One of my favorite sayings comes to mind every year when I think of those who are considering buying their children pets for Easter: Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as important to the child as it is to the caterpillar.
Put in a less graceful way: Don't bungle the chance to make an important contribution to your child's education with the mistaken impulse purchase of a pet who will later be discarded, or who will die of mishandling or neglect.
If you're going to get your child a pet, make sure it's the right one, at the right time, and that you're prepared to work to help your child properly care for the animal.
When it comes to pets for Easter, too often parents don't think long-term. Every year huge numbers of adorable baby rabbits go to new homes for Easter, along with countless chicks and ducklings. And that's bad news for the vast majority of these babies.
Many of the chicks and ducklings will die within a few days or weeks, killed by neglect, improper care or unintentional mishandling by children. Those birds who do make it to adulthood are often turned loose to fend for themselves, once parents realize how unsuitable these messy farm animals are as urban and suburban pets.
Rabbits, on the other hand, can be wonderful pets, but only for those people who are prepared to care for them properly. Although it comes as a surprise to most people, rabbits are not well-suited to life as a children's pet, at least not for very young children and never without adult supervision. Too many rabbits die from injuries caused by children who drop them, or hold them in a way that can injure their backs, without the firm support they need for their lower bodies and hind legs.
And like other pets bought on impulse, a great many rabbits are turned loose or dumped on shelters after the novelty wears off. If you're tempted by the idea of a chick or duckling (picturing your child in her Easter best holding a fluffy baby), please don't give in to temptation. Unless you have a suitably rural setup, you should not entertain the idea of buying such a chick or duckling.
What about a rabbit? These pets are fine for many kinds of homes, including those with older children, but before you bring one home, you must consider ask yourself some questions:
Is your child ready for a pet? Do you have the time to show your child how to properly care for it? And to see that the chores involved are done whether or not the child wants to do them? Will you spend the money for housing, food and veterinary care? Are you willing to show your child how to handle a rabbit, so the animal won't be injured? Finally, are you prepared to keep a rabbit for the decade or so of the animal's natural lifespan?
If you cannot honestly say you will be a responsible parent when it comes to your child's pet, buy a stuffed animal instead. They can take abuse and neglect with nothing more than an occasional ripped seam or detached shoe-button nose. They cannot feel pain, and they will not end up in a shelter.
In the short run, passing up a pet who will not hold your child's interest is important to the welfare of a single animal -- the one you would have bought or adopted. In the long run, teaching your youngster that animals are not to be picked up on a whim and discarded just as lightly is important not only to the welfare of all animals but also to the moral development of your child.
For years, pregnant women have been told by well-meaning friends or family members to dump their cats in fear of toxoplasmosis, an infection triggered by an organism that can cause birth defects. Problem is, some people have listened to the advice, leaving many cats homeless when a few simple litter-box cleaning precautions could have almost completely eliminated what was a very small risk to begin with. (The risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from handling uncooked meat is higher, in fact.)
The Humane Society of the United States has launched a campaign to educate obstetricians and gynecologists on cats and the risk of toxoplasmosis, sending out brochures written by an expert at the Yale University School of Medicine. For more information, visit the HSUS Web site's toxoplasmosis information page at www.hsus.org/ace/20387.
PETS ON THE WEB
One of my favorite pictures of all time is of my mother as a curly-headed toddler with the family dog, Pelo, a terrier mix with even more curls. I was thinking of this adorable shot when looking at the Women and Dogs Web site (www.womenanddogsuk.co.uk) a collection of pictures of women of all ages with their canine companions. Although the pictures are all from the United Kingdom, part of the Web site owner's collection of found images, the love shown for the dogs is universal, and so the pictures will remind many people of that one special dog and the love once shared.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I always look forward to your articles, but I was particularly pleased when you emphasized the importance of considering the plight of homeless animals in your recent column on breeders. Shelter animals desperately need the public's constant focus if we're ever going to reach a day when people must actually sign up for an animal via a "waiting list."
There will always be responsible breeders and thankfully so, as there are many wonderful breeds of dogs and cats that should be perpetuated. However, a potential pet owner should realize that there are just as many wonderful, highly adoptable puppies and kittens, cats and dogs, and, other loving pets just begging for a home at the local shelters and pounds. Will you keep reminding them? -- S.T., via e-mail
A: My experiences over the years have absolutely convinced me that the pets in shelters and rescue groups may be secondhand, but they are certainly not second-rate. I have taken in, fostered and placed pets who were so beautiful and well-mannered that I simply could not believe their previous owners could find any reason to decide the animals were too much trouble to live with.
On the other hand, there are some homeless pets with problems so severe -- primarily behavioral -- that relatively few people could handle them. The problems aren't usually the pets' fault, but rather the result of poor socialization and a lack of training on the part of the original owners. These pets are best avoided by anyone who's not capable of, or willing to take on, the huge responsibility of rehabilitating them, no matter how cute and needy they seem.
Fortunately, most shelter or rescue pets just need a little training and readjustment, and some don't even need that. I always recommend working with a rescue group or shelter that uses temperament tests to evaluate their animals and adoption counselors to help match a pet to a potential new owner's household situation.
Q: I have noticed that when I hike with my two Labrador mixes and they are off-leash, they sniff and wag their tails when we run into other dogs. However, when they are on-leash and we meet other dogs, they are much more likely to act aggressively. Is this just them? -- P.P., via e-mail
A: On-leash aggression is a very common problem. That's one reason why dog parks often have double-gated entries, to facilitate the removal of leashes before new dogs are introduced to the pets already in the park. When dogs are leashed, they have a greater feeling of territoriality and protectiveness toward their owners. Their nasty behavior often escalates over time because the owner's own anxiety and subsequent behavior at seeing another dog approach -- tightening the leash, jerking on the collar and so on. This cues the dog that something is wrong and ramps up the aggressive behavior.
To break this cycle, get the help of a trainer to teach you and your dogs how to behave when other dogs approach. The trainer will help you spot the bad-behavior cues you're giving your dogs and teach you instead how to short-circuit your dogs' ill manners before the barking and pulling begins.
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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