When an aging pet passes on, one of the things you might notice when the pain of loss loses its sharpest edge is that you're not seeing veterinarians as often as you were. And if those veterinarians are the kind of people you like and whose work you respect, you might even miss seeing them. Maybe not enough to go in just to say hello, but certainly enough to appreciate the good care that your pet received throughout his life.
That's the way I feel about my veterinarians. They got Andy off to a great start as a puppy and helped keep him healthy over what was a very good, long life -- almost 16 years. It's hard to say who impressed me more -- our "regular" veterinarian or the specialists, which at various times over the years included a cardiologist, an internist and a surgeon toward the end. Yet, it was a veterinary acupuncturist who brought real quality to the old dog's life. She gave Andy relief from the often-painful burdens of old age and opened my eyes to the possibilities of alternative medicine.
Although not as many specialists exist in veterinary medicine as in human medicine, the kinds and the number of veterinary experts grow every year. And that's good news for our pets.
Current companion-animal specialties include such "system" areas of expertise as cardiology, dentistry, dermatology and oncology. There are also species specialists, such as those veterinarians certified as experts on bird health. Veterinary behaviorists are becoming more common as well, helping people and their pets work through such problems as house-soiling or separation anxiety with the aid of medication and behavior-modification techniques. And finally, there are those veterinarians who practice alternative or complementary care, including acupuncture, herbal therapy and homeopathy.
System specialties usually require additional study in a two- to five-year residency program, followed by a rigorous examination. These certifications are handled by a board such as the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, which is why certified specialists are sometimes referred to as "boarded" or "board-certified."
For veterinarians already in practice, the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners also offers specialty certifications, including those in feline and avian practice. The certifications also require passing a difficult examination.
There's no mandatory certification for alternative or complementary veterinary medicine -- any veterinarian can start calling himself "alternative," but services offered and skill levels will vary. That doesn't mean you should avoid such practitioners, but you should be aware of the potential for problems. (More information on alternative veterinary medicine can be found on the AltVetMed Web site, at www.altvetmed.com.)
Many large urban areas support independent specialists or specialty practices, but in less populated areas you're more likely to find a full complement of specialists at the closest university with a school of veterinary medicine.
Only veterinarians who are board-certified are allowed to call themselves "specialists," although others may stress a special interest in a particular area of medicine in their practice marketing. As my "Birds for Dummies" co-author Dr. Brian Speer points out, some people who take a special interest in an area of medicine become very good indeed, even without the official credentials. One of only a handful of veterinarians certified as an avian specialist in both North America and Europe, Speer has lectured all over the world and seen what sort of care is out there for pet birds -- good and bad from specialists and non-specialists alike.
If you believe your pet has a problem that could use the expertise of a specialist, talk to your veterinarian about a referral. If you have a cooperative relationship with a good veterinarian, calling in a specialist is never a problem.
If your veterinarian is reluctant to refer you, remember that the final decision about your pet's care is always yours. If you want to see a specialist you should do so even if your veterinarian disagrees. Keep the lines of communication open with your veterinarian if you can, but realize that your pet's care is your responsibility and seek a second option or specialist on your own.
In Andy's case, the cooperation between his regular veterinarian and his veterinary acupuncturist could not have been better. They worked together, respected what each other did, and were both there with me to say goodbye when the time came.
Knowing Andy received the best care possible from all his veterinarians really helps to ease the pain of losing him. His was a good, long life, and I have no regrets.
PETS ON THE WEB
The University of California, Davis, is home to what is considered to be one of the best schools of veterinary medicine in the world. I may be a little biased because this important resource for animal lovers has always been next to my hometown, but I've been to more than a few veterinary schools in the last few years and they always make me appreciate UCD's more. The UCD School of Veterinary Medicine Web site (www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu) provides a good overview of the school and its programs, along with information on its Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, where the best in veterinary medicine saves lives every day.
Overuse of oil-based hairball remedies can interfere with your cat's absorption of some important nutrients -- fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Talk to your veterinarian about your cat's hairball problems, and be sure not to overdo any medication you're sent home with.
A great alternative to commercial hairball remedies is canned pumpkin. Regularly adding a teaspoon or so to your cat's diet is a safe, inexpensive way to deal with hairballs. If your cat won't eat the stuff undoctored, try mixing it into canned cat food, or with the juice from water-packed tuna.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I recently adopted a Labrador puppy. I'd eventually like to take her on my daily jog, and I'd like to know when she'll be mature enough, and if I'll need to work her up to the full four-mile distance. I jog a relatively easy 10-minute mile pace. -- K.D., via e-mail
A: According to Dr. Robert Richardson, a Sacramento, Calif., veterinarian who's well-known for his expertise in orthopedic surgery, you need to wait a while before putting the miles on that pup.
Richardson says an 8-month-old dog can safely manage only a one- to two-mile run at a relatively slow pace -- and that's if the animal is perfectly sound.
A puppy who's 8 months old is just past the usual growth spurts, says Richardson, who cautions that before that age a puppy's cartilage is very soft and easily damaged.
If you push your developing pup, or ask a dog with joint problems to run at all, you could be risking serious problems down the road. Consult your own veterinarian for a more precise assessment of your dog's suitability as a running partner.
Q: My husband has a meticulously restored classic Porsche he keeps on a concrete pad behind our garage, the car carefully protected by a fitted-cloth cover. A cat has taken to sleeping on the cover. While my husband doesn't like this, I've convinced him that it's no big deal.
Lately, though, the cat has started sharpening its claws on the corners of the cover, and the fabric is taking a beating as a result. The cover wasn't cheap, and the destruction is getting on my husband's nerves.
My husband's idea of dealing with this problem involves a gun, but I would like another alternative. Any suggestions for a non-harmful way to get the cat to keep its claws to itself? -- G.S., via e-mail
A: Cats hate to touch sticky material, so if you put double-sided tape on the areas where the clawing is causing damage, you ought to be able to fix the problem.
You can buy double-sided tape at the hardware or home-supply store. Or check out a pet-supply store for a product called Sticky Paws, double-sided strips that are designed to solve just such a problem. (If you can't find Sticky Paws locally, you can order the product direct from the manufacturer, at www.stickypaws.com or 1-888-697-2873.) I'd test out a small area before applying tape or the strips in great quantity.
And because you know a cat is sleeping on and around the cars, make sure you thump on the hood to scare him away before starting up any of your vehicles. Some cats like to sleep up against engines as they cool, which is a pretty dangerous place to be when the key is turned.
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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