DEAR DR. FOX: We have four pets -- two cats and two dogs -- who all get along very well. Our spayed female papillon has some dominance issues. She always wants to be in front when we go on walks, and she barks at every single dog, human, deer, cat -- whatever she sees or hears.
I would like to train her to stop, but I want to use positive reinforcement only. What do you suggest? I have seen some barking collars in catalogs and have been tempted to try one, but I don't like the idea of spraying her little face every time she opens her mouth. -- C.M.M., Silver Spring, Md.
DEAR C.M.M.: Some behaviors are so instinctively hardwired and reinforced by an element of obsessive-compulsive disorder that they are a challenge to inhibit. There is also a size issue, similar to some sort of Napoleon complex: The smaller the dog (like your little papillon), the more it barks.
First, don't use a collar when out on walks -- this could injure her neck and windpipe. Rather, fit her with a comfortable harness. Before resorting to an anti-bark collar, try click-reward training.
Get your dog used to hearing a clicker (available in most pet stores), and, after clicking, get her to sit and stay before receiving a treat. Once she's condition-trained, use the clicker to distract her when she barks on your walks; reward her only when she sits and remains quiet. Be sure she is hungry before walks, and, as I constantly advise, dogs are best fed after, and not before, they are walked or allowed out to run and play.
DEAR DR. FOX: I have read many of the articles on your website and have purchased a copy of your latest book, "Animals and Nature First." You cover many different topics and areas of expertise way beyond the scope of your Animal Doctor column. For us pet owners, can you give a synopsis of how your concerns for the environment and for public health relate to many Animal Doctor issues and what difference can we pet owners make? -- R.E., Silver Spring, Md.
DEAR R.E.: I appreciate the thoughtful nature of your letter and your challenge to provide a synopsis of my concerns and how we can all make a difference. Here you go:
-- Embrace the vision of One Health, where progress in human health is inseparable from animal health and a healthy environment.
-- Become environmentalists. Eliminate the use of all pesticides in and around your home and garden and on your pets.
-- Become kitchen/food anarchists, supporting local farmers markets, purchasing organically certified food (including pet food) and preparing more of your own meals from scratch. Follow the dictum of Hippocrates: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."
-- Set up animal health/wellness exams for you animal companions that do not include animal booster vaccinations. Support national organizations such as Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace, World Vets and Animal Welfare Institute. Visit holisticvetlist.com to find a holistic veterinarian in your area.
-- Support your local animal shelter/humane society, Audubon Society or other local environmental and wildlife protection organization.
-- If you are a parent, look at what is being provided in school lunches. Get rid of soda pop and candy dispensers, and be sure environmental and animal protection issues are being included in food decisions.
DEAR DR. FOX: I have a pet rat that I took to the vet because she seemed to breathe noisily. She was fine otherwise -- healthy appetite, drinks plenty of water, playful and no discharge from the eyes or nose. Poop and pee are normal.
The vet decided to keep her for three days and quoted me a price of $250. When I went to pick her up, it was $450. Needless to say, I was upset. I talked to them twice a day when she was there, and they never said the price was going to be so much.
They gave her antibiotics and breathing ointments twice a day. She is home now and is still a noisy breather, but is fine otherwise. I feel they should have let me know of the new charges. -- M.S., High Ridge, Mo.
DEAR M.S.: It is quite beside the point that you could have replaced your pet rat many times over for the $450 that was charged for veterinary care -- there was no significant improvement!
There is a segment of the veterinary profession that puts business and profits before appropriate, ethical and cost-conscious animal care.
You should file a complaint along with an itemized bill to the state board of veterinary examiners and the Better Business Bureau. Did the attending veterinarian ask about or examine what food and bedding material you provided? Moldy food pellets could be a factor. More likely, irritating volatile oils from cedar shavings or dust and mold spores in bedding/cage litter material causes loud breathing. I presume your rat's enclosure is kept clean and is adequately ventilated.
(Send all mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox's website at DrFoxVet.com.)