Heather's ID tag is unreadable, even though it's less than a year old. I blame the fact that she's always in water -- she's a retriever, so she can't help herself -- for the metal's corrosion. I think I'll go back to plastic.
Ben's tag shows wear, which makes the phone number difficult to read. Chase's tag is missing (who knows for how long?). And Drew? The Perfect Dog, as we call him, has perfect tags. So ... that's three ID tags to order, right away.
Yes, dear readers, it's time for the annual New Year's neck check. I started pushing for this tradition years ago, and I still believe it's as important as ever. It's like checking your smoke detector batteries twice a year when the time changes. Checking your pet's collar and tags annually will ensure that an important safety measure is in place should you and your pet ever need it.
Why New Year's? Because it's easy to remember, and besides, what else are you going to do besides eat, drink and watch football?
Start your neck check with a look at your pet's collar. A properly fitted collar is important, but so too is the right type. For dogs, a buckled or snap-together collar made of leather or nylon webbing is the best choice, and the proper fit is comfortably close but not too snug. Make sure your dog's not wearing a "choke" collar. These are for training and walking only, and they pose a life-threatening hazard if left on an unsupervised dog. Cats should wear a collar with an elastic section that will allow your pet to wriggle free if he gets caught on something.
If you do have the right kind of collar on your pet, take a minute to look at the holes and the fasteners. The collar is weakest at these spots, so if you see signs of excessive wear or strain, you'll need to replace the collar soon.
If the collar passes muster, it's time to look at the tags. A license is great, but since many lost pets are picked up by people in the neighborhood, it's a good idea to supplement the license with an ID tag that has a couple of phone numbers -- yours and the number of a friend or relative. Check to make sure the information is current and legible, and if not, make a note to order a new tag right away.
My pets also carry tags from a company I really like, 1-800-HELP4PETS. The service, which costs $25 per year, is available 24 hours a day to help reunite you with a lost pet. It can also authorize veterinary care if your lost pet is injured and you cannot be immediately located. More information is available by calling the phone number (800-435-7473), or by visiting www.help4pets.com.
Don't delay in fixing any problems you encounter during your pet's neck check. Problems with collars and tags are easy to fix -- and collars and tags are the cheapest insurance you can buy against loss or accidents.
A final note: A microchip is another form of identification well worth considering. The tiny transponder, about the size of a grain of rice, is inserted by a veterinarian over the shoulder blades of dogs and cats, or in the breast of birds, and serves as a permanent identification that cannot be slipped off or removed. My dogs and my parrot are all chipped.
Remember, though, that a microchip doesn't take the place of ID tags. They complement each other, and even if your dog or cat is chipped, he should still wear tags.
The avian ear, like all of a bird's anatomy, is streamlined for flight, so you won't find an ear lobe on a bird. Instead, look for a swirl of soft, protective feathers in the place where you think the ear should be. Many pet birds love to have the area around their ear canal scratched.
Birds don't hear high- and low-pitched noises as well as we do, but within the range they do hear, they are able to discern more details. The song of a finch would have to be recorded and played at about one-tenth speed for us to be able to hear the richness and detail of sound a bird can.
PETS ON THE WEB
If you've got an active, healthy dog and access to snow, you might want to consider taking up "skijoring," a sport that combines dogsledding with cross-country skiing. Teams of one or more dogs -- huskies and husky mixes are typical, but many kinds of dogs compete -- pull a skier who's also trying to maximize the team's speed. For information, check out the Web site of the Alaska Skijoring and Pulk Association (www.sleddog.org/skijor) or Midwest Skijorers (www.skijor.org).
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We solved our cat's shedding problem by vacuuming our pet. We use an upholstery brush attached to a long vacuuming hose (we have central vacuum). It didn't take a lot of training.
First, there were normal brushing sessions with the vacuum running but the hose just lying on the floor. A customary brushing involved treats before and during the brushing (her food is limited for weight maintenance, so feeding is a real treat for her). That got her accustomed to the sound.
Next, the hose was moved closer and closer during brushing. Then, brushing would commence with the vacuuming tool and hose, but not running.
Finally, the whole procedure was put together -- treat, brush, treat and so forth.
We love training our cat! In fact, she has a whole repertoire:
-- She steps up onto an old-fashioned scale to be weighed, sits up or down on command, and tells us (by tapping the Venetian blinds) when she wants the blind raised so she can look out the front window.
-- She knows not to step on the computer keyboard, and she knows a few command words, too. "Busy-busy" (or just the "bzzzz" sound) says "stay away" from the person who is, well, too busy to be bothered.
-- She reacts to the repeated "chair, chair," which means go get onto your chair (a child's chair with attached food bowl). That chair is in the kitchen, and she occasionally responds even if in the dining room.
-- She has mastered playing a true game of hide and seek. It's much different from living with an adoring dog, but there are many pleasures to a cat that responds to "helpful" training. -- P.G. and M.F., via e-mail, Sacramento, Calif.
A: Your note made my day, and it's a perfect example of how what you get out of your relationship with a pet is largely dependent on what you put in. You've spent time working with your cat, gently training her -- and she has bloomed with the attention.
While a cat will never be a dog -- and that's exactly how cat lovers want it -- our feline companions can be trained with gentle, reward-based methods. Clicker-training, the common term for training with operant conditioning, is perfect for cats. To get started, find a copy of Karen Pryor's "Getting Started: Clicker Training for Cats" ($13, Sunshine Books) or join the e-mail group "Cat-Clicker" (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Cat-Clicker/) for tips from others who are training their pets using a method that's fun for both cat and owner.
Q: How very smug of you to suggest that people give to shelters instead of spending money on gifts for their pets. Some people do both, you know. They rescue pets and actually buy "silly" -- as you say -- gifts for their pets.
All those "silly" gifts keep my babies safe from chewing something that just might harm them. Sheesh! Tell me you won't write any more "silly" columns. -- Anonymous, via e-mail
A: When I wrote that pets don't need "silly" gifts for the holidays, I wasn't talking about toys, which all pets need year-round. Toys help pets from becoming bored, unfit and possibly self-destructive or ill. However, I remain firm in my belief that the things pets don't care about or need -- everything from biker jackets to plush "antlers" -- is a sorry misdirection of money that could be better spent helping a homeless pet.
If you just can't help but go silly with your pets –- Valentine's Day isn't far away -- consider a compromise. Spend a little less, and make a donation to a shelter with the money you save.
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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