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

NINE LIVES, ON A BUDGET

Modern veterinary care is not inexpensive.

Every day I get complaints from readers who remember when "Good Ol' Doc Jones" patched up their cats for next to nothing. These days, readers complain, many veterinarians want use to available diagnostics to see what's really going on (and reduce risk during anesthesia), suggest newer procedures to fix things that were fatal not that long ago, and pretty much try to do the best job they can with all the advances of the last couple of decades.

Go figure.

I sometimes wince like everyone else when I'm at the veterinarian's, but I'm honestly glad that the days of "Good Ol' Doc Jones" are over and that I have the option of near human-grade care for my pets. However, I'd rather avoid paying for emergencies and chronic illness altogether. Fortunately, if you practice good preventive care with your cat -- which should, of course, include neutering -- you can really keep costs down.

Top strategy for doing so: Close the door on your cat's wandering.

A lot of cat lovers hate hearing this. They've always let their cats roam, and they're reluctant to change. A free-roaming cat seems easier to care for, especially if the outdoors serves as a litter box (a policy that's never fair to or popular with the neighbors).

But the things that can happen to a free-roaming cat can really cost you at the veterinarian's. Outdoor cats are at high risk for poisoning, infectious disease, accidents and attacks, all of which can mean misery for your pet and expensive veterinary costs for you. Tips on converting your cat to a happy indoor life can be found on The Ohio State University Veterinary Hospital's Indoor Cat Initiative's Web site (www.indoorcat.org).

Other strategies for preventive care:

-- Dump the yearly shots. Since the rise of cancer deaths that can be attributed to vaccines, the emphasis has shifted away from automatic annual combination boosters to tailoring the kind and frequency of vaccines to an individual cat. Some vaccines are now given at longer intervals -- every three years is common -- and some are not given at all to cats who are not at high risk for a particular disease.

Skipping annual shots isn't an excuse to skip regular "well-pet" exams, which are a cornerstone of a preventive care program. You can discuss which vaccines are right for your cat during the visit.

-- Keep your cat lean. Too much food and not enough activity puts the pounds on a pet. Excess weight is attributed to any number of health issues in cats, especially diabetes. Don't crash-diet your cat -- it can be deadly. Instead, talk to your veterinarian about a healthy diet that will trim down your cat before the pounds really add up. Add in activity with daily play sessions using a laser-pointer or cat-fishing pole, whatever gets your cat going.

-- Don't forget the teeth. It doesn't hurt to get into a regular routine of brushing or swiping your cat's teeth, and many cats can learn to enjoy or at least tolerate the practice. If their teeth are left alone, cats develop dental problems that can shorten their lives and lesson their quality of life.

-- Practice good grooming. Basic brushing, combing and flea control is a must for preventive care. Keeping your pet parasite-free will make living with your animal much more pleasant (after all, fleas bite people, too). Regular brushing can also help build the bond between you and your cat, and will allow you to notice skin problems and lumps and bumps early.

Five tips for nine lives, all of them guaranteed to save you money and spare your cat. You can't beat that!

Q&A

Coughing? Don't blame the kennel

Q: Our dog started coughing and gagging after we returned from vacation. The vet says it's kennel cough, not that serious. We're glad for that, but don't you think the boarding kennel should refund our money and pay the vet bill? -- M.D., via e-mail

A: I get this question all the time, especially during vacation season. And as I've said before, you really can't blame the kennel any more than you can blame a day-care center for the colds kids pick up there.

Boarding kennels do take a lot of heat over kennel cough, an upper-respiratory infection that is indeed as contagious as sniffles in a day-care center. Some kennel operators find the name a little pejorative, insisting that the ailment be called by its proper name, "canine infectious tracheobronchitis," or even "bordetella," after its most common causative agent.

And maybe that's fair. Dogs can pick up kennel cough any place they come into contact with a dog who has it, and that means anywhere: parks, dog shows, the waiting room of your veterinarian's office, or the fund-raising dog walk thrown by your local humane society. These are all possibilities for infection.

Fortunately, the ailment is not usually serious, as you've been told, even though the dry, bellowing cough can sound simply awful. For most dogs, the disease runs its course in a couple of weeks. Others, especially yappy dogs who keep the airways irritated, may develop an infection that requires antibiotics.

While not completely effective against the ailment, a vaccine is available against it. When your dog goes in for a re-check, ask your veterinarian about it. Many boarding kennels require it, in fact.

Dog vs. bird

Q: I'm thinking about getting a canary or parakeet. I don't have a cat, but I do have a bird dog. What do you think? -- S.P., via e-mail

A: Pets who are on opposite sides of the predator-prey line should never, ever be left unsupervised. It doesn't take much for small pet to get hurt or even killed by a larger one. A friend of mine once had her dog chomp an escaped finch in mid-air. The well-mannered, well-trained dog had never shown much interest in the bird, but couldn't resist a flutter so close to her muzzle. The bird never had a chance.

If you're careful to keep everyone separate and manage all interactions, you should be OK. I have a very happy mixed-species household, and so far, so good. I don't trust the dogs to hang out with the smaller pets, and even if I did, I wouldn't want to stress the birds and rabbits by letting them "dance with the wolves."

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

PET BUY

Doggles: Cool look for hipster dogs

Do dogs need to protect their eyes from the sun? Probably not. Are products such as Doggles -- goggles for dogs -- worth buying? If you need a laugh, or want to meet some new people, they probably are.

We took Doggles out for a test drive in my brother's convertible, putting the UV-protective silver model (with skull-and-crossbones detailing) on my Sheltie, Drew. The product fit well and seemed comfortable to Drew, who didn't put up much of a fuss about wearing them. The reaction from the drivers around us was hilarious -- pointing, yelling and lots of laughing. You think they'd never seen two middle-aged people and a dog in a T-Bird before.

My brother went in for cool drinks, and a man pulled up beside us in the parking lot. "What a great look," he said to the dog. "Wanna trade shades?" Drew demurred.

The larger set of test Doggles went to a friend whose dog just had eye surgery. We're hoping the product cuts down on the dog's "cone time" post-op.

Doggles come in all sizes and colors, starting at a suggested retail of around $20 a pair (www.doggles.com).

PET Rx

Safer fasteners for pet ID tags

One of the cheapest forms of pet insurance is the ID tag. Check to make sure your pet still has one and that the information is current. And if the tag has an "S" hook fastener, switch it out for an "O"-shaped key ring type of fastener, which you can find at any home-supply store.

"S" hooks tend to catch on things and loosen over time, allowing the tag to fall off. A reader also once shared the story of how one of her dogs got an eyelid caught on the "S" hook of the other dog. The freak accident ripped open the dog's eyelid, required a trip to the emergency veterinary clinic and a couple of stitches.

The veterinarian told the reader the dog was lucky to have escaped permanent damage. It won't take you much money or time to make the change from an "S" hook to an "O"-shaped tag holder. Put it on your to-do list, for the safety of 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

Hypoallergenic pups? It's mostly hype

All dogs have the potential to cause misery in allergy sufferers, no matter the breed or mix, the hair or lack thereof.

The dogs that are reputed to be preferred for allergy sufferers are those with poodle-like coats. The list includes poodles, of course, but also malteses, bichons frise and some doodle-oodle mixes. Some people also believe that dogs with little or no hair, like the Chinese crested, are also good for allergy-sufferers.

The problem with the fur theory is that it's not the fur that causes the problems. Allergies are caused by a substance found in the sebaceous glands in a dog's skin. The substance clings to the skin and hair, and ends up everywhere, resulting in sneezing and wheezing in people with allergies. If you really want a hypoallergenic pet, think reptile, or maybe fish. (Not birds, because feathers and feather dust will get you!)

That said, some breeds seem to be better tolerated by some people with allergies, but reactions vary from person to person and dog to dog. The American Kennel Club suggests 15 breeds that may be easier on allergy sufferers, including the Bedlington terrier, bichon frise, Chinese crested, Irish water spaniel, Kerry blue terrier, Maltese, all three sizes of poodle, Portuguese water dog, all three sizes of schnauzer, soft-coated wheaten terrier and the xoloitzcuintli. (The last one is perhaps more commonly known as the Mexican hairless.)

In general, smaller dogs seem to be less of a problem than larger ones, but that's because smaller dogs put out smaller amounts of allergen. Bathing or even rinsing your dog frequently can help, as can keeping pets out of your bedroom so you can have allergy-free sleep.

And what about that other dog-allergy-related urban myth, that Chihuahuas can cure asthma? That sound you hear is a thousand allergists laughing.

BY THE NUMBERS

Fly away home

You find a dog or cat, and you try to find the owner. That's the way it works, but bird lovers say too often people think "finder's keepers" when it comes to a found bird. In 2004, 7 percent of cockatiel owners reported acquiring the pet when the bird flew into their yard. Other reported ways of getting a cockatiel:

Shelter 3 percent

Bird shop 21 percent

Breeder 23 percent

Friend/relative 43 percent

Pet store 22 percent (a)

Gift 7 percent

Note: Numbers do not add up to 100 percent; (a) includes both traditional small pet stores and pet superstores.

Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association

PETS ON THE WEB

Checking out Internet rumors

Anyone with a pet and an e-mail address receives a constant barrage of "warnings" on products that are said to be deadly to pets. The most pervasive in recent years have been warnings on Febreze and Swiffer. Neither product is dangerous to pets, and I've long wondered if these rumors were started as a campaign to hurt the manufacturer. After all, Procter & Gamble has long been the target of animal-rights activists.

It's neither right nor fair to pass on unsubstantiated claims. When you get such an e-mail, don't forward it automatically to 600 of your closest friends. Instead, check it out.

A good general site for rumors is www.snopes.com, which keeps up with all urban myths and e-mail rumors and fairly evaluates them. Specifically for pets, you can usually find out the information from the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/APCC).

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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