Every year the holidays seem to start earlier. The Halloween sales start before the first trick-or-treater dons a costume, and the first signs of Christmas start showing up in the stores about the same time.
For me, the holiday season starts with the first letter from a parent asking for advice on a Christmas puppy. This year, a new record: late September, about the same time as I spotted the first Christmas decorations being unpacked in a shop.
I have to give those early parents points for thinking ahead, because a pet should never be an impulse purchase. But year after year, I still have to advise that a Christmas puppy is rarely the best of ideas.
The attraction is understandable: Who doesn't love a puppy, and who wouldn't want to delight a child? But there are reasons why shelters, rescue groups and responsible breeders are uniform in their advice to think twice about a Christmas puppy.
What's the problem? The reasons against a Christmas puppy break down into these categories:
-- Holiday stress. Puppies are not toys. They are animals who need a lot of attention. Who has time for a pup during the holidays, that stressful season of socializing and shopping? With a houseful of guests and a holiday dinner to prepare, who will make sure the puppy isn't being mauled by overly enthusiastic children and guests? Who has time to get house-training started right?
Most people I know are already working at maximum stress levels during the holidays, trying to get everything done on time. To get a puppy off to the right start, the animal needs to be No. 1 on the family priority list. That rarely can happen during the holidays.
-- Bad timing. Try house-training a puppy when it's cold and stormy. Are you really so keen on the idea of a Christmas puppy that you want to be out on winter nights, shivering while a puppy carefully contemplates whether he'd rather sniff or pee?
What about the rest of the training? The first few months of a dog's life are crucial: Bad habits are far easier to prevent than they are to break later, and ongoing socialization is critical. Will you really feel like training and socializing your pup when the holidays are over, the days are short, and the kids are back in school?
Dogs who grow up unhouse-trained, unmannered and unsocialized too often never get a chance to grow up much at all. From summer to fall, I get dozens and dozens of letters from people who are tearing out their hair over their now-adolescent Christmas puppy. Some people work with the dogs, but many just dump them. Sad for the families, tragic for the dogs.
-- Poor selection. Many reputable breeders and shelters flat-out won't cooperate with your Christmas puppy lust. That means if you're looking for a puppy, you may be choosing from sellers who don't know or care enough to offer healthy, well-socialized puppies.
With purebred dogs and the new trendy cross-breds, this can be a real problem because congenital defects such as hip dysplasia turn up frequently in animals from sellers who don't certify their breeding dogs as free of congenital defects. Such breeders may not know of the potential for problems, or they may not care because health certifications cut into profits. Their lack of regard for reputable breeding practices may cost you in the long run, both in dollars and in heartbreak, if you buy a puppy from such a person.
Such breeders also may not know or care about the importance of early socialization, gently exposing puppies to the sights, sounds and smells of family life, and leaving them with their mom and littermates for at least the first seven weeks of their lives. Puppies who miss these important early lessons may end up with less than ideal temperaments.
Dogs can be great for children, and children can be great with dogs. A better bet would be to wait until late spring or summer to find the perfect pup from a shelter or reputable breeder. When the days are longer and the weather is better, it's easier to train and socialize a pup.
It's difficult to pass on that lovely Christmas morning moment, but if your goal is a healthy, well-socialized pet for years to come, wait until the odds are more in your family's favor when it comes to getting the right puppy off to a great start.
Poodle needs to be spayed
Q: How many times in a row should a female toy poodle be bred? -- D.B., via e-mail
A: Before I answer your question, I have some questions for you to think about.
Has this dog been certified clear of genetic defects? Does she have a stellar temperament -- friendly, calm and trainable? Is she a good example of her breed in terms of her appearance? Can you say the same of the stud dog?
Do you have money set aside for routine prenatal veterinary care and puppy care, and even more money at the ready if something goes wrong with the dog or the puppies? Are you prepared for the dog's death as a result of pregnancy or the rigors of giving birth? What about the risk of cancer or deadly infection common in unspayed dogs -- are you willing to lose her to these diseases?
Will you have a waiting list of responsible, prescreened homes for her puppies before they're born? Are you prepared to spend countless hours caring for and socializing the puppies in the first seven weeks of their lives? Will you be willing to take back any puppy you sell no matter what, no matter when?
If you cannot answer "yes" to all these questions, the dog in question should not be bred at all. Reputable, responsible breeders are not in it for the money, but rather for the continuation and improvement of the breed they love. They rarely breed a female more than twice before spaying her, and many of the promising dogs they have they do not breed at all because they are not of top breeding quality. These breeders also take responsibility for life for any dog they bring into the world.
I realize that's not the simple answer you wanted, but the responsible breeding of dogs is about more than mechanics of reproduction. Careless breeding of purebreds has produced animals of dubious temperament and poor health, while adding to the pet overpopulation problems that lead to the death of millions of healthy but unwanted animals every year. And that figure includes many purebred dogs.
Please spay your pet and care for her as a family member, not as a puppy machine. She'll be better, healthier pet for not being bred at all, and you won't be contributing to the problems caused by the careless overbreeding of pets.
Check for cats
Q: I know you always give people warnings appropriate to the change of season, such as those on heat in the summer, antifreeze in the winter, etc. I wonder if you've warned people about the risk that clothes dryers pose to cats. I have a friend who killed her own cat after she turned on the dryer with her cat inside. She was devastated, as you can imagine. Would you please spread the word about this hazard? -- J.D., via e-mail
A: Cats love warm hiding places, and a dryer full of soft clothes can be attractive. It's easy to throw more clothes in, close the door and turn on the dryer without noticing a cat inside. Two people I've worked with lost pets in this awful way, as well as several other readers over the years who've written after such a loss.
Prevention is simple: Keep the dryer door closed and always check for your cat -- just in case. Keep an eye out, too, for cats holed up in any warm spot, including under the hood of a car. Thump on the hood or the side of an appliance if you're not sure, to startle the cat into skedaddling.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Hay, greens keep rabbits healthy
Diet has a huge impact on the health and well-being of any creature, and the rabbit is no exception. Common health problems in the rabbit directly relate to diet, and include obesity, gastrointestinal diseases and dental disease.
All pet rabbits need a high level of indigestible fiber, which, along with adequate water, is vital for the normal and healthy functioning of their gastrointestinal system. Rabbits need to have their levels of carbohydrates and protein controlled to avoid obesity and kidney disease.
Properly fed rabbits do not need supplements added to their diets. Rabbits produce a good portion of their own vitamins, amino acids and other nutrients through the production and re-eating of special feces called cecotropes.
A basic healthy daily diet for a domestic rabbit should include unlimited grass hay and a minimum of one cup of fresh leafy greens for every two pounds of body weight. Use as many varieties of greens as possible, and offer other vegetables and fruits as well, in more limited amounts. Rabbits also need an ongoing supply of fresh, clean water.
Pet rabbits do not need commercial food pellets. If used at all, pellets should be of a high-fiber, low-protein variety, given in very small amounts. Pellets should never be the only food for a pet rabbit.
(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.)
Think 'barriers' not 'punishment'
Do you have a pet who likes to rummage in the bathroom wastebaskets or kitchen trash bin? This behavior is very rewarding to the pet who indulges in it and can be a hard habit to break. You can try to booby-trap the cans by buying motion-detector noisemakers, or mats that give animal trespassers a small static shock for getting close.
An easier, kinder and more reliable way to solve the problem is to simply remove the temptation. For some pets, a lidded trash bin will solve the problem. For others, you'll need to put the bin behind the door of a cabinet or pantry.
I ended my young dog's interest in the garbage bin by using both strategies. In the bathroom, the wastebasket is now behind the door of the cabinet under the sink. In the kitchen, I purchased a large stainless-steel trash container from simplehuman (www.simplehuman.com), with a butterfly lid that opens with foot pressure on a base pedal and closes tightly against nosy pets.
Sometimes, changing your behavior is the most efficient way to change your pet's behavior -- and the strategy is easier on you both.
Daily cleaning a bird-care essential
Cleaning up after birds is a constant battle, but getting yourself into a routine makes it easier to cope with. A few minutes a day is all it takes.
Every morning and evening you should replace soiled cage liners. You should also change food bowls and water bowls (or bottles) twice a day -- more often if your bird is one of those who will eliminate in the bowls. If you use a water bottle with your bird, check frequently to ensure that it's not clogged -- some birds will stuff food into the spout -- by pressing the ball with your finger.
Finish off your twice-daily routine by using a bird-safe cleaning solution and paper towels to wipe up any messes, and use a handheld vacuum to clean up strewn food or feathers in the vicinity. Your dishwasher is a great tool for cleaning everything from perches to dishes to toys -- use the hottest setting possible.
While daily attention will keep things pretty clean, you'll need to do a big scrub on a regular basis -- walls, floors, cage and all its contents. How often depends on your bird: Big birds are generally messier, if for no other reason than the sheer volume of droppings. Some smaller species are real mess-makers too, such as the lories and lorikeets.
If your bird's really good at mess-making, you'll need to do the big clean on a weekly basis. Neater (and smaller) species can usually get by on a monthly scrub-down, provided, of course, you're religious about your daily routines. Toys should be cleaned and rotated frequently and replaced as necessary.
For the big clean, scrub the cage with soap and water, then rinse well in plain water. Soak everything you can't fit into the dishwasher -- big perches, dropping tray and so on -- in a solution of a half-cup bleach to a gallon of water. Then leave everything out to air-dry in the sun before setting the cage back up and putting your bird back into it.
BY THE NUMBERS
Dressing up fish
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, people who keep freshwater fish such as goldfish also spend money on adding decorative items to their pets' bowls and tanks. A few of the most popular purchases (by percentage reported purchased by fish-keepers) include:
Artificial rock: 57 percent
Background scenery: 42 percent
Gravel/sand/crushed coral: 62 percent
Plastic plants: 61 percent
Ornaments: 41 percent
Natural rock: 25 percent
Live plants: 18 percent
ON THE WEB
For ferret fans
The American Ferret Association (www.ferret.org) started as a small club in suburban Maryland dedicated to promoting one of the least understood pets. It has grown into a national association, expanding its goals to include fighting to eliminate laws that ban the animals.
The AFA's Web site has come a long way since I last visited it, adding a great deal of useful information on the proper care of these pets, including referrals to ferret-friendly veterinarians. The site also lists shelters and rescue groups for adopting a ferret, as well as ferret-related jewelry, clothing and books.
Ferrets are still illegal in California, but so common that ferret supplies are available in many pet-supply stores in the state. The Ferrets Anonymous Web site (www.ferretsanonymous.com), in addition to promoting legalization of the pets, is dedicated to helping California's ferret-keepers take good care of their animals.
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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