When I first started writing about the importance of taking care of a pet's teeth, the response I most often heard was one of astonishment. "I'm supposed to brush my pet's teeth?" pet lovers would say. "You're kidding, right?"
These days, pet lovers respond not with surprise, but with guilt. "I know I should brush my pet's teeth, but I don't because my cat won't put up with it," they say. Or they don't have time, or they forget.
And so ignorance becomes guilt. Now that's progress! And the next step: good dental health from the very beginning.
Why is this important? Beyond the bad breath caused by rotting teeth and gums -- "dog breath" is a symptom of disease, not a normal part of owning a dog -- the infections caused by dental problems can shorten your pet's life by damaging internal organs. Bad teeth can also leave your pet in constant pain.
Veterinarians now recommend training kittens and puppies to accept having their teeth brushed, a job that's not really that hard, even with older dogs and cats. Approach the task with a positive attitude, take it slow and easy, and then follow with something the pet likes -- a play session or a food treat. There are also products in gel form available that can be applied to teeth to keep them clean of plaque.
For kittens and puppies, the focus is on training and prevention, but adult pets will likely need veterinary attention before a preventive-care program can help. Your veterinarian should check your pet's mouth, teeth and gums as part of the regular examination, and make recommendations based on what he or she finds there. For many pets, the next step will be a complete dentistry under anesthesia. The procedure takes 45 minutes to an hour, and involves not only cleaning and polishing the teeth, but also checking for and treating broken or rotting teeth, cavities, abscesses and periodontal disease.
Today's anesthetics are dramatically safer than those of even a few years ago, making the dangers and pain of untreated dental problems the bigger risk to health, even with older pets.
After the problems are treated, at-home care can keep things in good shape. Here are some tips:
-- Brush or wipe regularly. Use a toothpaste designed for dogs and cats a couple of times a week at least, although daily is better. Don't use toothpaste made for people, because animals don't know how to rinse and spit. Pet toothpastes contain enzymes that help dissolve plaque and can be swallowed. They also have a flavor pets appreciate.
Use a toothbrush made for pets, or a children's toothbrush. You can also use plain gauze wrapped around a finger or a fingertip brush. Some vets suggest that gauze may work better with cats, especially if dipped in tuna or clam juice first.
-- Offer teeth-cleaning toys and consider teeth-cleaning food. Some pet-food companies now offer kibble with a mild abrasive texture to help keep teeth clean, or with ingredients that help keep plaque from forming. Ask your vet about these if tartar buildup is a chronic problem for your pet.
Soft chew toys and a chew rope can help keep teeth clean, too. Avoid chews that are hard or are prone to breaking into sharp pieces. These can break teeth or slice gums.
Once your pet's teeth are in good shape, you'll immediately notice an end to bad breath. The true benefits of dental care go far beyond a better-smelling mouth, however, making what seems on surface to be an aesthetic issue one that is in fact a cornerstone of a preventive-care program.
February is Pet Dental Health Month. During the month, your veterinarian may provide special information on your pet's dental care or have special offers on services. Check with your veterinarian for more.
Information on dental care and products for pets can be found on several Web sites, including:
-- Pets Need Dental Care, Too (www.petdental.com)
-- C.E.T. Home Dental care (www.cetdental.com)
-- OraVet (www.oravet.com)
-- Veterinary Oral Health Council (www.vohc.org)
-- Veterinary Partner Dental Care Series, by Dr. Jan Bellows (www.veterinarypartner.com)
Divorce story draws howls of protest
Q: What's the deal with portraying mere animals as equal to children in your recent column on divorce and pets? "Joint custody" is terminology that is supposed to be used when referring to children, not pets. In case you hadn't noticed, cats, dogs, hamsters, ferrets, gerbils and hermit crabs are not children. Just because their delusional owners think they are children doesn't make it so.
Attorney Bernard Clair is quoted as saying, "People need to ask, 'What would be the best situation for the pet?'" Excuse me? Pets are not children, for crying out loud! They can't be traumatized by divorce. Do you think a cat cares who its owner is? Of course not. Just so long as someone is opening the can of pet food, that's all that matters to these small-brained animals. -- D.R., via e-mail
Q: In your column, you included lawyer Bernard Clair's quote that states animals are "sentient beings." What was he smoking when he came up with that comment? Animals have the "right to enjoy their time on this planet." Does this man not know anything about Darwin's theory of evolution?
Evolution doesn't give any animals any kind of rights. Only people are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness because only we can think.
Animals aren't sentient beings. They are instinct-driven beasts, unwitting slaves to evolution. They certainly aren't children, which is how your column was trying to portray them, with the talk of "joint custody." -- M.W., via e-mail
A: "Small-brained animals"? "Instinct-driven beasts"? I'm curious: Has either one of you ever shared your life with a pet? I can't imagine that anyone who's loved a pet would suggest animals have no bond with their owners or have no emotional life whatsoever.
I got a surprising amount of e-mail in regard to the recent column on pets and divorce, some of it quite nasty. What the problem is with the word "sentient," I don't know. Animals clearly are sentient, inasmuch as they are conscious and have emotions, even if their emotions are not as complex as our own.
While neither I nor (I'm guessing) Mr. Clair believes animals to be "equal" to children, I don't think it's unreasonable to consider an animal's needs when deciding who gets the pet when a marriage dissolves. After a divorce, one party may be in no position to keep a pet, because of a housing situation, hours worked or other factors, while the other person may have a lifestyle more suitable to keeping a pet. If the divorcing couple fairly considers an animal's needs and makes the "custody" arrangements appropriately, then I say they deserve to be respected for their kindness to their pets and to each other.
To me, it comes down to responsibility. When we take an animal into our home, we should be making a commitment to care for that animal for life. When a household situation changes, it's part of our responsibility to determine what's best for the animals in our care.
I don't believe animals to be the same as children, but I do believe they deserve more consideration than an inanimate piece of property. In my mind, the issue here is not about the standing of animals in the eyes of the law, but rather about following through on one's responsibilities to the animals one brings into the family as members of the family.
Our pets count on us to do what's right for them. If the silverware ends up in the Dumpster as a result of a nasty divorce, there's no real harm to the silverware, which cannot feel fear, pain or grief.
If an animal ends up thrown away, it's a different story entirely.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ON THE WEB
Funny cat book started as Web site
"Bad Cat: 244 Not-So-Pretty Kitties and Cats Gone Bad" by Jim Edgar (Workman Publishing, $10) was the surprise hit of the holiday season, a New York Times best-selling book for several weeks running. The book draws from the enormously popular Web site MyCatHatesYou.com, which is home to hundreds of really silly pictures of cats with bad attitudes.
The site started as an inside joke in 2001 among some folks at Microsoft and soon became a favorite among cat lovers of all persuasions. Be warned: The humor and language on the site is often off-color.
In the book or on the Web site, the pictures are bound to make you laugh, sometimes against your better intentions. Cats are caught in every pose imaginable, some looking extremely cross at being bothered by the camera. The expressions alone suggest that cats know a lot more about us than they let on and are putting up with us only grudgingly.
'Scooting' probably not worm-related
No art (Believe me: You don't want art)
Does your dog scoot along on his fanny? You need to talk to your veterinarian about your pet's anal glands.
Anal glands are a topic no dog lover likes to think about, but the subject often cannot be ignored. Positioned on either side of the anus, the glands secrete a material that smells vile. Normal defecation may keep the glands emptied, but in some dogs, impactions and infections become a real problem.
The glands should be emptied regularly, a task that's simple if unappealing. Your veterinarian can show you how to empty the glands, or you can have the groomer do it for you when your dog's in for a regular grooming.
Infections of the anal glands are not uncommon, and they need to be treated by your veterinarian. In some cases, chronic infections need to be dealt with by having the glands removed.
Veterinary Partner has a demonstration of how to empty anal glands on its Web site. Go to veterinarypartner.com and search on the words "anal sacs."
(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.)
Crazy cocker family picks perfect plate
DOGSCAB: I've been saving your column because I had just ordered special plates for our three cars. The picture I'm sending you is of our minivan. We have four cocker spaniels -- Sassy, Sadie, Buddy and Bailey -- and I have three crates in the van. Sassy and Sadie ride in a crate together; Buddy and Bailey have their own crate. Our veterinarian and friends call us the Crazy Cocker Family, and our daughter thinks we are way out of control when it comes to our babies. -- J.H., via e-mail
(Send pictures and stories of your pet plates to email@example.com. )
Pet-moving guide offers good information
Usually I don't write about books that aren't as well-written and well-organized as they are well-researched, but with Carrie Straub's "The Pet-Moving Handbook" (First Books, $10), I have to make an exception. That's because although the book is a mess organizationally and tends to repeat itself in places, it's the only book I remember seeing that's dedicated exclusively to this important topic.
Straub offers a lot of practical information on moving pets of all kinds, from the more-popular dogs and cats to caged pets and even exotics. Along the way, she offers sound advice on the logistics and expense of moving a pet, as well as tips on how to help pets cope with the process.
Trying to read this slender book straight through will give you a headache. An index would have been most helpful, but the table of contents is complete enough to help you find the information you need. To be fair, some of the advice she keeps repeating bears repeating: Make sure all pets are securely contained in crates or on leash while being moved, and that they have current ID in case they get lost.
Darlene Arden is pet expert who always turns out solidly researched, well-written books, and her latest is no exception. "Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Can't Get Unless You're a Dog" (McGraw-Hill, $15) delivers on what has to be one of the longest titles I've ever seen on a pet book, packing in hundreds of interesting tidbits between the covers.
Arden is an admitted shopaholic. ("I've often told friends that if they're looking for me at a dog show, just follow the smell of melting plastic," she says.) Her expertise is obvious in this book, which focuses in large part on pet-supply retailers and their entertaining, if sometimes quirky, merchandise.
Her travel section is also comprehensive. Most interesting: the section on dog-specific museums and memorials around the world, such the dog-collar museum in England, and Stephen Huneck's Dog Chapel in Vermont.
BY THE NUMBERS
Is one dog enough?
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 40.6 percent of all households in the United States owned at least one dog in 2002, a figure largely unchanged from the two previous surveys in 2000 and 1998. The total number of dogs owned per household has increased, however, to an average of 1.6. In 2002:
Number of dogs owned Total dog owners
One 65 percent
Two 23 percent
Three or more 12 percent
Socialization a must for growing puppies
Puppies need to be protected from disease until their shots are complete, but that doesn't mean they can't be socialized. Dog-training experts say puppies should be exposed to as many new situations, people and objects as possible to ensure that they will grow up to be confident, stable dogs.
Stay clear of any area where unknown dogs have access, such as public sidewalks and parks. Instead, expose your puppy to areas that are as disease-free as possible, including your home and the homes of friends with dogs whose vaccination status is known. Your puppy needs to be gently and safely introduced to as many surfaces, sights, sounds and smells as possible, and should be given the opportunity to be lovingly petted by as many different kinds and ages of people as you can find.
Once your veterinarian gives the go-ahead, pull out the stops and take your puppy everywhere you can. The more socialization the better in these important early months of life.
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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