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

CHECK YOUR EMERGENCY PLAN

Gina Spadafori

Universal Press Syndicate

As I write this in Northern California, it's daylight, but the sun is obscured by the smoke from hundreds of wildfires. Countless families have evacuated their homes or stand ready to, along with their animals.

As I write this, the floodwaters are receding from a friend's farm in Iowa, but she and her family are safe, along with their animals.

As I write this, a photographer friend is back in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, following the progress -- or lack thereof -- of a great city working to get back on its feet, along with its animals.

As I write this, I wonder again: Am I ready for a levee break, living as I do near the confluence of two great rivers? Am I ready for an earthquake?

Maybe. Mostly. Now that I think about it, I'd better check.

Disaster preparedness is so easy to let slide. We get all worked up after a major disaster is in the news, and certainly after we're lucky enough to be reminded of the potential -- a thick layer of smoke, in my case, with the nearest fire two counties away.

We read up, we stock up, we move on. And then, we forget. In a pinch, we take the can opener out of the emergency kit and don't replace it. We rotate the food and water into our kitchen cupboards, but we don't buy anything new to rotate into the supplies in the garage.

It's human nature, of course, to react to immediate threats and to put off preparing for something that might never happen.

If you're one of those people who not only have a disaster plan but have also included your animals in it, now is the time to review those plans.

If you've never done any disaster planning, for you or your pets, this is as good a time as any to start. But no matter where you live, there could be a crisis heading your way, and your pets are counting on you.

Start your preparations with something you've probably already taken care of, by making sure your pets have ID.

Most animals will survive a disaster, but many never see their families again because there's no way to determine which pet belongs to which family if the animals go missing, a common occurrence even under normal circumstances. That's why dogs and cats should always wear a collar and identification tags. Add a microchip, too.

Once your pet has up-to-date ID, it's time to collect some equipment to help you cope in case of an emergency. A big storage bin with a lid and handles is an ideal place to keep everything you need together and on hand.

Keep several days' worth of drinking water and pet food, as well as any necessary medicines, rotating the stock regularly. For canned goods, don't forget to pack a can opener and a spoon. Lay in a supply of empty plastic bags, along with paper towels, both for cleaning up messes and for sealing them away until they can be safely tossed.

For cats, pack a bag of litter and some disposable litter trays.

Even normally docile pets can behave in uncharacteristic ways when stressed by an emergency, which makes restraints essential for the safety of pets and people alike. For dogs, leashes should always be available.

Shipping crates are probably the least-thought-of pieces of emergency equipment for pets but are among the most important. Sturdy crates keep pets of all kinds safe while increasing their housing options. Crated pets may be allowed in hotel rooms that are normally off-limits to pets, or can be left in a pinch with veterinarians or shelters that are already full, since the animals come with rooms of their own.

The final item of restraint for dogs and cats: a soft muzzle, because frightened or injured pets are more likely to bite. And don't forget to put first-aid supplies in your disaster kit, along with a book on how to treat pet injuries.

You may never have to pull out your disaster kit, but it's always good to be prepared.

For more information or a free emergency preparedness brochure for pet lovers, visit www.ready.gov or call 1-800-BE-READY.

Q&A

Antibiotics: Let your veterinarian decide

Q: My friend says she almost never goes to the veterinarian with her pets. She's from a farming family, and she says they always kept antibiotics around and treated their animals themselves. She says it's pretty easy to get antibiotics -- the fish kind are fine and lots cheaper, too. And, of course, she isn't paying for a vet visit.

Our budget is stretched pretty thin these days, like a lot of people. I'm open to the idea of doing more vet care at home. But is it really OK to give fish drugs to dogs? -- S.I., via e-mail

A: Antibiotics have saved countless lives of both the human and animal variety. But we have become so comfortable with these medicines and their frequent use, we sometimes forget they are powerful drugs that should be used with care.

As you've noted, some pet owners respond to any sign of illness by dosing -- and often, overdosing -- their pets with antibiotics commonly available at pet-supply stores (and often labeled for fish). "Prescribing" antibiotics on your own for your pet is a bad idea, for a couple of reasons.

First, if your pet has a viral or fungal infection, antibiotics will not help -- and they may even worsen your pet's condition.

Second, not all antibiotics are the same. They each have their target bacteria and may little affect bacteria that they're not designed to combat as well as bacteria that are resistant to their effects. To choose the right antibiotic for a particular health problem requires not only expertise, but it may also require a diagnostic test.

Third, regular use of antibiotics may affect both your pet's immune system and the bacteria trying to beat it, leading to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that will be hard to stamp out, even with the "right" medication. This last point has ramifications beyond the health of your pet: Experts say the wide use, misuse and overuse of antibiotics is behind the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.

When you buy an antibiotic at a pet-supply store, you are often wasting your money, and you're certainly losing time -- time that should be spent taking your pet to your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and targeted treatment.

There are many ways to trim the costs of pet care, but guessing at what's ailing your pet and then guessing at a course of treatment wouldn't be at the top of my list.

After all, guessing wrongly may end up costing you more than money -- it may end up costing your pet his life. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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

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 weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or visiting PetConnection.com.

PET BUZZ

Canine 'startup' costs not cheap

-- The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has released its annual estimate of pet-care costs and found a large dog's first year of care -- including food, veterinary care and spaying or neutering -- will cost about $1,843. Want a less expensive pet? The ASPCA puts the "startup" cost for a small bird at $270, and at $235 for a fish setup.

-- Tail-wagging is a form of communication (dogs don't usually wag their tails when they're alone). But a wagging tail doesn't necessarily mean a friendly dog, since even a dog with a tail on the move can and will bite. The book "Why Do Men Have Nipples" says the wag can convey good spirits, fear, aggression, dominance, submission or a state of conflict, the latter the simultaneous need to advance and retreat. Wagging also spreads pheromones by causing the muscles around the tail to contract and press on glands that release a scent that communicates information about sex, age and social status.

-- Alligator blood may hold the key to fighting deadly infections in humans, reports The Miami Herald. Preliminary data shows antibodies in gator blood killed about two dozen strains of bacteria, including E. coli, strep and salmonella, as well as a deadly form of staph infection. Researchers believe alligators developed strong immune systems to deal with injuries sustained in the swamp. -- Dr. Marty Becker

THE SCOOP

Dock diving: A big jump and a cool finish

Dock diving is one of the newest sports for dogs, and in the hot months of summer, it's easy to see why it's so popular.

The sport is easy to understand -- jumps off an elevated dock into a portable pool are measured for distance or height -- and fun for handlers, dogs, spectators and TV viewers. And although the top teams are now getting sponsorships and are training for even longer jumps, in dock-diving, even new competitors can do well.

If your dog loves the water, all you need to do is sign up, show up and have a great time.

Water dogs -- retrievers, primarily -- have a natural advantage in this sport, of course. A dog who doesn't fancy landing into a pool may lack the motivation to compete, no matter their ability to leap a great distance. Still, dogs of all sizes, breeds and mixes have competed, and many have posted more than respectable results.

Dock-diving is welcoming of newcomers, so if you think your dog has what it takes to get "big air," check out these organizations for more information:

-- Dock Dogs (www.dockdogs.com). Dock Dogs offers more events and a series of televised regionals leading to a championship. Most events are on the East Coast and in the Midwest.

-- Splash Dogs (www.splashdogs.com). Splash Dogs competitions are big in California and throughout the Western states, with a national championship in Arizona. -- Gina Spadafori

BY THE NUMBERS

Ticks mean health problems for dogs

Tick-related diseases are a major source of illness in dogs. According to an analysis of claims submitted in 2007 to the Veterinary Pet Insurance Co., Lyme disease is the top infectious disease in dogs for the third year in a row. Ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis, other tick-borne conditions, came in at No. 3. Together, these three conditions accounted for 47 percent of canine claims for infectious diseases last year. The top infectious diseases:

1. Lyme disease

2. Papillomatosis

3. Ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis

4. Valley fever

Source: Petinsurance.com

ON GOOD BEHAVIOR

Be conscious of what you're rewarding

When your pet is trying to get your attention, ask yourself this question, "Do I want this particular behavior to increase or decrease?"

For example, if you want your pet's vocalization and pawing at doors to decrease, then ignore those behaviors. As tempting as it is, do not even look at your pet. Eye contact alone is enough attention to encourage your pet to continue a behavior.

Instead, encourage behaviors you do want. Ignore your pet's unwanted behaviors until they stop. Then, give your pet an instruction or wait until your pet sits quietly before rewarding him with eye contact, praise or a treat.

Your pet will learn to offer those good behaviors you want instead of behaviors that no longer work to get what he wants.

(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Roland 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.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600