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

A BETTER BET

If you're thinking "puppy" when it comes to adding a new member to your home, you may be missing a good bet.

Adult dogs are a better choice for many of today's busy families. These dogs are past the trials of puppy-raising, and are a known commodity when it comes to size, health and temperament. Even better, they can be an amazing bargain: Nearly every purebred or trendy mix can be found in a shelter or from a rescue group. And if you're patient, you can even find a dog with basic training completed.

No matter the age of the dog you're interested in adopting, you must do what you can to find out everything possible beforehand. While expecting to work on some things as your new dog gets used to you is reasonable, you want to avoid those animals who have too many problems, especially if one of them is aggression. Here are some questions that will help you:

-- What do you know of this dog's history? You may be dealing with a shelter, a rescue volunteer, the dog's original owner or breeder, or a nice person who found a stray. If you find out nothing about him, though, because he was a stray, don't count him out. If he's healthy, friendly, and otherwise fits your size, coat and activity criteria, he's a contender.

-- Why is this dog available for adoption? Dogs become available for lots of reasons, some as frivolous as a change in decor. "Losing our home," "divorce" and "death" are some of the most common and sadly understandable reasons for a dog needing a home. "Bites people" obviously is not. Listen, too, for what isn't said: "He needs more exercise than we can give him" may mean "He needs more exercise than anyone could possibly ever give him, and he eats furniture when he doesn't get it."

-- What behavior problems does this dog have? Many things are fixable and worth considering if you honestly believe you'll take the time to work with the dog. "Pulls on the leash" is fixable. "May bite" is not, at least not by the average pet owner's standards, and not to the extent that you should take a chance on a dog like this. Remember, too, that some problems are the owner's fault, not the dog's. "Won't stay in the yard," for example, may be easily cured by a decent fence and neutering.

-- How is he with children? Other dogs? Cats? Even if you don't have children, you're going to run into some from time to time. The same is true with other dogs. You can successfully avoid cats if you don't have them, but make certain your prospective pet at least tolerates them well if you have a cat in your home.

If you're getting an animal from a shelter, the organization should have asked the former owner to fill out a card on such things as problems with children or other animals -- although there's no guarantee of honesty. If you're adopting from a foster home, ask if the family has other animals and children. If there's no way to determine the dog's attitude toward children and other animals but he seems friendly, he may be OK. If you have doubts, however, hold out for an animal that you're sure fits well with your family.

-- What if it doesn't work out? Obviously you're on your own if the person is moving out of state, but you need to know what your options are up front. You need to know what time frame you're dealing with for returning a dog who's not working out and whether your adoption fees -- if any -- will be refunded, or if you'll be allowed to choose another dog at no charge.

Don't take a dog because you feel sorry for him. If you do, the perfect dog for you may never get a chance to be in a happy home. Choose with your head, not your heart. There are lots of dogs to choose from, and you'll be doing a good deed no matter which one you take.

There's lots of time to fall in love later.

SIDEBAR

Wanted: Good homes for black dogs

Shelters and rescue groups say the hardest dogs to find homes for are typically young, large and black. It may be that some find such animals intimidating, while others find them simply nondescript. But for whatever reason, black dogs are a hard sell when it comes to people looking for a family pet.

There's no reason for it at all. Many of these dogs are Labradors and Labrador mixes, breed types with a well-deserved reputation as outstanding family pets.

Don't overlook the black dogs. You can find a good selection at your local shelter or by checking out the animals for adoption on www.petfinder.org.

Q&A

Senior denied puppy adoption

Q: Our extremely healthy and fit friend who just had his 75th birthday was recently denied the adoption of a 4-month-old dog at a rescue center in the Midwest. He is a widower of 10 years, and he lost his golden retriever to kidney disease about eight weeks ago.

He was drawn to a particular dog, and he says he and the dog "bonded" through the cage. You can imagine how devastated he was when told his age prohibited him from adopting a dog this young.

Is it routine to ask a person's age, and is it policy to hold back a younger dog from a person of a certain age?

It would seem fair that before potential adoptive parents even enter the area to see available dogs, this age thing should be discussed so that older people would only look at older dogs. -- B.R., via e-mail

A: I get a lot of complaints about rescue groups and shelters. And sometimes the reason for the complaints is a lack of understanding of the mission of these organizations.

People must understand that shelters and rescue groups are not about "moving the merchandise." Many pets end up without homes because they were originally sold to people who bought on impulse or weren't a good match. Those helping pets find homes want their next one to be permanent, and that's their top priority.

How they evaluate potential adopters is as varied as can be imagined. Some won't place young dogs with older people, while others won't place cats unless they'll be kept exclusively inside, or other groups may require fenced yards and so on.

The best groups are up front about their placement guidelines and flexible enough to recognize that there are exceptions to every rule. When I was a breed-rescue volunteer, our group had a "no apartments" rule, and yet one of the best placements I ever made was putting a young Sheltie with a woman who lived in an apartment complex. Her history and references were perfect, and the dog lived a long and happy life with her.

I would hope that any rescue group or shelter would look beyond age and see how active a person is. While it's true that a 4-month-old puppy may outlive a 75-year-old adopter, there are no guarantees in life no matter what your age. That pup could go to a young couple who dump the dog when they divorce, or to a middle-aged person who dies unexpectedly.

It's only fair to judge each case on its merits, and above all to be honest, direct and polite in dealing with potential adopters. There are lots of groups and shelters who would be happy to place a pet with an experienced dog lover like your friend, so tell him to keep looking.

Vanilla tip

Q: Would you pass along a suggestion to the woman who's trying to get her late mother's cat to get along with her own cats?

After breeding and showing Siamese cats for 20 years, I use one of the tricks breeders know when introducing new cats. A dab of vanilla extract on the noses of all makes everyone smell alike. It confuses cats, and they chill out! -- G.A., via e-mail

A: Sometimes cats can be fooled by running a towel over one and then the other and back again as well. These tricks are worth trying, but sometimes no matter what you do, some cats will not get along.

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

ON THE WEB

Parrot site gets upgraded

Years have passed since I last visited the Web site of the Companion Parrot Quarterly, and I was delighted to see so many changes. Parrot expert Sally Blanchard has moved her entire operation from California to Colorado, is opening a retail and behaviorist business there, and still manages to put out her fabulous magazine for all kinds of parrot lovers.

The Web site is all new, with a clean look and smooth navigation. As always, Blanchard offers lots of free information to help parrot lovers cope with the occasionally difficult behaviors of these intelligent and long-lived companions. The answers cover the basics, and they refer to Blanchard's books and back issues for more detailed assistance.

Magazine subscriptions and other items can be purchased on the site as well.

PET TIP

Some pets fly as carry-ons

The best way for a pet to fly is with you, in the passenger compartment as one of your pieces of carry-on luggage. This privilege is reserved for small pets -- cats and toy dogs, primarily -- and regulations and fees vary from airline to airline. Typically the pet in a carrier must fit under the seat to be allowed in the passenger compartment.

Several companies make comfortable soft-sided carriers for the transport of cats and small dogs.

Not all airlines allow animal travelers, and even those that do usually limit the number on any given flight. That's why it's essential to talk to your airline well in advance and make sure all regulations are followed. Your pet will typically need a veterinarian's certificate of health dated within days of the flight to be allowed on board.

PET Rx

Chinchilla a pet for quiet households

The chinchilla is closely related to the guinea pig and porcupine and has been bred in captivity since 1923. They are clean, odorless and friendly pets, although they can also be shy and easily frightened.

Chinchillas are not the best pets for children, since the animals tend to be high-strung and hyperactive. These animals generally live eight to 10 years, although some live as much as a decade longer.

Commercial chinchilla pellets are available, but they are not available through all pet shops and feed stores. When the chinchilla variety is not in stock, a standard rabbit or guinea pig pellet can be fed instead. Chinchillas tend to eat with their hands and often throw out a lot of pellets. Timothy or other grass hay can be fed to chinchillas in addition to pellets, and dried fruit and nuts are excellent treats. Fresh water needs to be available at all times.

Chinchillas must be kept in an area that is well-lighted, adequately ventilated, cool and dry. They do not tolerate heat or humidity, and they thrive at lower temperatures. Wire mesh cages are typically used, and lots of room is needed for these active animals.

Dust baths should be provided at least once or twice weekly. These must be large and deep enough to allow the chinchilla to roll over in them. Finely powdered volcanic ash is used to keep the fur clean and well-groomed. Ready-made products are available, or a homemade preparation of nine parts silver sand to one part Fullers Earth can be used.

Chinchillas are prone to digestive and respiratory issues, and veterinary care should be sought out at the first sign of illness.

(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

Biting the budget

A recent poll by Life magazine and the Pets section of America Online asked Americans how they feel about their animals. Among the findings:

Over the last two years, how has your pet budget changed?

Increased slightly 42 percent

Increased dramatically 29 percent

Stayed about the same 25 percent

Decreased 4 percent

Do you spend more time with your pet than your spouse?

Yes 78 percent

No 22 percent

THE SCOOP

More toys the better

Toys are important for any pet. Animals weren't designed to live sedentary lives, whether in cages like birds or rodents, or on the couch like cats or dogs. Pets need something to do to keep their minds and bodies engaged, and that's where toys come in.

People readily accept the idea that dogs and even cats need toys, but they tend to overlook these important items when it comes to caged pets. These animals almost never get enough room to roam, making toys even more important for them.

Toys marketed for birds are usually great for rodents, too, but you don't always need to pay for your pet's play. Freebies that small pets enjoy include the centers of toilet paper and paper towel rolls, old toothbrushes (run them through the dishwasher first), leather shoelaces and small branches, especially from fruit trees.

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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