Almost every week I write quite seriously about pets, about caring for them properly, protecting them from harm and solving the problems that drive animal lovers crazy. While there's no doubt people need that information, it's also important to remind ourselves of the joys we get from sharing our lives with animals. Pets give those of us who are otherwise responsible grown-ups a chance to be unabashedly silly, knowing that no matter what we say or do in front of our animals, our secrets will stay safe with our accepting, nonjudgmental companions.
Which brings me to ... pet songs.
Each of my pets has his or her own "theme song," silly ditties that I would be reluctant to sing in any kind of public forum. But I love to sing them in private, and each of my pets recognizes a song as his or her own, enjoying the special attention even as I'm surely torturing their well-developed sense of hearing with my dreadful voice.
This subject comes to mind because after years of living with the same pets, I'm now in a state of transition, with one song I don't sing anymore and one I'm still working on. Within the last few months my 16-year-old sheltie, Andy, passed away, and a cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy named Chase joined retrievers Benjamin and Heather as part of my family.
I guess the songs started with Andy, because I don't remember having any before his, although I've always been one of those people who love to sing when I'm sure no one can hear me.
Set to the tune of "You Are My Sunshine," Andy's song went: "You are my Andy, my darling Andy. You make me happy, because you're gray." He always cracked his mouth in a doggie smile when he heard it, backing up so I could scratch that spot just above his tail while I sang. (Recalling the ending's a bit melancholy now that he's gone, though: "... please don't take my Andy away.")
That song may have been the best I had in me, because Ben's tune isn't nearly as sweet or remotely as clever (although he loves his music, too). Set to the tune of the Monty Python "Spam" song, Ben's song repeats his name over and over, punctuated by the word "wonderful" here and there for emphasis. Heather's song is just as goofy.
Since I don't sit down and write these songs -- they just sort of evolve -- it's not predictable how they'll end up. Which is why the new puppy's song, for now, is downright insulting. Set to the tune of the rock chestnut "Cat Scratch Fever," Chase's song begins, "Nitwit puppy (nah nah nah) ... "
Andy was once a nitwit puppy, too, who turned into one of the most beautiful, well-mannered and good-natured of dogs. I'm hoping the same will be true of the goofy and awkward Chase, who at almost 8 months can be so annoying that the other dogs sometimes look at me accusingly for bringing such a pest into their lives.
But I have faith that there's plenty of potential in the nitwit puppy, which is why I've been turning over in my head the possibilities for his permanent theme song. "You Are My Sunshine" has been retired like the number on a star ballplayer's jersey, but I know there's good song out there for the good dog Chase will become.
Silly? Sure, but it makes me happy. And in such serious times as those we live in now, I am grateful to my pets for any reason to be so pointlessly lighthearted. Just as long as no one else can hear me.
Veterinary school is a kind of smorgasbord, where students take a little from a lot of different offerings, but don't usually get a lot of any one thing. So, when it comes to birds it's usually better to find a veterinarian who has dedicated extra time and energy to keeping abreast of developments in the fairly specialized and fast-changing field of avian medicine.
Veterinarians who are interested in focusing on birds may be certified as specialists by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners; more likely, they've just gained their skills and knowledge without formal certification. It pays to ask around: Bird shops, bird breeders and members of bird clubs can usually provide you with a referral to a veterinarian who focuses on avian care, as can the veterinarian who cares for your dog or cat. Listings can also be found on the Association of Avian Veterinarians Web site (www.aav.org).
PETS ON THE WEB
The American Ferret Association (www.ferret.org) started as a small club in suburban Maryland dedicated to promoting one of the most popular and least understood pets. It has grown into a national association, expanding its goals to include fighting to eliminate laws that ban the animals, notably in California and New York City. Although nothing fancy, the AFA's Web site offers some basic information and links to find out more about these animals.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My Border collie mix loves to run with me. She can walk at my pace well, but when we run, she constantly wants to run much faster than I do. How can I fix this? She also has a habit of wanting to visit with other dogs while running, which I'd like to stop. –- P.L., via e-mail
A. I am so glad that you're exercising your dog on a regular basis! So many canine behavior problems have boredom and inactivity at their root. Most dog breeds were developed to be active -- to herd sheep, haul sleds, or hunt in packs or with a human companion. They were meant to work hard, and their bodies and their minds crave the exercise. If they just sit around in the house or yard day after day after day, they have no outlet for their immense energy, except for digging, barking, chewing or other unwanted behavior. Every dog, large or small, young or old, will benefit from a daily walk. Large, active breeds and mixes need even more -- at least a half-hour of heart-thumping activity three to four times a week. This may sound like a lot, but it's nothing compared to the work many dogs were bred to do, in long days that left them exhausted and happy.
You don't need sheep or a sled to exercise your pet. Fetch is a great way to provide exercise, as is running or biking with your pet. Training and competing in sports such as fly ball or agility are also great. And don't forget: If your dog is active, you are, too. Talk about a win-win situation!
All dogs need training, and yours is no exception. Your runs will be easier and more pleasant after you find a trainer to help you teach your dog to be on leash without pulling, and to pay attention to you instead of to other dogs. When properly trained, your dog will match her speed to yours, and will ignore distractions.
With a bright dog such as a Border collie mix, you should be off and running again in no time.
Q: I have a 6-week-old male kitten at home, and at his first veterinary visit the doctor told me that people have associated clumping kitty litters with intestinal problems in their cats (some of which have led to death). Can you please clarify this, or at least give me more information? -– H.W., via e-mail
A: The idea that clumping litter is deadly traces back to an article in a long-defunct holistic cat magazine and is kept alive by the power of the Internet. The article -- I've read it -– guessed that the litter was the cause of the death of the author's kittens. The evidence was purely speculative and anecdotal, and has not been supported by subsequent scientific research. While there's no evidence that clumping litters are bad for cats, many veterinarians (such as yours) adopt a better-safe-than-sorry policy regarding kittens. That's because a playful, curious kitten might be tempted to eat the material, which might indeed cause an intestinal problem. The cautious solution is to use a non-clumping litter for the first couple of months, then switch if you wish to.
A related note: Because these litters may be "dustier" than other types, they may present problems for asthmatic cats. You can minimize this risk by not using a hooded litter box, and by making sure your cat is out of the room when you change the filler.
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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