OK, pet lovers, it's time for a pop quiz. Halloween costumes for dogs are (choose one):
(a) A silly way to spend money
(b) Generally harmless fun
(c) Another sign of the decline of Western civilization
(d) All of the above
The answer, of course, depends on your perception of what a proper relationship with a companion animal should be. There are those among us who wince at the way pets are increasingly treated like little furry children, while others don't see the harm in anything that doesn't hurt anyone.
Me? I fall into both camps.
I do worry when I hear many of us refer to our pets as "children" -- and seem to really mean it when we say so. That concerns me because it leads some people to forget that pets are not people, but rather animals with different needs from ours. But if I had to choose on behalf of an animal, I have to admit I'd much rather see one spoiled than neglected or abused.
I do worry as well about the amount of money we spend on silly pet junk, especially when there are plenty of pets (and, it must be noted, plenty of people) who are in desperate need of the most basic of essentials. But I also know that one of the reasons we keep animals is to lighten our spirits, and if a few dollars spent here and there on silly pet stuff does that, where's the harm?
Which brings us back to Halloween costumes.
Let's face it: When you spend money on apparel for dogs, you're not doing it for the dogs, except in the case of a sweater for an old dog or for a dog of a cold-blooded breed like the whippet. Your dog doesn't care if he has a biker jacket, sunglasses, an ear-hugging visor or even a colorful bandana. He'll put up with most anything you put on him, as long as it means spending more time with you.
If putting a costume on your dog means you'll fuss over him and maybe take him somewhere interesting, like the costume contests that are everywhere these days, then sure, it's a no-lose proposition. Dress up your dog and have some fun. But while you have your checkbook out buying the costume, don't forget to send a little of that discretionary income to your local shelter, just because.
Not to say that you need to spend much money on a costume, of course. I've dressed up my dogs a few times for contests, and the best idea I ever came up with cost less than $5 to pull together. I bought round, white stickers at an office-supply store and put them all over Benjamin, my big black retriever. Outfitted as a "reverse Dalmatian," he won a $50 gift certificate in a pet costume contest, which is not a bad return on the investment.
If you don't want to put any effort into coming up with something, you can find ready-made costumes at many pet-supply outlets, in almost as much variety as you'll find in costumes for children. Make sure any costume meets the commonsense standard: It's comfortable and nonrestrictive, inedible, and it doesn't involve anything that could be hazardous, such as dye or paint.
Here are some other precautions to keep Halloween from being a fright:
-- Injuries. With the increase in activity, cats and dogs get nervous or excited, and some will take off if they can. That means an increase in animals hit by cars. Other animals may be a cause of injury: All those costumed young visitors can trigger territorial instincts or fear-responses in some dogs, who may then become a bite risk.
Prevention: Keeping pets confined inside away from the action, in a crate or behind a closed door. If you do take your dog to a costume contest, be sure to keep an eye on other dogs for signs of aggression, and don't crowd any dog, no matter how friendly he seems.
-- Food problems. Candy is a problem more for dogs than for cats, because cats are generally picky about what they eat. Not so for most dogs, who'll wolf down candy -- wrappers and all -- if given the opportunity, giving many a serious case of what veterinarians call "garbage gut." Any candy can trigger a bout of intestinal upset, but chocolate can do much worse. The small dog who gets a large amount of chocolate could end up dead without prompt veterinary intervention.
Prevention: No people treats for pets, and keep candy bowls and trick-or-trick bags out of reach of those animals who may be tempted to help themselves.
Bark back: What do you think about Halloween costumes for pets? Please let us know where you live when you reply to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll share readers' thoughts in an upcoming Pet Connection. (Responses may be edited for length and clarity.)
Cat shows: What you need to know before you go
You don't need to know the difference between a Grand Champion and a Triple Champion or a Maine Coon Cat or Norwegian Forest Cat to enjoy a cat show. If you bring your love of cats and maybe your credit card, you can have a wonderful time. Here are a few tips to make the day easier.
-- Wear comfortable, casual clothes with a little flexibility. Show halls are notorious for being too hot or too cold, no matter the outside temperature. Wear something light and carry a sweater, and you'll be covered either way. Comfortable shoes are important; you're going to be on your feet a lot. Carry a backpack or big purse, as well as a notepad and pen. You're sure to run across freebies or buy toys to take home to your cat, and you may want to take some notes.
-- Be aware of the demands on exhibitors. Your first question to any exhibitor should be: "Is this a good time to ask a couple of questions about your cats?" They'll let you know, and if it's not, they can tell you when it will be. Never bother an exhibitor who has a cat in her arms, because she's almost certainly headed to or coming from the judging ring. And step aside: Cat-show etiquette -- and common sense -- demands that a person carrying a cat has the right-of-way.
-- Be respectful of the health and safety of the cats. Be aware that you almost certainly aren't going to be allowed to pet any cat at a show. Breeders are concerned about the spread of disease. So the only people who touch any cats at a show are the people who brought them and the judges, who are careful to sanitize their hands and the judging platform between each cat they handle.
-- Watch at least one class being judged. Unlike dog-show judges, who never share their thoughts with the spectators (or even the competitors), cat-show judges consider education an important part of their job. They often discuss the good and not-so-good points of each animal as they judge, and many are not only articulate and knowledgeable but witty as well. After the judging is over, most are happy to answer a question or two. Some shows also have separate rings set up for educational talks.
Best of all, a cat show is a special opportunity to see dozens of beautifully groomed cats -- not only of the more common breeds but also of some of the rarest in the world.
Sunscreen necessary to protect some pets
Q: What do you recommend as a safe sunscreen for dogs? I have a young, primarily white, shorthaired Jack Russell terrier. I don't want to risk him getting sunburned on our days out hiking in the sun.
Is a sunscreen that's safe for babies a good idea for my dog? I have not found any products specifically for dogs available in pet stores. I have also asked the technician at my veterinarian's office, but she didn't have a clue. -- B.R., via e-mail
A: I can hear people snickering now. "Sunscreen for dogs? What next?" But the risks of overexposure to the sun can indeed be a problem for many dogs. For information on which animals are at risk and how to best protect them, I turned to a top veterinary dermatologist, Dr. Peter J. Ihrke of the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
"Unfortunately, dogs can develop a wide variety of sun-associated problems beyond sunburn just as humans can," says Ihrke. "Repetitive sun exposure can lead to chronic skin changes and sun-induced skin cancer just as it can in people."
Ihrke says the animals most at risk for sun-caused skin disease and cancer are those with short, white coats, light-colored skin and sparse tummy fur. Breeds that fit these characteristics include Dalmatians, bull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, whippets, Italian greyhounds and greyhounds. The more sun, the greater the risk, he says, noting that dogs who like to sunbathe and are permitted to do so are at the greatest risk.
Skin cancer can hit dogs as young as 4 years old, he says, which is why prevention is extremely important. Decreasing exposure is the only way to protect an animal from sun-related problems.
"Preventing sunbathing, roofs over outdoor runs, and solar protective T-shirts or dog shirts can be very helpful," says Ihrke. "We also recommend waterproof pediatric or children's sunscreens. Sunscreens designed for children are less likely to be irritating and commonly do not have scents added."
Brand names mentioned by Ihrke as being safe for use on pets include Johnson & Johnson's Waterbabies, Bullfrog waterproof and EltaBlock waterproof. The benefit of waterproof products, says Ihrke, is that they're also dog-saliva-proof.
To find a board-certified veterinary dermatologist, go to the Web site of the American College of Veterinary Dermatology (www.acvd.org) and click on "Find a Dermatologist."
Q: We took our golden mix Sadie to the dog park and noticed that wild mushrooms are becoming a problem again. A few of us picked them all and put them in the trash, but we thought it might be worth a reminder for all dog lovers to be careful. Would you pass the word along? -- A.F., via e-mail
A: Yes, cooler weather does bring different hazards, among them the return of wild mushrooms. Although curious puppies are probably most at risk of eating one, even grown dogs aren't immune from their appeal. Some dogs will eat anything that looks even remotely edible, after all.
It's always a good idea to check the areas your dog frequents, looking not only for poisoning risks such as wild mushrooms, but also other hazards such as loose fence boards, broken gate latches and more. While walking your dog, keep him on leash and be alert to anything he might try to grab for a "snack."
If you think your dog has eaten a wild mushroom, call your veterinarian immediately.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ON THE WEB
Denver shelter offers great advice -- for free
You don't have to live in Colorado to take advantage of one of the best collections of behavior information anywhere, easy to find on the Web site of the Denver Dumb Friends League (www.ddfl.org/tips.htm).
The DDFL is a pioneer in offering pet-behavior advice geared not only to helping new pet owners get off to a good start, but also to dissuading others from giving up an animal whose behavior is putting it at risk. The site offers care and training advice on everything from dogs and cats to ferrets, rabbits and rats. There are also a limited number of behavior sheets that have been translated into Spanish.
The section on problem-solving dog and cat behavior challenges is superb, with up-to-date information presented in a concise, easy-to-understand format.
There's no charge to get the help you need, but it would be nice to leave a donation to support this nonprofit organization. There's a link to help you do so right on the page.
Clean up carefully after antifreeze spills
Fall is the time of year when shade-tree mechanics traditionally check the antifreeze in their vehicles. It's also the time of year when a lot of animals will die from ingesting this sweet-tasting poison.
You have two ways to protect your pet from antifreeze poisoning, one relatively foolproof, the other not.
Not foolproof: Use a safer antifreeze made from a different formulation than the more popular variety, store chemicals properly, and wipe up spills promptly. While this should eliminate most of the risk for dogs, these strategies are not foolproof for free-roaming cats, because they cannot control what your neighbors will do when it comes to using or storing deadly chemicals.
Foolproof: Keep cats from roaming. Free-roaming cats have relatively short lifespans because the outside world is full of deadly hazards. To antifreeze, add cars, coyotes (yes, even in urban areas) and cat-hating neighbors to the list of things that can kill a free-roaming cat.
If you even suspect a pet has gotten into antifreeze, take the animal to your veterinarian immediately. There's no "wait and see" period with this stuff.
Please support efforts to force manufacturers to add bittering agents to antifreeze. Pets aren't the only ones at risk from this sweet-tasting chemical: Children have also been killed.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Proper storage helps prevent food problems
What's the point of buying a high-quality pet food if you're going to damage or destroy its nutritional value by not storing it properly?
The Whole Dog Journal reports in its October issue that even those who pay top dollar for kibble often don't think twice about storing the food in ways that may reduce its nutritional value, shorten its shelf life and even turn it into something that may make pets ill.
In short, dry pet food should be stored in a cool, dry place, and maintained in its original packaging. The means no keeping those economy-sized bags in the garage, especially in summer, and no dumping loose kibble into metal trash cans or plastic containers that are not intended for storing food.
The Whole Dog Journal is $20 for 13 issues from P.O. Box 420031, Palm Coast, FL 32142-8624. Or call 1-800-424-7887, or subscribe online at www.whole-dog-journal.com.
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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