The recent school shootings have us all wondering, asking questions for which we may never know the answers. Guns, video games, parents, the Internet all get their share of blame from the experts, but when it comes to predicting violence, one crucial sign is too often missed or misunderstood.
That sign: cruelty to animals.
An early report on the two Colorado killers revealed an interest in animal mutilation. If that turns out to be true, the two will join an infamous club, whose members all tested their "skills" on animals before killing any of their own kind.
Jeffrey Dahmer was a member of the club, as are many other serial killers. The Humane Society of the United States says the schoolboy shooters who preceded the Columbine High pair also killed animals first. Luke Woodham, who killed three in Pearl, Miss., wrote in his journal about killing his dog, slowly and oh-so-cruelly. "True beauty," he called the killing. Another killer told friends he shot dogs for fun, while still another child bragged about torturing animals to death.
A recent study by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reveals that young animal abusers are five times more likely to be violent against humans. They're also much more likely to engage in other criminal behaviors.
It's not just troubled youngsters. Abusive spouses kill family pets to keep their mates in line, and you can bet the parent who beats a child kicked the dog first. And even worse: The child who grows up watching cruelty thinks it normal to become an abuser himself. The circle of cruelty is too often unbroken.
Despite overwhelming evidence linking animal abuse to crimes against humans, in too many cases such cruelty is hardly considered a crime at all. "We have more important crimes to worry about than a dead cat" seems to be the prevailing attitude, along with the idea that "kids will be kids" -- and cruelty is normal.
Is animal abuse just part of growing up, or is it too insignificant to bother with in a world where children bring guns to school -- and use them against teachers and classmates? The answer, in both cases, needs to be a resounding "no."
Intervention for those who can be helped, especially the children, and serious prosecution for those who cannot will do more than prevent animal suffering and death. Human lives will be saved as well.
Report animal cruelty and demand that authorities deal with it aggressively. If you see an interest in hurting animals in any child you know -- a neighbor's child, a friend or relative's child or even your own -- get help.
It's too late when someone "graduates" to hurting people. We need to catch them earlier, and we can do it by defending the most helpless among us. The seeds of compassion and cruelty are both planted early. Let us work together to see that only the former grows.
PETS ON THE WEB
The popularity of iguanas has sparked an interest in the veterinary community in learning how to provide better care for these and other scaly pets. While relatively few veterinarians restrict their practices to reptiles and amphibians, more than a thousand are members of the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. The ARAV Web site (www.arav.org) lists its members by city and state to help pet owners find a knowledgeable veterinarian in their area. The site has a few links and a place to buy ARAV T-shirts, with a very slick frog logo. (The ARAV can also be reached by mail at P.O. Box 605, Chester Heights, Pa. 19017.)
Although spaying and neutering has traditionally been performed on puppies and kittens between the ages of 4 and 6 months, the procedure can safely be done as early as 8 weeks. Many shelters, tired of dealing with the offspring of animals whose owners should have altered them, have embraced the news and have kittens and puppies spayed before placement. Some reputable breeders also spay or neuter their fur-babies before placing them in their new homes. At what age should you have your pet spayed? Some vets aren't yet comfortable with early spay-neuter. If yours is among them, follow your vet's advice. But do get it done: Not only are you doing your part to fight pet overpopulation, but you're also protecting your pet from an array of reproduction-related health problems.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My 2-year-old male bichon frise is coming back to live with me (he has spent the last half-year with my ex-husband). During this time, my 16-year-old son and I have also adopted two kittens, who are about 8 months old. Any suggestions on how to make the transition of Dakota back into our household any easier? -- B.F., via the Internet
A: You didn't mention if Dakota has lived with cats before. If that's the case, the transition will likely be a smooth one. The kittens are still young enough to adapt with not much fuss, and if the dog pays them no mind, you're home free.
Before the dog arrives, prepare the kittens by giving them a "dog-free" zone for their dishes and litter box. One good way to do this is by choosing a spare bedroom or bathroom and putting a baby-gate across the doorway. The kittens will be able to come and go without any effort, but the dog won't be able to get past the barrier.
Make sure the kittens are comfortable with the new arrangement before springing Dakota on them. The stress of a new dog and a new location for litter box and dishes could well be enough to push them into choosing their own potty sites.
Introduce the dog on a leash and watch the reactions. Don't force the issue -- let the kittens be hissy and retreat if they wish. Curiosity is normal from the dog, but don't allow him to chase the cats, even in play. You may need to leave the leash on for a few days to teach him the rules. (Do (BEGIN ITAL) not (END ITAL) leave the leash attached to a slip, or choke, collar -- you're putting your dog's life at risk if you do.)
The situation should settle down in a couple of weeks, but if it doesn't, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist.
Q: I have a 3-year-old Alaskan malamute. I took him to the vet, and she informed me that he is underweight. He weighs 86 pounds. I've been reading up on them and the weight seems to be between 75 to 85 pounds. What is the ideal weight for him? -- S.H., via the Internet
A: You're not going to find the right weight for your dog in a book. In every breed you'll find a range of sizes, and it's important to judge your dog on his own body type.
You should be able to run your hands down your dog's sides without bumping over each rib. If you press in and slide the skin back and forth over the ribs (veterinarians call this "palpating") you should easily be able to feel the ribs. Your dog should also have a "waist," or tuck up behind the ribcage, but not all that much.
If your dog's obviously ribby, with a severe tuck-up at the waist, and if you can feel each vertebra without palpating, your dog could use some extra weight. You might try a food with a slightly higher fat content. Ask your veterinarian for guidance.
Don't go overboard, though. Obesity is a problem in a great many pets, some of whom are overindulged and under-exercised to an outrageous degree. Your veterinarian would rather see your dog a little on the lean side than overweight any day.
Q: Thank you for your column on not giving rabbits for Easter. It's true that rabbits make great pets for adults. We ended up with our granddaughter's Easter bunny a couple of years ago after she became allergic, and he's the best pet we've ever had. One complaint, though: For those of us who don't have Internet access, please include another way to contact groups such as the House Rabbit Society. -- I.R., Carmichael, Calif.
A: You're absolutely right, and in the future I'll include addresses when mentioning the Web sites of animal groups. You can reach the House Rabbit Society at 1524 Benton St., Alameda, Calif. 94501. (The Web address is www.rabbit.org.) Membership is $18 a year, which includes the group's quarterly newsletter.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is affiliated with 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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