Make sure you're right for a retriever
It's a hot day at the dog park, and I'm sharing the shade with the other "doggy parents," chatting while we watch our pets play.
In the middle of the park, the dogs have dug out a crater the size of a small hot tub. The sprinklers fill the pit every morning, and by afternoon, it's still at least half full of stinky, slimy, muddy water. It's disgusting, and most of the dogs have the common sense to avoid it.
Except the retrievers.
While not all of them see it as a swimming hole, most see no reason to avoid the muck, jumping in and out as they play. One retriever is even worse than the other water dogs. She throws herself into the muddy bog, rolling and wallowing until every inch of her glossy black coat is dripping brown with foul-smelling mud. She finally stands up, nose-to-tail-tip filthy and obviously delighted with herself.
"Oh my God!" says the woman next to me, her tone of disgust unmistakable. "Whose dog is that?"
"Um, that would be mine," I mumble.
Rule No. 1 for anyone who has or is thinking of adopting a retriever: Be willing to carry towels in your car at all times.
I love retrievers, and in this I'm not alone. The Labrador retriever is the top breed in the land; 144,934 of them were registered with the American Kennel Club in 2003. The golden retriever is the AKC's second most popular breed, with 52,530 recorded in the same year. All told, the six retriever breeds (the Chesapeake Bay, flat-coated, curly-coated and Nova Scotia duck tolling are the others) make up more than one-fifth of all AKC registrations.
Retrievers are popular for good reason. They're great family dogs, even-tempered, friendly and tolerant. They're generally easy to train and eager to please. They have coats that clean up quickly, and they don't shed as much as many other breeds. (Even my water-crazed Heather dries up and shakes off most of the muddy muck she gets into in just a few minutes.)
But anyone associated with a shelter or rescue group can tell you that despite their popularity, retrievers are not for everyone. They get dumped by the hundreds, often by people who didn't research the downside to owning one of these dogs or who proved unwilling to put in the effort it takes to keep one.
People, for example, who think muddy paws (or muddy dogs) are intolerable. Or those who aren't prepared to put time into training and exercising these large and exuberant animals. While some breeds and mixes can better tolerate the life of a "backyard dog" (although I never recommend this lonely life for any dog), retrievers are especially ill-suited to such isolation. Developed to work one-on-one with a hunter, the personable retriever does best as a full-fledged member of a family. Kept in a back yard, a retriever will get bored and anxious, and may become a digger, escape artist or nonstop barker.
Is a retriever right for you? Even if you're well-suited to these breeds, it pays to carefully consider any canine adoption. Like all purebreds, retrievers have congenital health problems that can make your dog miserable and cost you a bundle, if indeed they can be treated. If you're buying a puppy, be sure to find a reputable breeder who has had the parents certified free of these problems, most commonly hip dysplasia.
If you're considering an adult dog, you'll be able to assess health and temperament with the aid of the shelter or rescue group. A lot of great dogs turn up in shelters and rescue groups, many with some training and such preventive-care measures as vaccinations and neutering already done. Another reason to go for an adult: Retrievers are notoriously slow to mature, and can maintain troublesome puppy behaviors well into the second or third year of their lives. If you want a mellow retriever, get an older dog.
I love retrievers, especially my own two. But I brought them into my life knowing they'd need a lot from me to keep their minds and bodies in good shape. And even though I occasionally wince at the water-related messes they get into, I'd never trade Benjamin or even Heather at her filthiest for any other dogs in the world.
Visiting son says dog must go
Q: My son gets annoyed when my small dog is around when he visits. He is coming up for a few days, and I would like it to be a good visit. Would it be OK if I were to keep my dog in his cage, which he never uses anymore, until my son says it's OK to let him out? -- M.G., via e-mail
A: I'm going to resist asking a question like, "What on earth is your son's problem with having your dog do as you want in your own home?" (Assuming your dog is neither vicious nor ill-mannered, of course.) But no, I won't ask that, nor will I add that in my home, if you don't like my furred, finned and feathered family, you are welcome not to visit.
Having resisted those less-than-polite urges, I will, in the interests of family peace, assure you that it won't hurt your dog to chill out in a crate or carrier for a couple of days until your company has come and gone. Another alternative: Do you have a friend who wouldn't mind taking your dog for the duration of your son's visit?
Don't guess gender
Q: I just got a yellow-naped Amazon parrot through a newspaper ad. How can I tell if this bird is a boy or a girl? The seller didn't know. -- A.R., via e-mail
A: You'll need the help of a veterinarian to solve this mystery. He'll draw a blood sample, and the laboratory will get the answer from the bird's DNA. Seeing an avian veterinarian is a good idea anyway, to establish (or repair) the health of the bird and review proper care requirements for your new pet.
Rabbits need to eat roughage
Commercial rabbit pellets are the basis of a proper rabbit diet, but they're not enough to keep a pet happy and healthy. Feed no more than one-quarter cup of pellets per 5 pounds of body weight daily, and then supplement your rabbit's diet with fiber.
Grass hays such as timothy and oat are important for rabbits, along with fresh leafy green vegetables such as kale, collard greens, carrot tops and broccoli leaves. Rabbit-lovers learn to pick through the vegetable bins at the grocery store, or ask the produce manager for leafy pieces removed while trimming vegetables for human consumption.
Hairballs not a serious health threat
Gee, and to think I missed "National Hairball Awareness Day"! Despite a pet-food company's efforts to create concern and sell a special diet, hairballs are not a serious health issue for your cat. Sure, they're nothing you want to step on in bare feet in the middle of the night, but they're just part of living with a cat.
You can reduce the number of hairballs by grooming your cat regularly and by adding a little canned pumpkin to your pet's diet to increase the fiber and help the hair work its way through the system. Commercial preparations are fine, too, but it's really better to keep their use to a minimum. Frequent use of hairball remedies can decrease the absorption of some vitamins.
ON THE WEB
Taking your pet for a ride
If you have a small dog -- or an exceptionally tolerant cat -- and like to ride a bike, you might want to consider a basket designed for you to take your pet along. Cynthia's Twigs (www.cynthiastwigs.com; 888-404-1444, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST) offers European-style willow baskets that slip over the handlebars of your bike and give your pet a safe place to ride.
Back-rack baskets are also available, along with harnesses to keep pets in place. Prices for these lovely baskets range from $20 to $50. The Web site also includes instructions on teaching a pet to stay put.
Site promotes aiding feral cats
Alley Cat Allies (www.alleycat.org) is a group advocating for the humane treatment of feral cats, which many people see as pests. The group argues that removing cats gone wild doesn't get rid of the problem, and that more cats will move into any vacated space.
What they advocate instead is a program called "trap, neuter and release," which allows non-reproducing cats to "hold space" in an area, allowing populations to fall humanely. Cat colonies are then managed by volunteers, who keep the animals healthy and fed to minimize the potential for damage and complaints.
So, you wanna iguana?
The relatively low price of baby green iguanas has prompted many an impulse purchase of these popular reptiles. But iguanas are not easy keepers, and few people are prepared to care for the lifelong needs of a pet that can reach 5 feet or more in length at maturity.
A good setup is crucial, and so is a proper diet. Calcium requirements are probably the most often ignored, with deadly consequences, since the long-term lack of this nutrient can leave a pet with a rubber jaw he can't use to feed himself.
Here are some tips to keep an iguana in good shape.
-- Diet: Iguanas should be fed plant matter only, a mixture of vegetation that's high in calcium but low in phosphorus and fat. Choices include mustard, collard and turnip greens, as well as yams, carrots, alfalfa sprouts, alfalfa hay and squash.
Chop the vegetables into a size that can be easily handled by the pet, mix well, and then store in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Offer small amounts twice a day, and sprinkle the food with a calcium supplement, available at a pet store. This diet can be supplemented by commercial foods.
Water should be available for both bathing and drinking. A ceramic dish in the enclosure is a must; many iguanas also like being sprayed with mist.
-- Housing: The bigger the better. Cages or aquariums must be kept scrupulously clean and dry to prevent bacterial or fungal diseases. The iguana's cage should be lined with newspapers or, better yet, clean newsprint. (Roll ends of clean newsprint are available from many newspapers.) Other possibilities include indoor-outdoor carpeting, Astroturf or even paper towel squares. Avoid sawdust, litter, wood shavings or gravel. Silk artificial plants can improve the appearance of the enclosure and are easy to keep clean. Provide your pet with a place to hide, such as a cardboard box, and some branches for climbing.
Uneaten food and soiled areas must be promptly removed. For disinfecting, avoid pine oil cleaners and use a solution of 1 part bleach to 30 parts water. Remember that proper sanitation and handling is essential for your protection as well as your pet's. Salmonella is a risk when proper hygiene procedures aren't followed.
-- Heat and light: Forget hot rocks -- too many pets have been burned with them. Instead, use a heating pad or under-cage strip designed for use with reptiles, or a ceramic basking lamp, which emits heat but no light.
Captive reptiles need ultraviolet B light from an artificial source. Pet stores sell lightbulbs that provide the proper light for iguanas. It's best to approximate natural conditions by supplying 10 to 12 hours of light per day.
One of the best sources for iguana information is Anapsid.org/iguana, run by Melissa Kaplan, who's also author of the excellent "Iguanas for Dummies."
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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