Anyone who has ever pulled out a credit card at the emergency clinic for something that wasn't an emergency comes away wishing for a better knowledge of what constitutes an urgent situation -- and what doesn't. But as big an "ouch" as a nonemergency can be to the budget, it's a lot better than the opposite situation: an emergency that goes untreated until it's too late for your pet.
But how can you tell? The signs of a healthy pet are pretty apparent to an observant pet owner: bright, clear eyes with no sign of discharge; clean ears, free of buildup or smell; a mouth not overpowered by its odor, with pink gums free of infection; a nose that appears moist, with no discharge; a shiny coat, with unblemished skin below that snaps back easily when pulled away from the shoulders. A healthy attitude, a healthy appetite and normal thirst are part of the package, too, without signs of intestinal upset. No lameness, no swelling. No heavy panting.
Anything to the contrary is reason for concern. But is it an emergency?
The first way to start finding out is with a thermometer. Pet thermometers are available at pet-supply stores or you can use one designed for humans. Just be sure to put the latter in a special place so there are no mix-ups.
To take your pet's temperature, put a little water-based lubricant on the tip of the thermometer and insert it in the animal's fanny. After a minute or so, remove and check the temperature. Normal is between 100 and 102.5 for dogs and cats; anything below 99 or above 103 is worth checking with a veterinarian, day or night.
Some other trouble indicators include seizure, fainting or collapse, as well as any suspected poisoning, including antifreeze, rodent or snail bait, or human medication. Snake or spider bites, too, demand immediate attention. Cats in particular can be fatally sensitive to insecticides (such as flea-control medications that are safe for dogs), petroleum-based products or medications such as Tylenol.
Sometimes situations that might not seem urgent really are, even such as mild eye injuries or allergic reactions -- swelling around the face or hives. A single incident of vomiting or diarrhea is probably nothing, but anything more than two or three times within an hour or so could indicate a serious problem. Other signs of possible serious conditions are breathing problems, chronic coughing, or difficulties urinating or defecating, especially in cats.
Animals can sometimes seem fine after accidents, such as being hit by a car, exposed to extreme heat or cold, or being cut or bitten. Beware! Your pet may have internal problems that may be lethal if not attended to quickly.
There are also situations that may not be life-threatening but are certainly painful enough to warrant immediate veterinary attention. Some of the signs of an animal in pain include panting, labored breathing, lethargy or restlessness, loss of appetite, aggression, hiding or crying out. While it may be possible to wait until your regular veterinarian is available, put yourself in your pet's place. Don't let your pet suffer!
Make best use of this column by saving it in your phone book and writing the phone number of your regular veterinarian and the phone number and directions to the nearest emergency clinic on it, so all the information is ready when you need it. And always remember: When in doubt, call a veterinarian.
It's better to make a trip you needn't have than to miss the one you should have made.
PETS ON THE WEB
Many people have discovered that greyhounds are wonderful pets. Thousands of people have adopted one of these "40 mph couch potatoes" in recent years, but activists claim outreach programs are little more than public relations for an industry with lots of explaining to do. Some greyhound groups work within the system, adopting out dogs on the condition that they not publicly criticize the racing industry. Others encourage adoptions but refuse to be muzzled, calling for an end to racing.
One of the strongest voices for greyhounds is the Greyhound Protection League, and they make their case powerfully on their well-designed Web site (www.greyhounds.org). It's not always easy reading, but it's good to know someone's looking out for these animals. The site documents abuse and common practices that would give most pet lovers pause. Also included are links to groups that facilitate adoptions of these gentle dogs.
Many cats love to nibble plants, some for the fiber, some because their tummies are upset, and some, well, they just like it. A kitty garden is easy to grow and gives your pet something to chew on besides your houseplants. You can find seeds in garden centers and some pet-supply stores.
What to plant? Catnip and valerian are two plants cats really adore, so much that you have to sow them in a cat-proof area or they'll never get beyond the seedling stage. After the plants are large enough to stand it, trim some for rubbing on cat trees and posts, stuffing in toys or offering plain to your pet.
Grasses such as alfalfa, rye and wheat are more attractive as tender seedlings; always keep a batch growing for your cat's grazing pleasure. Finally, parsley and thyme can be grown both indoors and out, and many cats like them.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I am looking for information on border collies and behavioral problems. My puppy is hyper. She chews on furniture and baseboards and digs in the yard. She's driving us crazy!
Will this dog ever be normal? I know they are supposed to be smart, but are they trainable? -- M.S., Sacramento, Calif.
A: Border collies are about the most trainable dogs ever born, but they need an owner who will keep both their fantastic mind and agile body engaged. Call it the "Babe" effect, if you will, but public exposure in recent years hasn't done this handsome breed a lot of good. Too many people see good looks and intelligence and don't think about what it's like to live with a dog who has both a strong work ethic and enough brains to do your taxes.
The good news is you don't have to buy a small herd of sheep to keep your border collie happy, although they likely won't complain if you do. These dogs excel in all manner of dog sports, including obedience, agility, fly ball and Frisbee. Even if you don't go in for organized sports, frequent, hard exercise and lots of mental challenges will keep this breed happy. They learn tricks easily.
A puppy class is a great start, but don't hesitate to work individually with a good trainer or behaviorist on your pet's problems. Your trainer can probably tell you about dog sports clubs in your area, as well.
Q: My family was thinking about getting a small dog, and my mom said she wanted a dog like Verdell from "As Good as It Gets." Do you know what kind of dog he/she was? Also, could you tell me how much a puppy would cost? -- L.G., via the Internet
A: The scene-stealing fuzz face -- hey, why didn't the dog get an Oscar? -- in "As Good as It Gets" is a Brussels Griffon. According to the American Kennel Club, this sturdy toy breed was originally developed in Northern Europe from German ratters and Belgian street dogs. Their primary purpose was to keep stables free of rodents. Later, the pug was introduced, which is why the breed today comes in either smooth (shorthaired) or rough (wirehaired) varieties. Those who love them say the Brussels is very intelligent and a tad stubborn.
Costs for any purebred puppy vary widely. Show-quality youngsters generally fetch more than pet-quality, although the latter may have nothing "wrong" except a misplaced marking or similar trait faulted in the show ring. Toy breed puppies are often more expensive than larger dogs because little dogs have small litters. Brussels Griffons were never that common, and their brush with fame will make them even harder to find now.
As always, your best bet will be dealing with a reputable, experienced hobby breeder. (Check out a dog show.) Whenever any breed gets media exposure, whether it's the border collie, Dalmatian or St. Bernard, opportunistic folks hustle into the breeding game, to the detriment of the dogs and the people who buy them. Buyer beware.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Write2Gina(at)aol.com.
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