Never before have we had so many choices in shopping for our pets.
Everyone wants a piece of the pet-supplies pie these days, and with good reason: It's a multibillion-dollar industry that thrives in both good times and bad.
In recent years, pet superstores have popped up everywhere, with a bigger selection of supplies than were carried by the mom-and-pop stores of a generation ago. In the shadow of these behemoths, small retailers have had to find new ways to do business, offering services such as free delivery, superior pet-care advice, or niche products such as fancy collars, high-end toys and treats, and pet-themed products for people.
And then there's the convenience of supermarkets, where the emphasis is on age-old brand names and generic products. Pet supplies are one of the top categories in any grocery store in terms of shelf space, and grocery retailers and their suppliers have done a great deal in recent years to improve the quality of their pet supplies.
General discount retailers and warehouse stores are working hard to attract the dollars of pet lovers as well.
What about catalogs and the Internet? The boom in mail-order business hasn't missed the pet-supplies industry, with available catalog selections as varied as those of the pet superstores and as focused as those of high-end pet boutiques. Big retailers and niche marketers (offering such goods as dog-sports equipment and bird supplies) are both doing a decent trade on the Internet.
And don't forget the little guys! A lot of the most creative and attractive merchandise for pets is handmade in small quantities, such as pet collars, leashes, and all manner of clever, well-made toys for all kinds of pets. Small retailers, crafts fairs, online auctions and pet shows are good places to look for these items.
If you're already overwhelmed by your choices, let me add one more: Buy used! You don't always have to think "new" when you need pet supplies. Many a top-quality cat tree, dog carrier or bird cage has turned up at a yard sale at a fraction of the new cost. So keep your eyes open at such sales for these big-ticket items because it may pay off for you and your pet.
Remember that the final determination of suitability for any product, no matter where you buy it or how much you pay, comes down to two things: First, is it safe for your pet? And second, does your pet like it? A product that's dangerous or that your pet ignores is no bargain at any price.
With so many choices, does it matter where you buy your pet supplies? For me it does. I consciously choose those retailers that put the idea of helping animals into company policy. I prefer to patronize companies that support animal charities at the corporate level, and that offer space at the store level for local groups to adopt out homeless animals.
Likewise, I shop at locally owned pet-supply stores that have owners who are actively supporting community efforts to make life better for animals and those who love them. I even seek out people who don't have stores at all, such as the artisan in my area whose braided leather collars are as durable as they are gorgeous, and who shows by her pet-centered activities such as teaching obedience classes that she loves animals.
Large or small, these retailers and suppliers are working to be successful and to do right by our pets. Sometimes I may pay a little extra to patronize them, but it always seems worth it to me to avoid those whose policies or products I neither support nor recommend.
PETS ON THE WEB
Hollywood Paws (www.hollywoodpaws.com) is a Web site dedicated to helping people get their pets into showbiz. How good an idea that is I don't know, but the Web site is sure interesting, with pictures and stories of pets whose owners have stars in their eyes. The site also offers a column by Anne Gordon, who trains animals for work in commercials, films and TV. There's also a quick test you can take to give you an idea of how bright and agreeable your pet is, and the potential for stardom. While looking at Hollywood Paws isn't likely to turn your dog into the next Lassie or give your cat a career like the famous Morris, it is a well-designed and entertaining site that's worth a look.
As we start to head into kitten season, it's good to remember that a big litter box may be too much for a little-bitty baby kitty. The sides may be too tall for a kitten to climb over easily, and the depth of filler that may be right for a full-grown cat may seem like the sand dunes of the Sahara for a youngster. An old 9-by-13-inch metal baking dish, permanently retired from cooking duties, can be a good first litter box for a kitten -- its low sides making it easy for babies to hop in and out of, and its shallowness dictates a level of filler a kitten can deal with.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We got our daughter a rabbit for Easter. She told her teacher, who just happens to have pet rabbits herself. The teacher sent home some material, including information on getting our rabbit spayed. Is this necessary? -- R.U., via e-mail
A: Since you have just the one rabbit, the surgery isn't really necessary to keep your rabbit from reproducing. But your daughter's teacher is right: Spaying or neutering is a good move, for a couple of reasons beyond preventing babies. Altered rabbits make better pets.
Female rabbits, for example, are at a high risk for uterine cancer, a leading killer of these pets over the age of 2. Spaying also removes the potential for common and potentially lethal reproductive-system infections. Besides extending your pet's life span, altering eliminates sex-related behavior problems. Sexually mature rabbits can be territorial or even aggressive, and may spray urine to mark territory.
Be sure you find a veterinarian with experience in treating rabbits, because anesthesia is generally riskier for rabbits than it is for dogs and cats. The House Rabbit Society (www.rabbits.org) offers a listing of rabbit-friendly veterinarians on its Web site.
Q: My husband and I were adopted by a pair of kittens last summer. We think they're brother and sister from the same litter, since they turned up together. They've both been neutered and declawed, and divide their time between the house and a large screened porch, where their litter box, cat tree, and food and water dishes are.
We're planning a three-week vacation in Europe this summer to celebrate our 30th anniversary, and the graduation from college of our daughter, youngest of three. Do you think a pet sitter would be a good idea for that length of time? We've had a neighbor look in on them when we've taken a weekend trip, but this is considerably longer. -- O.R., via e-mail
A: I don't suppose you could talk that youngest child of yours - you know, the one for whom you made so many sacrifices so that she could go to college -- into staying at your house while you are gone?
Failing that, I think your situation is ideal for a pet sitter. Although every animal is unique, cats generally are more comfortable staying in their own surroundings, as opposed to being temporarily relocated to a boarding situation.
For the length of time you're talking about, I'd be extremely reluctant to lean on the generosity of friends, family or neighbors, or to rely on the trustworthiness of a neighborhood kid. To be sure your pets are consistently well cared for while you're gone, I'd opt for a reputable professional service.
Professional pet-sitting services have come on strong in recent years, and many pet lovers use and love them. Not only will they drop in regularly and reliably to feed and fuss over your pets, but they can also water plants, turn lights on and off, and generally make your house look more "lived in" while you're gone.
If you're considering hiring a pet-sitting service, be sure to discuss services and prices beforehand so there are no misunderstandings, make sure that they're bonded and insured, and ask for references. Pet Sitters International, a trade association, offers member listings on its Web site, www.petsit.com. It's a great place to start looking.
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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