Flowers! Vegetables! Herbs and ground covers! No, you haven't turned to the gardening column by mistake. This is indeed about pets, and about how you don't have to give up your dreams of a beautiful yard if you share your life with a dog or two.
It's not always easy, though. Some of the things dogs like to do seem to run counter to any goal of keeping plants healthy. Sometimes, though, all it really takes is good planning. And now is a good time to make those plans, when the mailbox is full of seed catalogs and a summer landscape is still months away.
One of the best ways to have both a dog and a beautiful yard to is divide it -- and make the profusely planted part off-limits to your dog unless you're with him. In your dog's part of the yard, use a hardy blend of grass seed meant for taking a beating, and protect young trees and shrubs with a circle of wire fencing. You may even consider giving up on the lawn in part of the dog area, substituting decomposed granite or pea gravel.
Dogs are happiest when they're indoor pets, involved in family life, so it's best if even the "dog yard" portion of your property is for exercise and relief only. No matter how much time your dog spends in his yard, however, be sure fresh water is always available, as is protection from the elements, be it hot or cold.
If you can't divide the yard, you still have some options. The first step is to work with the patterns in your yard. Look at the trails your pet has worn, and plan to keep those open. Thorny plants won't stop a determined dog from smashing through.
When planning what to plant, rely on raised beds and planters to protect your most fragile and precious flowers. In borders, put the plants that can take being stepped on in front.
And what about diggers? You may be able to stop this habit, or at least control it enough to live with. Lack of exercise, boredom and loneliness contribute to a lot of dog problems, from barking to digging to general destructiveness. Bring your dog into your life, give him chew toys to keep him busy when you're gone, and remember the exercise -- three high-energy sessions a week will help.
Once you've taken care of his needs, discourage digging by putting his stools into the holes before you fill them in. Remember, though, that some dogs are unstoppable when it comes to digging, especially terriers, whose very name comes from the word "terra," for the earth they were developed to dig in to kill rodents. With the determined dog, you may have to provide a "dig zone" in an unobtrusive corner and limit his excavations by eliminating his unescorted time in the rest of the yard.
Gardens are wonderful, but keep a sense of perspective about it all. If, in spite of all your planning, you come home to find that new shrub uprooted, consider that you can always get another shrub, but your dog's love for you cannot be replaced.
How old is your cat in "people years"? A general rule for determining whether a cat is middle-aged or old is that one year in a cat's life equals four in a human's. In truth, the situation is not that neat, and if you think about it, you can easily see why. Under a "1 equals 4" rule, a 1-year-old cat would be the equivalent in terms of mental and physical maturity to a human 4-year-old, and that's clearly off.
A better equation is to count the first year of a cat's life as being comparable to the time a human reaches the early stages of adulthood, the age of 15 or so. Like a human adolescent, a 1-year-old cat looks fairly grown-up and is physically capable of becoming a parent, but is lacking in emotional maturity. The second year of a cat's life picks up some of that maturity and takes a cat to the first stages of full adulthood in humans; a 2-year-old cat is roughly equivalent to a person in his mid-20s.
From there, the "4 equals 1" rule works pretty well. A cat of 3 is still young, comparable to a person of 29. A 6-year-old cat, similar to a 41-year-old person, is in the throes of middle age, while a 12-year-old cat, similar to a 65-year-old person, has earned the right to slow down a little. A cat who lives to be 20 is the feline equivalent of nearly 100 years in terms of human life span.
PETS ON THE WEB
If nothing else, the Bird Hotline: World Wide Bird Lost and Found Web site (www.birdhotline.com) should convince you of the importance of keeping your bird's wings trimmed. Although some of the birds listed have been stolen, most have simply been lost -- through an opened door, a cracked window or such. The hotline's pages are filled with heartbroken owners who realized in a fraction of a second how easily a flighted bird can escape.
The Bird Hotline is an attempt to use the Internet to link bird lovers worldwide into a "Bird Patrol" looking for lost pets, and they've signed up nearly a thousand lovers. The site lists birds who have been lost or stolen, and birds who have been found. The best part, of course, is the collection of stories with happy endings, those birds who have been reunited with their owners.
The site is also keen on raising awareness that found birds are usually missed. The creators point out that many people start looking for an owner when the found pet is a dog or cat, but assume the "finder's keepers" rule applies to a bird. Reading how badly these birds are missed by their owners will change that assumption in a hurry.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Please explain the procedure of spaying a female dog. Do vets use general anesthesia? How long is the recovery? I have to know what will happen exactly to my dog before the operation. Thanks for your help. -- M.S., via the Internet
A: "Spaying" is the everyday term for the surgical sterilization of a female dog or cat. The clinical term is "ovariohysterectomy."
Spaying must be done by a veterinarian, and it requires general anesthesia. The procedure has traditionally been performed starting at the age of 5 or 6 months. But in recent years, the early spaying or neutering of puppies and kittens as young as 8 weeks has been widely approved by veterinary and humane groups.
Spaying involves the removal of the female's entire reproduction system. The uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries are taken out through an incision in the abdomen. Your veterinarian may require you to return to have your dog's stitches removed in about 10 days' time, or he may use stitches that are absorbed into the body. Recovery is fast, taking just a few days, during which you should limit your dog's activities -- no jumping or boisterous play.
Although technically not minor surgery, spaying is among the most common veterinary procedures and carries very little risk for your dog. Your veterinarian should discuss your role before and after surgery to ensure that any complications that may develop are dealt with promptly.
Q: My mom and dad say I can get a hamster for my birthday. How can I pick out a healthy one? I'm 8, and it's my first pet. -- K.J., Sacramento, Calif.
A: Congratulations! Your first pet is a reason to celebrate. I know you'll take good care of your new friend. Have your parents take you to a reputable pet shop, where it's obvious the animals are clean and well-cared-for.
A healthy hamster will have a lush, glossy coat, bright eyes and a clear nose. Any sign of messiness around the eyes or ears or under the tail is a sign the animal may not be well.
Having a pet is a big responsibility. Keep the cage clean, and make sure your pet always has fresh food and water. Be careful to secure your pet's cage carefully, for hamsters are talented escape artists.
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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