In 40-plus years of sharing my life with pets, I've been bitten twice, both times by my own dogs. In each case the perpetrator was attempting to settle a dispute with another canine family member when a sharp tooth nicked my flesh as I tried to end the argument.
Once on my ankle, once on my wrist, a dozen years apart and painful enough that even though both dogs have long departed at advanced ages having never bitten again, I still remember the shock I felt in realizing that one of my own darling pets had for a moment turned from loving companion to wild beast. They turned just as quickly back, with the dogs reacting in both cases to my cry of pain with wagging tails and concerned looks. I believe they were as horrified as I was over what had happened.
The point is that even the sweetest dog can cause injury, and that we are more likely to be bitten by a dog we know than by a free-roaming neighborhood beast we imagine presents a bigger danger.
In serious household-bite incidents, the dogs involved usually aren't as well-cared-for and loved as my two dogs were. Instead, they're likely to be oft-ignored pets restricted to a part of the yard or to a length of chain. Typically, attacking dogs are young males, unsocialized and unneutered, and the victim is a child who has wandered into what the dog sees as his territory.
These accidents can almost always be prevented by eliminating the dangerous potential. Socialization, training and neutering are essential for family pets, and it's also a good idea to make the animal a part of your family. A family pet should not be restricted to a small run or chain. They need plenty of play time, training and loving attention. Taking these steps at puppyhood (and on) should prevent aggressive behavior, but if they don't, the dog should be evaluated by a veterinary behaviorist or trainer with experience in canine aggression, and any retraining plan should be followed to the letter.
Most dogs with aggression problems show warning signs long before they actually try to bite anyone, with territorial displays involving food or toys, or "grumbly" behavior when asked to vacate high-value real estate, such as beds, chairs or couches. Growling, hard stares and stiff-legged posturing should be considered signs that you need professional help in dealing with your dog.
Don't escalate the violence: If you beat a growling dog, you may turn the animal into one who will bite without warning. It's essential that you work with an expert who'll help you take control of your dog through nonviolent training and handling techniques. These will help your dog to understand his place in the family hierarchy and his appropriate response to a challenge.
If you have a dog who has never given you reason to worry and suddenly starts snapping in your direction, make sure you have your veterinarian rule out any medical problems. Chronic ear infections, for example, can be extremely painful, and the dog whose sore ear is handled may lash out in pain. The aches, pains and sensory loss of advancing age can also shorten the fuses of some dogs. In some cases the problems can be treated, while in others you just need to be more careful around an aging curmudgeon who means no harm.
Multiple-dog households present their own challenges, but the No. 1 rule to remember is to never try to break up a fight with your own body. My own two small scars bear witness to the wisdom of this advice.
Next week, I'll address the issue of safety around dogs who are not family members, a subject that's especially important for parents to know and teach their children.
Now may be the time to change your antifreeze, but make sure when you're taking care of your vehicle that you're also watching out for pets. Products made from ethylene glycol, a sweet-tasting liquid, can be lethal to your pet in dosages as small as a teaspoon, or less.
Consider a safer alternative, such as products made from propylene glycol. No matter what you use, though, be sure to clean up any spills promptly and thoroughly, and keep stored product in leak-proof containers in a closed cupboard. If your pet laps even the smallest amount, see your veterinarian immediately -- your pet's life depends on your prompt action.
PETS ON THE WEB
While home-prepared dog diets will never give commercial manufacturers much competition, there's no doubt that the trend toward "natural" food for dogs has been growing for years. One such diet is called "BARF," which stand for "Bones and Raw Flesh" or "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food." The diet is controversial and hotly debated, with passionate people on both sides. Is it the best possible way to feed your dog, or a serious health risk for dogs and people? The "BARF for Beginners" Web site (www.njboxers.com/faqs.htm) won't settle the dispute, but it does offer a great deal of information on the diet, the theories behind it and the balancing act involved in preparing meals.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I'm a "dog person," and I keep two aquariums. In the past, I have had cats, and both were indoors, period. I'm writing to comment on your response to the person who asked how to keep a neighbor's cat off his car.
I think the larger problem is having one person's territory not respected. The first thing that came to my mind was to trap the kitty and give it, with all the attendant information, to the nearest SPCA.
When an owner is charged $20 to pick up the cat, he might think twice about letting it out to sit on another's car. What are your thoughts on this? -- E.T., Baltimore
A: Regular readers know that this column is unrelenting on the topic of responsible pet-keeping, and that includes not bothering your neighbors with your pets. I've long been in favor of keeping cats inside, for their own health and safety as well as in the interests of being a good neighbor.
The person who wrote me about cat prints on his car wasn't a pet-keeper, though, so I had to be practical in my advice. As long as the neighbors let cats roam, putting the car in a garage or putting a cover on it is the only way to keep the vehicle free of paw prints.
I would not advise anyone to trap a neighbor's cat and deliver the animal to the shelter. Chances are good that the cat will never be reunited with the owner. Most people figure a cat will show up in few days, and would never bother to look in the shelters. In the meantime, the clock runs out and the cat is put to death.
I agree that cat prints on a car are annoying, but I do not believe that such a transgression should be a death-penalty offense for a cat. I'm sure I'll get a lot of hate mail for saying so, but I think the world has bigger problems than cat paw prints on a car hood. Get a car cover, or let it go.
Q: Do you think pet groomers should be tipped? -- C.S., via e-mail
A: Yes, I do. Grooming pets is hard work under the best of circumstances -- lots of lifting, plenty of heat and dampness, and constant exposure to scented and pesticide-laced products. And that's just for starters. Groomers also deal with unmannered and badly matted pets, and they occasionally get a bite for their trouble.
A good groomer is worth her weight in gold. Not only will she keep your pet's coat in sweet-smelling good shape, but she'll also notice and point out lumps, bumps, weight gain or loss, parasite problems and more.
Typical tipping range: 10 percent to 20 percent.
I leave my hardest grooming job to my friend Cynthia, a self-proclaimed "Wizard of Dogs" who kept Sheltie Andy sleek and shiny for his entire life and now does a monthly "fluff and fold" on my Sheltie Drew. The others dogs -- two retrievers with medium coats and a toy spaniel I keep cut short -- are easy to keep clean and brushed, so I do the job myself.
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.
4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600