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


By Christie Keith

Universal Press Syndicate

Take one fish in a plastic bag, one fishbowl and one child, and what do you have? Chances are you'll soon have a dead fish and a very unhappy child.

But it doesn't have to be that way. The secret of making your child's first fish tank a success is choosing the right equipment and the right fish, along with equal parts planning and patience.

Beginners need to start with the basics, and when it comes to fish, nothing is more basic than water. Without plenty of filtered, aerated water kept at the right temperature, your child's fish will become stressed, ill or may die. That's why equipment, rather than fish, is the most important part of setting up your child's first aquarium.

The first critical piece of equipment is the tank, and one expert suggests you make it easy on yourself by thinking big. "The bigger the tank, the easier to keep," says Maddy Hargrove, author of "Freshwater Aquariums for Dummies" (Wiley, $22). "I've always told parents to buy the largest tank you can financially afford and have the space for."

For Hargrove, that ideally means a 55-gallon tank. Add to that a high-quality filter capable of processing 100 percent of the aquarium's water at least three times every hour. The staff at a good aquarium supply store should be able not only to help you pick out a filter and other supplies, but also to make sure you know how to set up your tank and properly treat and test your water.

But even when your water has been treated, your filter is bubbling and the underwater plants are swaying, your tank won't be ready for fish until it has been running for around 48 hours. After that, you can add no more than one or two hardy fish, no matter how large your tank is. Good starter species include leopard or zebra danios and the smaller barbs, as well as that easiest of all beginner fish, the guppy.

Resist the temptation to add more fish for another six to eight weeks, because if you do, odds are they'll die. That's because it will take that long for healthy bacteria to develop in the filter system, and without those bacteria, the wastes produced by the fish will build up to toxic levels. Use this time to get comfortable with frequent water testing and partial water changes, and remember to get help from the local aquarium supply store if you need it.

Once the tank is established and you and your child are comfortable with the basics of aquarium care, it's time to start growing your fish population. Hargrove, who started her own first aquarium at the age of 5, has a number of favorites for beginners' tanks. "Convicts and cichlids, they're a great start for kids," she says. "Any of the mollies or guppies. These community fish are great, because they're really hardy, and it's pretty hard to mess them up."

If a larger tank isn't possible in your home, one fish that can do well in a tank that's 10 gallons or even less is the magnificent betta splendens, a very aggressive species usually kept as a solo fish. Other good choices for small tanks are white cloud minnows and dwarf gouramis.

Large tank or small, single fish or community tank, Hargrove cautions against what she calls the single biggest mistake made by new aquarium keepers: overfeeding.

"Parents need to tell their kids that for most of these starter fish, like the guppies, their stomach is the size of the head of a pin," she warns. "Don't give them more than they can eat in three of four minutes, two to three times a day."


Fish tricks and more information

You can do more with your fish than just look at them -- you can train them to do tricks. The inventors of the R2 Fish School Kit ($32 from pet-supply retailers or offer a kit with props and the instructions that any fish-keeper needs to teach fish to do tricks such as going through hoops and navigating weave poles.

If you just want to find out more about fish-keeping, here are a couple of Web sites that provide great resources for beginners:

-- Freshwater Aquariums ( A good collection of advice for beginners that covers the basics of tanks, heaters, filters, basic care, troubleshooting and species profiles.

-- AquariumHobbyist ( A community Web site where newcomers can ask questions as well as read basic and advanced-care articles about freshwater and reef aquariums. And if you do nothing else there, click on "Features" and save Jonathan Lowrie's indispensable guide "Got a Sick Fish?" -- Pet Connection staff


Should my dog eat her veggies?

Q: We feed our dog raw carrots and celery sticks, all of which she eats with apparent pleasure. (She does seem to like the celery better when some peanut butter is on it!) Any problems with this? -- L.K., via e-mail

A: Raw vegetables and fruits are a wonderful treat. (Peanut butter's fine, too, in moderation, and is sometimes used as a pill coating to get pets to take their medicine.) I often recommend carrots and apple slices as a substitute for commercial treats, especially for dogs who are pudgy. (Another easy weight-loss trick involving vegetables: Substitute thawed green beans for part of your dog's daily food ration. They'll make your pet feel full without adding much in the way of calories.)

Not all fruits and vegetables are good for your pet, though, and some may even be toxic. The absolute no-nos include raisins and grapes, avocados, onions and many nuts. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian or visit the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center online ( -- Gina Spadafori

Q: Will garlic keep my dog flea-free? -- F.W., via e-mail

A: I'm assuming you mean feeding your pet garlic, as opposed to sprinkling garlic powder on your pet.

Either way, the short answer is "no." There's no scientific evidence that garlic (or brewer's yeast, which also I'm often asked about) will control fleas. And since garlic in its natural form can be toxic, it's probably best not to give it to your pet at all.

The best advice I can offer is to ask your veterinarian for one of the topical products that control fleas. These products are considered to be generally safe when used as directed on healthy pets.

If you're determined to control fleas without chemicals, your best bet is to wash your pet's bedding and vacuum pet areas frequently to remove eggs and developing fleas. Use a flea comb to catch the adult pests on your pet. You can flick adult fleas into a bowl of warm, soapy water, and pour the drowned pests down the drain when you're done.

You'll likely still have fleas using these strategies, but if you're diligent, you might be able to keep the infestation down to tolerable levels. -- Gina Spadafori

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to


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 there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to or visiting


Heartworms not just a dog worry

-- If you crave a cuddle with a cat or dog, the AARP bulletin tells seniors to check out the Pets for the Elderly Foundation. This Ohio-based nonprofit pays up to $50 of the adoption costs when people 60 and older adopt a cat or dog from one of 58 animal shelters in 31 states. For details and participating shelters, go to or call 866-849-3598 (toll-free).

-- Many people mistakenly think that being born alive is something all mammals have in common. There are, however, a few mammals that lay eggs like a bird! The duckbilled platypus and the echidna are the only living examples of monotremes, or egg-laying mammals.

-- The European Commission approved a sweeping new proposal that would simplify existing procedures for labeling and marketing pet food and animal feed, including imported products, in the European Union. The European Council and the European Parliament will now consider the legislation.

-- Researchers say there is an underclass of puppies and kittens who never see a veterinarian, reports Veterinary Forum. These animals present a public health problem that can lead to outbreaks of deadly disease in animal shelters, says Dr. Ronald D. Shultz at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. "Even in the U.S., where we vaccinate more puppies and kittens than anywhere else in the world, we inoculate less that 50 percent of all puppies and less than 25 percent of all kittens." -- Dr. Marty Becker


Lack of training makes small dogs unwelcome

While not all small dogs are ill-mannered, one does tend to meet more small canine miscreants than large ones.

It's not that small dogs are more prone to bad behavior, mind you, but rather that the owners of small dogs tend to overlook behavior problems that would be absolutely intolerable in a 50-, 80- or 100-pound dog. A big dog who can't walk nicely on a leash and snarls insults at other dogs isn't anything you'd want to share with the world: You'd train him, or you'd leave him at home.

While it might seem easier to ignore bad manners in a little dog, the fact is that it's just not that hard to turn a little tyrant around. Little dogs are generally bright and easy to train, once their owners get the idea that training is not only desirable, but also very possible.

Reward-based training works well with all dogs, and this is especially true of small ones, who tend to be too fragile and sensitive for punishment-based training. Darlene Arden's book "Small Dogs, Big Hearts -- A Guide to Caring for Your Little Dog" ($20, Howell Book House) is probably the best out there for dealing with the challenges presented by the smallest canines, from house-training issues (small dogs can be notoriously difficult to house-train) to overcoming bad manners.

Whatever you do, don't encourage behavior in your small dog that wouldn't be acceptable in a large one. Your dog will be welcome in many more places if he's friendly, outgoing and well-behaved. -- Gina Spadafori


More and more pets

When the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association commissioned its first national pet owners survey in 1988, 56 percent of U.S. households included a pet. The numbers have gone up steadily since. The trade group's 2007-8 survey says 63 percent of U.S. households have a pet, or 71.1 million families. These include:

88.3 million cats

74.8 million dogs

24.3 million small pets (rabbits, ferrets, etc.)

16 million birds

13.4 million reptiles/amphibians


Domesticated rats Can be good pets

Rats can be clever, playful and affectionate pets, perfect not only for responsible older children, but also for open-minded adults. When purchased or adopted from reputable sources, these pets are more likely to be healthy, and they usually live two to three years. They come in many colors and patterns and can learn tricks as easily as many dogs.

For more on domesticated rats, be sure to check out the Rat Fan Club site (, a labor of love by club founder and leader Debbie "The Rat Lady" Ducommun. The site has good information on getting, raising and caring for these underappreciated pets.

Of course, many people will never embrace the idea of a pet rat. Maybe what we need are a few more movies and children's books where rats aren't the bad guys. -- Gina Spadafori

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 or by visiting

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