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


In an early nod to spring cleaning, I decided to start going through my books, with an eye toward donating as many as possible to the local shelter's fund-raising book sale. But among these are books that will never be put up for adoption: pet-care guides from the early part of the last century, and from the century before that.

These books can be eye-opening for today's dog lover, with their advice on harsh, even brutal dog-training methods, warnings on deadly diseases we rarely consider, and time-consuming recipes for preparing canine rations. Flipping through the pages got me thinking about not only how relatively easy we have it today, but also which of modern life's advances have had the most impact on how we care for our dogs.

Here is my list. Call them the magnificent seven:

-- Vaccinations. Pick up any dog-showing guide from the early part of the last century and you're certain to read of top purebreds who died young after picking up distemper at a dog show. In fiction, you'll find no shortage of works that involve a rabid dog -- "Old Yeller," of course, but also "To Kill a Mockingbird."

These days, the threat to humans from rabies comes mostly from wildlife, and dogs are likewise protected from many deadly diseases, including distemper.

-- Commercial dog foods. While it's possible to prepare a dog's diet at home from scratch -- and not uncommon these days to do so -- most people haven't the time or interest. Fortunately, there has never been a wider range and better selection of commercial dog foods. These offer good nutrition with convenience, at a cost generally well below any home-prepared diet.

-- Flea control. While vaccinations and commercial dog foods have been around for decades, advances in flea control have come into their own since I started writing about pets a couple of decades ago. I well remember the noxious flea-dips, bombs and sprays, and how every spring and summer a large chunk of my reader questions would be from people begging for an end to the biting and the scratching.

These days, monthly spot-on medications mean the sounds of spring do not so often include the jangling of dog tags on itchy, flea-bitten pets.

-- Heartworm preventives. Heartworms are introduced when a mosquito bites a dog. Left untreated, heartworms can kill a dog. And even the treatment of established heartworms can kill a dog. Heartworm prevention in a simple monthly pill removes the risk of both bad outcomes. Unfortunately, this is one modern marvel that hasn't been used to the fullest -- as the shocking number of heartworm-infested dogs rescued after Hurricane Katrina showed.

-- Reward-based dog training. While there are no doubt those who still rely on force and punishment to teach dogs their manners, these trainers are in the minority today. Most dog trainers now emphasize methods that are considerably more carrot than stick.

Along with new training techniques has come an emphasis on early and ongoing socialization to get puppies off to the best start possible. Even dog-training equipment has changed for the better, with options such as head-collars and front-clip harnesses making it easier to control a dog on leash.

-- Dog sports. Canine activities didn't used to be about recreation, but rather about getting a job done. Today many of those traditional jobs are now competitive endeavors, such as trials for hunting and herding dogs. In recent years, newly created sports, such as canine agility, have become incredibly popular.

All sports strengthen the bond between dog and owner, and give both a good reason to get some fresh air and exercise.

-- Off-leash areas. As our population grows and leash laws tighten, dog lovers are often left with few options for exercising their pets. Large dogs with high exercise requirements remain popular -- the Labrador and golden retrievers are the top dogs in the country. Behavior and psychological problems in dogs are linked to boredom and a lack of activity.

Both smaller fenced areas and large parkland set-asides provide dogs with places to run. While there are problems -- dog parks aren't a good idea for every dog -- on balance, the trend has been a good one.

That's my list. Readers are welcome to write me with their additions, and I'll write a follow-up column at a later date.


Changing with the times

While vaccinations have saved the lives of countless dogs, they're not without risk. And that's one reason why guidelines for vaccinating pets have been changing in recent years.

The idea that pets need "combination shots" every year for protection against disease is being replaced with guidelines that tailor vaccines to an individual animal's needs after the initial series of juvenile vaccinations. Under these changes, boosters are given at three-year intervals -- some as needed, and some not at all. (Rabies vaccinations, of course, are regulated by law because of the threat to human health. Most jurisdictions require them at three-year intervals.)

The 2006 guidelines for canine vaccines are available on the Web site of the American Animal Hospital Association ( Talk to your veterinarian about what combination of vaccines is right for your dog, and don't skip your pet's annual examination if you'll be skipping those yearly "shots."


What about cats in the garden?

Q: You wrote on gardening recently, but you completely missed what people who care about their yards really want to know. How do you keep the neighbor's cat from using your flowerbeds as a bathroom? -- H.C., via e-mail

A: Years ago, I used to joke with the garden editor at my newspaper that if we could bottle a solution to this problem, we'd both be multimillionaires. He's now retired on the newspaper's pension, and I'm still working, so that should tell you something.

Over the years I've read of countless strategies, including commercial repellants, foil, citrus peels, coffee grounds and cayenne pepper. Also, setting out jugs of water, putting netting over the soil, covering soil with sharp rocks ... the list goes on and on.

These strategies each seem to have people who swear by them, and some seem to work at least in the short term. But nothing seems to work across-the-board and without constant reapplication.

The best resolution, of course, would be for people to keep cats inside, or at least on their own property. Besides being neighborly, keeping cats from roaming is safer for the animals. Cats can be happy indoors, and most humane groups now encourage the indoor-cat option.

But some cats just won't covert to indoor life, and for those, cat-fencing is a good option, although it doesn't protect a cat from predators such as coyotes.

Do-it-yourself instructions for fencing in cats are available from Alley Cat Allies (, search for "fence"). Kits are available from several companies, including Affordable Cat Fence (, 1-888-840-2287) and Purr...fect Fence (, 1-888-280-4066). Although most of these fences are sold to keep cats in a yard, I don't see why they wouldn't work to keep cats out. Since they're made of netting, they blend in well and aren't an eyesore. They might be especially useful for protecting a small area such as a vegetable garden.

Please don't write to tell me it's not fair that you should have to lift a finger or spend a dime to keep someone else's cat out of your yard. I agree with you, but that's not going to change anything. Even if every pet cat were kept contained, there would still be plenty of free-roaming ferals. Such is the nature of cats.

Q: We have a very sweet Rottweiler. We take her into the pet store with us, and it never fails that someone will be there with a tiny dog, and that dog will try to pick a fight with ours.

Some of these little dogs are vicious, and their owners think it's funny. Why do little dogs pick fights with big ones? Do they have death wishes? My dog could kill a Yorkie with a slap of her paw -- not that she would, of course. -- T.S., via e-mail

A: Many people let small dogs get away with lots of bad behavior, says Darlene Arden, author of the upcoming "Small Dogs, Big Hearts: A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dog" (Wiley, $13) and an expert on these most diminutive of canines.

Arden says some small dogs are reacting out of fear, while others really are trying to pick a fight. "They're saying, 'I'm a dog, too, want to make something of it?'" says Arden. "These little dogs really believe they're bigger."

Since so many small dogs are carried, many of them come to believe they are elevated in status as well as height. Arden says it's up to the owners to make sure small dogs are socialized, well-trained and protected. "Some people think it's really funny when a small dog acts aggressive," says Arden, "but it won't be funny when that behavior gets a dog killed."

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to


Macaw fans should fly to this site

When people picture pet parrots, the birds that come to mind are often macaws. These pets are among our most popular companion birds, prized for their beauty, intelligence and affection.

From the royal blue hyacinth -- the largest parrot kept as a pet -- to the more manageable sizes of the "minis," macaws have plenty of fans worldwide, all of whom would likely enjoy Those Majestic Macaws (, a Web site packed with a variety of useful and entertaining information, as well as lots of great avian links.

You'll find information on the various species, on macaw-related e-mail lists, breeder referrals, parrot jokes, and recipes for healthy treats and meals for your pet bird. The brightly colored type on a black background will give you a headache to read while exploring, though.

I'd like to see a little more information from avian veterinarians -- too much of the health information is from breeders and fanciers, not medical professionals. But the site still has plenty to offer.


Spaying will end false pregnancies

False pregnancies are not uncommon in unspayed dogs. The signs include nesting, mothering objects, such as a stuffed animal, and excreting milk. Some dogs may physically appear pregnant and may even go into labor. These symptoms become noticeable three to six months after a heat cycle.

If symptoms are mild, the condition will usually resolve itself within three weeks. It may be tempting to put warm compresses on the dog's underside, or to wrap the abdomen to prevent milk leakage in the house. But that's not advised. Any stimulation of the dog's mammary tissues encourages more milk production.

Continued or severe symptoms will require your veterinarian's assistance to address. After the false pregnancy has passed, the dog can be safely spayed, preventing future false pregnancies -- and, of course, real ones as well.

(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (, an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at


To avoid cat's wrath, watch the tail

While the most unsocial of cats will likely never be purring lap kitties, patient and observant handling will help to teach other cats to tolerate petting.

The key is to stop petting before a cat has had enough, slowly building up your cat's tolerance over time. You can tell when you're getting close to the line by watching your cat's tail. When a cat has had just about enough, his tail will start twitching. Keep petting, and that tail will get even more active, just before you're introduced to your cat's non-loving embrace.

With sensitive cats, restrict your caresses to behind the ears, under the chin or the base of the tail. A long stroke down the back is too much for some kitties, and you're really taking chances when you decide to tickle your cat's tummy.

When you pick your cat up for a petting session, don't surprise him. Come up on him slowly and pick him up gently, making sure his whole body is supported with a hand under his chest and one beneath his legs.

Pet him in the safe areas on his body only, watching for the first sign of a tail twitch. When you get that first early warning sign, stop petting and allow him to calm down or leave if he wants to.

If you miss the signs and end up with teeth and claws around your arm, just freeze. If you fight back or physically punish your cat, your cat will be compelled by instinct and fear to escalate the violence. You'll also set back your training and your relationship.

What makes one cat more liable to bite than another? The degree of sensitivity has both genetic and social factors. Some cats are born edgy, while others are made that way because of a lack of socialization or proper training in their kittenhoods.


Advice that's fishy

Image: angel fish

Optional cutline: Keeping fish healthy and attractive can be a challenge.

When it comes to getting information on setting up, stocking and maintaining saltwater fish tanks, specialty stores remain popular. In 2004, fish keepers with saltwater tanks reported getting advice from multiple sources, including:

Fish/aquarium store 71%

General pet store 53%

Internet 39%

Books 34%

Friend/relative 31%

Magazines 28%

Aquarium club 8%

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association


'Washable' essential for homes with pets

Is it possible to have pets and a clean house? Here are some tips to keep things neater:

-- Choose upholstery that resists stains and tears, and use washable throws to catch pet hair.

-- Get on pet stains right away, with as much gusto as you can. A stain delayed is a stain set. Use enzymatic cleaners for the best result.

-- Choose wood, laminates, tile or linoleum for flooring. Wall-to-wall carpets are difficult to keep clean in pet-loving households. Instead, soften the effect of hard floors with washable rugs.

-- Use mats under pet dishes, and inside and outside of doors.

A good vacuum is your pet's best friend. I have a hand-held model for quick cleanups, but I swear by my Dyson "Animal" for larger cleaning. Everything my pets touch is washable, which makes my washing machine an essential piece of the clean-home puzzle, 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 You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at

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