Most sunny weekends I can be sure that at some point I'll hear a gentle knock on my front door. I know who it is, so I quickly put the three big dogs out the back door so as not to scare my little visitor, grab a leash for the small dog, and open the front door to see a darling 6-year-old girl.
"Can Chase come play with me?" she says, in a shy whisper.
Chase, the toy spaniel, is already wriggling in anticipation. He and the little neighbor girl have been friends since we moved in to this house at the beginning of the year.
Their friendship was formed when winter winds blew down a portion of the fence between her house and mine. I hurriedly put a piece of wire mesh in the opening to keep my dogs from exploring the yard next door, but I soon discovered that my little dog and the little girl were spending a lot of time at that spot. Her hand was just small enough to fit through the mesh and pet the dog.
When her father fixed the fence, he left one board out and I left the mesh in place. We just couldn't bear to break up the fence-line friendship.
The love these two have for each other represents the very best of the relationships children can have with dogs. To see the worst, you need to look no further than the news reports for a recent account of a dog attack.
Most dog bites, like many other accidents, occur at home, and can be prevented with some common sense (a topic I covered in last week's column, available in my archives at www.spadafori.com). But even though most bites will be at the jaws of a dog the victim knows, there's no doubt that unknown dogs present a danger, especially to children.
Which is why, with school having started, I like to remind parents that they need to teach their children how to handle dogs that their sons and daughters may happen across.
Here's what every child needs to know:
-- Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs confined in yards, and especially those on chains, should also be avoided. If a dog is with her owner, children should always ask permission before petting it and then begin by offering the back of the hand for a sniff. Teach your children to pat the dog on the neck or chest instead of the top of the head, and to avoid fast or jerky movements.
-- "Be a tree" when a loose dog approaches, standing straight with feet together, fists under the neck and elbows into the chest. Teach children not to make eye contact. Running is a normal response to danger, but it's the worst possible thing to do around a dog, because it triggers the animal's instinct to chase and bite. Many dogs when faced with a child in "tree" position will just sniff and leave. Teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, and then to back away slowly out of the area.
-- "Feed" the dog a jacket or backpack if attacked, or use a bike to block the dog. These strategies may keep an attacking dog's teeth from connecting.
-- "Be a log" if knocked down: face down, legs together, curled into a ball with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears. This position protects vital areas and can keep an attack from turning fatal.
It's not enough to talk to your children about these protective measures -- role-play them until they are ingrained.
I don't want to make children afraid of dogs, because I know well -- and see it most every weekend at my own front door -- how wonderful dogs can be for children. But I do know that dangerous dogs are a reality in many neighborhoods, and that a child who knows how to behave when threatened may be spared a brutal or even fatal attack.
Stainless-steel bowls offer lifelong quality: They're durable and chew-proof, and they sterilize wonderfully in the dishwasher. "Crock"-style bowls of colorful high-impact plastic are another good choice. Both stainless-steel and high-impact plastic bowls come in sizes made for pets, from the smallest mice to the largest dogs. They're a great investment for the life of your pet and beyond: I have bowls that are still looking great after more than 25 years of service.
PETS ON THE WEB
As I mentioned recently, my friend Christie Keith has launched a joke campaign (www.caberfeidh.com/Skye.htm) to put her dog Skye in the California governor's mansion, with my dog Heather as his running mate. Because of the "campaign," I heard from a wonderful site -- Petradio.com, which has added an endorsement to the Skye campaign.
Petradio.com is an Internet "radio station," with features, product reviews, commentaries and special offerings for children, all played through the audio program on your home computer. The pieces are interesting, entertaining and largely professional in their execution.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have recently adopted a calico kitty. He's full of life and keeps me on my toes. When I adopted him, the rescue group suggested I have him neutered at 14 weeks, but my veterinarian would prefer to wait until 6 months. That's a big difference! What is the right age for neutering? -- T.B., via e-mail
A: Kittens and puppies can be safely altered from the age of 8 weeks on. In fact, this procedure is now fairly routine at such early ages. Many sheltering organizations will not let a kitten or puppy leave before the animal has been altered, often by an in-house veterinarian.
The drive toward early spaying and neutering came from the sheltering community, which was searching for a way to prevent the revolving-door syndrome that resulted when people who adopted kittens never got around to getting them neutered. Since many shelter kittens are the result of "oops" litters, early spay-neuter has proven to be a big part of the answer to this particular piece of the pet overpopulation problem.
Some veterinarians aren't comfortable operating on the youngest animals, however, and choose to wait until kittens and puppies are older.
If you like your veterinarian and respect his or her advice, there's little harm in waiting a couple of months. Especially with your cat, because if you do have a real male calico, you have a rare genetic abnormality who's most likely sterile anyway.
Surprised? It's true. Male calicos are what's known as "Klinefelter" males, possessed of not only the XY chromosomes of a normal boy cat but also an extra X. Since you need two X chromosomes to get a calico, you need the XXY combination to get a male calico. It doesn't happen very often -- about 1 in 3,000 calicos are male.
"Rare" in this case does not mean "valuable" in a monetary sense, by the way. Do get your pet neutered -- even if he doesn't need it for fertility, he'll be a better behaved pet after surgery -- and enjoy him for the special fellow he is.
Q: Would you please pass on another tip for giving pills to cats? I advise most of my clients to crush the pill into a powder, mix with a small amount of honey, jam, peanut butter or other sticky substance and blob the mixture onto the cat's nose.
Most cats don't mind you doing this, as you don't have to open their mouths, and it doesn't matter how horrible the taste of the medication is because they will groom it off to get themselves clean again. -- E.F. via e-mail
A: It seems there are as many ways to pill a cat as there are cats! Of all the suggestions I've received on this topic over the years, there's still one that stands out for ingenuity -- "hanging" a cat by his claws from a screen door.
I'm not sure how many cats would appreciate such treatment, but the person who told me about it swore his cat didn't mind. When held up to the screen, the cat naturally put claws out and into the screen material. Immobilized, the animal was easier to get a pill into -- or so said the reader.
Seems this way of administering medication would be hard on both the cat and the screen, but since it worked for one cat and his keeper, I guess it's worth passing that tip along with the rest.
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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