As much as I hate foxtails, I have to admit that their design is nothing short of amazing. And besides, admiring them is much better than swearing when I'm gripping a comb and easing dozens of them out of the silky leg feathers of my three resident dogs.
Don't expect me to rhapsodize about fleas, though. My charitable nature goes only so far.
Dried to a tawny gold by a long, hot summer, foxtails are everywhere these days, their long, slender stems holding sticky seed carriers high, ready to catch a ride on a pant leg or a pet. The carrier itself is designed like a spike, with tiny hairs placed to keep the nettle burrowing forward through whatever material is in the way.
There's no problem when the spike falls to the ground, of course, where breezes help it to vibrate deep into the soil. But when a foxtail lands on an animal, all too often that burrowing trick is through flesh, and that can cause some severe problems. Foxtails dig deeply into every possible opening. Once in, they keep moving, sometimes causing significant damage. They can end up anywhere, and if left alone, may need surgical attention in time. Dogs may sneeze at them, but you shouldn't; they can put your pet in danger.
This is the time of year when the grasses are dry and foxtails rule the day. Be aware of these problem sites:
-- Feet. Limping and licking are signs a foxtail has found a home, probably between an animal's toes.
-- Ears. Because of the burrowing nature of foxtails, every head shake drives the pest farther down into the ear. A pet with a foxtail in its ear may develop a chronic, foreign-body reaction and infection.
-- Nose. Because dogs like to sniff, foxtails often lodge in their noses. The signs are obvious: sneezing, sometimes violently, sometimes accompanied by bleeding or discharge. A foxtail in the nose will cause an infection and can even work its way into the lungs or spinal column.
The best way to deal with foxtails is through prevention. Steer clear of areas dense with foxtails, if you can. Keep the fur between your pet's toes trimmed, and go over your pet after every outing from head to toe, catching the foxtails before they get a chance to dig in.
Be aware that once a foxtail is imbedded, it isn't going away. If you suspect a foxtail is in your pet's ear or nose, consult your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may still be able to grab the nettle before it can cause too much more trouble.
PETS ON THE WEB
Let's start with what you really need to know if you're going to go in-line skating with your dog. "This is not recommended if you are not 100 percent comfortable on your skates!" notes Caryn Shalita, dog-lover, skating fan and Web page keeper. Born with two left feet and a pretty pathetic sense of balance, I won't be taking any of my dogs skating soon. But if you want to try it, Shalita's "How to In-Line Skate With Your Dog" Web site (www.caryn.com/francis-blade.html) is the place to learn how.
Rule No. 1: Safety gear, for everything including your tailbone. For your dog, a long leash that restrains from under the armpits instead of the neck. The site includes instructions on training your dog as well as letters from other dog-loving skaters on what worked best for them. There are lots of links to sites about skating and dog activities, along with a few off-topic but interesting areas, including a tribute to Princess Diana, and Shalita's resume, acting credits and efforts to get herself cast on a number of top shows. She and her dog, Francis, did get a part in a film called "The Dog People" as -- and isn't this perfect -- in-line skaters.
Thinking about keeping your cat inside? Good for you. While the easiest time to make the conversion is when you and your cat move to a new home, you can make the change anytime, if you resolve to be firm.
Cats are highly territorial, and the day you reduce your cat's territory by cutting off the outdoor part is the day you're going to start hearing about it -- lots. Don't give in. If you allow the meows and stares to wear you down to the point of opening the door, you've taught your cat a lesson you'd rather he didn't know: "All I need to do is put up a fuss, and I get what I want." If you try to keep him inside again, he's going to be even more obnoxious.
Be patient but firm. Dissuade him from the door with a shot of water from a spray bottle and keep him occupied with toys, play sessions and lots of love. Within a couple weeks, your cat will settle in to his new routine, and you no longer need worry about the dangers he faces outdoors.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We're going crazy with our puppy, a 4-month-old Labrador. He chews everything! How can we stop this destructive behavior? -- C.S., via the Internet
A: All puppies chew. So would you, if your gums drove you as crazy as theirs do, especially when adult teeth are coming in around 4 months of age. The trick is to redirect the behavior by keeping things you don't want your puppy to chew on out of reach. Don't allow your puppy the unsupervised run of the house, give him approved chews and praise him for using them.
Some objects, such as table legs, are not capable of being picked up and put away. Discourage chewing on these by applying Bitter Apple (available in pet-supply stores) to favorite spots. The taste is so horrible your puppy won't put a tongue on it again. Tabasco sauce is another safe pup-stopper.
When you catch your puppy chewing on something he shouldn't, don't make a big deal out of it. Clap your hands to distract him, give him an approved toy and cue him by giving him a word to associate, like "chewbone." Then praise your pup for chewing the right item.
Avoid toys that resemble things you'd rather have left alone. Rope toys resemble rug fringes, and old shoes are too much like new ones. Choose sturdy rubber toys in a variety of shapes, sizes and textures, but make sure one of your pup's toys is the indestructible Kong dog toy, truly a pet toy Hall of Famer. The Kong comes in a variety of sizes, is great for playing and chewing, and can even be stuffed with a little peanut butter to add to its appeal.
Be fair: Never leave your puppy in a position to make his own decisions on what is or isn't acceptable to chew. If you cannot observe your puppy, put him in a safe area -- a crate, ideally, but also a small area like a laundry porch with a baby gate across the door. Make sure you leave some of those approved chew toys behind to keep him busy.
The worst chewing will be over when your puppy's adult teeth are in, but dogs need and like to chew. You can't stop it, nor should you try. Teaching your puppy now what chewing behavior is acceptable - remember, they're not born with this information - will set up a long, happy relationship.
Q: I saw a beautiful cat at the veterinarian's office. The owner said it was a "sumally." Could you tell me more about this breed and where to get one? - G.H, via the Internet.
A. The Somali is indeed a lovely cat! The breed is a long-haired version of the pantherish Abyssinian, and shares many of the personality traits of its more-popular relative. Abyssinians and Somalis are both active, intelligent and playful, more interested in keeping tabs on what you're doing than spending the day napping in the sun.
The best way to find a Somali is to visit a cat show and talk to breeders. You'll find listings of upcoming events in magazines such as Cat Fancy.
The Abyssinian isn't the only popular breed with a different-coated relation, by the way. The Balinese has many of the characteristics of the Siamese, but with a longer coat. And for those who fancy the Persian's distinctive short face and heavy body type but don't want to deal with all that fur, there's the Exotic/Exotic Shorthair (same cat, different names depending on the governing body).
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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