Dr. Kate Hurley is an upbeat woman, especially for someone in her line of work. Walking down a line of cats up for adoption at the Sacramento, Calif., SPCA, the veterinarian stops to make eye contact with each one and coo baby talk at the friendlier felines.
She loves them all, even if she can't save them all. But she's working on the latter cause, to be sure.
As the head of the pioneering Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, Hurley is on the cutting edge of efforts to save as many shelter animals as possible by making them more adoptable. That means keeping them healthy, keeping them sane in a sometimes stressful shelter environment, and solving the behavior problems that may have led to their abandonment in the first place.
She didn't intend shelter work as a career path, but it has become her calling and her passion.
"I started working in shelters in 1989, and the numbers were so overwhelming then. One sneeze from a cat, one cough from a dog and that was it -- they'd be pulled for euthanasia," she said. "Two weeks after I graduated from veterinary school in '99 I was hired by a shelter in charge of the health of 500 animals. I needed more information on shelter medicine, and there just wasn't anything."
That lack of knowledge was a death sentence to many animals. When infectious diseases broke out, it was standard procedure in many facilities to euthanize even healthy animals who'd been near a sick one. Hurley's work today is to come up with protocols to prevent outbreaks, and also to limit them so healthy animals do not have to be killed.
"Shelters are hungry for information of this type," she says. "For example, how long after a vaccine is given does it protect an animal? For someone's pet, the answer isn't as important. They're going home, to a safe environment. For an animal going back into a shelter facility, the answer is much more important."
One of the reasons shelter medicine finally has backing as a field of study is that there are fewer unwanted animals. Thanks to aggressive spay-neuter efforts, the number of homeless pets has fallen to the point that curable illnesses no longer mean a death sentence in many shelters, and the spread of disease is no longer seen as a sad, but necessary, reason to reduce the numbers of animals.
But the changes have brought their own challenges. Today's shelter pets are older, and they often come with minor behavior issues that can be a turnoff to a potential adopter.
"The victory feels different than we thought it would be," says Hurley. "Keeping a puppy from getting distemper is so much easier than dealing with a dog who hasn't been socialized."
The behavior problems of shelter pets are the specialty of Dr. Sheila Segurson, a resident in the Shelter Medicine Program who is also working toward certification as a veterinary behaviorist.
"Behavior is really important," says Segurson. "You need to have a way to assess behavior in a shelter environment, and enrich that environment to reduce overall stress on the animal. And finally, there need to be programs for training and behavior modification.
"Something as basic as teaching a dog not to pull on the leash can make an animal more adoptable."
Adoptions, after all, are what it's all about. For while the UCD Shelter Medicine Program is focused on the big picture of keeping a greater percentage of shelter animals healthy, Hurley and Segurson are well aware that shelters still work one animal at a time to get these pets into loving homes.
"If we can keep an animal healthy and that animal doesn't get a home -- then we've lost," says Hurley. "What we want is people getting good pets from shelters, and then telling their friends."
Smaller dogs have big dental challenges
Q: I read your piece on dental care for pets, and I have some questions. Do Shelties have excessive plaque buildup? If so, are there any remedies? My 3-year-old has required two teeth cleanings so far. I am afraid of having my dog put under anesthesia over and over. Should I try cleaning her teeth myself with a dental pick? -- J.P., via e-mail
A: As a general rule, the smaller the dog, the faster the plaque buildup. You should not attempt to clean your dog's teeth with a dental pick because you likely will cause more problems than you'll prevent -- damaging the surface of the tooth enamel and, in so doing, giving bacteria a nice little niche to call home. You can also slip and slash the gums.
Many pet owners shy away from dental work for their pets for the very reason you do: They're worried about losing their companion to anesthesia. In recent years, however, the use of safer anesthetic agents has become nearly universal, making dental work advisable even for older pets.
In short: The long-term risk of ignoring your pet's teeth is greater than the short-term risk of anesthesia.
After your pet's next cleaning, step up your attention with at-home preventive care to keep things in good shape and greatly extend the time between cleanings.
Here are the basics:
-- Brush or wipe the teeth regularly. Use a toothpaste designed for dogs twice a week at least, although daily is better. You can use a brush designed for dogs, a soft children's brush, a cleaning tip that fits over your finger, or even plain gauze wrapped around your finger. Experiment to see what works best for you and your dog, and be positive about the brushing experience.
You can also try newer gels that are swiped onto the teeth to help dissolve plaque. Ask your veterinarian about these products.
-- Feed your dog dry food and offer teeth-cleaning toys. Yes, dry food helps (and prescription diets designed to scrape teeth may help even more), but it must be used in combination with regular brushing and with toys that help wipe the teeth. Soft chewies or rope toys are best. Avoid chews that are rock-hard or are prone to breaking into sharp pieces, as these can break teeth or slice gums.
For most dogs and cats, regular dental cleanings are as important to pets' long-term health as they are to ours. Keeping teeth in good health prevents bad breath, preserves teeth into old age, and protects the pet's organs from the constant shower of bacteria caused by rotting teeth and gums.
Diligent at-home care is the best way to keep your dog's teeth and gums healthy. Work with your veterinarian to come up with the best overall strategy for this important aspect of preventive healthcare for your pet.
Q: How often does a litter box have to be cleaned? If we're using clumping litter, shouldn't it be OK until the weekend? -- S.C., via e-mail
A: Ideally,the box should be scooped every time the cat uses it, or a couple of times a day at least. Realistically, daily attention is probably fine.
If you're neglecting this chore, you're inviting a behavior problem I know you don't want: a cat who skips the litter box. Cats don't like dirty bathrooms any more than people do, and your pet may start looking for a cleaner place to go if the box isn't to his liking.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Invention prevents loose-leash accidents
Reel-type retractable leashes such as the Flexi have become enormously popular in recent years because they allow a dog more freedom and exercise while remaining on leash.
Handy and popular as they are, however, reel-type leashes aren't designed for use with dogs who aren't well-trained. A strong, out-of-control dog can hit the end of the leash with enough force to pop the handle out of even the strongest hand. Once the handle is free, it can spook the dog into bolting as it bounces on the ground behind the animal.
The results can be disastrous.
Andrea Dupree, a Seattle-based jazz singer, was walking Morgan, her Italian greyhound, when she lost her grip on the handle of her reel-type leash. Her dog panicked and raced down a city street, with the handle clattering behind him. Dupree caught the leash and the dog just before they headed into traffic.
From that experience, she came up with the idea for a safety device, and poured her savings into the creation and marketing of the Keep 'Um Safe Safety Loop. The device loops through the handle of the retractable leash and then securely around the wrist, providing a secure connection even if the leash handle pops free.
It's a fabulous idea, a must-buy for anyone who routinely walks a dog on a reel-type leash. The sturdy safety loop is made in America, is simple to attach to any reel-type leash, costs $7.99 (plus $4 shipping and handling) and comes in four colors. For more information or to order, call 800-959-4528 or visit www.keepumsafe.com.
Fleas can bother ferrets, rabbits, too
Fleas are equal-opportunity parasites, and although they may have their preferences, they are happy to feed on most furry animals.
The safest way to control fleas on indoor pets is to remove all stages of fleas from the environment. For pets such as rabbits or ferrets who do not have access to the outside -- or to other pets who go in and out -- getting the house flea-free and maintaining it in that condition is the best way to go.
Before you move into a new place where pets have lived, have the premises treated to kill hungry adult fleas and their larvae. Once you're in, vacuum frequently, empty the machine after each use and keep flea-killing powder in the bag or canister. Borax powder beaten into carpets and dusted into floor crevices will also help to kill developing larvae.
In addition, all pet bedding should be washed weekly.
Although prescription flea-control medications may not be approved for use on animals other than dogs and cats, that doesn't mean they cannot be safely used for ferrets and rabbits under your veterinarian's guidance. Other flea-control products can kill a rabbit or ferret, though, so be careful.
Best bet: Talk to your veterinarian about flea-control strategies for any pet.
(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
Helpful guides to an often-neglected pet
The Easter Bunny is a pretty good salesman. At this time of year, bunnies are everywhere -- on cards, on candy-wrappers and in pet stores.
But unlike the Easter ephemera that can be tossed after the holiday, a rabbit needs proper care. They do make wonderful and engaging pets if cared for properly, and that's where a new book comes in.
"A House Rabbit Primer," by Lucile C. Moore (Santa Monica Press; $15) is as complete a handbook as I've seen on these pets. Moore has a doctoral degree in biology with a specialty in animal behavior, and her experience shows, along with an obvious love for rabbits (she has eight of them as house pets).
The book provides excellent advice on setting up a house rabbit, litter box training, proper feeding and health concerns. If you've never had a rabbit indoors before, Moore explains how rabbits think and why they act as they do.
While "A House Rabbit Primer" is the latest book to cover keeping rabbits as indoor pets, it's certainly not the first. Marinell Harriman's "House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live With an Urban Rabbit" (Drollery Press, $11) was first to recognize that a rabbit could be as delightful a pet as any dog or cat, but only if given a chance to interact as part of the family.
Harriman coined the term "house rabbit"; her book is now in its fourth printing, and her leadership led to success of the House Rabbit Society (www.rabbit.org) and countless other rabbit rescue and care groups around the world.
If you're considering the addition of a house rabbit now or any other time of year, please contact your local shelter or rescue group. You'll find rabbits large and small, lop eared or not, in all possible coat patterns, every one in desperate need of a home.
BY THE NUMBERS
Who's better company?
We love to be with our pets! For more than a few of us, the choice of a pet takes top priority, even over human companionship. Guess there's something to be said for a companion who listens but doesn't talk.
If you were deserted on an island and could have only one companion, which would you pick?
Human 47 percent
Dog 40 percent
Cat 10 percent
Other 2 percent
None 1 percent
Source: American Animal Hospital Association
ON THE WEB
Good information from Cornell site
The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has long been a good place for cutting-edge information on the care of cats.
Their Feline Health Center has its own Web site (www.vet.cornell.edu/fhc/) with the solid advice on many common health problems in cats, such as diabetes and leukemia. The site also offers reliable tips on taming behavioral problems, including the No. 1 behavior problem in cats: litter-box avoidance.
You have to dig a little to find the health and behavior information, though, since the Web site seems primarily geared to raising money for health research -- a laudable goal, of course -- by selling Cornell-related products or offering memorial contributions in memory of a lost cat.
If all you're looking for is help, however, the site is a good place to start, and generously offers links to other resources to help you continue your research.
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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