Sometimes I think having no pit bulls wouldn't be that bad a thing, but not for the reasons you might imagine.
If pit bulls weren't around, they couldn't be beaten. Starved. Left chained outside with little protection from the elements. Subjected to ear croppings with scissors and no pain relief. Made to bear puppies with next to no food. And finally, if pit bulls weren't around, they couldn't be tossed dead (or nearly so) into a vacant lot when they come up on the losing side of a dogfight.
For every headline-grabbing attack by a pit bull, there are countless cruelties inflicted on these dogs by the criminal element that's attracted to them. As a person recently noted on a dog-related Web log: "It's amazing how many other kinds of dogs in the best homes bite. It's amazing how many pit bulls in the worst homes don't."
But those who do ... Oh, what fear and anger they cause. It's no surprise, given the horror of recent attacks, that the call to eliminate pit bulls has never been louder. But that call remains the wrong one: Breed-specific legislation is not the answer to the problem of dangerous dogs.
It doesn't help much to argue that the odds of an attack by a pit bull are so low as to be insignificant compared to life's other risks, not in the face of saturation media coverage of every such attack. It doesn't help much to argue that a well-bred and properly raised pit bull can be a better companion than many other popular breeds, based on temperament-testing statistics that show these dogs to be stable and calm. It doesn't help much to argue that many of the pit bulls who are being seized and killed in places like Denver are family pets who have never shown a reason for concern -- and never will.
So let's try this: If you want to be protected against a dog attack, banning the pit bull isn't going to accomplish that goal. That's because every large breed or mix you can think of, and many small ones you can't imagine, have been involved in attacks on humans.
You cannot predict the likelihood of an attack by the type of dog, but you can see clear trends based on other criteria.
Poorly bred, unsocialized, unneutered and untrained dogs are most often involved in attacks. If you want to prevent those attacks, you need to address those root causes. All dogs, not just pit bulls, need to be the focus of legislative, societal and educational efforts geared toward removing the contributing factors behind most every dog attack.
We need to make it harder for people to casually breed and quickly sell dogs, and we need to make it easier to have animals neutered. We need to recognize that dog-fighting is as much of a danger to our communities as it is to the animals participating in this illegal but popular blood sport. We need to outlaw keeping dogs on chains, a cruel practice that leaves animals feeling isolated, territorial and more likely to attack.
And even as we need to crack down on irresponsible and criminal dog owners, we need to help those people who want to do right. We need to educate prospective dog owners on responsible care, training and socializing, so that they may raise dogs who are not dangerous.
And yes, we need to establish zero tolerance for all dangerous dogs, with no second chances: If a dog attacks someone, that animal needs to be put down. If a dog is a neighborhood menace, that animal needs to be put down.
We need to stop looking for scapegoats in the face of every pit bull, and look to addressing the human reasons behind the problem of dangerous dogs.
For then and only then can we hope to be safer around not only the pit bull, but also all dogs. And maybe then the pit bull will be safer around us, too.
Pit bulls on the Web
Pit bull Web sites are all over the Internet, and many of them are frightening. Lots of irresponsible breeders bragging about how large and aggressive their dogs are, and lots of people crowing about how "game" their pit bulls are.
And then there's the Web site of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls, otherwise known as BAD RAP (www.badrap.org). This wonderful group doesn't celebrate the criminal, doesn't sugar-coat the problems -- and doesn't give an inch in its sensible advocacy for these dogs. BAD RAP makes the case for why a pit bull can be a wonderful human companion. But it also takes the stand that anyone with one of these dogs needs to be responsible about handling the animal, in hopes of turning the breed's bad reputation around.
All this no-nonsense advice is matched with pictures of handsome, loving pit bulls and their success stories. The information on this site is essential reading both for those who love these dogs and those who hate them.
Are calico cats prone to straying?
Q: My calico cat of eight years has mysteriously disappeared. We live in a small neighborhood, and she was not one to stray far from the house. She was usually an indoor cat, but she liked to go out in good weather.
This happened with another of our cats a few years ago -- she just up and left. The other cat was a calico, too. There is no evidence that either cat was hit by a car or anything else.
Is it more likely for a calico to leave? She was ours ever since she was a kitten. -- J.M., via e-mail
A: Being a calico is not a risk factor, but being a cat who's allowed to roam is. You may not have found any sign that your cat was hit by a car, but that doesn't mean she wasn't. And cars aren't the only danger to a free-roaming cat. In most parts of the country, even in urban areas, coyotes love to make meals of well-fed pets, and many dogs are not opposed to killing a cat who drops into their yard.
The list of things that can happen accidentally to a free-roaming cat includes poisoning or getting killed in a car engine or automated garage door. And don't forget the things that aren't accidental: Many a neighbor sick of cat mess in the garden has set out a trap for trespassing cats and then taken the animals to the shelter.
I realize many people find it difficult to deny a cat the pleasures of wandering freely in the open air. But the fact remains that cats who are given such freedom often pay for it with their lives.
Don't give up on your cat yet, however. Check the shelters, post fliers, and knock on all the doors in your neighborhood. If you're lucky, your cat is trapped in someone's basement and will be fine if found in time.
If you are lucky enough to find your cat, consider converting her to a life completely indoors for her own safety.
Travels with parakeet
Q: My parakeet means as much to me as anyone's pet. After I got cancer, my bird kept me going. Now I want to take a short trip by car to New England and take my bird along.
I know some motels and hotels let pets in, but I am worried about the cleaning supplies they use. I don't want my bird to breathe in anything bad. What should I do? -- L.G., via e-mail
A: Like most prey animals, birds aren't all that keen when it comes to changes in their environment, and I have to wonder if perhaps your bird wouldn't be happier in your home with a friend or pet sitter checking in several times a day. Yes, your bird will miss you, but he will be comforted by the familiar environment.
If you're sure your budgie is comfortable with travel, you'll have no problem finding a hotel. The AAA travel guide lists hotels that accept pets, but I can't imagine you'd have much trouble checking into most any hotel, considering you're traveling with a relatively quiet and cage-contained little bird.
Strong cleaning supplies can be a problem, but I think you'll be OK with a sniff test. Change rooms, or even hotels, if the smell of cleaning supplies is strong. If you can barely smell the chemicals, put your bird's cage near an open window so he can get some fresh air.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Ouch! Kittens need to learn to play
Rambunctious play is normal for kittens. But those sharp claws and needle teeth don't feel good when our hands and feet are the object of our small stalking tigers.
Much as you might like to smack the kitten who has just put her claws into your skin in play, doing so won't solve the problem, and may make your pet scared of you or even more likely to bite in fear or self-defense.
Redirect and burn off that youthful energy in frequent play sessions with your kitten, using a toy to attract the attack instead of your hands. Cat fishing poles are especially useful for this kind of play. No matter how cute, don't encourage your kitten to use your fingers as a plaything.
For kittens who go crazy when being petted, learn to read feline body language, and stop touching your pet when his twitching tail indicates the very beginning of overstimulation.
If you're attacked by a playful kitten, don't lash out -- just freeze. Your kitten's short attention span will soon draw his attention elsewhere.
Fresh 'bird bread' a welcome treat
An easy-to-make, nutritious treat for any pet parrot, from a budgie to a macaw, starts with a box of Jiffy corn muffin mix.
Prepare the mixture as recommended on the label, but add an extra egg and any or all of the following: a cup of diced or shredded mixed vegetables (fresh, frozen or drained from a can) or a small jar of vegetable baby food, hulled seeds, dried fruit, and the shell of one egg. Zap it all in a blender to pulverize.
Bake in either a greased muffin or cake pan as directed on the box. Freeze what you aren't going to use right away, and thaw pieces for your bird as a regular treat.
This "bird bread" is a great way to convince a confirmed seed-eater that a variety of healthy food isn't so bad after all. It's also a wonderful treat for the parrot who's already getting a varied, well-balanced diet.
Another easy recipe is for a rice and veggie mix. Mix a cup of cooked brown rice with a cup of thawed mixed vegetables, chopped or shredded. Then add a couple of finely chopped hard-boiled eggs. You can also "birdify" french toast by sprinkling the egg-drenched bread with hulled seeds and cooking as usual.
For safety's sake, learn to 'towel' your bird
For a secure way to restrain your bird that still allows you the flexibility to clip wings or trim nails, use a towel. An old, clean hand towel is fine for small parrots such as cockatiels and budgies, while a larger bath towel is better for large parrots such as cockatoos and macaws.
Hold the towel with the ends draped over each hand, make eye contact with your bird, and approach from the front. Show your bird the towel and then gently wrap it around the bird, usually from the front. When using a towel to restrain your bird, you do not need to keep direct hold of the head, but do expect a few new holes to be chewed in the towel while you're working with your bird.
Wrap the towel tightly enough to control your bird, but not so tight as to restrict breathing. Pet birds breathe by moving their breast bones forward and back like a bellows. You must leave the towel wrapped loosely enough for your bird to draw breath normally.
When your bird is gently wrapped up in the towel, you are in control and can take care of grooming or of investigating any injuries. Attitude is everything: Always handle your bird with respect, but also with gentle firmness.
Keep in mind, too, that the towel is not supposed to terrify your bird. It's a good idea to play "towel games" now and then, covering and uncovering your bird while providing praise and special seeds for treats. That way, your bird won't come to believe the appearance of the towel is always a sign of something uncomfortable and unpleasant to come.
(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.)
BY THE NUMBERS
Off to the vet!
According to Veterinary Pet Insurance Company/DVM Insurance Agency, ear infections were by far the top reason for pet-insurance claims by dog lovers, accounting for nearly 9 percent of all veterinary bills submitted for reimbursement to the company. Other top canine maladies:
1. Ear infections
2. Skin allergies
3. Stomach upsets
4. Benign tumors
5. Bladder infections
6. Skin infections
8. Eye infections
10. Skin lacerations
PETS ON THE WEB
Site puts spotlight on new pet goods
With the increase not only in pets but also in the money that people are willing to spend on them comes all manner of entrepreneurs eager to become the next pet-products millionaire. Joining these small inventors with big dreams in the search for the next Kong or Greenies are huge and long-established pet-care companies looking to expand their product lines.
The resulting products coming to industry trade shows consist of a lot of cheaply made copycat junk, along with a few products sprinkled here and there that just make you want to say, "Why didn't I think of that?!"
The new Web site PetGadgets.com is designed to give pet lovers the latest on these new products, in a clean, easy-to-navigate format that makes browsing by species and category easy. The site also provides links that will allow online purchase of any product that strikes your fancy.
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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