Sometimes a life can hinge on what happens in a minute. Or in eight of them, as was the case with the Lab-mix puppy I found myself cuddling at an emergency animal hospital in the middle of a cold winter night.
She was 13 weeks old, just another throwaway pup. She got the first lucky break of her life a day earlier, when someone pitched her over a 6-foot fence into my brother's back yard. The puppy and I were waiting at the hospital for what I hoped would be her second lucky break, that a test for parvovirus would turn out negative.
I'd like to think that whoever tossed her over that fence did so in hopes that she'd find a home. But it's more likely that the kind of person who'd throw a puppy into a back yard with a big brindle dog did so hoping to see the youngster torn apart. Wrong yard for that: My brother's boxer thought a new playmate was a splendid idea. And my brother, after recovering from the surprise of having two dogs trot into his kitchen, treated the pup to what was likely the first good meal of her life.
And then, of course, he called me. She was a sweet pup, so I decided to find her a home. I'd fostered her less than 24 hours when she started showing the classic signs of parvo -- vomiting and diarrhea.
Driving to the animal hospital, I hardened my heart.
If it were parvo, I knew she'd be very sick. That she might not get better. And that treatment would cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
If it were parvo, I decided that I'd tell the veterinarian to put her to sleep. Because it didn't make sense to pull out the stops for a homeless pup, no matter how sweet her face, how sleek her honey-gold fur, how easygoing her disposition.
She wasn't my responsibility, I told myself. I wasn't the one who allowed her to be born, nor was I the one who threw her away. I didn't expose her to parvo by letting her roam. And yet, her life was in my hands.
I could feel my resolve weakening. The test would take eight minutes; if it were positive, I'd have to decide.
"If it's not parvo, then it's probably something she ate," said the veterinarian. "We'll give her fluids, some antibiotics and send her home. She'll probably be fine."
"But if it is parvo ... "
At this, her voice tailed off. Although the doctor was young, she'd been practicing long enough to know that you can't save them all. And that sometimes the ones you might be able to save you never get a chance to.
She sighed, smiled sadly, and left us alone in the exam room to wait. The puppy snuggled against me and sought out my eyes with her own.
"Don't look at my like that," I told her. "It's not my fault. I'm really, really sorry." I promised her that I'd stay with her to the end, that it wouldn't hurt, that it was really for the best. The puppy kept looking, kept pleading, until by the time those eight minutes were up I'd changed my mind and decided that if she wanted to fight, I'd let her.
"OK, you win." I said. "Don't die. Get better, and I'll find you a good home."
I knew the answer as soon as the door opened from the look on the young doctor's face. But I wanted to hear the words anyway.
"It's not parvo," said the doctor, as the puppy's tail started to wag. As if she heard. As if she knew. As if she understood what it meant.
I understood what it meant: The lucky break was as much mine as the puppy's. The only decisions that remained for me now were which credit card to use for the bill and which home to choose for the puppy.
Eight minutes. It seemed like a lifetime, because that's exactly what it was.
PETS ON THE WEB
Last year I was living in one of the best birding areas in the country, a rural part of the Florida panhandle where some of the rarest birds in the world are regular visitors. I spent my months there with binoculars and a field guide never far from my grasp, and I saw everything from a bald eagle (only once) to osprey, terns and bluebirds. If you have an interest in birding, you might want help with the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, which runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. You don't have to be an expert birder to participate in the count. Visit the Society's bird count page (www.audubon.org/bird/cbc) for more information.
A small amount of wax in your cat's ears is perfectly normal and can easily be cleaned with mineral oil on a cotton ball or swab. But if your pet's ears appear filthy, he probably has ear mites -- tiny pests that feed on the lining of the ear canal.
See your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment. Be sure to follow directions in treating the mites. You need to apply medication as directed, as often as recommended, and for as long as told to. Cut no corners: You need to keep up the regimen even after you think the mites are gone to prevent a reinfestation.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have an adorable 6-month-old indoor kitten. He is a joy to have around, but he does come with the "kitty challenges." How can we get him to stop scratching the corners of the couch and our bed? He does have a scratching post, and we already squirt him with a spray bottle. We've also tried the spray-on smelly stuff from the pet store that was supposed to stop him, but all it did was make the house smell like a barn. -- W.B., via e-mail
A: Scratching isn't just about scratching -- it's also about stretching, keeping claws in good trim and marking territory. Cats find the behavior extremely satisfying for these reasons.
To get your cat to change his choice of where to scratch, start by making sure the post has a good feel underpaw, and is well-placed and stable.
The covering on the post should be something a cat can really get his claws into, such a sisal rope, or carpet with large loops and a loose weave. Don't hide it in the corner of a basement or garage. Put it in a location where the cat can use it and still feel that he's part of the family. Finally, make sure the post is sturdy enough so that your pet can't pull it over on himself.
Make the post more enticing by rubbing fresh catnip on the covering (if your cat likes the herb). And play games with your pet around or on the post to strengthen the positive association.
You can make the couch and bed unwelcoming through the use of double-sided tape. Cats hate putting their paws on sticky substances. You can purchase double-sided strips ready-made under the brand name "Sticky Paws," or buy double-sided tape at a home-supply store.
Use a small test strip in an area that doesn't show to make sure your fabric won't be damaged. When in doubt, apply the tape to piece of cardboard and lean that against the corner of the couch and bed.
It also helps to blunt the tips of your kitten's claws on a monthly basis, using either nail-trimmers made for humans or those designed for pets.
Q: I breed Labrador retrievers, and I compete with my dogs in many sports, including obedience, agility and field tests. I've shown many of my dogs to their championships as well. This is a small thing, I know, but it drives me crazy. Would you please tell people that there's no such thing as a "golden Labrador"? Labradors come in three colors: black, yellow and chocolate. -- T.N., via e-mail
A: Happy to spread the word. Folks, unless you're talking about a dog who's a light-colored cross between a golden retriever and a Labrador retriever, the phrase "golden Lab" is incorrect. No matter how golden the coat, a light-colored Labrador is always called a yellow Lab. The yellow can range in hue from fox-red to light cream, according to the American Kennel Club.
Not that any Labrador born would ever care what you call him, as long as you call him regularly for dinner.
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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