When you spend your life researching and writing about the absolute best way to choose, raise, train and care for an animal companion, you start to believe that the way you do things for your own animals is the only one that works.
You confirm your belief every day by talking to only the world's top veterinary experts and only the best breeders, trainers and animal-welfare authorities. You hang around with people who are as pet-crazy as you are: people whose dogs have different collars for different social events, whose cats stay inside homes with expensive cat trees, whose birds have cages so large you could raise families in them, and whose pets have more toys than many children have.
And then you go to a place where not only have the people you know never given a birthday party for a dog, but they've also never known anyone who has, and they laugh when they see such a thing on TV. A place where the cats wander where they will, and where many of the hunting-breed dogs know what it's like to spend the day finding and fetching birds that have been shot.
It's a culture clash of monumental proportions, my politically correct northern California attitude colliding with the realities of life in my adopted south Georgia hometown, a place I visit every year. And yet for all the differences, one element of sharing a life with animals remains the same. We love our pets.
It speaks to the graciousness of the friends with whom I stay that I've been welcomed back every year. I could not keep my mouth shut early on about the things that should have been different in their home, in my not-so-humble opinion. The cats should come in, the dogs should be fed differently, and the bird's cage should go somewhere other than the wide central hall of the old Victorian home. I was suspect of their small-town veterinarian and felt that any illness that lasted beyond a week and two appointments warranted a five-hour drive to the veterinary college, where a cutting-edge specialist could be found.
My friends smiled at me indulgently as we spent warm Georgia evenings in rockers on the porch, a purring cat in every lap. A few things have changed over the years -- all the animals are spayed or neutered now, I'm happy to say -- but the cats still come and go as they please, the dogs still eat what and when they are served, and the bird still lives in the hallway.
Yet their animals are as healthy and happy as any I've seen. The cats stick around, wandering inside and out, their numbers not diminished by accidents but actually increasing on occasion by the appearance of a homeless kitten or cat. The dogs get their exercise and sleep on the bed. The cockatiel looks great and seems happy. And it turns out their vet is pretty skilled after all.
As for me, I have learned to keep my mouth shut, to listen and, most of all, to relax. My friends and I will likely never agree on what's best for our pets. But as long as the results are the same -- happy, healthy and long-lived pets -- who am I to say that my way is the only way, no matter how many experts I have in my corner?
My trips to south Georgia teach me many things, but there's one thing my friends and I would agree on without question: The first and most important part of caring for a pet is love.
When you leave from such a starting place, it's hard to head in the wrong direction.
PETS ON THE WEB
If you're interested in becoming a veterinarian, finding the nearest school or college of veterinary medicine, or tapping into recent trends in the profession, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (www.aavmc.org) is worth a double click. Lots of good stuff is here, both in information and in links, but perhaps the most fascinating page is all about statistics. One number you'll find there that is sure to tell a story in years to come: 72.4, which is the percentage of veterinary school applicants who are women.
Cats crave warmth. And with winter fast approaching, it's essential to check and double check to make sure your cats -- or any cats -- haven't gotten into warm places that could cost them their lives. Two common cat-killers: car engines and electric dryers.
Car engines stay warm long after they're shut off, and cats will sometimes creep into the engine compartment to snuggle in. If they're still there when the key is turned, they can be injured or killed. As for dryers, cats have been known to crawl in to enjoy a pile of freshly dried clothes, only to be trapped when someone adds clothes without noticing the cat and turns on the machine again.
Prevention is easy: Thump a few times on the hood of your car before starting it to frighten away any hiding cat. And get in the habit of making sure your dryer has nothing in it but clothing before you turn it on.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We are a family of four and have a 4-year-old cocker spaniel. During the week we leave our home between 7 and 7:30 a.m. Our little dog is home by herself, and I feel bad that we have to leave her. I leave on a television or radio for her and make sure she has water and food. Is there anything more we can do for her? I feel that she is lonesome during the day and that we are somehow mistreating her. I feel that keeping her in is kind of cruel and that I should come home at noon to let her out. But the time spent commuting back home doesn't permit it. What do you think? -- W.D., via e-mail
A: What do I think about your commute? Clearly, you need to quit your job, find one within a five-minute drive or -- better yet -- arrange to work at home.
Wait! I'm kidding.
Dogs and cats are very flexible. If you make sure their needs are met, they can cope with almost anything. That's why you can find perfectly contented pets living in apartments in Manhattan and on farms in Kansas, with single people, doting couples and families with children. They can adjust to owners who work nights, days and weekends, and who travel frequently. And they can even adjust to such ne'er-do-wells as pet columnists who spend most of their days at home.
Although I'm certainly happier spending my days in the company of my three dogs and my parrot, they were just as content when I was trudging to an office. They spend their days pretty much the same way with me at home as they did when I was gone every day -- they sleep. They don't wear watches, and they never glance at the clock on the microwave. One hour is about the same as eight to them, since they haven't the concept of time that we do.
I'm assuming that your dog isn't showing any signs of separation anxiety, such as leaving piles of poop, clawing windows or doors, or ripping apart your sofa. If you're not seeing any problems, she's probably sleeping the day away. (If she is having problems, talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a trainer or behaviorist, as well as about some new medications that might help.)
Your dog would appreciate a midday trip to the yard, or a dog door that allowed her access. If that's not possible, though, she's fine until you get home. She's clearly one of the lucky ones to have a family that cares about her as much as yours does.
Q: I always hear different things about how a cat ages: that one year of its life equals seven of a human life, or that a 1-year-old cat is like an adult of 18. Then you add six years thereafter for each year it is alive.
Could you tell me how to calculate the "human" age of a cat. I currently have two. One is 17 and the other is 12. -- S.C., via e-mail
Q: As faithful readers of your column, we know that some time ago you had an item on calculating the age of a cat in human years. We failed to save the article. We have two 18-year-old cats. They are still doing great for that many years, in spite of kidney and hyperthyroidism problems. Can you tell us how to compute their age? -- J.J.H., via e-mail
A: 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 her mid-20s. From there, a "four equals one" rule works pretty well.
With such a formula, the 12-year-old cat is roughly equal to a 65-year-old human. The 17-year-old cat is similar to an 85-year-old human, and the two 18-year-olds are doing very well indeed for being the equivalent of almost 90.
I love to hear about older cats. When I was young -- six to eight years ago in "cat years" -- disease, cars and other calamities seemed to take most cats at young ages. Modern preventive care combined with more cats being kept indoors has changed things. As a result, I'm no longer surprised to hear of cats in their late teens.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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