If you're going to have a healthy pet, you need the help of a veterinarian. And although many people believe that these health-care professionals are pretty much interchangeable, distinguished only by convenience and price, I've always believed that you're doing your pet a disservice if you don't put a little effort into choosing the right veterinarian and building a relationship with that person.
To work effectively with your veterinarian, you need to develop a relationship over time, so your vet can build a history and become familiar with you and your pet. Group practices are great -- two, three, four (or more) heads are often better than one when your pet is ill and the diagnosis is not immediately obvious. Within a group practice, though, working with one veterinarian as your pet's primary caregiver is best.
Your veterinarian should be technically proficient, current on the latest treatments, and willing to seek out more information on your pet's behalf or work with a veterinary specialist. A good vet should be articulate, be able to explain what's going on with your pet in a way you can understand, and be willing to answer your questions so you can make a responsible decision on your pet's behalf. Most important, you must be able to trust your veterinarian. After all, knowing what goes on in a veterinarian's office after you leave your pet behind is impossible.
Before you choose a veterinarian, ask friends, co-workers and neighbors for recommendations. Over the years, animal lovers can tell which veterinarians are knowledgeable, compassionate and hard-working. Those veterinarians are always talked up by satisfied clients.
Other factors may help you narrow down your list of possibilities:
-- Is the clinic or hospital conveniently located, with hours you can live with? If you have a 9-to-5 job, a veterinarian with a 9-to-5 clinic doesn't do your pet much good. Many veterinarians are open late on at least one weeknight and for at least a half-day on Saturday, or they are willing to make other arrangements.
-- Does the veterinarian consult with veterinary college staff, or with independent or in-house specialists? Does he or she subscribe to an online veterinary service? A willingness to discuss tough cases with colleagues is the sign of a veterinarian who's putting in effort on your pet's behalf. Online services are available the world over to assist veterinarians in getting to the bottom of a tough case.
-- What kind of emergency care is available, if any? Although emergency veterinary clinics are prepared for any catastrophe, they are not familiar with your pet. If your veterinarian's practice does not offer 24-hour care, does it work with one that does?
-- Do you feel a rapport with this person? Are you comfortable asking questions? Discussing fees? The final call on whether a particular veterinarian is right for you comes down to intangibles. If you don't feel comfortable, you're less likely to ask your veterinarian questions, and the lack of productive communication hurts your pet in the long run.
I do realize that, as a pet columnist, my relationships with veterinarians may be closer than most people's. But I also know my pets get superior care because I like, respect and trust my veterinarian. It took time to find the right veterinarian, but it was well worth it to me and to my pets.
PETS ON THE WEB
People who think the Internet is more the world's best time-waster than an information revolution will find much to back up their claims at the various "dancing animals" Web sites.
The best known among these is likely the dancing hampsters (www.hampsterdance2.com, then click on The Original HamsterDance), which were featured in a national advertising campaign.
But hamsters aren't the only things that dance on the Web. So do cats, dogs, turtles, penguins and even armadillos. You can find the menagerie of dancing critters on Nutty Sites.com (www.nuttysites.com), each more annoying or entertaining than the last, depending on your point of view.
Warning: If you value your job, don't visit any of these sites at work. It's going to be hard to convince your boss of your commitment if you're busted with HamsterDance on your monitor.
If you purchase a purebred puppy or kitten, make sure you get all the paperwork at the time you take your new family member home. I cannot tell you how many times I've had people ask for advice on getting the registration papers after a breeder has disappeared, or has even decided not to part with the papers unless an additional fee is paid.
Mind you, any breeder who'd do either is likely not someone you should have been buying a pup or kitten from in the first place. But that won't help you much when you've already fallen in love with your new pet, will it?
You should at least get a form that will allow you to apply for registration from a national organization such as the American Kennel Club or the Cat Fanciers' Association. You should also get a pedigree (a chart of the animal's antecedents), and health records.
If you don't get the paperwork, the breed registries will try to help with registration matters if you contact them. But in most cases they can't do much, since people rarely have enough information on the breeder or the animal's parents to get the matter cleared up.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have children who are 2, 3 and 8, and a large, beautiful back yard. We recently rescued a 6-month-old German shepherd (a breed my husband adores) from the shelter. Now the children are terrified to go into the back yard full of their playthings. We got a dog run, and put him there when they want to play, but he barks and jumps continuously and scares them. Our lovely back yard has turned into a yellow-spotted, dog-pooped mess. A few trainers I've called say he's simply exhibiting "puppy" behavior.
Did we get the wrong breed for a family dog? Will he grow out of this? A penned-up and frenzied dog, terrified children and a messed-up yard were not what I had in mind when we got him. -- M.P., via e-mail
A: He's the wrong breed for your family, that's for sure. And the fact that you mentioned your yard three times in a fairly short letter suggests to me that perhaps there isn't a dog out there who'll be suitable. Did you think the dog was going to use a toilet?
German shepherds are large, active and highly intelligent. They're not going to be happy penned in a small dog run or, for that matter, spending their lives as outdoor dogs. They need to part of the inner circle (all dogs do), and they need a great deal of exercise of both their minds and their bodies, probably more than most dogs.
Yes, this dog is acting like a puppy, but the problems you describe require training to resolve. Since your response to the problem of his bounciness around the children was to coop him up, I'm guessing neither you nor your husband has the time or the desire to take this dog to obedience classes and put in the hours it takes to get the dog you were dreaming of.
Take this pup back to the shelter, where he can have another chance at getting a home that will suit him better. Your family is a horrid match for this young dog, and it's not going to get any better.
I'd advise against considering a dog again until the children are older, and then I suggest you consider an adult dog of a smaller, more laid-back breed or mix. And then make that dog part of your family, by showing him the rules of your home and making him welcome within it.
Remember, though, that yellow spots and piles go with the territory, although you can minimize the effect of a dog on your yard by allowing him to relieve himself in only one part of the yard, flushing the urine spots with water and keeping the yard scrupulously picked up.
Q: I have an albino cockatiel. How can I tell if the bird is a boy or a girl? -- A.R., via e-mail
A: Although gender can be determined by markings in many varieties of cockatiels, that's not true in the case of the white-face lutinos (commonly known as albinos). That's because there are no markings to provide the clues.
You'll need the help of an avian veterinarian to solve this mystery. He'll draw a blood sample, and the laboratory will get the answer you want from the bird's DNA.
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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