Not long ago I was hanging out with a friend while he worked the overnight shift at an emergency veterinary clinic. I was expecting to see some dreadful situations and, sadly, I was not disappointed. Over the course of very long night, my veterinarian friend struggled to save a dog who'd been shot, a cat who'd been run over and a puppy with parvo. (The cat made it, the dog didn't, and the puppy was still hanging on when we left.)
What surprised me most, though, were not the obvious emergency cases, but rather the animals who came in with problems that weren't urgent at all. Like worms. The owners saw something wiggling around "back there" and figured it had to be something important. A pretty pricey decision on their part, to be sure, and one that they'll likely never make again.
But how can you tell if your pet is sick? You can start by educating yourself about the signs of a healthy dog or cat. You want to see bright, clear eyes with no sign of discharge; clean ears, free of buildup or smell; a mouth not overpowered by its odor, with pink gums free of infection; a nose that appears moist, with no discharge; and a shiny coat, with unblemished skin below that snaps back easily when pulled away from the shoulders. A healthy attitude, a healthy appetite and normal thirst are part of the package, too, without signs of intestinal upset. No lameness, no swelling. No heavy panting.
Anything to the contrary is reason for concern. Now you just have to figure out how much of a concern. Is it really an emergency?
The way to begin is with a thermometer. To take your pet's temperature, put a little water-based lubricant on the tip of the thermometer and insert it in the animal's fanny. After a minute or so, remove and check the temperature. Normal is between 100 and 102.5 for dogs and cats; anything below 99 or above 103 is worth checking with a veterinarian, day or night.
Some other emergency indicators include seizure, fainting or collapse, as well as any suspected poisoning, including antifreeze, rodent or snail bait, or human medication. Snake or spider bites, too, demand immediate attention. Cats in particular can be fatally sensitive to insecticides, petroleum-based products or medications such as Tylenol.
Sometimes situations that might not seem urgent really are, even seemingly mild problems such as a small eye injury or allergic reactions such as swelling around the face or hives. A single incident of vomiting or diarrhea is probably nothing; anything more than two or three times within an hour or so could indicate a serious problem. Other signs of possible serious conditions are breathing problems or chronic coughing, as well as difficulties urinating or defecating, especially in cats.
Animals can sometimes seem fine after accidents, such as being hit by a car, being exposed to extreme heat or cold, or being cut or bitten. Beware! Your pet may have internal problems that could be lethal if not attended to quickly. These traumas always require immediate veterinary attention, even if your pet is reacting normally.
There are also situations that may not be life-threatening but are certainly painful enough to warrant immediate veterinary attention. Some of the signs of an animal in pain include panting, labored breathing, lethargy or restlessness, loss of appetite, aggression, hiding or crying out. While it may be possible to wait until your regular veterinarian is available, put yourself in your pet's place. Don't let your pet suffer!
The best rule of thumb? When in doubt, call a veterinarian. Money issues aside, it's always better to make a trip you needn't have than to miss the one you should have made.
PETS ON THE WEB
Thinking of bringing home a four-legged family member? Don't forget to look on the Net. A good place to start is the wonderful Pet Shelter Network site (www.petshelter.org). The site is well-organized and offers a searchable database of animal groups large and small, as well as articles on responsible pet stewardship and on how to adopt the pet of your dreams. If you need to find a home for a pet, you can do it on the site, too, but only if you provide proof of altering. The folks at the Pet Shelter Network are obviously hoping to be put out of business by a shortage of homeless pets.
If you had to spend your life in a cage, you'd want it to be as big as possible, wouldn't you? Then why settle for a tiny cage for your bird, reptile or small mammal? Forget the pet store's labels or recommendations: For them, cage size recommendations are based on what they believe a customer will pop for -- in other words, the cheapest option available. (After all, for some small pets, the cage can be more expensive than the animal.)
Think bigger! Go one size larger than the pet-store recommendations. For a budgie, for example, get a cage sized for a cockatiel, while cockatiels should be in cages sized for small parrots. And while you're introducing that larger cage to your pet, don't forget to enrich the environment with a variety of toys (and perches, for birds).
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My husband, son and I bought a kitten about 15 months ago. We love our cat, but my son and I both have scratches where the cat has bitten or clawed us. We think that he may just be wishing he had someone to play with. He's an indoor cat, neutered and not declawed. If we get another cat, will they become playmates and companions? Or is it more likely that we'll just end up with two cats biting and clawing us? -- P.G., via e-mail
A: You have two separate issues here that aren't related. Let's tackle that biting and clawing problem first.
It's not unusual for kittens and young cats to be rough in their play, and as you have painfully discovered, those claws are very sharp indeed! To start training your cat to play nice, you need to immediately stop any punishment (such as thwapping the cat on the nose, if you're doing that), and learn to read your cat's body language.
You'll find if you watch the tail, you'll notice a twitching, then a swishing, then a lashing leading up to the biting and scratching. These are all signs that your cat is becoming overstimulated. The trick is to break off contact and walk away at the first twitch. If you do this religiously, you should be able to build up your pet's tolerance for petting. His growing older will also help.
If you miss the signs and find your cat wrapped painfully around your arm, don't react by shouting or hitting -- freeze! In a few seconds, your cat should regain his composure and let go. If you struggle, his instincts will be to fight harder.
You can also help the learning process along by never using your hands to play with your cat -- a mistake many people make on kittens, thereby training them that it's cool to bite people. Instead, help your pet burn off some of his energy by using a "fishing pole" toy to play with him.
Finally, start clipping the tips of your cat's nails so they won't be so sharp. Your veterinarian can show you how.
Your cat may well benefit from the addition of a companion. Since he's still pretty young, the introduction process should go smoothly no matter which cat you choose. Visit a shelter and look for a mellow, middle-aged cat who has lived with another cat before, to balance out the craziness of the younger one.
Q: Our cockatiel has eaten nothing but seed mix her whole life, and she's 12 years old. We've read that seed isn't good for her, but she seems to be doing fine. Should we try to change her diet now? -- W.B., via e-mail
A: Parrots -- and this term includes the little guys like budgies and cockatiels -- should eat a diet of nutritionally balanced pellets supplemented by healthy "people food" such as fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads and pasta. Seeds should be an occasional treat, not the foundation of a diet.
Because of your bird's age, I'd recommend a complete examination by a veterinarian experienced in avian care. Once your bird's true health status is determined (birds often hide signs of illness from their owners), you can work with your veterinarian to improve gradually the quality of your pet's diet.
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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