It was another of "those" e-mails, the kind I get almost every day, asking about "the farm."
You know "the farm." That place where people imagine their unmanageable dog will be welcomed, along with countless others. A farm where dogs run leash-free, with no children to bite, no cats to kill, no home or yard to destroy and no nearby neighbors to hear the barking, barking, barking.
"We can't handle our dog anymore," writes the reader, whose problem dog is now spending all his time in a 6-foot-by-10-foot chain-link run. "We need to find him a home on a farm."
Of course, no such farms exist. The responsibility for correcting your dog's behavior problems rests solely with you. His quality of life, and likely his very life, is at considerable risk. Dogs with serious behavior problems whose owners give up on them are often euthanized after adoption efforts fail.
It doesn't have to be that way. While some behavior problems aren't fixable, most can be. To accomplish such change, though, you have to be prepared to put some time into changing the situation. Quick-fix, halfhearted efforts are doomed from the start.
The first rule of solving any behavioral problem is to make sure it's not a medical problem. Health issues that cause or contribute to behavior problems must first be accurately diagnosed and treated with the help of your veterinarian.
When your pet is healthy, your veterinarian can still be of use. While few veterinarians have the training or knowledge to help solve behavior problems, the number of those who do are growing -- and your vet may be one of them. Even those veterinarians who have no interest in behavior work can refer you to someone who can help. Loosely grouped under the term "behaviorist," these pet professionals can help you to fix what ails the relationship you have with your pet.
Consulting a behaviorist can save you time, money and aggravation. Time, because someone with experience in animal behavior can quickly determine the root of the problem, without the emotional baggage that a pet owner may bring to the situation. Money, because a consultation or two is a great deal cheaper than replacing a chewed couch or blitzed landscaping. And aggravation? You'll understand that one if you've ever lived with a problem pet.
One of the best choices for help is a veterinarian who has received additional certification in solving pet-behavior problems. These professionals have gone through years of study in animal health and behavior and have done a residency in the field as well. One plus with this group: They can prescribe medications to help correct behavior problems as part of an overall program.
People with other academic degrees (such as psychology) and people who've picked up their knowledge in the field also make themselves available for advising on behavior. Some in the latter group can be excellent, so don't let a lack of degrees deter you from getting help from someone who has studied in the "school of hard knocks" (or would that be the "school of bites and scratches"?).
Behaviorists are not "trainers" in the sense of offering group obedience classes to sharpen a pet's manners. Instead, they work one-on-one with you to solve a specific behavior problem. The consulting takes various forms. Some behaviorists consult by phone; others take appointments with or without your pet, while still others make house calls. All these can work, depending on the problem and the pet.
If you're in a situation where you're thinking of dumping your pet, ask your veterinarian for help, or call your closest college of veterinary medicine. And quit dreaming about that imaginary farm where all bad dogs are welcome. It exists only in those dreams.
PETS ON THE WEB
Although many dogs do fine in boarding kennels, or staying with friends, cats don't take easily to a change of venue. For many cats, the best care while you're away is in your home. While it's perfectly fine for a neighbor, a responsible teen, preteen or a friend to handle pet care in your home while you're gone, you might feel a little better with a professional pet sitter.
With a professional pet sitter, you don't have to worry if a youngster is as responsible as his parents say he is, and you don't have to impose upon your friends or neighbors. You can pretty much count on a professional pet sitter to come when they say they will, and care for your pets as you want them to.
Pet Sitters International (www.petsit.com) and the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (www.petsitters.org) offer education and certification to pet-sitters, and both sites offer referrals to sitters in your area.
Everybody appreciates cool refreshment on hot days, and that includes our pets. Keep pet water supplies cool by adding ice chips or cubes to the water supply of smaller pets, ice blocks for larger animals. Ice blocks can be made easily by freezing water in used margarine tubs.
Cats and dogs may also appreciate a frozen treat. Freeze no- or low-sodium broth in ice-cube trays -- and offer the cubes outside to minimize any mess.
Even if you don't want to bother with ice, be sure your pet is always kept supplied with lots of clean water. For caged pets, check to be sure that the delivery tube isn't clogged, blocking the flow of water (some parrots think it's a game to push food into the tube). For other animals, don't just add clean water on top of dirty in a filthy bowl -- scrub and refill the dish every day.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: My husband and I have two kids (girl 8, boy 12), a dog, two cats and a rabbit. We've been thinking about getting a parrot, maybe a macaw, but a friend says birds carry diseases that can be passed on to humans. Is this true? -- L.D., via e-mail
A: Yes, it's true. It's also true that your dog, cat and rabbit could also pass on something nasty. Every animal with whom we share our lives has the potential to pass deadly or chronic health problems to humans -- viral, bacterial or parasitic. Medical conditions that can be passed from animals to humans are called "zoonotic."
People in higher-risk groups -- including people with immune-system problems, and young children -- are at a greater risk when living with pets. Some experts recommend that people in high-risk groups avoid birds (and other pets, especially reptiles) altogether.
Considering the importance of companionship, especially to someone who's struggling with a chronic illness, avoiding pets may be extreme, but it's a good idea to educate yourself on the risks. It's important to work with your veterinarian and physician, and use plenty of basic common sense when it comes to hygiene. With my large multispecies household, I seem to wash my hands about 20 times a day!
Allergies are another human health problem in relation to birds. If anyone in your family has allergies or asthma, you probably should consider avoiding certain species of pet birds, such as the cockatoo, which gives off lots of powdery white dust.
As an aside, do remember that parrot ownership is a very long commitment, since these birds can live from 30 to 70 years, depending on the species. Macaws, please note, are at the high end of those life spans. Where will your bird be in 50 years? Please think about it before you bring one into your life.
Q: My 2-year-old Lab weighs 94 pounds. How much should he weigh? He looks fine, but that seems like a lot. -- S.H., via e-mail
A: In every breed you'll find a range of sizes, and it's important to judge your dog individually. In general, a weight of 94 for a male Labrador seems too much by 10 to 20 pounds, but it may be OK for your particular dog. Note I said "may" -- Labradors are notorious chow hounds, and majority of the ones I see are overweight, some incredibly so!
You should be able to run your hands down your dog's sides without bumping over each rib. If you press in gently and slide the skin back and forth over the ribs you should easily be able to feel the ribs. Your dog should also have a "waist," or tuck up behind the ribcage, but not all that much. If you're still not sure, ask your veterinarian on your next visit.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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