About once a month, I'll get a frantic e-mail from someone who's frustrated to the point of desperation. "Help!" the e-mail will scream. "I have a Jack Russell, and he digs, barks and chews when we're gone. He's too hyper! We can't take it anymore!"
Sometimes, it's all I can do not to write in return, "High energy? Digging? Barking? Chewing? Congratulations! You have an authentic Jack Russell terrier! What did you expect?"
What they expected, of course, was an adorable, low-key and well-mannered small dog, like Eddie on the TV show "Frasier," or Wishbone on the PBS children's series of the same name. What they don't know is that Moose, the dog who played Eddie, had a full-time trainer, or that the role of Wishbone was played by not one but a handful of well-trained dogs.
And what about their cute little hellion? Perfectly normal for any Jack Russell who isn't given the structure and the physical and mental exercise these hard-driving dogs need.
"I get those phone calls every day," says Margie Kauffman, past president of the Northern California breed club and current head of the group's rescue efforts. "They're mostly from folks who haven't done their homework and don't know of the breed's natural tendencies. The Jack Russell is a working terrier, with lots of energy and tenacity."
Kauffman's group (www.jackrussellrescue.com) re-homes about 150 dogs a year from an area that starts north of Fresno, Calif., and ends at the Oregon border. That number doesn't include those terriers who are placed or sold privately, or who are adopted out of shelters directly.
"These dogs are loving, loyal and very smart. But when they're bored, people say they're destructive," she says. "In my own pack, they're not bored. They get lots of exercise, and they're engaged all the time."
Lyndy Pickens, who has two of the dogs (which the American Kennel Club calls Parson Russells, not Jack Russells), got her first Jack Russell at the age of 3 and vows to have one as long as she lives.
"They're thugs in clown's clothing," she says, looking lovingly at her two Jacks, Shiner and Louie, their heads underground as they dig a trench on her property in the foothills above Sacramento. "This is not a dog bred to ask permission."
Indeed, knowing what the Jack Russell was bred for is essential to understanding how to keep both a terrier and your sanity, says Kauffman, who has seen literally thousands of Jack Russells over the years. ("My daughter calls me the patron saint of Jack Russells," she says, laughing.)
"If you look at any dog breed, they were bred for a specific purpose," she says. "Jack Russells weren't bred to be pets. They were bred to work: 150 years ago, the dog would have been everyone's household vacuum. Bugs, mice, rats -- people didn't want pests in the house, the barn or the chicken coop. The dogs had to work for their keep, killing the pests. They're not like a cat, who will eat and then not hunt again. The Jack Russell will keep killing.
"Jack Russells today are hard-working, tenacious little dogs as a result."
And not, please note, one of the better breeds to keep if you have rodents as pets.
So why are these dogs so popular? When living with people who understand them, who keep their minds and bodies exercised, who train them and work them constantly, who set limits and gently but firmly enforce them, the Jack Russell is an outstanding companion.
"I love how joyous they are," says Pickens.
"It's interesting to live with them," says Kaufman. "They're bright."
For people who understand the breed and are willing to work to keep a working terrier happy, there's no better dog in the world. For anyone else, though, if you're looking for a lazy dog, or an easygoing dog for beginners, you're better off without this high-energy breed.
In other words: If you don't know Jack, you'd better not get one until you do. And even then: Are you up the challenge? Be sure beforehand, so your Jack Russell won't be another one looking for a new home.
Rabbits perfect for condo life
Q: We live in a condo and have a bunny. Our association rules do not allow bunnies, however. Do you have information I can use to help change the rules? -- B.A., Honolulu
A: Your condo association is probably still thinking of rabbits as "livestock," not pets. In fact, I can think of few animals better suited for condo or apartment living than a neutered house rabbit.
So why should rabbits be allowed?
They're quiet. Does your association allow birds? I'll guarantee you a rabbit is mute compared to the noisiness of many parrots. In fact, a rabbit is about as quiet a pet as you can have. The loudest mine gets is when he's thumping his leg to demand breakfast, or hitting the ground after a joyous leap into the air. If you have carpeting, run-around noise will be muffled.
They're neat. A daily brushing will catch loose hair, and a vacuum will pick up scattered hay, food pellets or the occasional stray feces (its pea-sized, dry and round) that doesn't make it into the litter box.
They're small. Even the biggest rabbits aren't much larger than a cat, and dwarf rabbits are considerably smaller.
The one downside I can think of is that rabbits will engage in destructive chewing if left to choose their own recreation. Even this problem is easily solved by "rabbit-proofing" the living area -- blocking off attractive chewing areas, putting cords into protective covers -- and offering safe chewing alternatives.
Q: I buy clumping litter for our bunnies, and it hasn't seemed to affect either of them, one of whom we've had for more than four years. You suggest not only paper litter, but also covering the litter with hay. Our bunnies eat every morsel of hay that goes into their hutch, and I have a vision of them eating everything in the litter box, which sort of nullifies the point of having a box. Should we still switch to paper and hay? My daughter and I love your rabbit's name by the way. -- F.G., Dayton, Ohio
A: I can't take credit for naming my rabbit Turbo. The idea came from my friend Ann Cony, who notes that her last name is Irish for "rabbit." I know a good name when I hear one, so my adopted rabbit, previously named Flakes for a skin disease he had when he was taken to the shelter, was renamed with a more positive spin.
Yes, switch to paper and hay. Clumping litter puts your rabbits at risk of impaction. As for the hay, your rabbits know what's edible and what's not, and will eat the hay, not the litter. Putting a layer of high-quality hay -- not straw -- on top of the pelleted paper litter encourages rabbits to use the box, since they tend to pass feces while eating. (I think of eating hay while "on the john" as the rabbit equivalent of reading while in the bathroom.)
Like many animals, rabbits naturally want to keep their area clean and will use a litter box if it's attractive and accessible. Make sure the box is large enough to be comfortable, and the sides are low enough for easy entries. Keep it filled with clean pellets and fresh hay, supplemented by a special food treat like an apple slice, and your rabbits will use it likely as not. Dropping feces while away from the box is normal for some rabbits, but fortunately clean-up is easy with a hand vac. Remember, too, that if your rabbits are not neutered, they will be very difficult to house-train.
The best information on rabbit care can be found on the House Rabbit Society's Web site (www.rabbit.org) and on VeterinaryPartner.com (click on Small Mammals, then on the Small Mammal Health Series by Dr. Susan Brown).
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
ON THE WEB
Clever budgies deserve respect in pet world
Let's start by getting the name right: Budgerigar, budgie for short. Not parakeet. All budgies are parakeets, but not all parakeets are budgies. And that's not the only thing many people get wrong about these clever little birds. Far from just being a "starter pet" for children, budgies can fit into almost any household situation. They're small enough that their cages don't take too much space, and they're quiet enough to keep the neighbors from complaining.
Some budgies are also outstanding talkers, learning to mimic hundreds of sounds, words and phrases.
The Me & My Budgie Web site (www.budgies.org) is a good place to go to start increasing your appreciation of these great little pets. The site offers good advice on care and feeding, as well pictures and stories submitted by budgie fans. There's even an arts and crafts section, with instructions on how to make safe, inexpensive toys for your bird.
Pet plates story draws reader response
The recent article on pet-themed vanity license plates continues to draw a lot of response. I'll post your pictures and the stories behind them every now and them. Some recent submissions:
(Heart) DOGGEZ: We are big dog lovers in our family, and we experienced the same disappointments you did when you found all your ideas were taken. My clever daughter came up with this plate, which fortunately was available. I think it is easy to understand. -- N.G.
DOGLOVE: My license plate doesn't refer to my love of dogs. Rather, it refers to the type of love dogs offer us -- unconditional and pure. Surely dogs teach us a lesson about love, as they are love's incarnation. (Is it mere coincidence that "dog" is "God" spelled backward?) -- G.C.
AWCUL8TR: I am a dog trainer, and I have an intense love for my Australian shepherd, Nelly. My daughter came up with the plate, which stands for Aussie You Later. I haven't met anyone yet who can figure it out. It really doesn't matter to me, because I just absolutely love my Aussie. -- B.J.
(HEART)4RATS: Since you have rats, I thought you might be interested in my license plate, which translates to "love for rats." I got this plate on the first try, which I guess says something about how popular rats are compared to dogs. -- S.L.
Carrier an investment in feline safety
Every cat needs his own carrier. A sturdy carrier makes going to the veterinarian's, traveling or moving safer and easier for your pet and offers you some options for housing your cat in an emergency, such as during an natural disaster.
Ditch the cardboard carrier your cat came home from the shelter in, since it's not really designed for long-term use. (Not to mention, if the cardboard gets wet, you'll have a loose cat on your hands.) Look for a carrier that provides your cat with a feeling of security and the ability to look at the world outside his cozy carrier.
The carriers I like to recommend are made of two pieces of high-impact plastic with vents along the top (the top and bottom held together by bolts) and with a grid door of stainless steel. Some models have a door on the top of the carrier as well as the front side, making getting a cat in and out even easier.
While a plastic carrier is probably your best bet for trips to the veterinarian, if you plan to take your cat into the cabin of a plane, you're better off with a soft-sided carrier. It's easier to fit under the seat and more comfortable to carry, since you can sling the bag over your shoulder.
Don't choose a carrier that's made entirely of wire, since the open design will make your cat feel more vulnerable, especially in a veterinary waiting room full of dogs.
Hard plastic carriers cost around $25 new, with soft-sided models going for about twice that. If you check classified ads or frequent tag sales, you can probably pick up a hard-sided carrier for next to nothing. Clean it up and it'll last you a lifetime. (I have plastic carriers that are more than 20 years old.)
A high-quality cat carrier is an inexpensive investment in your cat's safety. Don't put off buying this essential piece of cat gear.
No crash diets for fat cats
Crash diets are bad for cats, who can develop a fatal liver problem if forced to reduce too quickly. An animal doesn't put on weight overnight and shouldn't be forced to change course any more rapidly. What you'll need to do is change your pet's eating and exercise habits gradually.
Your veterinarian may suggest a specific food, or may just advise a small decrease in daily rations coupled with a slow and gradual increase in daily activity.
It's true you can't take long walks with most cats, and that most cats don't enjoy swimming or fetch the way many dogs do, but there are ways to make your cat more active. Key among them: Games with toys such as cat "fishing poles" that tap into your pet's hunting instincts.
(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 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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