A friend of mine likes to say that when you think about all the ways kids can get into trouble, it's amazing that so many make it to adulthood in one piece.
It's true: When I think of all the hare brained things I did as a child, it strikes me as incredibly good fortune that I made it out of my youth safely.
When it comes to my pets, it seems my luck is still holding. In a month when one pet disappeared temporarily and another one almost died of poisoning -- both near-disasters that could have been prevented -- I'm feeling especially blessed to have gotten through both experiences poorer (when it comes to my veterinary bills) but also wiser.
The missing pet I've already mentioned in a previous column. My toy spaniel was either taken or let out by some kids who kicked in the fence boards at my brother's house, where the pets and I had been staying between selling one house and buying another. The ID tag on his collar was his quick ticket home, which validates my regular writing about the importance of these inexpensive items for protecting pets.
Chase wasn't home long when my oldest dog, Benjamin, became gravely ill. The reason is something most pet lovers probably don't know about, and even those who do don't take all that seriously as a risk. I don't I didn't.
Ben was almost done in by eating onions.
It's true I never worried much about onions before. Or chocolate, either, even though both can be lethal to pets. The fact is I didn't think much about these foods because it takes rather a lot of either to put a large dog such as Benjamin in danger.
The last time I gave even a fleeting thought to onions was when a veterinarian friend of mine suggested I warn people to read the labels on meat-based baby food, which is often used to encourage sick or older pets to eat. Some brands put onion powder in their products to make them more palatable to babies, which makes those products a poor choice to give to pets. I duly warned readers and filed "onions" in the dark far corners of my brain.
Benjamin is a counter-cruiser, and has been since he arrived at my home as a young dog nearly eight years ago. His is a bad habit that's notoriously hard to break, since every time a dog succeeds in getting something yummy off the counter the behavior is rewarded. For years I've coped by adjusting my own behavior, keeping the counters clear of anything edible when I'm not home.
But in the hustle and rush of being out of one home and not quite into another, I let my guard down, just enough.
On my brother's kitchen counter was a massive container of dried minced onions -- the size you buy at those warehouse stores. It never occurred to me Benjamin would find dried onions worth the effort to pull off the counter, much less eat. But I was wrong.
In a few days, the dog was near death with a case of what's called Heinz-body anemia, a condition in which compounds in the onion lead to the premature destruction of red blood cells.
As with Chase's unplanned outing, we got lucky. After a few scary days, Benjamin started to improve and is now back to normal -- or what passes for normal in a dog as goofy as he is.
After two near-misses with losing a pet, I'm so happy to be settling into my new home at last, where I'm keeping the counters clear and will never take onions or chocolate -- or the benefits of plain old good luck -- for granted again.
PETS ON THE WEB
Rats are great pets! While many people would not even consider them because they are, well, rats, if you're open-minded you will discover a pet who's very trainable as well as sociable and affectionate. The Rat and Mouse Club of America's Web site (www.rcma.org) packs in a great deal of good information, with plenty of reasons to keep a rat (or more than one, because they get lonely) as well as all the tips you need to care for these pets properly.
At this time of year more than any other, wild birds come to rely on the foods we put out for them. Trouble is, bird feeders attract not only birds, but also cats who find the area around feeders to be prime hunting territory. Putting a bell on a cat's collar is often suggested as a way to keep him from successfully hunting songbirds, but in fact many felines learn to stalk and kill prey without jingling the warning bell. To keep cats from killing songbirds, keep them inside. Not only will these cherished birds live longer, but your cat will, too, safe from cars and other deadly outdoor hazards.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My cat is 16 years old. He doesn't go out much anymore, and so has an indoor litter box, which is kept clean. The problem is, he prefers to use my bathroom mats, so I am unable to leave them in the bathroom anymore. Is there anyway to discourage him from using those as a litter box? -- S.B., via e-mail
A: If you pick up the mats, will he use the litter box? If so, I'd suggest keeping the mats off the floor and being happy that you still have the companionship of this charming old fellow with so little in the way of adjustment on your part. Let's be fair about this: I don't think many of us are going to be all that careful with our own bathroom habits when we're as elderly as this cat is!
That said, it's important for anyone with an aging cat to take a look at the litter box situation from the pet's point of view, keeping the possible problems of age in mind. Be sure the box is easy to get to and get into for an older cat. It may be hard, for example, for an elderly cat to jump over the sides if he's arthritic, and if so, one edge of the box may need to be lowered.
We all need to recognize that physical and mental changes can affect the way a pet behaves. When any pet -- especially an aging one -- changes his or her behavior, it's important to rule out any physical causes first with a thorough examination and possible course of treatment by a veterinarian. After that, you can try adjusting your aging pet's environment to keep messes to a minimum, and be accepting of the problems that come as a pet ages.
I hear from a fair amount of people who are upset about old pets who aren't as reliable as they used to be and who are looking for "training tips" to correct the situation. To a certain extent, people with elderly pets have to realize that the adjustments will have to be made on their end, because these dear old animals aren't capable of changing.
Q: My cat resides outside and has any number of places to use as a toilet, including a litter box. But for some odd reason she likes to use the roof as her toilet, where it comes together into a "V." Besides cleaning every few weeks by using a hose and spreading crushed mothballs, what would you suggest to prevent this? -- C.L., via e-mail
A: I'm guessing your cat uses the roof because she feels safe up there and because leaves collect and decompose into that part of the roof, turning it into a natural litter box. The trick to changing this habit is to make the roof less attractive while increasing the desirability of that litter box.
Make sure her litter box is in an area that's protected from the elements as well as from the chance of her being scared or ambushed while in a vulnerable state -- nobody likes to be startled on the potty! Check, too, that the contents are scooped frequently, since a dirty box will send most cats elsewhere.
To discourage the use of the roof spot, I'd clean it of debris every day for a while, spraying not only with water but also with a scent most cats hate, such as lemon. If you can get up on the roof, secure some physical deterrents in the spot, such as crumpled wads of foil or plastic carpet runners with the pointy side out.
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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