The dogs and I just finished a six-month stay on the Gulf Coast of Florida, south of the now-famous (or should that be infamous?) city of Tallahassee. We endured the largest collection of news media since the O.J. Simpson trial, spring storms that took out trailer parks with startling regularity, and tourists who insisted on walking the stretch of beach we came to think of as ours and ours alone.
Make no mistake: We had a wonderful time. The retrievers, especially, believed the place to be paradise and spent as much time as possible dripping wet.
Still, there is no place like home. So when the cheap winter lodging rates ended, I packed up the van and drove back to Northern California -- where I haven't stopped sneezing and wheezing since. First stop: my doctor.
Although there are allergists who refuse to treat people who won't dump their pets, I've been fortunate over the years to find those who are willing to work with me. Because of them, I've been able to lead the life I want, even though I've always been allergic to animals.
Many animal lovers have the same problems I do. For them, my advice starts with finding an allergist who doesn't greet you with, "First, find new homes for your pets." In some cases, that will unfortunately be the ultimate resolution of the problem. But it needn't be the starting point for attacking animal allergies. It's your life, after all.
Here are some other tips for living with animals and allergies, recommend by allergists and field-tested by yours truly.
-- Don't neglect your other allergies. Controlling them may give you enough "breathing room" to make life with your pets bearable. Remember always that allergies and asthma are serious health problems, not to be taken lightly.
-- Don't go it alone: Find a doctor who will help you, pets and all.
-- Establish your bedroom as an "allergy-free zone." More than one-third of our lives is spent sleeping, and it's important to make that time less stressful for the body.
Close off your bedroom and reduce dust-collecting surfaces by removing carpets and rugs, wall hangings, stuffed animals and collectibles from the room. Invest in an air cleaner, and keep air ducts and ceiling fans clean. Banish feather pillows and down comforters. Use zippered, dustproof covers on the mattress and pillows. Combat dust mites by washing bedding frequently in hot water.
Make the bedroom completely off-limits to pets at all times. Although there's not a pet lover alive who doesn't enjoy a purring cat on the bed, keeping the bedroom allergy-free is probably a necessary compromise for allergy sufferers.
-- Try to limit exposure to other allergens. Avoid cleaning solutions, cigarette smoke and strong perfumes, and consider using a mask when doing yard work and housework, especially at the height of the pollen season. Better yet: Let someone else mow the lawn and do the vacuuming.
-- Keep your pets clean and well-groomed. The best situation is for a nonallergic member of the family to take over these pet-care chores. Weekly bathing is a must -- for cats as well as dogs. For cats, you don't even need to use soap. A rinse with clear water has been shown to be just as effective in keeping down allergen levels.
I spent the first few days at home thinking that only fresh ocean air would do the trick for my sneezing and wheezing, but then my allergy-control plan kicked in and the situation improved dramatically. Besides, the Gulf Coast may be paradise for part of the year, but the hot, humid summers are tailor-made for mold that is just as difficult for me to deal with as is pollen.
The dogs may miss the beach, but I will be thankful for the dry California heat, just as soon as the pollen levels drop.
PETS ON THE WEB
Will this be the year California finally legalizes the keeping of ferrets as pets? Chances are looking better than they have in years that this ridiculous ban will be lifted. Ferrets are legal pets almost everywhere else -- Hawaii is the only other state that prohibits them. And even with the ban, California ferret-fanciers estimate that more than half a million of the domesticated weasels live in the Golden State.
Californians for Ferret Legalization is a group at the heart of the fight, and their Web site (www.ferretnews.org) is full of information on their struggles. If you love ferrets, it's worth a look. If you're a California ferret-fancier, now is the time to step up and be heard. The Web site offers tips on how to contact the right decision-maker and the most effective way to do so.
Ferret fans have specific terms for their pets, starting with "hob" for an unneutered male ferret and "jill" for an unspayed female. Babies are called "kits," and the correct terms for altered adults are gibs (males) and sprites (females). Most charming of all, a group of these playful pets is called a "business" of ferrets (although some people use "busyness" instead).
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We got a Viszla puppy recently, and her breeder said it's very important that we get our pup into a puppy class for socialization and early training. But then we took Sasha to our veterinarian, and she said we should keep our puppy away from other dogs until after she has had her last puppy shot (at 4 months). Who's right: the breeder or the veterinarian? -- P.O., via e-mail
A: Both of them, really. Your breeder is right that it's essential for your puppy be socialized, and that a well-run puppy class is the best place to get your new family member off to the best possible start. And your veterinarian is also correct in saying that your puppy needs to be protected from disease until she is fully immunized.
Fortunately, you can protect your puppy from disease and still socialize your pet in a puppy class. That's because good puppy classes present minimal risk of contagious disease to the canine participants.
Whoa! I can already see readers stopping on the phrase "minimal risk." Perhaps I'd better say "acceptable" risk. Or even "comparable" risk, if you'll follow along to find out why.
There's nothing as important in a dog's life as getting off to a good start in terms of training and behavior. Dogs end up homeless because of poor behavior, and many such problems can be traced to a puppyhood without the proper training and socialization. It's always easier to prevent a behavior problem than to fix one, and that's why puppy classes are worth that "minimal" risk.
If you look at it from a lifetime perspective, a dog is more likely to die from behavior problems than from disease. A pup's best chance at becoming a well-loved member of a family rests heavily on how easy that animal is to live with over time. The adorable puppy who grows into an out-of-control or aggressive dog is a solid candidate for a trip to a shelter, where he'll be unlikely to land a second chance.
Puppy classes teach youngsters how to get along with other dogs, be handled by any number of people, and learn the basic lessons of good behavior, from sitting on command to keeping all four paws on the ground when greeting people. A good puppy class uses positive techniques to teach puppies that learning is fun and people are good. And that's a lesson for life.
While puppy classes are fine, heed your veterinarian's advice and keep your pup away from other areas where other dogs frequent, such as parks. It's fine, though, to set up play dates in secure yards that have been inhabited by healthy dogs who are known to be up-to-date on their vaccines. The dogs of your friends and family are great for these socializing get-togethers, as are the children. The more your puppy is safely exposed to, the better.
Q: Please settle an argument for me. Do cats need baths? -- G.K., via e-mail
A: Not usually. Most healthy cats do a fine job of keeping themselves clean and well-groomed.
If you have someone in your home with allergies, a weekly dousing with cool, clear water can help. Otherwise, your cat can stay bath-free unless he gets into something he can't get out of without a little help from some soap and water.
Brushing is probably more useful than bathing for helping to keep your cat in fine shape, especially for longhaired animals. The silky coats of some longhaired breeds is too much for a cat to handle, and brushing regularly is necessary to keep that glorious fur clear of mats.
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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