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

TEEN TRAINER

For most authors the joy of getting that first book published is short-lived, soon replaced by the pressure of coming up with a second book. But not for Kate Eldredge.

"I've talked it over with my parents," she says. "And I'm going to concentrate on high school now."

A smart move, considering that Eldredge, author of "Head of the Class: A Teen Dog Expert Teaches You to Raise and Train the Perfect Pal" (Howell Book House, $17) is just 14 years old.

Besides, her first book is such a good one, it'll take some time to come up with an encore. Written with her mom, the author and veterinarian Dr. Debra M. Eldredge, "Head of the Class" is a wide-ranging book that covers it all, from training to health care. Even canine-themed crafts are covered, along with plenty of extra resources for finding even more information.

"Our audience is mostly kids," said Eldredge, sounding every bit the marketing genius by phone from her home in upstate New York. "We were aiming at pre-teens and teens. It's OK for older people, too. Most of the information is fine for everyone. I tried to keep it light, to work some humor in."

For a kid whose mom's a veterinarian, Eldredge says she had a struggle to convince her parents that she needed a dog of her own. Her family, which includes younger brother Tom (who took many of the pictures for the book), lives on a farm with all kinds of animals. But by the age of 7, Eldredge wanted there to be one more.

"I wanted a Welsh corgi since I was very young," she said. "I just liked corgis. My parents weren't so sure I was ready for a dog of my own. I went a year carrying a stuffed Sheltie around everywhere. It worked: I got Flash."

That sort of dogged determination only intensified when her puppy arrived. By the age of 10, Eldredge was writing articles for the local corgi newsletter, then the national one. She won a few awards for her work, and jumped to a national canine magazine, with a regular assignment writing about other kids who compete with their dogs.

A book just seemed a natural progression for the young dog trainer, who has trained not only for basic household obedience but also for organized canine competitions. Eldredge and her mom motivate each other with dog training challenges, and they help each other through the rough spots in getting their dogs trained.

"We currently have a competition to teach our dogs to put a tennis ball through a little kids' basketball hoop we found cheap at a garage sale," she says, adding that she intends to win. "Mom claims she's winning, but I wouldn't be so sure."

As for the book, she's happy to give her mom credit but takes pride in the work she did in developing and writing most of the book.

"About two years ago my mom and I were throwing around ideas, and we thought it would be cool to have a book written for kids by a kid," she said. "It took about six months to write, mostly in the summer so it wouldn't conflict with school. Mom wrote most of the health chapters, and I wrote most of the care and all the training."

As for future plans, Eldredge is keeping her options open. Neither of her parents' careers -- her dad's a doctor of the human-care variety -- holds much appeal.

"My dad's on-call schedule has convinced me I don't want to be a doctor," she says. "I'll probably always write, and I'll always have dogs. Other than that, I'm keeping my options open."

Q&A

Natural perches good for birds

Q: I bought an Amazon parrot from a newspaper ad, along with the cage and all the supplies. Seymour is great, but I'm worried about the tree branches that are in his cage instead of perches. The person I bought him from said "natural" branches are better than store-bought perches. But the bird chews on them, and I worry about poisoning. - R.Y., via e-mail

A: Although buying a "secondhand" parrot can often be a risky endeavor in terms of health and behavior problems -- I always recommend a check by a bird-knowledgeable vet before the sale is final -- the fact that Seymour's former owner went to the trouble of putting branches in the cage speaks well of the bird's care to this point.

The smooth pine dowels that come with most birdcages are fine, but a more varied selection of perches is better for your bird's physical and mental health. And that means more than branches. Think variety -- rope, cement and wood perches should all find a place in your bird's cage. Natural wood perches, such as the branches already in Seymour's cage, are wonderful because they feel good under your bird's feet and because they give him something to chew on.

Your bird's off to a good start. Keep rotating those perches, to help keep your pet exercised and to stave off boredom. And that means ... more branches!

Most fruit and nut trees (almond, apple, prune and all citrus) are fine to use, as are ash, elm, dogwood and magnolia. If you can get your pruners on some manzanita, go for it. It's a hard wood that can stand up to a lot of abuse. Try grapevines, too. And leave the bark on for your bird to peel off. Not all wood is good, though: Treated or painted lumber should not go in your bird's cage.

Wild wood is probably best. Cut branches to a length to fit in your bird's cage. Scrub and clean them well with soap. Then rinse, and dry them in the sun. Check for insect egg pods. If you find them, just break them off and discard them before putting the branch in your pet's cage. (If you don't, you may find a zillion little buglets thinking it's spring in your home.)

The best perches are those that keep your bird busy destroying them. Think of perches as replaceable cage furnishings. Tearing them up is good for your bird, providing both exercise and entertainment.

Neutered cat sprays

Q: I have always been under the impression that a neutered male cat does not spray (e.g., using urine to mark territory). Yet the other day I observed my neutered male cat doing just that! Do I have an exceptional male cat, or should I question the validity of the neutering operation? -- C.L., via e-mail

A: In addition to helping to fight the tragedy of pet overpopulation, neutering has many heath and behavior benefits that make living with a male cat more pleasant. Neutered cats roam less, fight less and spray less. The surgery may completely eliminate spraying in some male cats, reduce it in others, and have little effect in a small population of remaining recalcitrant kitties.

Territory marking in neutered male cats may be a holdover from the pre-neutering days, or may be a reaction to territorial incursions by other neighbor cats or stressful changes in the household. Talk to your veterinarian about behavioral modification strategies for your cat. These may include environmental changes, medication, or the use of a pheromone product such as Feliway.

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

THE SCOOP

Better housing isn't expensive

How would you like to spend all your life in a cage so small you could barely take a few steps in it? Don't doom your rabbit or guinea pig to such a miserable life.

Many people have used their imaginations and not much money to create indoor playgrounds for rabbits and guinea pigs, using such items as milk crates, pieces of lattice and old lumber pressed into service as walls and ramps for playpens. Check out tag sales and freebie ads to see what you can recycle. For my rabbits, I found a child's hard-plastic playpen at a garage sale for a couple of bucks. It now forms the main part of a rabbit exercise pen.

Once you have a play area, add furnishings to make things even more interesting. Cardboard tubes and boxes of all sizes are fun to play with and chew on, as are natural-fiber mats and baskets. Stuff them with hay for extra interest.

Your pets will happier with more room and more opportunities for activity, and so will you, since you'll have so much more fun watching their antics.

ON THE WEB

Keeping ferrets healthy, happy

Ferrets are popular pets, even in those few places where they're illegal, like California.

There are plenty of reasons for their popularity. Ferrets are small, affectionate and playful pets who keep their owners smiling. As with any pet, though, the key to successful ferret-keeping is making sure you're the right fit for a pet ferret, and then providing what your ferret needs to thrive.

Everything Ferret has the answer to any questions you could possibly have about ferrets. The site (www.everythingferret.com) is clean, information-packed and easy to navigate, with tons of links to explore.

DOGMOBILES

City dog, country dog, and a Ford Explorer

The Ford Explorer may be an overlooked old warrior in an age of increasing interest in more fuel-efficient vehicles. But when it comes to hauling people, gear and a pair of large dogs in comfort and style, it still has a lot to offer.

The Eddie Bauer Edition Explorer I test-drove was as deluxe as they come, with a sticker price to match, $43,000. But unless your dogs insist on watching "101 Dalmatians" on the high-end model's second-row DVD player, you can find Explorer models starting under $30,000.

I put the Explorer to the ultimate dogmobile test: Two days at dog shows and a day of field training. This meant nearly 400 miles of hauling two retrievers and our competition gear on the highway, down country roads and across a few hundred acres of ranch land. The Explorer took it all comfortably in stride, whether in overdrive or four-wheel drive.

The cargo area was versatile, with seats that folded into assorted configurations to accommodate two dog crates and all the gear that goes with any kind of dog sport. Perfectly positioned cargo anchors allowed me to tie down the crates for added safety.

The Explorer also has one of my favorite dog-friendly features: a split rear door with a glass panel that flips up separately. This feature is essential for keeping the cargo area well-ventilated on cool days when it's safe to leave the dogs in the vehicle for a while.

Struggling Ford is betting the farm on its more fuel-efficient vehicles, including its smaller SUV, the Ford Escape. I drove the Escape's hybrid-drive cousin, the Mercury Mariner. And although I loved the fuel economy (and that two-piece rear door), I didn't think it stacked up well for hauling dogs. The cargo space was too narrow for crates, and the rear seats were awkward to configure.

While a large SUV has never made much sense for a single-occupancy commuting, these vehicles still have a place. Like others in its class, the Explorer truly comes into its own when the terrain is variable and the load is a big one that must be moved in comfort.

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

Leash 'em up!

According to a survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 93 percent of dog owners have purchased a leash for their pet. New leashes are purchased on average every three years. The breakdown by leash type (multiple responses allowed):

Nylon 75 percent

Chain 13 percent

Leather 11 percent

Rope 5 percent

Reflective 1 percent

All others 2 percent

PET Rx

Don't dose pet -- call your vet

Never, ever give even the most seemingly mild medication to your cat without checking with your veterinarian first. A common danger? Tylenol, which can kill a cat.

Even if you should get lucky and give your cat something that's not potentially lethal, you might be mistaken as to what's ailing your pet. If your cat is sick, see your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Remember, too, that cats are very sensitive to flea-control and other household insecticides. Never use a flea-control product on a cat unless it specifically says on the label that it's safe for a cat. Products meant solely for use on dogs can kill cats.

(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.)

Award-winning writer Gina Spadafori has two new books out, which were co-authored with "Good Morning, America" veterinary correspondent Dr. Marty Becker: "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" and "Why Do Dogs Drink From the Toilet?" 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.petconnection.com.

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