Thanksgiving is at hand, and the rest of the holiday season looms ahead. It's a busy time, but you need to make sure in the whirl of activities that you aren't ignoring any danger to your pets.
Every year at this time I offer a list of the most common holiday hazards for pets: feeding problems, foreign-body ingestion and accidental poisoning. The bad news is that many pets will end up at the veterinarian's office this holiday season. The good news is that yours won't be among them if you keep an eye out for these hazards.
-- Feeding problems. Foods too rich, too fatty or too spicy -- or anything your pet's not accustomed to -- can trigger a bout of intestinal upset. For some animals, the treat can trigger a serious inflammation of the pancreas or intestine, and that means a life-threatening illness.
What to avoid? Anything you wouldn't eat your pet should avoid, too. While a little bit of meat -- beef or poultry -- won't hurt and would be appreciated, steer clear of the fatty parts and the poultry skin, which also harbors fat.
-- Foreign-body ingestion. Cooked poultry bones may seem like the perfect gift for the pet who has everything, but do him a favor and save them for the soup. (Low-sodium poultry broth is a wonderful treat poured over your pet's regular food.) Even the largest turkey bones are prone to splintering, sending shards through the animal's intestines. Should one pierce through the lining, the result can be deadly peritonitis.
While cooked poultry bones are out, some raw beef bones can be safely substituted. Knuckle bones (for large dogs) and oxtails (for small ones) stand up to vigorous gnawing, providing your pet with plenty of yummy, messy fun. Supervise your dog's chewing, and throw bones out after a few hours of attention or if they get broken into pieces that can be swallowed.
-- Dangerous decorations: The Christmas tree is full of hazards for dogs and cats. Tinsel can be an appealing target for play, but if ingested, it can twist up the intestines. This is a particular danger to cats and kittens, who seem to find tinsel -- along with yarn, ribbon and string -- especially appealing to eat.
Ornaments, too, are deadly in the mouths -- and stomachs -- of pets, and even the water at the base of the tree contains secretions that can at the very least cause a stomachache. Light strings are no good for chewing, and the whole tree can come down on the cat climbing in its branches. Some dogs may even be inclined to break the rules of house-training on a freshly cut tree -- why else, they reason, would anyone bring a tree into the house?
The best way keep your pets out of tree trouble is by making the tree off-limits unless you're there to supervise. Put the tree in a room with a door you can close is probably the easiest solution.
-- Poisonings. Holiday plants such as mistletoe may look intriguing to your pet, but they're also toxic, as are the bulbs of the amaryllis plant. (Long the poster child for holiday poisoning, the falsely maligned poinsettia can be safely welcomed into the pet lover's home.) And before you share your holiday candy with your pet, be aware that chocolate is toxic to dogs and may be deadly to the little dog who gets a good-sized piece. Again, the best cure is prevention: Keep all dangerous plants out of the reach of your pets, and make the candy dish available to people only.
Do you know where to take your pet in a medical emergency? The time to find out is now, before you need help.
Start with your regular veterinary hospital and find out what arrangements exist for emergency care outside of normal business hours. Some practices are open 24 hours a day, while others maintain an on-call veterinarian after hours. If there's an emergency practice in your area, your own veterinary clinic may choose to refer after-hours care instead of offering it themselves.
If you'll be heading to an emergency practice, be sure you know where the clinic is located and how to get there. And keep the practice's phone number in a place where you can find it right away.
Leg-lifting retriever wearing out his welcome
Q: Our 18-month-old male Labrador lifts his leg on the corner of the living-room couch. He does not go anywhere else in the house. Any suggestions? -- C.H., via e-mail
A: First, is your dog neutered? Male dogs live to mark territory, but neutering cuts down on this unpleasant, hormone-driven behavior. It also makes the animal a safer, happier pet.
Second, clean up the area where the dog is marking, using enzymatic cleaners designed for pet messes. (Other kinds of cleaners do not eliminate the odor, and some, like ammonia, even make the problem worse.) A thorough cleaning is essential, since any remnant of past mistakes will emit an odor that will attract the dog to refresh his mark. What you cannot clean, you must replace.
Finally, block off the area from the dog while he's being retrained. Take the dog outside and praise him for marking in the right spot. In the house, keep him on leash for the next few weeks so he never gets the opportunity to make the wrong decision.
If you catch him in the act of lifting his leg indoors, clap your hands to distract him and stop the behavior. Then take him outside to finish the job, praising him for getting it right. Punishment is never necessary and is flat-out useless if done after the fact.
After a few weeks, if you don't think you're getting through to your dog, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. These are veterinarians with additional training in resolving behavior problems in animals, and they combine a proven scientific approach with medications that will help in the retraining period.
Q: My 10-year-old daughter begged and begged for a parakeet, and her father (my ex) bought her one. Of course, her father travels too much to keep the bird in his apartment, so it is in my house. (No, of course he didn't ask me before he bought the bird.)
The reason I didn't want a bird is that I knew my daughter would lose interest. To her credit, she does keep her pet fed and watered and keeps the cage relatively clean. But other than that, the bird is mostly ignored.
While most of my annoyance is directed at her father, I do feel sad for the bird. I think I should push my daughter to let me find it a new home. What do you think? -- F.G., via e-mail
A: Too many children's pets end up like this bird, ignored by the children who once wanted them. (At least this bird is well-cared-for, which isn't always the case in such situations.) What a shame for any budgie to be underappreciated, for a well-socialized budgie is a marvelous pet, sweet and affectionate. Many are great talkers, too.
It can be very difficult to find decent homes for unwanted pets, especially small ones. Instead, I wonder if it would be possible to work with your daughter on realizing the full potential of her little bird. Could you encourage her to take out books from the library on parrots and work with her pet? You should easily be able to find information in the library or on the Internet on hand-taming this bird and maybe teaching a few words as well.
The bird could probably also use some environment enrichment: a larger cage, toys and an interesting variety of food. It would also help to place the cage in a comfortable spot where the bird can see the world go by through the window.
With a better setup and some attention from you and your daughter, this little bird can have a happy life and be an enjoyable companion for your daughter. As for you and your ex, I have to say I'm not qualified to comment.
Q: Why is it no longer considered sound advice to let a dog have one litter before being spayed? -- S.H., via e-mail
A: Animals do not need to be bred once for any reason, and there are many good reasons for them to be neutered before reaching sexual maturity. Of course, preventing litters helps with the pet overpopulation problem, but neutering helps each individual animal by eliminating or reducing the risks of some cancers, and preventing or reducing some behavior problems.
In short: A neutered pet is a better pet, and the sooner the deed is done, the better.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ON THE WEB
A club for those who love gerbils
Business took me to Denver recently, where I got to spend a few hours at one of the best humane organizations in the country, the Denver Dumb Friends League (www.ddfl.org). While at the DDFL, I was interest in seeing some gerbils in the adoption area. You see, in my home state of California, I never get a chance to see these engaging rodents, because gerbils are on the state's list of forbidden pets, along with ferrets and Quaker parakeets.
I watched the gerbils at the shelter for a little while and left hoping these healthy, happy pets would find good new homes soon.
For those who have gerbils or are interested in finding out more, the Web site of the American Gerbil Society (www.agsgerbils.org) is the place to go. The site has good information on setting up proper housing, understanding normal behavior and providing good care for these pets.
The site also offers a free care brochure for pet stores than can downloaded and printed for giving to new gerbil owners.
Apple slices freshen dog breath
One of the distressing things about living with a dog is dealing with the resulting bad breath that comes with the variety of foul objects dogs believe are delightful to consume. It seems as if anything is fair game, from rotting fruit under trees to the contents of litter boxes. Ugh!
While chronic bad breath is often a sign of diseased teeth or gums or other health problems that need to be addressed by your veterinarian as soon as possible, a temporary case of doggy breath resulting from bad food choice can be cured quickly with apple slices.
Many if not most dogs love apples, and a few slices is usually all it takes to clean smelly residue from the mouth and give your pet fresh breath again. Try it!
Christmas puppy not the best of ideas
No matter how much your children want one, the holidays are just about the worst time possible for most families to get a dog.
Christmas puppies are often a parent's headache by February, when the animals are still not house-trained, the kids are tired of the responsibilities involved in caring for a pet, and it's still too cold and dark outside for dog-training after work and school. Too often, these animals are a shelter's problem by summer, when their cuteness is long gone and their untrained boisterousness has lost its charm.
Despite the warnings of those in the know, every year parents give in to the begging of their children and pop for a puppy. The attraction is understandable: Who doesn't love a puppy, and who wouldn't want to delight a child? But there are reasons why shelters, rescue groups and responsible breeders are uniform in their advice to think twice about a Christmas puppy.
Puppies are not toys. They are living, breathing beings who need a lot of attention. Who has time for a pup during the holidays, that stressful season of socializing and shopping? With a houseful of guests and a holiday dinner to prepare, who will make sure the puppy isn't being mauled by overly enthusiastic children and guests? Who has time to get house-training started right?
Dogs who grow up unhouse-trained, unmannered and unsocialized too often never get a chance to grow up much at all. From summer to fall, I get dozens and dozens of letters from people who are tearing out their hair over their now-adolescent Christmas puppy. Some people work with the dogs, but many just dump them. Sad for the families; tragic for the dogs.
Dogs can be great for children, and children can be great with dogs. But Christmas is not the best time to launch such a promising relationship. Somebody has to be the grown-up here, and if you're the parent, it should be you. Wait until late spring or early summer to find the perfect pup and get your pet off to a great start.
Get in-the-know on poison risks
If you're not sure about what can be toxic to your pets, you might want to review the information on the Web site of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (www.aspca.org/apcc).
The ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center is where veterinarians call when they need quick answers for patients who've been poisoned, and the information provided to the general public on toxic plants and products is the best you'll find anywhere.
It's also a good place to check out the rumors that pop up on the Internet regarding various products. The APCC is prompt about investigating such dire warnings, and posting on the Web site its expert opinion on whether or not the concerns are justified.
Highly recommended: Order a free magnet from the ASPCA with the center's toll-free phone number. You can fill out the form online and expect your free magnet in six to eight weeks.
(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.)
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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