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

PETAHOLICS

The very fact that this newspaper has a pets section really irritates some people. Believe me, I know.

I hear from them constantly -- nasty e-mails and letters from people who refer to dogs as "filthy parasitic scavengers" and cats as "vermin that should be poisoned like rats." They chide me for suggesting that our pets "love" us and bemoan any money spent on animals. They are angry, and I am the focus of their rage. A few of them write nearly every single week.

I can only imagine how difficult life has been for these people in recent years, as interest in and spending on pets has increased dramatically. It must be hard for them to maintain that level of rage. I know I can't do it.

But then, I have pets, which have been shown in study after study to lower blood pressure, decrease depression and generally improve the quality of life for people who share their lives with them. Still, being a kind and fair-minded person (more traits of pet lovers), I have to wonder: Do they have a point? Has pet love gone crazy?

Yes, and no.

Spending on pets has certainly increased, and in veterinary care, there are more options than ever. So what? What other people spend their money on often has me rolling my eyes, but it's really none of my business. Why is spending money or time on pets any worse than on hobbies, luxury cars or video games? You can even argue it's money better spent, considering the proven health benefits of keeping a pet.

On a societal level, pets provide benefits that more than offset the problems that some irresponsible pet owners cause. The pet industry provides jobs and is one of the most open fields for small business start-ups, inventors and entrepreneurs -- just the kinds of businesses that are good for communities. Events such as cat shows and canine sport competitions bring millions of dollars into the economies of communities hosting such events.

Of course, I know many examples of pet love gone more than a little crazy. A lot of the behavior problems that pet lovers complain about are of their own making, because they've forgotten that their pets are animals, not people in fur suits. This kind of thinking not only sets up an unhappy relationship for people and their pets, but also leads to the over-the-top behaviors pet haters loathe.

As long as someone understands that a pet is an animal and relates to the animal as such, then money or time spent isn't hurting anyone. After all, it's often not being done for the animal's sake -- except, of course, in the case of veterinary care -- but rather for the amusement of the owner. As long as a pet lover's not unreasonably pushing the animal on other people, there's no harm in any of it. (And I say "unreasonably" because many of my angry correspondents believe animals should never be allowed off their owners' property.)

And what about love? The idea that animals are little more than furry machines is centuries old, and long supplanted by research showing that while the emotional lives of animals may not be as complex as our own, they definitely have what we call emotions. Do my pets love me? In their own way, I do not doubt it.

I'm sure I'll hear plenty in the days to come from my regular correspondents who call me "stupid" and worse for choosing to share my life with animals and daring to write about animals for the benefit of others. They may question my intelligence, but I have to wonder about theirs.

After all, even my rabbits are surely smarter than to think you can change the mind of a person who loves animals so much she writes about them for a living.

Q&A

Tests needed for diagnosis

Q: My 11-year-old cat, Clyde, throws up at least three times a week. Most of the time it's just food. Do you know what the reason for this might be?

I mentioned it to the veterinarian, and he wanted to run a whole series of tests. I've never had this done because of the expense and because I didn't want to put Clyde through this. -- D.G., via e-mail

A: If you're going to a talented veterinarian whose skills you respect, you have to trust him when he says he needs to run a diagnostic test or two to figure out what's wrong with your pet. Yes, I realize these tests add costs, but they also allow a veterinarian the chance to see what's going on with your pet. It always amazes me that people gripe when veterinarians suggest diagnostic tests, and yet many would be the first to yell "malpractice" if a physician tried to diagnose a human health problem without tests.

Many veterinarians are good at diagnosing problems -- especially considering they can't ask questions of their patients -- but they're not magicians. If you work with your veterinarian and explain your concerns over cost, it may be he can recommend some dietary changes to try, and then one test, something else to try, another test and so on. Veterinarians do understand the financial restraints that people have, and any good one will be willing to work with you as you work together to resolve your pet's health problem.

So go back to your veterinarian. If Clyde were throwing up hairballs a couple of times a week, I wouldn't be too worried. Since it's his supper that's ending up on your floors, though, I'd recommend you check back in with your veterinarian with an eye toward doing the most you can for Clyde within your budgetary restraints.

Thermometer time

Q: My dog sometimes has a warm, dry nose. He hasn't seemed at all sick, so I haven't taken him to the vet. Should I be worried that he's running a fever? -- K.M., via e-mail

A: An occasional dry nose is nothing to worry about and is not necessarily a sign of fever, despite what folks have said for years.

The only way to determine for certain if your pet is running a fever is to take his temperature. You can find pet thermometers in almost any pet-supply outlet, either the inexpensive in-the-fanny kind or the pricier ones that slip into the ear canal. (Whichever you choose, I recommend marking the item to be certain everyone in the family knows it's for pet use only.)

The normal temperature for a calm dog is around 101 degrees Fahrenheit, although a degree in either direction is normal.

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

DOGMOBILES

Nimble RAV4 a perfect fit for dog lovers

If all you're doing is taking your dog to the veterinarian for an annual checkup, you can probably get away with using any car. But if you're out with your dogs regularly -- to parks, for hikes or for canine competitions -- you need something you can put crates in for safe riding, along with gear. And that probably means a minivan, sport-utility vehicle or wagon. Additionally, some dog sports require a vehicle that can handle rough terrain, and that means high ground clearance and all-wheel drive.

Filling the bill in all of these categories are the so-called "cute utes" -- smaller SUVs long popular with dog lovers. The Toyota RAV4 has to be a top pick for any dog lover looking for interior versatility, decent fuel economy and a lively driving experience.

The RAV4 comes in three trim levels, all in both two- and four-wheel drive, with sticker prices starting a tick over $20,000 for the base model. My test car was the four-cylinder, four-wheel-drive Sport model (it also comes in a six-cylinder). It was well-appointed with comfort and convenience features, and it rated at 23 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. (The two-wheel-drive model gets better mileage; the six-cylinder gets worse.)

My two side-by-side wire dog crates fit perfectly behind the second seat at their base, but because the rear of the RAV4 slopes back, the hatch wouldn't close. If I owned the vehicle, I'd probably pay to have a welder adjust the crates to fit perfectly. With the seats folded flat, though, the crates fit up against the front seats, which isn't a bad option since it allows access to the cargo area just below the floorboards near the rear hatch. For those who don't use crates, adding a dog grate behind the back seats will provide a spacious area for one or two dogs to ride in.

I'd rather see the RAV4 with a flip-down rear gate and a flip-up glass hatch (instead of a swing-out rear door) for more ventilation options when parked in cooler weather. While in motion, though, the air conditioner kept things cool from front to back.

The Toyota RAV4 gets top marks for interior versatility and space, and I loved how comfortable it was and how nimble it was to drive. For its size, price and class, it's a top-notch dogmobile, all around. Paws up!

(Dogmobile reviews assess new vehicles for their suitability for transporting dogs in comfort and safety. Additional reviews can be found on the Pet Connection Web log, accessible from PetConnection.com. Click on the category "Dogmobiles" to see them all.)

PET Rx

Hacked-up hairballs can be managed

When cats groom, they pull out and swallow a lot of fur. Swallowed fur is indigestible, so when it's in a cat's stomach, it has two ways to go: down and out, or up and out. When it comes up (to the accompaniment of that middle-of-the-night "Ack! Ack!" serenade every cat lover knows so well), it's a hairball.

If you want to impress your friends, the scientific name for that gummy mass you step in on your way to the bathroom at 2 a.m. is "trichobezoar." It is made up of the excess hair your cat swallowed, held together with a sticky mucous.

Hacking up a hairball every now and then is normal and usually doesn't cause problems. But if you see anything else in the mix, take the cat and the hairball (the former in a carrier, the latter in a plastic bag or container) to your veterinarian. Likewise, if your cat is hacking without producing a hairball, the vet is waiting to see you. Chronic coughing can be a symptom of many health problems, from heartworms to heart disease to asthma. Occasionally, hairballs can cause an obstruction that will require veterinary attention.

The easiest and best way to prevent hairballs is to brush your cat frequently. The more dead hair you pull out on your brush, the less your cat will have to swallow when she grooms. Regular brushing is good for your cat and good for keeping your furniture and rugs fur-free.

For cats who seem to have a chronic problem with hairballs, additional fiber in the diet may help. Special hairball-busting diets or remedies can be recommended by your veterinarian; milder cases may be resolved by adding a little canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling mix) to a cat's wet food.

(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

Claims for sick cats

For the second year in a row, urinary tract infection was the top medical condition that cat owners filed medical claims for in 2005 to Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. (www.petinsurance.com), according to a recent review of policyholder claims. Here are the top 10 medical problems reported to the company, along with rankings from the previous year (diabetes is new to the top 10 list):

1. Urinary tract infections (1)

2. Stomach upsets (2)

3. Kidney disease (10)

4. Skin allergies (5)

5. Respiratory infections (3)

6. Diabetes

7. Ear infections (4)

8. Colitis (8)

9. Eye infections (6)

10. Wound infections (7)

PET TIP

Saving money on dog toys

Instead of buying new stuffed toys for dogs, look in thrift stores or at tag sales for stuffed animals made for children. You'll find a good selection at rock-bottom prices -- a good alternative to paying as much as $15 or more for a stuffed pet toy.

When bargain hunting, look for sturdy stuffed toys with intact seams. Once you get them home, remove plastic eyes or anything else that can be chewed off and swallowed. Then run your recycled stuffed toys through the washer and dryer, and check them again before giving them to your dog.

For dogs who love to dissect their toys as quickly as possible -- and especially those who like to devour the stuffing -- skip plush toys (soft vinyl ones, too). For these dogs, stick with sturdy rubber toys, such as a Kong toy, that can be stuffed with food treats to keep pets interested.

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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