DEAR DR. FOX: When my son was in grade school, he enjoyed the animals they had in his classroom -- a rabbit and a couple of gerbils. He's older now and wants a ferret. You don't write much about these kinds of small pets in your column, but my question is: Are there any alternatives to having a female ferret spayed? It seems extreme since we will only keep one, and she won't have a chance to breed. -- P.K., Norman, Oklahoma
DEAR P.K.: I rarely receive letters concerning cage and aquarium animals, be they rats, hamsters, lizards, parakeets or tropical fish. Part of the reason, I suspect, is that many people now find answers online -- some possibly from not the most reliable sources. Others just see the animals as cheap and replaceable, the more expensive ones being taken to "exotic" animal veterinary specialists.
In this category of animals, significant improvement in their care is called for; too many live solitary lives in impoverished environments. Many die prematurely, often before they leave the pet supply stores. Others, for various reasons, are set free, and if they do survive, they can harm the balance of nature (like in Florida with the python). For a detailed critique of this market industry, see veterinarian Charles Danten's book, "Slaves of Affection: The Myth of the Happy Pet."
I am also aware of the plight of many animals kept in schools, who lack proper care over weekends and vacations, and, as Dr. Danten emphasizes, even with the best teachers, the "educational experience" is primarily one of acceptance of animal confinement and exploitation. There are better ways to teach children respect for other living beings.
The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 748,000 ferrets are kept as pets in the United States. If they are not kept for breeding purposes, the females must be spayed; otherwise, they keep coming in to heat (mating breaks the heat cycle). This leads to a form of fatal anemia called irreversible pancytopenia. Males are neutered to reduce musky odors as well as to prevent mating. These are good examples of the welfare and health issues of taking in various species not adapted to conditions of domestication or captivity, which deprives them of basic social and environmental needs.
Research on a sex hormone-inhibiting, long-acting implant is progressing as an alternative to surgical sterilization. Side effects are yet to be determined. The harmful side effect of surgical neutering in both males and females is all too common, namely Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism), which can mean chronic suffering and costly treatment. The hormonal imbalance caused by neutering is thought to be the cause, and this condition is not uncommon in neutered dogs.
While ferrets are adorable, intelligent, curious and affectionate animals, I would think twice about getting one -- and two is better than one for their social needs. Never purchase a purposely bred animal; instead, adopt from your local animal shelter.
DEAR DR. FOX: My 12-pound puppy has had diarrhea for at least five months. Our vet has tried special food like Hill's z/d hypoallergenic diarrhea powder. She's also been on prednisone and some antibiotics. At this point, I don't know what I can do anymore. She is otherwise a happy little puppy who seems to enjoy her life. Please, any help would be appreciated. -- S.S., Naples, Florida
DEAR S.S.: In my opinion, you need to find a veterinarian who will take a more holistic approach to your young dog's potentially debilitating condition. This would include, after ruling out internal parasites and bacterial infection, providing digestive enzymes, probiotics, prebiotics and an elimination diet to rule out a food allergy. For details on this diet, and my home-prepared dog food recipe, which might be the best solution, check my website, DrFoxVet.com. Do be sure there is no carrageenan in the canned dog food and soft treats, because this thickening agent can cause serious bowel problems in dogs and cats.
I am disturbed that antibiotics and prednisone were used on your pup without any evident diagnosis, which I am sure you would have shared with me. Such treatment is likely to make the condition worse.
Some holistic veterinarians, like more and more human doctors, are discovering the benefit of fecal transplants (via a rectal enema) in patients with chronic diarrhea caused by a variety of conditions. To find a holistic veterinarian in your area, a searchable list can be found at holisticvetlist.com.
(Send all mail to email@example.com 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.)