For most of my adult life, the animals and I made do with a series of compact cars and small station wagons. But when I adopted my second big, bouncy and usually damp retriever a half-dozen years ago, I decided a four-door compact wasn't quite cutting it. Falling in with soccer moms and my fellow dog nuts, I bought a brand-new minivan.
It was the first full-out dog-mobile I'd ever owned, so I decided to get license plates to show my allegiance to the family of folks who make all their major purchasing decisions with their pets in mind. I brought up the Web site of my state's Department of Motor Vehicles and typed in my choice for a vanity plate.
"PET MOM." Taken.
"LUVS PETS." Taken.
"I (heart) PETS." Taken.
And so it went through my first dozen choices. Taken. Taken. Taken. I hit on a combination that wasn't taken and signed up for it, only to have the folks at DMV reject my selection because of an interpretation I wasn't dirty-minded enough to imagine.
Finally, after a few weeks of trying, I came up with a vanity plate that was neither taken nor could be interpreted as obscene. Unfortunately, it also turned out to be so vague that to this day no one has ever recognized it as being pet-related. If it weren't so much trouble, I'd have turned it back in years ago and resigned to making do with a "Dog Is My Co-Pilot" sticker on one side of my bumper and an SPCA "neuter your pet" tag on the other.
If I can't have the pet-themed license plates of my dreams, I'm glad to know that someone else does. And if the recent call I put out for favorite pet-related license plates is any indication, I now know I won't get my choice of plates simply by moving to another state: Plenty of people elsewhere want everyone on the roadways to know they adore their pets.
"I wanted to trumpet my pride about the four adored cats in our household," said Sheryl Rapée-Adams of Vermont about the "CATMOM" plates that compete for attention with other animal-related bumper stickers. "I wanted to convey that regardless of their common title -- pet owner, guardian, whatever -- humans act as pet parents."
Others sent in images of plates that show similar activist intentions, such as Christine Casey's "GETMFIXD."
"I moved from California to North Carolina," said Casey, a professor at North Carolina State University. "As I got more involved with my local animal rescue group, I became aware of the fact that North Carolina's shelters have a euthanasia rate that is twice the national average. Hence my license plate."
Back in California, Evelyn Owens is spreading the same message, with "SPAY NOW" plates on her classic Mercedes.
Others take a different tack with their plates, as can be seen in the parking lot outside any dog or cat show. People who love a particular breed aren't shy about saying so, which is why you may catch a glimpse of "NEWF ME," "SHEL T" or even spot a "LABMOBL." Broadening the idea out a bit were the folks who submitted "I(heart)BIGK9S" and "DGYWGN."
One of my all-time favorites remains the vanity plate chosen by a friend of mind who loves Labradors. Her license plate? "LAB5150." Don't get it? My friend is married to a California Highway Patrolman and explains that "5150" is police code for a person who's acting crazy; hence, her plate translates to "Lab crazy."
Bark back: Got a great vanity plate on your vehicle? Send a digital image (jpeg, please), an explanation of what it means and why you chose it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll continue to feature interesting pet-themed vanity plates now and then.
Cheap pet tags can stain fur
Q: Our veterinarian buys the cheapest rabies tags that can be found, I'm sure. They stain our dog's coat and are hard to read after just a few months. Any suggestions? -- C.L., via e-mail
A: Leave them off. If you have an ID tag and a municipal license on your pet, you've covered both lost-pet retrieval and rabies awareness needs (since a rabies vaccine is required to get the license).
Make sure the ID tag is of good quality, though. Pet-recovery expert Liz Blackman, president of the lost-pet tracking service 1-800-Help4Pets (www.help4pets.com), says the key to choosing a tag is how easy it is to read the information it holds.
"I discourage the cute tags in favor of visibility and durability," she said. "You want people to be able to read it without taking off the collar or handling the pet much." She added that in her experience, plastic tags are more durable than metal ones when it comes to staying legible longer.
But whatever you do, make sure you keep legible ID tags on your pets' collars. I find that tags need to be replaced every other year, so I keep extras on hand so I don't have to wait to replace a lost, worn or broken one.
"If you need something cute, get a cute collar -- but make sure you get a good tag," says Blackman. "A $100 collar won't save your pet's life, but a $3 tag will."
Q: I went to a crafts fair recently, and there was a woman there who was selling scarves, some of which where made out of dog hair. She said she get the combings from a friend who breeds Samoyeds. Is this legit? Seems kind of gross to me. -- S.G., via e-mail
A: If you do a Web search, you'll easily find spinners who can take the combings from your own dog and turn them into beautiful yarn you can use for knitting. It works better with the undercoat of longhaired dogs (like the Samoyed), but spinners can mix almost any dog fur with the fur of other animals to make yarn. And with that yarn, anything from scarves to sweaters to afghans (the kind you can fold and put over the back of the couch, not the breed) is possible.
As for the "gross" factor: What would make dog-hair yarn any more distasteful than yarn from a sheep or goat? It's all nice and clean when it's ready to use. And with dog fur, the yarn is made from combings that would just be thrown away after grooming.
Q: A friend sent me a link to an article on the Web that says clumping cat litters can be deadly, but my veterinarian says they're fine. Who is right? -- F.Y., via e-mail
A: The idea that clumping litter is deadly traces back to an article in a long-defunct holistic cat magazine and is kept alive by the power of the Internet. The article -- I've read it -- guessed that the litter was the cause of the death of the author's kittens. The evidence was purely speculative and anecdotal, and has not been supported by subsequent scientific research.
While there's no evidence that clumping litters are bad for adult cats, some veterinarians adopt a better-safe-than-sorry policy regarding young kittens. That's because a playful, curious kitten might be tempted to eat the material, which might indeed cause an intestinal problem. The cautious solution is to use a non-clumping litter for the first couple of months, then switch if you wish to.
Final note on this: If you have a dog who eats the contents of litter boxes, either use a non-clumping variety or be sure the box is in a place the dog can't get to it.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ON THE WEB
African grays can be able talkers, but shy
African gray parrots are among the best when it comes to talking potential, along with yellow-headed Amazons, but their personalities could not be more different, according to my "Birds for Dummies" co-author, avian specialist Dr. Brian Speer.
Speer says when he hears a parrot showing off in his waiting room, he has a pretty good idea that it's an Amazon. An African gray may have just as large a vocabulary, but these parrots are less likely to show off before an audience of strangers.
Safe in their own homes, though, the grays are adept at picking up words, phrases and household sounds -- even those you don't want mimicked. (A friend of mine has a gray who parrots the popping sound of a wine cork being pulled, leaving guests to wonder how often the bird has heard that sound.)
The "It's a Grey's World" Web site (www.itsagreysworld.com/home.html) offers a lot of information on these clever, beautiful parrots. Among other things, the site suggests that that the music of Raffi is something the parrots enjoy hearing. Considering that African grays are thought to have intelligence equivalent to a human toddler, perhaps a taste for children's music isn't such a surprise.
Iguana escape act can be startling
(Caption: Iguanas have the ability to lose their tails to escape a predator.)
The ability to lose a tail can be a lifesaver for iguanas.
If caught by a predator, an iguana can escape by dropping the tail, leaving it still wriggling in the mouth of an animal who thought lunch was in the bag. The trick isn't used just with predators: More than a few people who are new to having an iguana as a pet have ended up screaming the first time they find themselves holding a thrashing tail instead of an iguana.
Smaller iguanas are more likely than larger ones to regrow their tails, usually within a few weeks. If the tail is in place but injured, or is only partially broken off, a visit to a veterinarian with experience in reptiles is in order to determine the best course of treatment.
(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.)
PETS BY THE BOOK
Getting a jump on next year's garden
Fall and winter are when gardeners plan for spring. For those gardeners who love both plants and dogs, Cheryl S. Smith's book "Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs" is as must-read a publication as the seed catalogs that start showing up when cold weather arrives.
"Dog Friendly Gardens" (Dogwise, $20) pulls together a great deal of commonsense information that gardeners and dog trainers know, and puts it all in one place for those of us struggling to deal with yellow spots and broken plants.
The biggest problem with dogs and gardens turns out to be unrealistic expectations. As Smith explains, a lot of people put in landscaping as if they didn't have a dog, with no understand of normal canine behavior, and how it can vary from breed type to breed type. It's unrealistic to expect a terrier not to dig, for example, since these breeds were developed to dig after vermin. The solution: a digging pit for canine recreation -- and no unsupervised access to beds of prized flowers.
Breeds developed to protect property, says Smith, have a tendency to patrol the perimeter of a yard, wiping out any plantings along the base of the fence. The solution: Leave a pathway clear of plantings along the fence line, so the dog can do his job without doing any damage.
And what about those yellow spots? Smith, a longtime dog trainer, notes that it's just as easy to train a dog to use an out-of-the-way corner of the yard as it is to house-train the animal in the first place. Aside from that, the best way to prevent dead lawn is to flush the area with water within a few hours of the time a dog marks the spot. The water will dilute the urine so that it will not cause damage to the lawn.
"Dog Friendly Gardens" is full of such insights. It's the only book I've ever read that puts so much good dog and garden advice in one place and organizes it so well. Whether you're landscaping a brand-new home or thinking of trying something new in an old back yard, you'll want to pick up a copy of this invaluable reference before you even consider turning a shovelful of dirt.
Removing temptation is solution to stealing
Sometimes it's easier to manage a problem behavior rather than trying to train your way around it. Some behaviors, such as food-stealing, are so rewarding that every time a pet succeeds the habit is reinforced.
The answer: Remove the temptation. For example, consider the pet who steals from a kitchen wastebasket. Instead of constantly tempting your pet with an open-topped wastebasket, take steps to make the pickings less easy by getting a can with a lid.
Any home retailer will have several lidded cans to choose from, including those with lids that pop open when you step on the pedal at floor-level. For pets who are more determined about getting into the can, you may need to go with a lid that fits more securely, or use a trash container made of metal, not plastic.
Another alternative: Put the basket behind a cupboard door.
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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