The woman in the Target store stared at me as slyly as she could, trying to figure out what it was I found so upsetting about an aisle of brightly colored plastic dishes.
In truth, I wasn't at all conscious of the merchandise. My tears were wholly related to five words I'd heard at the veterinary hospital not half an hour earlier, as my beloved old Sheltie yawned with boredom on the cool steel table, our veterinarian's face a study in concentration above the dog.
"I hear a heart murmur," the man had said.
As I struggled to focus on the shockingly red tumblers on the shelves before me, I became aware that my private worries were a little more public than I'd wanted. I managed a smile for the woman who'd been watching me.
"Allergies," I snuffled, wiping away the last tear and blowing my nose with what I hoped was a convincing honk. The woman sidled away as quickly as one can and still appear polite.
I gave up all thoughts of shopping and headed back to the hospital, where I'd left Andy with the veterinary cardiologist we'd been lucky enough to find on duty. "Let's let her check him out thoroughly, as long as she's here," our veterinarian had said, and I agreed quickly. I wanted to know exactly what was wrong and how bad it was.
Still, I'd used the trip to the store as an excuse to leave while they X-rayed Andy. I could feel the rising tide of tears as I fought to keep from imagining the worst possible ending, and I wanted to deal with it alone.
The appointment shouldn't have gone this way, I'd told our vet lightheartedly before I'd left, the humor a veneer over the panic I felt. I'd scheduled a "well-dog checkup," I told him firmly, and, by God, I intended to leave with just such a dog. I'd brought Andy in so our veterinarian could admire his dense, glistening coat and his beautiful teeth. I expected him to notice that my oldest dog was still alert, well-mannered and playful. "I can't believe Andy is 14!" I wanted him to say. "I rarely see a dog his age in such good health."
Instead, not one but two veterinarians had pressed their stethoscopes to Andy's chest, discussing the newfound leak in his loyal old heart -- where it was, how bad it was, what it meant.
As I sat in the reception area with Andy, waiting for the X-ray, I knew -- absolutely knew -- that it would show an enlarged heart with fluid around it. How much time was left for my sweet pup? A few months? A few weeks? I twisted Andy's long silver hair in the fingers of one hand, digging my nails painfully into the palm of the other. "No more crying. No more crying. No more crying," I told myself silently. I knew he'd had a good long run. If his time was near, so be it.
The specialist said my name twice before I finally looked up. She held the X-ray so the late-afternoon sun lighted the image. Pointing out Andy's heart, she swept her pen over a clear area around it -- no enlargement, no fluid, no tumors.
"These heart murmurs, they turn up in older dogs," she said. "His is mild, and it's nothing to worry about. We'll keep an eye on it, OK?"
I smiled and nodded, and she smiled back. "You weren't worried, were you?" she asked.
"Maybe a little," I admitted.
"I rarely see a dog his age in such good health," she said as she slipped through the door to the back.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Latham Foundation (www.latham.org) promotes humane education, including projects that involve animal-assisted therapy and celebrate the human-animal bond. Though their sponsorship, some wonderful videos have been produced that are well worth viewing by anyone who cares about animals and children. Recent work of the foundation focuses on breaking the well-documented link between abuse of animals by children and violent behavior later in life.
An especially interesting part of the site: Humane education posters from the late '40s, the result of a contest sponsored by the foundation. Clearly, this was a group ahead of its time. (The Latham Foundation can also be reached by writing to 1826 Clement Ave., Alameda, CA 95401; or by calling (510) 521-0920.)
Cats are highly territorial, which sometimes causes problems in multi-cat households. Every cat needs some space of his own to be happy, and one of the best ways to provide each of your pets with room to roam is to think "up."
Cats naturally adore looking down at others, and by giving your pets plenty of room up above to move about, you're giving each cat some room of his own. Tall furniture with flat tops -- such as bookcases or entertainment centers -- are ideal, as long as you leave room enough for your cats to play among the decorations. Even better: Invest in tall cat trees, especially those with platforms at the top and cubbyholes for hiding. Your cats will love them.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have four cats, and recently one or more of them has stopped using the litter box. Do you have any suggestions for how we can figure out which one? We need to get to the bottom of this messy problem. -- C.S., via e-mail
A: Even in the most harmonious of households a cat can stop using the litter box. Remember that it's not always about misbehavior: Sometimes a cat is sick. But which cat? In a multi-cat household, it can be very difficult to track down the culprit.
You can try to isolate the cat with problems by mixing blue or green food coloring with canned food and offering it to one cat at a time. You'll be able to tell which feces came from the "marked" cat because the food coloring will pass right through and stay on the mess.
Urine is a little harder to figure out, but your veterinarian should be able to help, or refer you to a veterinary behaviorist who can. You'll be prescribed fluorescent dye to give to your pet and a black light for revealing the dye in the urine.
Once you've determined which cat is the source of the problem, you'll need to work with your veterinarian to be sure the problem isn't health-related. Litter-box problems can be challenging to resolve, especially in a household with more than one cat. But you won't have any chance of getting past those problems until you're certain you're working with a healthy cat.
Q: We lost our cockatiel, Pansy, a year or so after her 12th birthday. We weren't sure we wanted another bird. But we finally decided that we did, and now we have a peach-faced lovebird. We read in your book that birds don't need grit, but we always gave it to Pansy. And it's still being sold (and recommended) at the pet store where we got our new bird. What's the story? -- T.E., via e-mail
A: In the last decade or so, our knowledge of what it takes to keep pet birds healthy has changed dramatically, and some sources haven't kept up with the latest information. Grit (which is finely ground rock) was thought to help birds grind their food, but it's no longer recommended for most birds by avian experts such as my "Birds for Dummies" co-author, Dr. Brian L. Speer, a board-certified avian specialist and past president of the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV).
Indeed, grit is now thought to have a negative impact on bird health, removing vitamins A, B and K from the digestive system. And grit occasionally leads to a potentially life-threatening problem, when the amount of the stuff in the bird blocks the digestive system.
Still, some birds can make use of a small amount of grit. Canaries and other finches should be allowed a couple of grains every couple of months. Other birds, from budgies, cockatiels and lovebirds on up, don't need grit at all and shouldn't be offered it.
I find that misinformation is more commonplace for birds than for any other pet. And it's everywhere -- from bird clubs to pet shops to the Internet and even some general-practice veterinarians. The best advice I have for anyone who wants the latest and best bird-care information is: Find a veterinarian who's a board-certified avian specialist, or find one who takes the extra time to stay current on avian care. You can find such a veterinarian through the AAV either online at www.aav.org, or by calling (561) 393-8901.
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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