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

EASY LIFE FOR OLDER DOGS

And Gina Spadafori

Universal Press Syndicate

People flip over puppies, but to us, a well-loved older dog is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. An older dog has a nobleness, a look in the eyes that speaks of years of the special love that only a pet can give -- trusting, nonjudgmental and unwaveringly true.

Your dog's health in later years is not entirely in your control, but you can have a real impact on a pet's attitude. Your dog doesn't know he's getting older. His gray hairs concern him not, nor does he worry about the other visible effects of time -- the thickening of his body, the thinning of his limbs. He doesn't count the number of times he can fetch a ball before tiring and compare that to his performance when he was a young dog in his prime.

A dog lives in the now. Just as he doesn't reflect on his past, he can't imagine his future. Your dog takes his cues from you. When you're upbeat, encouraging and loving, he'll be at his best no matter his age.

This time can be a special one for both of you, and it's up to you to make the most of it.

As your dog ages, increase the frequency and diminish the intensity of his exercise. Instead of taking your dog to the park once a week to chase tennis balls until he's exhausted, take him for a long walk daily. If your dog is having problems with physical activity, talk to your veterinarian. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications may help, as may supplements such as glucosamine or alternative treatments such as acupuncture.

Your dog has no real sense of shame or embarrassment, so he suffers no loss of face if you come up with some ideas to make his life a little easier. Truly, the number of ways you can give your oldster a break is limited only by your imagination. Here are a few tips to get you thinking:

-- Beds. Think soft. Think cushioned. Think low. Think heated. Your dog will thank you for all of these thoughts, especially in cold weather.

-- Clothes. Older dogs, like older people, have a more difficult time maintaining their body temperature. This problem is even more pronounced in slender, short-coated breeds like the greyhound or whippet. So check out the sweater selection at your local pet-supply store, repurpose thrift-store children's clothes, or make your own if you're crafty.

-- Ramps and steps. If your dog is allowed on the couch and the bed, get steps to help him if he can no longer make it in one jump. You wouldn't want to watch TV without your dog at your side, would you? A permanent ramp going down the back-porch step or a slide-out ramp to help your dog get into the car will also be appreciated.

While you're making household adjustments, don't forget to make an appointment for a senior dog checkup. Your veterinarian may recommend some diagnostic tests in addition to a physical examination -- typically, bloodwork and an X-ray -- to spot problems early or to establish a baseline of what's normal for your dog. You should also consider having your dog's teeth attended to, because gum infections and mouth pain will severely affect the comfort and health of your dog. Most veterinarians recommend twice-annual exams for senior dogs, by the way.

The senior dog checkup is also a good time to determine if your dog's slowing down means his diet will need to change to take excess weight off his joints.

Helping to keep your older dog healthy and fit will mean his senior years will be happier and more comfortable as time goes by. And that will be good news for you both.

Q&A

Making vet trip easier for cat

Q: When it's time to go to the veterinarian's office, my gentle cat becomes a monster. Our veterinarian says she's used to cats like ours, but I wonder if there's a way to make things easier for all of us. -- G.W., via e-mail

A: Work with your veterinarian to come up with a strategy to make the visit easier for you all, and realize that the staff will have to handle your pet firmly to prevent injuries to your cat and the people around her. Be sure you're using a hard-sided carrier for these trips -- never try to hold an angry cat in your arms or transport her in something that lends very little protection to you or her, such as a pillowcase.

You might also consider using a mobile veterinarian. Although your cat won't be any more pleased to see a veterinarian who makes house calls, at least she'll be spared the trauma of travel.

The temptation when you have a cat who hates the veterinarian is to avoid routine preventive veterinary care entirely. It's not uncommon for cats like these to never see a veterinarian after that first visit has gone so horribly wrong.

If you go this route -- and we're not recommending it, just acknowledging it as a choice many cat lovers make -- the responsibility for spotting illness falls squarely on your shoulders. Be aware of changes in your cat's body, attitude or behavior, all of which can indicate illness and necessitate a trip to the veterinarian's, whether your cat likes it or not. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori

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

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ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.

On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a monthly drawing for more than $1,000 in pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.

THE BUZZ

Better eye meds may be on the way

-- Dogs with eye problems may no longer have to rely on daily eye drops from their owners. An Iowa State University researcher has developed a way to treat a dog's eyes by producing a biodegradable medicine that can be placed in the tissue surrounding his eyes and will have lasting effects for up to a year. A small incision is made in the tissue around the dog's eyes, and medicine is inserted before stitching the eye back up, all taking only a few minutes. Six dogs have undergone treatment so far with positive results, but further testing will be done before the treatment will be available to the public.

-- Zoo animal manure may be turned into electricity at the Toronto Zoo. There's a plan to build a $13 million facility to use methane gas from the manure to produce power.

-- Veterinarians have a high level of job satisfaction, according to a survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association and compared with national surveys. The survey put veterinary satisfaction just below clergy, teachers and psychologists, and well above the satisfaction of lawyers and physicians. There are more than 88,000 veterinarians in the United States, according to the trade group.

-- Another reason to deem the Tyrannosaurus rex as the king of all beasts is an impeccable sense of smell. In a study by the University of Calgary, the T. rex was found to have the best sniffer of all carnivorous dinosaurs. Researchers speculate the sense of smell was probably used to help the predator hunt at night. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon

THE SCOOP

Proper diet key to rabbit health

Diet has a huge impact on the health and well-being of any creature, and the rabbit is no exception. Common health problems in the rabbit directly relate to diet, and include obesity, gastrointestinal diseases and dental disease.

All pet rabbits need a high level of indigestible fiber, which, along with adequate water, is vital for the normal and healthy functioning of their gastrointestinal systems. Rabbits need to have their levels of carbohydrates and protein controlled to avoid obesity and kidney disease.

Properly fed rabbits do not need supplements added to their diets. Rabbits produce a good portion of their own vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients through the production and re-eating of special feces called cecotropes.

A basic healthy daily diet for a domestic rabbit should include unlimited grass hay and a minimum of 1 cup of fresh leafy greens for every 2 pounds of body weight. Use as many varieties of greens as possible, and offer other vegetables and fruits as well, in more limited amounts. Rabbits also need an ongoing supply of fresh, clean water.

Pet rabbits do not need commercial food pellets. If used at all, the pellets should be of a high-fiber, low-protein variety, given in very small amounts. Pellets should never be the only food for a pet rabbit. -- Gina Spadafori

BY THE NUMBERS

What's up, doc?

A veterinarian's advice is still the most sought after when it comes to pet care -- although the Internet is gaining steadily. Here are the top sources for information on caring for dogs, as reported in 2004 (multiple responses allowed):

Veterinarian: 66 percent

Past experience: 54 percent

Books/library: 26 percent

Friends/relatives: 25 percent

Magazines: 19 percent

Internet: 19 percent

Pet store: 13 percent

Source: American Pet Products Association

ON GOOD BEHAVIOR

Overcoming dog's fear of strangers

Using yummy treats as a training aid may help to lessen your dog's fear of strangers or other dogs when out on walks.

Walk your dog before meals so he's hungry. At the first sight of a stranger, act jolly and relaxed, and give your dog a treat. Your goal is to help the dog see a stranger as your reason to pull out the treats and be happy.

As your dog begins to show anxiety or fear, stop giving the treats freely. Ask your dog for a calmer, more controlled behavior such as a "sit," and reward him with treats.

Over time, repeat these techniques as you decrease the distance between you and the stranger in tiny stages.

(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)

Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.