When I was in high school, I signed up for physics and calculus. I knew that to become a veterinarian I would have to develop a far greater grasp of science and math than the one I seemed to have been born with.
My physics teacher gave me a "C" out of mercy. My calculus teacher wasn't nearly as generous, and I spent the rest of my academic career -- high school and college -- sticking as close as I could to the English department. I abandoned all hope of veterinary medicine and settled (more or less) happily into a career as a writer.
But that doesn't mean I'm incapable of making a brilliant scientific discovery.
Oh sure, maybe mine doesn't have anything to do with mass or energy. OK, so maybe the people who hand out the Nobel Prizes won't be calling. But that doesn't mean my discovery has no significance to the lives of millions of people. Consider this: How often do you recognize the importance of, say, Einstein's work in your daily life?
Everyone who has spent more than a month with a cat or dog has stepped squarely into my discovery. In fact, stepping in it is just the way I happened upon it.
Call it Gina's Law of the Well-Placed Pet Mess. No matter how large the floor, pet-related organic matter will always be placed where a human being is most likely to plant a bare foot. Poop, pee, barf or hairball -- it doesn't matter. If it lands on the floor, chances are you'll step in it.
Keep the cleaning supplies handy, and accept it as one of the absolute laws of nature. You have no other choice
Of course, one can't rest on one's laurels. I'd been working until recently on proving my theory that the affection level of pets is directly related to the level of contrast between the color of their fur and that of the shirt you're wearing. I thought I had it nailed when I discovered that my black sweater was irresistible to white cats. But then I noticed that my friend's golden retriever was just as eager to snuggle no matter what I was wearing, shedding her long, silky fur without regard to my reputation as a scientist.
I've now shelved the Gina's Law of Shedding in favor of a field of study that shows more promise: the apparent ability of pets to do whatever is most embarrassing to you in front of the person you'd be most mortified to have see it. Call it Gina's Law of That's Not My Pet: I Think He Belongs to the Neighbors.
When one of my dogs brought my dirty underwear out to meet a person I'd just starting seeing (in what I hoped would become a romantic way), I knew I was on to something. And then a friend called with the exciting news that her dog had managed on a recent occasion to upchuck what was clearly a feminine hygiene product in front of a visiting minister.
With news like that, can you fault me for believing that my best scientific discoveries are still in front of me? All that's left is to name the phenomenon and wait for the media to call.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Presidential Pet Museum's Web site (www.presidentialpetmuseum.com) is the place to go for a fairly comprehensive list of all presidential animals, from the hounds and horses of George Washington to the dog and cats of George W. Bush. The animals kept by presidential families started out being more purposeful than companionable, with horses and milk cows commonplace.
By the turn of the last century, though, animals were welcomed just for keeping the president and his family company. Theodore Roosevelt brought in the new era with eight dogs and cats and a pack of presidential guinea pigs. But it fell to another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, to bring the presidential pet into the political spotlight. His dog, Fala, is still arguably the best-known and most-loved White House pet in history. You'll find Fala's picture and much more on the Presidential Pet Museum's site, which is both attractive and easy to navigate.
In cats, obstipation is described as the inability to defecate, a very painful and serious condition that demands prompt veterinary attention. The causes of this backup are not well understood, but they result in intestines that become dilated and unable to push stools out of the body normally.
If your cat is straining or crying out while trying to defecate, or if you notice an absence of feces in the litter box, your pet has a potentially serious problem. Oddly, this blockage may initially appear as diarrhea, because your cat's body, so irritated by the retained feces, may generate lots of watery fluid or mucus to try to cope. This discharge may seem like "ordinary" loose stools when passed.
Any changes in your cat's litter-box habits need to be investigated by your veterinarian, the sooner the better, and obstipation is no exception.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: Are you aware of any genetic problems with shelties that cause them to have excessive plaque buildup? If so, are there any remedies? My 3-year-old pooch has required two teeth cleanings so far. I am afraid of having my dog put under anesthesia, and I hate having to do it. Should I try cleaning her teeth myself with a dental pick? -- J.P., via e-mail
A: As a general rule, the smaller the dog, the faster the plaque buildup. For most dogs and cats, regular dental cleanings (as often as twice a year in some cases) are as important to pets' long-term health as they are to ours. Keeping teeth in good health prevents bad breath, preserves teeth into old age, and protects the pet's organs from the constant shower of bacteria caused by rotting teeth and gums. Over the course of a lifetime, good dental health will add significantly to your pet's quality of life and perhaps even extend his lifetime.
Many pet owners shy away from dental work for their pets for the very reason you do: They're worried about losing their companion to anesthesia. In recent years, however, the use of safer anesthetic agents has become nearly universal, making dental work advisable even for older dogs and cats. In short: The long-term risk of ignoring your pet's teeth is now greater than the short-term risk of anesthesia.
No, you should not attempt to clean your dog's teeth with a dental pick because you likely will cause more problems than you'll prevent -- damaging the surface of the tooth enamel and, in so doing, giving bacteria a nice little niche to call home.
Start your pet's dental health regimen with a trip to your veterinarian, who should check your pet's mouth, teeth and gums. Then he or she can make recommendations based on what is found. For many pets, that'll mean a complete dentistry under anesthesia, and possibly some periodontal work and even the removal of broken or rotting teeth.
After the problems are treated, at-home care can keep things in good shape. Here are the basics:
-- Brush or wipe the teeth regularly. Use a toothpaste designed for dogs and cats a couple of times a week at least, although daily is better.
A children's soft toothbrush works well, as does one made especially for pets. You can also use a brush that fits over your fingertip, or plain gauze wrapped around your finger. Some vets suggest that gauze may be more readily accepted by cats, especially if dipped in tuna or clam juice first.
-- Feed them dry food and offer teeth-cleaning toys. Yes, dry food helps (and prescription diets designed to scrape teeth may help even more), but it must be used in combination with regular brushing and with toys that help wipe the teeth. Soft chewies or a rope toy are best. Avoid chews that are rock-hard or are prone to breaking into sharp pieces, as these can break teeth or slice gums.
My sheltie Andy, who is closing in on 15, has all his teeth, no bad breath, and is exceptionally healthy and lively for his age. He has had dental cleanings on at least an annual basis his entire life, and he has outlived all his littermates by years. He has made me a believer in lifelong preventive dental care.
The Veterinary Information Network's Pet Care Forum has put together a thorough collection of articles on dental care for pets at www.vin.com/PetCare/Articles/Temp/DentalHealthMonth.htm. The site is well worth checking out.
Q: I have two beagles that stay outside when I'm not home. A neighbor of mine has called the police on me for their barking. I leave them out because they tear up my house when I'm gone. I'm investigating a no-bark collar for them and was wondering what your thoughts were, and if any brand is particularly better than others. -- A.P., via e-mail
A: I would instead recommend that you bring your dogs inside when you're gone, both to minimize barking triggers and to muffle the noise when they do fire up. Working with a behaviorist will help you get them beyond their separation anxiety; however, if you still don't feel comfortable leaving them in, set them up with cozy quarters in your garage or basement.
I don't recommend shock collars for bark control. Instead, I prefer the citronella collar, which reacts to a dog's bark with a puff of a harmless citrus smell that dogs hate. Marketed under the name of the ABS Anti-Barking System, the collar can be found in many pet-supply stores and catalogs, and on the Web (www.adogsbestfriend.com/abs.html is one such site). Even the citronella collar works best when monitored, though, so you're still better off providing your dogs with indoor digs while you're gone.
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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