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

PREVENT AN ER VISIT

By Dr. Tony Johnson

I'm the guy you don't want to meet in the middle of the night. No, I am not a mugger, a thief or a cat burglar -- I am an emergency veterinarian.

Most of my interactions with pet owners end with something like "Nice to meet you, thanks for helping Fluffy, and I hope I never see you again." Not because I lack social skills or have a crummy bedside manner (I hope not, anyway), but because emergency room visits are rarely pleasant for man or beast.

Avoiding me -- at least professionally -- is the best option, but you need to be prepared in any case.

By far the biggest issue in emergency medicine is cost. Medical expenses for emergency room visits can run into the thousands of dollars. (The highest veterinary bill I have ever seen was around $22,000.) That the cost is a tiny fraction of a similar visit to the human ER isn't that consoling when you're having to scramble for the money.

Pet insurance for pets is now a reality, and there are several companies competing for your business. Even with insurance, you should set aside money every month for the unexpected. Insurance typically refunds a portion of your bill, which means you still have to pay up front at the ER.

Here's what else you need to know:

-- Be prepared. You can turn the odds in your favor by being prepared for the unexpected. There's a good chance an emergency will happen: Most pets will make at least one trip to the veterinary ER during their lifetime, so it is best to know where your local ER is located before the need arises.

When you go out of town, make sure your pet sitter knows how to contact you, knows your pet's medications and knows how far you would like to go with regard to your pet's care. A letter giving them treatment authorization will also go a long way toward making the whole experience go smoothly.

-- Practice preventive and protective medicine. Vaccines and spay/neuter decisions are hot topics right now. From an ER perspective, though, there are a few points that everyone should follow:

1. If you have a dog less than two years of age, get him vaccinated against parvovirus. Most cases of parvovirus are preventable, and can cost upward of $2,000 to treat, whether your dog survives or not (and many don't).

2. See your veterinarian at least once a year for a physical and lab tests. Diagnostic tests can help spot problems before they develop, and they become more important as your pet ages. If you have a set of several years' worth of normal lab tests, you will also have a baseline "normal" to refer to if problems arise.

3. Pay attention to your pet's weight, eating and drinking habits. Just a few extra pounds can rob your dog of years of good life! Conversely, unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of something bad brewing. If your pet starts drinking more water or urinating more, this could be a sign of several conditions, such as diabetes, particularly in middle-aged cats.

4. Use a leash, keep cats indoors and dogs fenced in. Keep tight control on your dog at all times (even the best trained dogs can dash into traffic when seeing their sworn archenemy -- the squirrel). And an indoor cat is far more likely to live late into his teens than an outdoor cat.

5. Pet-proof your home. Dogs and cats explore everything and assume the world is edible unless proven otherwise. Keeping medications and poisons where pets can't reach them is a cheap and easy way to make sure we never get acquainted.

With a little bit of planning, a little bit of luck and a little bit of preparation, you can minimize the chance that we'll meet. Don't worry -- you won't hurt my feelings!

Dr. Tony Johnson is a member of the Pet Connection team and an associate professor of emergency and critical care medicine at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Q&A

Cat behavior can be

spotted in kittens

Q: What should we look for in kittens? We're getting one later this year, and they're all so cute that it's hard to pick just one. -- via e-mail

A: Checking out kittens involves playing with them, and that's something you can never spend enough time doing.

Before you head for the shelter, block out a big chunk of time and put on some comfortable clothes you don't mind getting dirty. Put some kitten-testing toys in your pocket. A feather is ideal, but you can also use a Ping-Pong ball, a cloth mouse or even a piece of string. (The string must leave when you do, though, since it's not suitable for unsupervised play.)

From the friendlier kittens, choose one to play with first. Lift her out with a reassuring but gentle grip under her belly, and set her down in a secure observation area.

Let her explore her new environment a little while you settle onto the floor, and then, when she's satisfied with her surroundings, chirp at her and tease her with the feather or other toy. She should pursue it eagerly, batting at it and pouncing as she goes, and sitting up on her haunches to swat at it as you tease it overhead. This is all normal behavior for a healthy, outgoing kitten. If yours shows it, she's passed the feather test.

The kitten you want should be neither too shy nor too assertive and active. You're looking for a baby who's comfortable being held, who enjoys your petting and your soothing voice. One who wants nothing but to wriggle free and keep playing -- even if not doing so out of fear -- may grow up into a cat who is too active for you.

Spend a few moments of quiet time with each of your contenders and see how they react to you as an individual and vice versa. Let your heart weigh in a little here, and be receptive to the idea that one of these little fluffballs may be the one who's meant for you.

If you find that too many meet all your criteria, consider adopting two -- or a kitten and an adult cat. Cats enjoy the companionship of others of their own kind. You'll enjoy doubling your feline companionship, too! -- Gina Spadafori

THE BUZZ

Your dog loves you

even if you're nuts

-- Your dog listens to you whether you're crazy or not -- and doesn't care either way. According to research published in the journal Animal Behavior, researchers could find no evidence that dogs can tell the difference between rational and irrational acts, showing that they don't understand if human behaviors make sense or not, and don't notice if a person is acting crazy. But they listen anyway, following behavior cues regardless of whether they make sense.

-- Wild species of felines living in dense vegetation and low light conditions are the most likely to be patterned, usually with irregular and complex patterns that are used as camouflage. Leopards, for example, have adapted to their regional surroundings, developing coloring and patterns that match their particular environment. The researchers at the University of Bristol who authored the study note that the cheetah is a well-known exception to the trend: a patterned cat that lives on open grasslands.

-- Being a more dominant animal has its drawbacks. Dominant male chimpanzees had a higher testosterone level and higher levels of internal parasites, according to a research team from Indiana and Yale universities. The study suggests either that elevated testosterone levels in males reduce their ability to fight infection, or that the behavioral aspect of increased contact with a greater number of animals puts them at greater risk. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.