Anyone who has ever pulled out a credit card at the emergency clinic for something that wasn't as dire as it seemed comes away wishing for a better knowledge of what constitutes an urgent situation -- and what doesn't. But as big an "ouch" as a non-emergency can be to the budget, it's a lot better than the opposite situation: an emergency that goes untreated until it's too late for your pet.
But how can you tell? The signs of a healthy pet are pretty apparent to an observant pet owner: bright, clear eyes with no sign of discharge; clean ears, free of buildup or smell; a mouth not overpowered by its odor, with pink gums free of infection; a nose that appears moist, with no discharge; a shiny coat, with unblemished skin below that snaps back easily when pulled away from the shoulders. A healthy attitude, with normal appetite and thirst are part of the package, too, without signs of intestinal upset. No lameness, no swelling. No lumps, no bumps. No heavy panting.
Anything to the contrary is reason to have a pet checked. But is it a "go to the veterinarian this very minute" emergency?
The first way to start finding out is with a thermometer. To take your pet's temperature, put a little water-based lubricant on the tip of the thermometer and insert it in the animal's fanny. After a minute or so, remove and check the temperature. Normal is between 100 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit for dogs and cats; anything below 99 or above 103 is worth checking with a veterinarian, day or night.
Some other "see the vet now" indicators include seizure, fainting or collapse, as well as any suspected poisoning (including antifreeze, rodent poison, snail bait or human medication). Snake or spider bites, too, demand immediate attention. Cats in particular can be fatally sensitive to insecticides (such as flea-control medications that are safe for dogs), petroleum-based products or medications such as Tylenol.
Sometimes situations that might not seem urgent really are, such as eye injuries or allergic reactions -- swelling around the face or hives. A single incident of vomiting or diarrhea is probably nothing, but anything more than two or three times within an hour or so could indicate a serious problem. Other signs of possible serious conditions are breathing problems, chronic coughing or difficulties urinating or defecating, the latter especially in cats.
Animals can sometimes seem fine after accidents, such as being hit by a car, exposed to extreme heat or cold, or being cut or bitten. Even if your pet looks OK, you need to take him to a veterinarian right away to check for internal injuries that can kill if left untreated.
There are also situations that may not be life-threatening but are certainly painful enough to warrant immediate veterinary attention. Some of the signs of an animal in pain include panting, labored breathing, lethargy or restlessness, loss of appetite, aggression, hiding, or crying out. While it may be possible to wait until your regular veterinarian is available, put yourself in your pet's place. Don't let your pet suffer!
When in doubt, call your veterinarian. It's better to make a trip you needn't have made than to miss the one you should have made.
Prepare a first-aid kit
Every home with pets needs a first-aid kit just for animals.
The basics include: adhesive tape, antihistamines (such as Benadryl), antiseptic (such as Betadine), cotton (balls, swabs and rolls), tweezers, hydrogen peroxide, styptic powder (such as Kwik Stop), scissors, sterile gauze (pads and rolls), pet thermometer, antibiotic ointment, clear plastic cling wrap (such as Saran Wrap), activated charcoal, and a water-based lubricating jelly (such as K-Y). Add a soft fabric muzzle (for dogs) or a restraint bag (for cats), since an animal in pain may lash out.
If you don't want to put a kit together, buy a ready-made kit from pet-supply outlets, or directly from a manufacturer such as Pet Pak (www.petpak.com; 800-223-5765), which offers kits in three sizes in prices from $6 to $40.
Tuck into any kit your veterinarian's phone number, and the phone number of the closest after-hours clinic if your veterinarian isn't on call. Finally, add a book on first-aid: Amy Shojai's "The First Aid Companion for Dogs and Cats" (Rodale Books, $20) is one of the best.
'Alternative' care gains a following
Q: I saw your piece about acupuncture recently, and I'd like to know more about what "holistic" pet care entails. It seems like there are a lot of different techniques involved. Are these legit? -- W.G., via e-mail
A: Call it anything you like -- including "Eastern" or "holistic" -- "alternative" care is hot in human medicine and, not surprisingly, in veterinary medicine as well. Lumped under the term "alternative" is a wide range of treatment options, from acupuncture to chiropractic to homeopathy to herbal medicine.
In holistic medicine, the whole patient is generally the focus, rather than the specific disease. "Western" medicine does better with acute illness, such as a bacterial infection, or with trauma, such as a broken leg. Alternative medicine's strength is often in dealing with more chronic conditions, such as arthritis.
Some veterinarians originally trained in Western medicine have furthered their study and now practice alternative care exclusively. Many others accept elements of alternative care as a complement to Western medicine. For my own pets, especially the seniors, I have had good results over the last few years with this "integrative" approach -- mixing the best of Western practice with alternative care, primarily acupuncture.
As for legitimacy, some alternative treatments have been practiced for centuries, with good results. But I also see advertisements for "miracle cures" that seem to be little more than snake oil, taking advantage of a pet-lover's emotions. As always, work with your veterinarian (Western or alternative), ask what the benefits and risks are to any treatment, and do your own independent research to help you to make sound decisions on your pet's care.
The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (www.ahvma.org) is a good place to start finding out more about alternatives to Western-style medicine for pets.
No free-fly zone
Q: I have a friend whose wife told their son that birds don't need to be kept in their cages. She says it's OK for them to fly free around the house.
Isn't that unsafe for the birds? Isn't that unsanitary? Where can I get specific information about this? -- L.A., via e-mail
A: Flying free certainly can be unsafe for birds. Pet birds aren't born with the ability to recognize household hazards such as ceiling fans and pots of boiling water, nor are they very clear on the concept of windows, which may seem invisible to a free-flying bird. Not to mention: A bird with unclipped wings is at risk of flying out a door or window. Once outside, a bird may be impossible to recapture.
Unsanitary? Well, sure, a house with bird droppings all over it is certainly unappealing. Still, it's not that big a problem for anyone committed to cleaning up quickly with spray of cleaning solution and a wipe with a damp cloth.
There's another option to letting birds fly freely in the house: Keep their wings clipped for safety and offer them supervised out-of-cage recreation. While freedom isn't a good idea for finches and canaries, most parrots (and that includes everything from budgies and cockatiels to Amazons and macaws) need more than what even the largest cage can offer them.
Spending an entire life in a cage is just too sad and boring for these highly intelligent pets. Let them enjoy plenty of supervised out-of-cage time with toys, play gyms, trick-training or just hanging out with family members. Birds who are well-socialized and active are happier, healthier pets.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Chewable pet cards sure to be a hit
In the new products showcase at Global Pet Expo, I was looking at one new product with particular interest when I noticed I wasn't the only one so captivated. The folks who buy for pet-supply retailers were interested, too.
In an area in the massive trade show where most products were merely new takes on old ideas, the Crunchkins pet greeting cards really stood out. The dog cards are edible, made of thin rawhide and printed with safe food dyes. The cat cards are made to be played with and have catnip toys attached to the card face with non-toxic glue.
Invented by a veterinarian, the cards are brightly colored with sentiments that are cute but not too much. Examples: "Just Be-Paws I Love You," "Friends Fur-Ever." (OK, maybe some are little too cute.) The company has recently expanded with a collection of edible Christmas tree ornaments that are probably best hung away from the tree if you don't want your dog to dismantle your holiday display.
Suggested retail is $5 for the cards and $15 for the collection of ornaments. The Crunchkins line is available from gift and pet-supply stores.
On The Web
Fine fish facts in one location
No matter your level of interest and expertise, if you like fish, you'll like Fish Link Central (www.fishlinkcentral.com). This simple site offers information on all kinds of fish-keeping, from goldfish and guppies to the most elaborate saltwater reef systems and outdoor ponds.
Fish Link Central also features plenty of fish pictures, live chats and an ask-the-expert forum. Even if you're not that interested in setting up a tank of your own, you can have fun here, with fish-related computer games, such as fish concentration. Some of the quizzes seem to be especially geared to further the fish knowledge of school-age children.
You'll also find plenty of links to other fish sites, although some patience is needed to weed through the ones that don't work anymore. Keeping links current is no small measure for a Web site that tries to offer them all.
Regular brushing can tame spring shed
Dogs typically lose their winter coats in the spring, and that means hair everywhere.
The change is most obvious in "double-coated" breeds such as collies, Samoyeds and malamutes. These breeds carry a protective overcoat of long hair as well as an insulating undercoat that's soft and fuzzy. These breeds lose masses of fur from both these coats in spring and fall, but the clumps that come out of the undercoat are especially noticeable.
The amount of shedding varies widely from breed to breed. German shepherds, for example, are prolific year-round shedders, while poodles seem to lose very little fur at all. Shorthaired breeds may shed as much as longhairs, but since the hair these dogs drop is easily overlooked, it may seem as if they are shedding less.
All shedders -- even the heaviest -- can be tamed by a regular and frequent schedule of combing and brushing. After all, the fur you catch on a comb won't end up on your furniture.
If you have a purebred, or a dog that has the characteristics of a purebred, seek out breed-specific advice in regard to the proper kind of grooming equipment. The slicker brush that works fine on a close-cropped poodle may not make much headway in the thick mane of a full-coated Alaskan malamute at the height of a seasonal shed.
Shedding is normal, but some heavy shedding can be a sign of health problems. Skin allergies and skin parasites may trigger shedding, and poor nutrition or other health problems can also be a cause of coat problems.
Become familiar with your pet's normal pattern of shedding. Ask your veterinarian for advice if your pet's coat condition seems too dull, or if you notice excessive hair loss.
Catnip cat toys near century mark
It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when cats were kept mostly for the purpose of keeping mice in check. While no doubt there have always been a few people who loved cats for themselves and not for their usefulness, the love we have for cats today would astonish people from earlier centuries.
In a way, you can trace the development of the cat as pet to the interest cat owners have had in spending money to keep them amused. And that's a history that goes back little more than a century.
One of the earliest cat toys was invented by Dr. A.C. Daniels, who patented his Catnip Ball in 1907. The wooden ball was hollow for putting catnip in -- his own special brand, preferably. Daniels offered other toys such as a gray flannel mouse, and the company, founded in Boston in 1878, is still making cat toys today.
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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