The day was still young on Christmas when the first round of dog-dumping began on Internet advertising sites:
"Purebred shih tzu, 7 weeks. Gift, can't keep. $600."
"Allergies force us to part with our beautiful beagle puppy. Paid $300, first $250 takes."
"Yellow Labrador, 9 weeks old. My husband paid $250 for this puppy, and we can't have her in a rental. Make offer. She needs to go before my kids get too attached."
Christmas is a bad time of year for those who work in shelters and who volunteer to do grassroots pet-rescue work. Before Christmas, old dogs get dumped by people who don't want to pay holiday boarding for a pet they figure will die soon anyway, or who are planning to replace the oldster with a new puppy.
And afterward, and for months to come, the Christmas puppy -- the gift that seemed like such a good idea, the one that cannot be returned, exchanged or put on a shelf -- gets sold, is given away or simply gets dumped.
In the Seattle area, a pioneering network of volunteers stands ready to help. Entering its 19th year of operation, Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue (www.spdrdogs.org) will handle more than 3,000 unwanted dogs this year, including many of those abandoned oldsters and second-thought Christmas puppies. A drop in the bucket when it comes to the millions dying in the nation's shelters every year, perhaps, but a miracle to the dogs who don't stand a chance at a new home otherwise.
"We want dogs to stick in their new homes, not bounce back into the system," says Kirsten Gleb, president of the all-volunteer organization. "We're very careful about how we place dogs, making sure the adopter really understands what they're getting into with a certain breed."
SPDR is the second-oldest all-breed dog rescue organization in the country. The first started in St. Louis in 1984, and both were founded by Dixie Tenny Lehmann. The idea of breed rescue is twofold: It's an opportunity for those who love and understand a particular breed to assist the dogs they love, and it's a way to help shelters free up for room for other dogs after rescuers take purebreds into the foster system. In 2003, two-thirds of the dogs placed through SPDR came through shelters first.
"People ask, 'Why purebreds?'" says Gleb. "It's just our niche. Up to 25 percent of dogs in shelters are purebreds. If we get them out, that's help for mixed breeds, too. We're just part of that puzzle, not good or bad, and we're all working for the same goal -- good homes for dogs who need them."
The organization serves as an umbrella group for individual breed representatives who have a fair degree of autonomy when it comes to placing dogs. (SPDR has only one non-negotiable rule: It will not place a dog who has bitten.) In addition to more than 100 breed reps, the group has up to 500 additional volunteers in the Puget Sound area, who do everything from fostering dogs to keeping statistics, from stuffing envelopes to staffing information booths at community events.
"My job is to make the breed reps' job easier," says Gleb, who works as a firefighter for Boeing and who started her volunteer work doing foster care for SPDR. "We know that they know what they're doing, that they know their breed and can educate."
And that's the key: education. For while helping unwanted dogs find new homes makes a difference to this season's Christmas puppies, educating people about breed traits and responsible pet care is the only thing that will help the Christmas puppies in the years to come.
In 2003, the top 10 breeds of dogs handled by SPDR included purebreds that are common in many big-city shelters. The Rottweiler had been the No. 2 most-abandoned breed in 2002 and 2001, but isn't shown in 2003 statistics because the group didn't have a volunteer representative handling the breed.
(1) Pit bull
(2) Labrador retriever
(3) German shepherd
(4) Siberian husky
(5) Cocker spaniel
(7) Australian shepherd
(8) Lhasa apso
(9) Golden retriever
Risks of spaying outweighed by benefits
Q: Isn't it dangerous to spay a dog? How about the anesthesia? How long is the recovery? I have to know exactly what will happen to my dog before I agree to the operation. The thought of putting her under scares me to death, and I'm thinking of just dealing with the heats instead. Can you advise? -- M.S., via e-mail
A: "Spaying" is the everyday term for the surgical sterilization of a female dog or cat. The clinical term is "ovariohysterectomy."
Spaying must be done by a veterinarian, and it requires general anesthesia. The procedure has traditionally been performed starting at the age of 5 or 6 months. But in recent years, the early spaying or neutering of puppies and kittens as young as 8 weeks has been widely approved by veterinary and humane groups.
Spaying involves the removal of the female's entire reproductive system. The uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries are taken out through an incision in the abdomen. Your veterinarian may require you to return to have your dog's stitches removed in about 10 days' time, or he may use stitches that are absorbed into the body. Recovery is fast, taking just a few days, during which you should limit your dog's activities -- no jumping or boisterous play.
Although technically not minor surgery, spaying is among the most common veterinary procedures and carries very little risk for your dog. Your veterinarian should discuss your role before and after surgery to ensure that any complications that may develop are dealt with promptly.
Please don't neglect this essential part of responsible pet-keeping. Spaying your pet will prevent the potential for life-threatening infections and cancer, and will of course prevent your pet from contributing to the tragic surplus of animals dying in the shelters.
Q: I'm 8 years old. My parents gave me a hamster cage for Christmas. I get to pick my own pet, and I want to make sure I get a good one. This is my first pet. Mom said you can help. Do you have hamsters? -- J.K., via e-mail
A: Congratulations! Your first pet is a reason to celebrate. I know you'll take good care of your new friend. Have your parents take you to a reputable pet shop, where it's obvious the animals are clean and well-cared-for.
A healthy hamster will have a lush, glossy coat, bright eyes and a clear nose. Any sign of messiness around the eyes or ears or under the tail is a sign the animal may not be well.
Having a pet is a big responsibility. Keep the cage clean, and make sure your pet always has fresh food and water. Be careful to secure your pet's cage carefully, for hamsters are talented escape artists.
I don't have hamsters, but I do have a pair of domestic rats, Ava and Zoe. Small pets can be a lot of fun if you take good care of them.
Q: I know the holidays are over, but I'm still not straight about poinsettias. Many Web sites say they're poisonous, but you say they're not. What gives? -- Q.R., via e-mail
A: The Internet is a wonderful place to do research, if you remember to read with a critical eye and make sure the information you read is adequately sourced. There's a lot of incorrect information that just keeps getting repeated.
If you don't want to believe me about poinsettias, believe my source, the Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc). It says: "Poinsettias are considered to be very low in toxicity. However, they could cause mild vomiting or nausea if ingested by your pet."
In other words, your pet shouldn't be eating them, but it won't kill him if he does.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ON THE WEB
One-stop shopping for great dog books
Want to find the cutting-edge books on dog care and training? Check out Dogwise (www.dogwise.com). Mass-market suppliers of books and pet products generally rely on large or well-connected publishers for a rather limited range of titles that may not reflect the latest thinking in training, dog sports or care and nutrition.
The folks at Dogwise have made it their business to figure out what's new and what's likely to change the way we think about dogs. In addition to carrying the books of people who've been steadily changing the way dogs are trained, Dogwise is careful to stock titles that won't sell enough to interest a mass retailer, such as a care manual on a rare breed. The Web site is also the place to look for books on working through a specific training problem, such as aggression, shyness, multi-dog conflicts within a household or poor leash manners.
An especially nice feature is the recommended reading lists, where trainers and other dog enthusiasts share their picks of the best in dog books, including lists that focus on books for those with new puppies.
Feline asthma can be helped
Caption: A cat's breathing should be effortless.
Labored breathing is always a cause for alarm, and any cat who's in respiratory distress needs to be seen by a veterinarian right away. For some cats, the diagnosis may be feline asthma, a condition similar to the human disease that is treated in a similar way.
Asthma is a constriction of the airways, accompanied by the increased production of lung-clogging secretions. In cats, labored, open-mouth breathing and a dry hacking cough -- sometimes mistaken for a hairball hack -- can be signs of asthma.
Any cat with these symptoms needs to be evaluated by a veterinarian and to have a treatment plan drawn up and followed. Treatment for feline asthma involves managing the environment to eliminate or lessen allergic triggers, such as dust from certain litters, in combination with medications to relax the airways and reduce inflammation.
Don't take your cat's breathing problems for granted, since feline asthma can be life-threatening if left untreated. Medications and environmental management can help a cat live with the disease, but it cannot be cured.
(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.)
Freshwater fish smile for the camera
If one had to chose a single word to describe "Focus on Freshwater Aquarium Fish" (Firefly, $30), that word would simply be "gorgeous."
That's because of the photography of Geoff Rogers, who presents more 150 fish in incredible detail, floating vividly against glossy white pages and often seeming to look right into the eyes of the reader. The text, by Nick Fletcher, offers both beginners and experienced fish-keepers information on each of the fish, some interesting tidbits about their habits, and how common and how hard to keep they are.
For example, his write-up of the vividly colored and elegantly finned Betta: "Devoted parent but merciless to other males, the Betta (also sold as Siamese fighting fish) lives its short life on the edge. ... Do not taunt him with rival males in nearby tanks; otherwise, he will conduct his aggression dramas through the glass and burn out like the fiery living candle he is."
Truly, there's a visual delight on every page, from the gorgeous catfishes to the cichlids from all over the globe. Even the humble goldfish gets the lush photographic treatment, and some respect in the text, as well.
"Gaze into a tank of fancy goldfish and be amazed at their diversity of form and coloration," writes Fletcher. Or, to make it even easier, just look at the 30 pages of goldfish the likes of which you've never seen handed out in plastic bags at your yearly church carnival.
And about that common goldfish? "This fish has set many hobbyists on the road to keeping more exotic, tropical species," he writes.
This book could do the same. After looking at the stunning variety of fish available for keeping in freshwater aquariums, I felt the urge to start pricing fish-keeping equipment. -- G.S.
BY THE NUMBERS
Who knows you best?
In anticipation of the Jan. 14-16 American Kennel Club/Eukanuba National Championships for top show dogs as well as agility and obedience teams, the AKC polled dog lovers to reveal the relationship we have with our dogs.
The survey also revealed we are more likely to watch a dog show on TV than we were 10 years ago (88.8 percent in agreement); for program times on the National Championships, see the Animal Planet Web site (http://animal.discovery.com)
Who knows more of your secrets?
Your dog 62.4 percent
Your significant other 22.5 percent
Your best friend 13.2 percent
Your child 1.9 percent
Cats can adapt to life on leash
Many indoor cats can be trained to enjoy an outdoor outing on a harness and leash. Choose a harness designed for cats, not for dogs, in a figure-eight design. As with collars, harnesses come in many colors, with lightweight leashes to match.
Don't expect your cat to heel like a dog, however. Walking a cat consists of encouraging your pet to explore, with you following. Never leave your cat tethered and unattended, which leaves him vulnerable to attack or to a terrifying time of hanging suspended from his harness should he try to get over a fence.
While no indoor cat needs to be walked on leash, some of them come to enjoy it enough to make leash-training worth the effort to try. Be sure to walk your cat in an area that's free of such dangers as off-leash dogs, since a terrified cat on a leash is no fun to handle.
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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