I'm often asked how I've come to know so much about pets. After all, I'm not a veterinarian, nor do I have a degree in biology or animal behavior. But I do have a degree that has taught me how to ask the right questions and to explain the answers in understandable English.
And in addition to those skills, which have served me well through hundreds of columns and three books over almost 20 years, I have a love for animals and an insatiable desire to learn more. I want to learn more about caring for and understanding pets, and also to help others to do the same.
Sometimes, though, what I think has helped me most is ability to recognize that sometimes the knowledge comes from places I never would have imagined.
Like the chair of a dentist busy doing a root canal on my infected, impacted and oh-so-painful molar.
More on that in a minute.
When I first started writing about pets, I became friends with a veterinarian who had just opened his own practice. Clients were few at first and his staff consisted of just one technician he couldn't even afford to keep on full-time. He had a lot of time to fill, and no one to fill it with, so he didn't mind my hanging around, watching, learning and sometimes even helping. He was one of my earliest teachers, and veterinarians have ever since been an appreciated and respected source of information.
Along the way, I've also been grateful for a great many trainers and behaviorists, as well as top competitors in canine sports from agility to field training to mushing and more. You'll also find shelter and rescue workers on my contact list, as well as responsible breeders and fanciers of all manner of pets. I've talked to more than a few groomers, pet-sitters and pet-supply manufacturers over the years, too.
And lots and lots of readers, of course.
I think of all of these people, and all of these influences, every time I write a column or contemplate a new book. But sometimes, even now, something different will happen to give me an insight into how we can understand and care for animals even better.
Which brings me back to that root canal. While the dentist worked on me, I floated in the dreamy waves of a preappointment sedative, thinking of a cat ...
Years ago, when I was hanging out with my friend at his veterinary clinic, an older cat was brought in. She was listless and not eating, and her owners complained of her "bad breath" and lack of interest in using the litter box. My friend found the probable reason for her problems: Her mouth was a smelly mess of rotting teeth and infected gums.
He suggested dental work -- some tooth extractions, a thorough cleaning and a course of antibiotics. The owners balked at spending the money, at the risk of anesthesia and at the very idea that an animal would need dental care. They took their cat home, to suffer, surely, and perhaps to die as the infections overwhelmed her malnourished body.
Sitting in the dentist's chair, I understood with a weekend's worth of dreadful pain on just one tooth -- not a mouthful of infection and rot for heaven knows how long -- just how much that cat was suffering, and how much she needed help. Not in abstract terms, but from my own reality.
I don't know what happened to her, but I do know that thinking of her now, so many years later, reminds me of how important it is not only to keep learning from every possible source, but also to keep helping by writing about what I find out. So that maybe the next time someone has a cat with a mouthful of rot, or a dog with an ear infection, they won't grouse about the trouble, the time or the money but instead will think of the animal, the suffering, and the responsibility we take on when we take in a pet.
Keep learning, keep helping. It's not a bad motto for the years past and, indeed, the years to come.
Brewer's yeast has been touted as a "natural" flea cure for years, but if you're counting on it to handle an infestation of the pests, you'll likely be very disappointed. Whether given as a food supplement or sprinkled on the pet as a flea-deterrent, the best you can say about brewer's yeast is that it probably won't do your pet any harm. Alas, it won't do the fleas any harm, either. Talk to your veterinarian about effective, low-risk flea control products that work. And, as always, follow the directions on the package to the letter for your pet's safety.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Parrot Chronicles (www.parrotchronicles.com) is an online magazine every bird lover should bookmark. The site offers interesting first-person pieces, such as one written by a Hollywood publicist who decided to take her bird with her on a business trip instead of hiring a pet-sitter. (Note to anyone trying to do this: If anyone complains about the noise your bird makes on a plane, pointing out that babies are likely to be more ear-splittingly annoying will not help your cause, even if it's true.) In addition to such entertaining stories, the site offers good practical advice on health and behavior, and balanced, intelligent discussion on some controversial topics.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I agree that the IMOM.com charity you wrote about recently presents a wonderful opportunity for those of us who have extra money to support the medical care of the loving companions of those who have limited incomes. For folks who wish to do so within their own community, though, there are often local ways to achieve the same means.
Several years ago, I established a fund at my veterinarian's office in memory of my 10-1/2-year-old bullmastiff and my 19-year-old cat, and in honor of the wonderful care given them by the doctors and staff at that practice. The purpose of the fund is to provide care to those clients who love their companion animals but cannot afford veterinary procedures.
If someone wishes to donate dollars in their community with the tax advantages of donating through a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, that person may wish to explore setting up a similar fund through the community humane society or animal shelter, many of which are 501(c)(3) organizations already.
Another possibility is establishing a fund at local community foundations. With a substantial donation, one might even choose to set up an endowed fund.
Would you please pass along this information? -- J.A., via e-mail
A: I agree it would be wonderful if every community had a fund that animal lovers could donate to in hopes of helping people who can't afford veterinary care for their pets. And I like your idea of making such donations in memory of a special pet -- what a wonderful way to honor a well-loved and much-missed companion!
Now before anyone jumps all over me for supporting health care for animals before people get the same consideration, let me remind everyone that many times when you help prevent a so-called "economic euthanasia" -- the killing of a pet who could be helped were it not for the expense of the care -- you are in fact making a big difference in the life of another human being.
Many times the people who can't afford to pay a big veterinary bill are those who rely the most on the companionship a pet brings -- elderly people on small fixed incomes. By helping to pay for the care of sick pets, you are often also helping a person who really needs that animal.
Thank you for your wonderful suggestion, and I hope many readers give your ideas serious consideration when it comes to planning their charitable giving.
Q: I have a wonderful 6-year-old chocolate mini-rex rabbit, a lovable, gentle soul. He spends the school year in my classroom and the summer at home with me.
During the summer he sleeps in a cage outfitted for his comfort, spending his days in a run with his cage available to him for food and water. His run has been checked for anything that might be harmful to him. I feed him organic vegetables, fresh water, timothy hay and pellets I buy through a veterinarian. He is loved!
The question I have concerns adding another mini-rex to the rabbit family. Is this wise? If it is, should the rabbit be a male or female? -- P.N., via e-mail
A: Your rabbit's setup sounds ideal, and I'd add only one thing to it:
Protection from predators. Please be sure the area you've set aside for your bun to run in is covered, so those animals (from cats on up) who'd consider a rabbit a tasty meal don't get the chance to make their dreams come true. Better yet: Have you considered making yours a "house rabbit"? An increasing number of pet lovers have discovered that rabbits make wonderful house pets. (Many rabbits can be litter-box trained.)
As for adding another rabbit to a household as loving as yours: I'd say it would be a crime not to, especially considering how many rabbits need homes! Depending on the personalities involved, an addition of either gender should be fine, as long as both buns are altered. (Be sure to have these surgeries done by a veterinarian with experience in rabbits, since the procedures are riskier for rabbits than for dogs and cats.)
Check with your local shelter or rescue group for available rabbits. The steady rise in popularity of rabbits has also led to an increase in the number of these pets discarded and needing new homes. A great source of information on rabbits, their care and even veterinary referrals is the House Rabbit Society, at www.rabbit.org.
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. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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