The crunch of my tires on the long gravel driveway broke the stillness of the warm afternoon and woke the furry forms on the distant front porch. Suddenly my car was surrounded by dogs -- their tails wagging and eyes bright. I stopped the car, not because I was afraid of the dogs, but because I was afraid of running over one of them.
While I wondered if I should leave the car where it was and walk the rest of the driveway, a shout came from the house. The dogs turned as one and ran for the sound. Deprived of my escort, I drove slowly to the house and got out of the car.
"Quite a mob, huh?" said the source of the shout, a woman of about my own middle age, thin and wiry with long gray hair that made an appealing frame for her tiny face and big smile.
The dogs -- I counted seven in all -- were settling down nicely now, their smiles as welcoming as the woman's. There was a dog here for nearly everyone's taste in canines: different sizes, shapes, fur lengths and colors, purebreds and mixes both. More dogs than I could care for, but then, the very number of them was one of the reasons I was visiting.
I'd come wondering if it was possible to have too many pets, and if there was an absolute number that defined too many. I hoped to find part of the answer here.
The number of animals my host willingly kept and scrupulously cared for would fit most anyone's definition of "too many." In addition to the dogs, she shared her home and acreage with dozens of animals, mostly unwanted by others. A half-dozen indoor cats, a dozen or so half-wild barn ones. A handful of horses, all but one of the animals unridable because of age and illness, and all saved from a trip to the slaughterhouse. A llama. Some sheep and goats. A rabbit. A scarlet macaw, a Moluccan cockatoo and an uncountable number of finches. All cared for by a single energetic woman, living what some would call "alone" by virtue of her lack of human companionship.
The very thought of what her days were like was enough to make me wish for a nap.
I have seen a couple of cases and read of many others in which the need to keep animals becomes a mental illness that causes suffering for both the owners and the animals they bring in. Overwhelmed by their responsibilities, such people -- mental health experts call them "collectors" -- are unable to care for their animals and even less willing to give them up. These situations are tragic and demand intervention.
But as I walked around with my energetic host, I saw for myself how much she truly loved her animals and how her affections were returned in kind. Every animal offered evidence of the best long-term care, and each pasture, pen and cage was clean, with fresh food and water.
Too many animals? Not here. Her little sanctuary for the unwanted and formerly unloved was heaven on earth for her non-human companions.
I was crunching back down that long gravel driveway heading for home, vowing to never feel overwhelmed caring for a mere three dogs again, when I came to the realization that each of us has to reconcile the number of pets we keep with the size of our hearts and the strength of our bodies to care for them.
Which is why I, with three dogs and no more, suddenly felt envious of the woman who had the energy to care for all the pets I had room for in my heart.
PETS ON THE WEB
While you'll find lots of information on every imaginable dog sport and cat breed, finding good reference material on less-popular pets can be hard to come by, even in the vastness of the Internet. Which is why I was pleased when a reader sent me a link to the Guinea Pig Compendium, at www.aracnet.com/(tilde)seagull/Guineas. The site is well-organized, offering solid information on types and markings of guinea pig, where to find one and how to care for your pet. There are lots of links to other resources, as well, including e-mail lists and other Web sites. Especially useful: A searchable index of veterinarians who like to have guinea pigs as patients, or have been recommended by their clients for their skill with these pets.
I can't remember the last time one of those high-profile medical studies made me smile so much. After spending years soothing expectant parents worried about exposing a baby to "dirty" animals, I was delighted to read of the study suggesting that having multiple dogs and cats can have a beneficial influence on the future health of a child. The report suggests that having pets in the home can significantly reduce the possibility of an infant developing allergies -- of all sorts, not just to pets -- later on in life. What's the best news from this study, from a pet's perspective? Now maybe fewer people will dump their pets when a baby is on the way. The study appeared in a recent issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Q: We have a 9-year-old longhaired cat. We are having a problem with very large mats in the hair close to the scalp. We brush him, but for some reason these mats formed anyway and are impossible to remove. I tried to cut them out with scissors, but they are too close to the skin. Any tips? -- C.M., via e-mail
A: The kindest thing for any animal whose mats have gotten out of control is to have a groomer clip him short. The time involved in trying to remove mats along with the pain of tugging at snagged fur will try the patience of owner and pet alike.
That said, if the mats are few and your cat is patient, you can try to pick them out. Don't bathe your pet before starting: It will only make matters worse with the mats and irritate your cat.
Get your pet into your lap, and relax him with petting and sweet talk. If he won't settle down, try again later. You want him in a good mood for this.
If you're getting some cooperation, start by working corn starch into the first mat, and then gently and carefully slide the bottom blade of a sharp set of scissors under the tangle, with the cutting edge facing out, and slice through the mat. Go in a direction away from the skin rather than cutting across the mat parallel to the skin. Repeat a couple of times. Then, holding the mat at the base to minimize pulling, pick apart the fur with a wide-toothed metal comb. When the mat is gone, follow with a narrower comb and brush to remove the debris that you find at the heart of the mess.
Be sure to praise and treat your pet for his patience as you go. Work in short periods, and try to stop before your cat has had enough. (Tip: Watch his tail. If he starts flicking it in an agitated way, he's reaching the limits of his tolerance.)
If you have more than a couple of mats, however, I strongly suggest the buzz-cut option. A good groomer can give your pet a cut with a minimum of strain on your pet -- most cats can get a "lion trim," with the fur around the neck and on the head left alone.
Once an animal has been sheared down, make it habit to comb or brush your pet regularly to keep the problem from coming back. Mats can be painful -- think of having your hair held in a too-tight rubber band -- and are best prevented by regular grooming.
Q: Our dog loves ice. Is it OK to let him have some? -- K.W., via e-mail
A: Sure. Ice is a cool treat on a hot day, and some dogs really like it. For a change of pace, make your dog some "pupsicles" by freezing broth in ice-cube trays (I prefer the low-salt, low-fat variety).
Ice is a great way to keep your dog's water cool on a hot day, too. Create ice blocks by freezing water in margarine tubs, and float the frozen chunks in your dog's water dish.
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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