Andy marked his 14th birthday in what has become traditional in recent years: with a basket of cherry tomatoes and a prostate exam. The first part is what Andy would choose for himself -- the old sheltie is crazy for tomatoes -- but the latter was clearly my idea.
The look Andy gave me when our veterinarian snapped on the rubber glove would have taken out half the cats in the county, but I ignored it. His head-to-tail examination is exactly what I wanted for his birthday, a reassurance that the dog who has ruled my household for so long will be around for a few more years.
And besides, I do take just the smallest amount of glee in putting him through it. Seems only fair considering the dog usually gets more cards on his birthday than I do on mine.
Blood work, X-rays and more -- I walked out of the hospital a couple of hundred dollars lighter, but with a feeling that I've never seen money better spent. Andy came up normal, incredibly, aggressively normal for a dog of his age. The only glitch: Last year our veterinarian discovered a small heart murmur; this year it's slightly worse. But it hasn't diminished the quality of Andy's life, and hasn't done anything to alter the graceful path into old age for the handsome dog I long ago nicknamed "The Brat."
Andy is still a brat, bless his silver head. He no longer does battles with lawn sprinklers, and he and his longtime nemesis, the neighbor's ginger tabby, George, have long ago settled their differences. They just became too darn old to spend their days tormenting each other. With mail carriers, though, Andy remains vigilant, to a point. The dog barks if the mail carrier comes in the morning. In the afternoon, when Andy's napping, the man could step right over him and Andy wouldn't care.
Not that I'd ever take such a chance. Andy still has all of his teeth, after all.
He uses those teeth, too, on my socks and underwear. I frequently find both in the yard. The socks are salvageable; the underwear not. You'd think after all these years I'd learn to use a hamper. I never punish him, by the way. At his age, he gets away with everything.
Andy is such a presence that the retrievers, Benjamin and Heather, move to let him pass. Although nearly twice his size, they never try to steal food or toys from him, and they take care not to bump him. With each other they are very physical, playing in ways that have left me astonished that they've never broken skin or bones. With the old dog they are respectful.
I'd like to take credit for Andy's health and longevity, and I suppose I can for some of it. The dog has always had good nutrition, regular grooming, plenty of exercise, and an aggressive regimen of preventive health at my oh-so-patient veterinarian's, including regular dental cleanings (you should see the dog's teeth!). No doubt all this attention has had an impact, but I think Andy himself has had a larger one.
Andy has always done what he wanted, and pretty much had what he wanted, since the day he moved in with me. His interest in underwear aside, he has been the kind of dog who makes a trainer look brilliant, because Andy's so naturally well-mannered and trustworthy.
But in the end, I'm just the servant here. Filler of bowls, holder of leashes, brushes, plastic bags and dog treats, buyer of tomatoes and, sometimes, the driver who takes His Majesty to the veterinarian against his will.
Andy rules. The dog will go when he's good and ready. And I pray that time isn't soon.
Who'd have thought a shredder could almost take a dog's life? But it has happened, and it should make those of us who use these now-common appliances much more careful. Not just any dog was nearly killed, either: Recce, a border collie belonging to Stuart Mah of Florida, is one of the world's best in the sport of canine agility. The dog found something interesting about the shredder and lost nearly his entire tongue.
I'll admit to leaving my own shredder on "standby." But after hearing about Recce, I put it far under the table next to the desk, and now I unplug it when I'm not using it. As for Recce, he is now able to eat and drink again with his healed stump of a tongue (to the surprise of nearly everyone involved).
PETS ON THE WEB
Jane Hallander says she can communicate with animals. Not the way we do -- "Sit! Get off the couch" and so on -- but telepathically. With the help of her African grey parrot, Jing, Hallander claims to have found lost pets with a 65 percent rate of success, which in part she attributes to her ability to enlist wild crows and ravens in the search.
By now you are likely intrigued, or you're laughing and wondering if Hallander by any chance lives in California (she does). Either way, a visit to her modest Web site (http://home.netcom.com/(tilde)jing/index.html) is worthwhile. In addition to her writing on communicating with animals, Hallander has some good information on parrot behavior (she's also an avian behavior consultant), and some decent links add to the appeal.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We're looking to buy a yellow-naped Amazon parrot. We found a breeder who'll sell us one at a discount if we take it just after it has been hatched and hand-feed it ourselves. We've never done this, and we've never even had a parrot before. She says it's easy, though. What do you think? - H.J., via e-mail
A: I think you should pass, and find a breeder who wouldn't think of selling a baby bird that hasn't been fully weaned to a healthy adult diet.
While an experienced hand-feeder may find the task easy (rote, even), taking care of a baby bird is definitely not for beginners. Can I stress this further? How about this: My friend Dr. Brian Speer, a top avian specialist, once told me he is always dealing with frantic people who are losing their bird babies -- or who have killed them through improper hand-feeding. It's frighteningly easy to bungle the job, with tragic results.
Hand-feeding involves using a spoon or syringe to give formula to a baby bird at what starts out as two-hour intervals. The basics are the same as with human babies: Keep them warm, keep them clean, and feed them when they're hungry. Socialization is an essential part of the package, too, for young birds should be exposed to gentle handling and the sounds of a human household to make good pets.
When you factor in the risks, the trouble, and all those sleepless nights, hand-feeding your own bird isn't the bargain it may first appear to be. If you're thinking it's important for bonding, rest easy on that point as well. A healthy, well-socialized and fully weaned young bird will have no trouble at all bonding to you.
Q: I agree with you that most dogs don't get enough exercise and that the lack of exercise is at the root of many behavior problems. And yet I wish you would warn people that sometimes exercise can be dangerous. I cannot believe how often I see people running or biking with their dogs in the heat of the day. The dogs are in trouble, and their owners don't even know it! -- D.H., via e-mail
A: I'm happy to spread the word. I once was spending time at an emergency veterinary clinic when a young woman rushed in with a seriously ill Labrador. The dog was her grandmother's, and the young woman decided to take him Rollerblading while she was visiting -- not a good idea under any circumstances for an aging, sedentary and obese dog, but an even worse plan on a warm day.
The dog tried his best to keep up, and the young woman didn't recognize his glassy eyes and frantic panting for the danger signs they were. The dog was unconscious by the time the veterinarian started working on him, and the animal died shortly after, as I looked on in horror. I remember that poor Lab every time I see someone running a dog on a warm day.
Dogs don't function as efficiently as we do in heat, and while exercise is important, it's best left to cool mornings and evenings in the summer. If your dog isn't in shape, work up to long sessions gradually, and watch carefully for any sign your dog is in trouble. Carry water, and offer it often. And if your dog should get overheated, put cool, but not cold, water on him and find a veterinarian quickly.
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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