 82 years young at heart. My cup is half-full, and I have lots of time to think. -- M.T., via e-mail

A: Cooked poultry bones should always be off-limits. These can kill a dog. Raw poultry bones are a little more forgiving, although to say so is to step right into a huge controversy on home-prepared pet diets, many of which include raw, meaty bones. Chicken wings, chicken backs, chicken necks and turkey necks -- all raw -- are fed to dogs fairly routinely as part of diets that are made up of fresh, whole ingredients meant to mimic the diet of wild wolves -- no kibble.

These diets are not uncommon -- although they're hardly mainstream -- and many veterinarians are dead-set against them. But ... I do know many people who have been feeding dogs raw diets for years, including raw poultry bones, without any problems.

As for garlic, onions, grapes, plums and chocolate, there's no argument: All except plums should be off-limits. The grape's dried form, the raisin, is also a canine no-no. Add to the unsafe list: alcoholic beverages, avocados, coffee, macadamia nuts, yeast dough and products sweetened with xylitol. Bread and pasta won't hurt a dog, but they aren't really necessary to feed your dog.

Beef bones? Raw or cooked, they're fine for recreational chewing, in short durations under supervision. It might be hard to find a bone exactly the size of a dog's head, so let's set some more easy-to-follow guidelines, shall we?

For small dogs, oxtails are a good size. For larger dogs, beef "knuckles" and marrow-filled leg bone sections work well. In multi-dog households, however, bones may be more of a problem than they're worth, sparking fights between animals who usually get along just fine.

Beef bones are also messy. They can get slimy and stinky in a hurry, so be sure to toss them after your dog has been chewing a few hours, at most.

Too much shedding

Q: I have an akita. I brush him daily and bathe him twice a week. He still sheds nonstop. It doesn't seem like anything helps: special food, vitamins, bathing, constant combing. What can I do? Please help! -- L.S., via e-mail

A: Assuming your dog is healthy and has no skin conditions, there's not much you can do.

People who get upset about shedding should do research before getting a dog. Some breeds are prolific shedders by nature. Some, like the German shepherd, are year-round fur machines, while other breeds such as collies drop much of their coat in spring and fall. Daily brushing and combing will help control the mess because the fur you catch on a brush isn't going to end up on clothing or furniture. But in the end, you simply cannot change the genetic imperative of a dog. A breed with a thick, lush coat is going to shed, and that's all there is to it.

Invest in lint rollers and other devices to help cope with shed fur from this dog. For your next pet, consider a dog from one of the lower-shedding varieties. Breeds such as poodles, bichons and many terriers might be a good choice in terms of less fur around the house, but many of these require regular grooming by a professional.

Final note: You shouldn't be bathing a healthy dog twice a week. Once or twice a month is fine, weekly if you must, and use a high-quality pet shampoo and conditioner.

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

PET BUY

Safer ride with truck bed cover

While I'd rather see a dog secured either in a crate or with a harness-type seat belt inside a vehicle than in the back of an open truck, it is possible to make such outdoor accommodations both safer and more comfortable for pets.

The PupHut can help. Designed to provide shade and wind-protection for dogs who are already properly restrained or crated, the product can be a good addition to any pet lover's pickup.

PupHuts come in solid black and a mossy oak camo pattern, and they fit most full-sized pickup trucks without altering the bed. The manufacturer says they can be removed in a second as well. PupHuts start at $180 from www.puphut.com (phone: 1-866-478-7488). The company also offers other truck-safety items for dogs, including bed mats, ramps and cross-tie restraints.

PET Rx

Watch for cat's litter-box pain

In cats, obstipation is described as the inability to defecate, a very painful and serious condition that demands prompt veterinary attention. The causes of this backup are not well understood, but they result in intestines that become dilated and unable to push stools out of the body normally.

If your cat is straining or crying out while trying to defecate, or if you notice an absence of feces in the litter box, your pet has a potentially serious problem. Oddly, this blockage may initially appear as diarrhea, because your cat's body, so irritated by the retained feces, may generate lots of watery fluid or mucus to try to cope. This discharge may seem like "ordinary" loose stools when passed.

Any changes in your cat's litter-box habits need to be investigated by your veterinarian, the sooner the better, and obstipation is no exception.

(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.)

THE SCOOP

Reel-type leashes can be hazardous

Every now and then you'll run across a product so useful, you don't know how you ever lived without it. The retractable reel-type leash (the Flexi is probably the most popular brand) is one such product.

But every product has its limits and its rules for safety, which need to be understood. These leashes are no exception.

The Flexi is not designed for use with an untrained dog. A dog who pulls at the leash or refuses to come when called back from the end of the leash is at risk of injuring himself, his owner or an innocent bystander. This is not the fault of either the leash or the dog. It's an error on the part of the dog's owner in choosing the wrong piece of equipment.

Some dogs have hurt themselves hitting the end of the long leash at full speed and not having it give way (which is also pretty tough on the human holding the handle). Other dogs have bitten people or other pets, or have hurt themselves, after getting too far away on the leash before the handler has had time to reel them in. And some dogs have pulled the leash out of their owners' hands when they reach the end of the line. The Keep 'Um Safe Safety Loop ($8, www.keepumsafe.com, or 1-800-959-4528) is a good addition to any reel-type leash, keeping the line housing from being pulled from the hand.

Users should always be aware of where the line is. Don't grab it with your bare hands. And be careful that it doesn't wrap around fingers or legs -- it can cut or burn, if moving quickly.

The company that makes the Flexi is aware of the potential problems, and highlights cautionary information in its packages and on its Web site (www.flexiusa.com). Read the instructions, and don't risk injury to yourself or your dog by using this product in a way for which it wasn't designed.

BY THE NUMBERS

Where cats come from

Cat lore dictates that if you feed a stray cat, you've adopted a stray cat. That seems to be largely true, based on a 2004 survey showing where people get their cats (multiple answers allowed):

Pet store adoption program 3%

Shelter 15%

Breeder 3%

Friend/relative 43%

Kitten of own cat 15%

Classified ad 8%

Pet store purchase 4%

Stray 34%

Rescue group 3%

Veterinarian 2%

Other 5%

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PET TIP

Pet tags need good fasteners

The S-hooks given out with some pet ID tags are a royal pain. The hooks are hard to fasten correctly, even using pliers, and they always seem to be falling off the collar, giving up the tag or catching on something. A better choice for fastening tags is the split-ring.

Many tag makers offer you a choice of fasteners, but if that's not the case, ditch the S-hooks and head to the hardware store. Split-rings are available cheaply there, in the key section. I like split-rings made for keys better, in fact, because they're generally sturdier than the ones that come with tags.

You don't have to break your nails to get tags -- or keys -- on these rings. Use a staple remover to pull them wide enough to slide on the tags. If you don't have one handy, a carefully handled table knife from your everyday table settings will do the job, too.

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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