The image of a beribboned puppy and delighted children on Christmas morning is one a lot of parents can't get out of their heads -- and one that sells a lot of puppies every year at this time.
Never mind that humane societies, trainers, veterinarians and reputable breeders say that Christmas morning is just about the worst time to introduce a puppy to the family. To parents with camera at hand, the scene seems worth the trouble of an energetic ball of fluff rolling around on one of the year's most hectic days.
But is it really? Introducing a puppy on Christmas Day is very stressful for all concerned. The puppy needs your attention -- but so does everything else. It's never a good plan in a busy household.
Even if you get your pup before or after the actual holiday, you have some challenges. The first may be finding the right puppy. Many shelters and reputable breeders will not place puppies right before Christmas, because they believe the time is just too high-risk. That leaves you with less-than-ideal sources for your pet.
And that's not all: Consider the problem of socializing and training a puppy in the dead of winter, if white winters visit your corner of the universe in December. By the time the snow starts to melt, you could have a half-grown canine terror on your hands. Even if you're living where a white Christmas isn't a factor, house-training a puppy in the middle of winter is no picnic, especially that 2 a.m. trip to the yard.
Giving up that Norman Rockwell moment when your children discover that St. Nick has answered their pleas for a puppy is difficult. But if you want a better chance of still having that pet as a well-loved member of the family on future Christmases, consider this option: Wrap a collar and leash and a dog book for the children and put that under the tree. Tell your children that their puppy had to wait to be born, but will be with them as soon as she can.
If you decide to go ahead anyway, shop carefully. People who don't know or don't care about the kinds of problems they're breeding are counting on you being too besotted with holiday cheer to do your homework. Make sure you buy from someone who has socialized the puppies in their home from the time they've been born.
Ask, too, about the genetic problems in the breed you fancy, and ask what the breeder has done to eliminate them. For example, don't buy a large-breed puppy whose parents haven't been certified free of hip dysplasia by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or PennHip. You don't want your pup to be emotionally damaged, and you certainly don't want to be facing expensive surgery to correct congenital problems down the road.
PETS ON THE WEB
A great many of us will be buying holiday gifts for our favorite pets. If you're one of them and ready to jump into the world of electronic commerce, have I got a couple of Web sites to start your shopping!
For dogs, try DogToys.com (www.dogtoys.com), a slick site offering more than 300 of the highest-quality toys, including a good selection of indestructible Kong toys and lots of sturdy plush. DogToys also has the hottest new toy, the Buster Cube, a sturdy kibble-filled puzzle that your dog must work on to solve -- great for home-alone pups with time on their hands.
DogToys also offers a few cat toys, but I prefer the selection at Cat Faeries (www.catfaeries.com). Cat Faeries specializes in handmade toys for cats and fantastic finds for people who love them -- books, jewelry and more.
All the trials of old age can make a dog downright cranky, and make some people long to have a puppy in the house. Of course, you want to be sure your older dog enjoys the addition, or at least tolerates it. So should you add a puppy to an older dog's life?
That depends. For some older dogs, a puppy is a big boost to the senior's enthusiasm for life. For others, a puppy's energy and attention are enough to make an older dog want to leave home. You must determine which of these attitudes your older dog has.
In general, though, older dogs who are still fit and full of life will probably get the most out of an addition to the household; elderly or severely debilitated dogs will enjoy it least. No matter your dog's age, however, try to keep tabs on the interaction until you're sure how things are progressing. Don't let your older dog overextend himself, and put the puppy behind a baby gate or in a crate to give your oldster a break from time to time.
Finally, save some energy and time for dog No. 1: Spend time together, just the two of you, so he realizes that he is still very much loved.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: The first half of your column in today's paper discussed the reasons for having a proper cat carrier. I do have one like the one you recommended, but there are some low-cost vaccination clinics (the kind that you receive coupons for in the mail) that specifically request that you do not use a cat carrier when bringing in your cat, but instead use a pillowcase. What could their reason possibly be for that request? -- S.R., Santa Rosa, Calif.
A: A cat will be more secure and more comfortable in a hard-sided carrier like the one you have. A vaccine clinic can be stressful enough for a cat without being slung about like a bag of potatoes.
Why the pillowcase? A cat in a pillowcase is easier to immobilize than one that must be removed from a carrier. This is especially important considering that many such clinics are held in open-air settings. A frightened cat can be slicker than snail slime and a real challenge to hold, especially when teeth and claws come into play.
My preference remains with the carrier, and with a veterinarian who has time to handle your cat with gentleness and look for health problems. A good working relationship with a veterinarian who knows your pet well is the best preventive medicine you can buy.
Q: I'm a diehard cat lover. I've been through cancer and diabetes with mine, and would do anything for them as long as they are enjoying their life.
I would never let any cat of mine outdoors unattended. Cat lovers are a tolerant people, but I think we do a disservice to each other by not speaking out when it comes to letting cats roam free outdoors. I've seen too many gruesome sights on the side of the road, knowing that I was looking at someone's beloved kitty, hoping that their owners would not have to see them like that and also angry that they think a cat has a chance against automobiles.
There are so many other things that are lethal to them, communicable diseases and dogs, and where I live there are also coyotes in abundance. I don't hesitate to share my views with cat lovers I know; if I can change one mind I'll be happy. I hope that you and others who can reach many more than I might help also. -- M.H., via the Internet
A: Only the subject of declawing is liable to spark a bigger fight than the one you'll get on the topic of indoor vs. outdoor cats. More cats than ever before are living completely inside, and that's changed since I started writing about pets nearly 20 years ago.
Cats do indeed live longer, healthier lives inside, but those who argue against keeping them in point out that indoor cats often have more behavioral problems -- or, at least, problems that we notice more often. If you choose to keep your cat indoors, you must make up for what he has lost -- an enriched and ever-changing environment. Ideally, that means access to fresh air in a screened-in room, but it surely means lots of toys, lots of play and lots of attention. Litterboxes cannot be neglected, and opportunities for scratching must be provided.
Behavioral problems are often our own fault, caused by our ignorance of emotional and physical needs of our caged tigers. If you do your part, your indoor cat will be very happy -- along with being healthy and safe.
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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