If there's one part of veterinary medicine that seems to concern the average pet lover most, it's anesthesia.
Some pet lovers consider anesthesia so high-risk that they hesitate to OK or even refuse entirely elective procedures that have long-term benefits to an animal's health and comfort. Other pet lovers think anesthesia is too expensive, blaming changes in protocols for increased cost.
The good news about veterinary anesthesia is that although it can never be risk-free, it's safer and more comfortable than ever. The bad news is that those things that improve safety for pets do indeed increase the cost.
"Anesthesia is absolutely safer now," says Dr. Rachael Carpenter, assistant professor of anesthesia and pain management at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. "One of the reasons is because the monitoring of anesthesia has come over into the veterinary field from human medicine.
"Monitors warn of problems early, and it's more likely these days for there to be someone whose sole job is to watch those machines and watch that patient," says Carpenter, who's also an anesthesia consultant to the Veterinary Information Network. "And that's not the person who's doing the surgery. Even without monitoring machines, it's important to have someone checking heart rate and breathing."
The simplest definition of anesthesia is putting an animal into an unconscious state so the pet will be immobile and pain-free while a procedure is performed.
While many pet-lovers probably think of veterinary anesthesia as a gas given through a mask over the animal's face, in fact the modern practice of preparing an animal for surgery is a no-size-fits-all combination of injectable medications (often combining anesthesia and pain-control agents), anesthesia-inducing gas and pure oxygen, the latter two delivered through a breathing tube to maintain an animal's unconscious state.
In addition to constant anesthetic monitoring by machines and trained technicians, the use of intravenous fluids during anesthesia is another safety measure, meant to allow a veterinarian to react rapidly if something unexpected happens during surgery.
"If there's an emergency, you want instant access to a vein," says Carpenter, who also puts keeping animals warm during anesthesia on her safety checklist. "An animal being cold is a big problem," she says. "It delays healing, and the shivering increases oxygen consumption."
Pre-anesthetic screening is also important when it comes to reducing risk.
"A good physical exam is the place to start," says Carpenter. "The veterinarian needs to determine underlying problems and recommend pre-anesthetic blood work based on what's found on the exam.
"In a young pet, that could be just checking for anemia. In an older pet, that means a complete blood count, determining kidney and liver function, making sure all organs are OK. An older pet is more likely to have problems than a 6-month-old Labrador bouncing in for a spay."
Carpenter says even in older pets, health problems don't necessarily rule out the benefits of procedures that require a pet be put under. "You have to balance risks with the benefits, and discuss them with your veterinarian. How much pain is the animal in? Has your pet has stopped eating because of a rotting tooth? That needs to be addressed."
And for a pet who's simply older? Age alone used to be a concern, but shouldn't be anymore. "Age isn't a disease," Carpenter says. "If an animal is healthy in every other way, age shouldn't be a factor."
The protocols outlined by Carpenter are not universal in veterinary medicine, and expense is no doubt the primary reason. It's important to have a frank discussion with your veterinarian before your pet has surgery, to understand how your pet will be treated and why. With a knowledge of what's available, you'll be able to make an informed decision when it comes to anesthesia and your pet.
Which parrot is best pick?
Q: We have long enjoyed keeping small birds over the years, and have had many finches, canaries and parakeets. We're birdless right now, and recently retired so we are at home most of the time. We've decided to get a parrot.
We've always liked the look and personalities of cockatoos, but it seems they're a lot of bird to handle from what we've read. The large beaks of macaws seem too intimidating, so we've ruled them out, too. Maybe something smaller? We're thinking of an Amazon now, and have found one for sale, an adult female who comes with a cage. She's quiet and doesn't talk much, and we wonder if she'll learn more. What do you think? -- P.B., via the Internet
A: If you're interested in a talker, the two best species are the African greys and the Amazons, especially the yellow-naped and double-yellow-headed varieties of the latter. Both species learn quickly and can be equally challenging and delightful to live with, although the Amazons are generally considered a little more clownish.
The Amazon you're considering may indeed be a winner, as long as her quiet demeanor is not a result of illness. Birds are amazingly good at hiding signs of illness. It's a survival mechanism for wild birds, who would attract the attention of a predator if they seemed sick. People who do not know this often do not realize their pet is sick until their bird is nearly dead -- and at that point, there may be nothing the veterinarian can do to help. Before you buy any bird, have your new pet checked out by an avian veterinarian.
As for talking, she may well learn new words and phrases if you work with her, repeating them clearly and frequently. There's no guarantee, however, that any parrot will talk.
If you're looking for a parrot who's not as rambunctious and noisy as either the African greys or the Amazons, consider the smaller African Poicephalus parrots -- the Senegal, Meyer's and Jardine's -- as well as any of the Pionus varieties. While these birds are not known for talking, they are considered fairly mellow, sweet-natured and easy to keep.
A final note: Remember that parrots live a long, long time -- as long as 70 years for some species -- so after you've settled your new bird into your home, please take time to make plans for what will happen to your pet if he or she outlives you.
Is catnip safe?
Q: When our cat comes into contact with catnip, he gets so relaxed he rolls onto his back and goes into a daze. Any signs of playfulness he was showing disappear after he comes into contact with catnip. Do you think we should stop giving it to him? Is this reaction safe? -- D.K., via the Internet
A: Every cat reacts in his own way to catnip. Some will be giddy, some dazed, and a large percentage won't react at all. (Kittens under the age of 3 months are not affected.)
The ability to appreciate the herb is genetically programmed, with slightly more cats in the catnip fan club than not. Catnip contains a substance called "nepetalactone" in its leaves and stems, and this is what sets cats off. Rolling, rubbing, leaping, purring and general uninhibited happiness are all normal for a few minutes after exposure. The "high" is harmless and nonaddictive.
Catnip is fairly easy to grow for your pet. Be sure to protect young plants, or your cats will pull them up by the roots. Clip pieces from established plants for your cat, stuffing them into toys or rubbing them on cat trees.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Cat treats grow in popularity
After years of commercial treats being only for dogs, the cat treat market is now racing to catch up. Giving your cat a little something special from time to time isn't going to do him any harm and can be very useful in training situations. A few things to keep in mind, however:
-- All things in moderation. Treats, whether store-bought or from your dinner plate, aren't a complete and balanced diet for your cat. Make sure the majority of his diet is still high-quality, complete and balanced.
-- Avoid some foods entirely. Food that's heavily spiced or has onions can upset your cat's digestion, leading to diarrhea or vomiting. Onion can also lead to severe blood problems in cats. Avoid onion or onion powder in foods you prepare for your cat and in baby foods you may use as an occasional treat or for nursing a sick cat (the latter under the supervision of your veterinarian, of course).
-- Consider your cat. If you give your cat treats from your plate, you can't complain that he's a pest at mealtime. And if your cat's supposed to be losing weight, you shouldn't give him a treat at all.
We humans tend to confuse food with love, and we extend this idea to our interactions with our companion animals. Your cat doesn't really need much in the way of treats. Pet your cat, play an interactive game or just hang out together -- these activities are better options in the long run than overdoing the goodies. -- G.S.
Hairballs can be kept in check
Dealing with hairballs -- fur ingested as a cat grooms himself, then vomited back up in clumps -- is a normal part of living with a cat. If the problem is severe, however, your veterinarian may suggest the use of a mild laxative preparation or an increase in fiber in the diet to help the hairballs pass through your cat's system. Frequent brushing may also help, especially with long-haired cats.
Canned pumpkin -- not pumpkin pie filling -- is a good way to increase the fiber in your cat's diet. Many cats enjoy a teaspoon of pureed pumpkin daily if it's mixed with something yummy, such as canned food or the water from a can of tuna or clams.
Don't let your cat become a laxative junkie, however, as daily use may tie up and decrease the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Hairball remedies should not be used more than twice weekly except on the advice of your veterinarian.
(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.)
New baby? Help your dog adjust
Some people consider a dog as kind of a "parenting trial run," and suggest that when you're ready to have children "for real" you should find your dog another home. Because of this, some dogs end up in shelters in a pre-emptive strike against any potential problem interactions of dog and baby.
Sometimes those worries are justified. If you have a dog who bites, get help from a trainer or behaviorist with experience in dealing with aggression. And realize there's a chance even with training that you may not be able to trust your dog around your child, which means you have some very difficult decisions to make about your dog.
More likely, though, you've just got a dog whose exuberance worries you. The best exercise for this is obedience training, with an emphasis on "down" and "stay." A couple of private lessons from a good dog trainer will help you through the rough spots.
Give your dog praise and treats only in the baby's presence for several weeks. He'll soon make the connection that the baby's a cool thing. If you pay attention to your dog only when you're away from the baby and ignore him when the baby's around, he never makes the connection between "cool thing" and "baby."
Aside from that, the usual "good dog" rule applies: The more exercise your dog gets, the better behaved he's likely to be. Managing both an infant and a dog in the first few months is hard, so maybe a friend or neighbor can help you out with walks or you can find another creative solution. Another option: doggy day care.
An excellent book on introducing dogs and babies is "Childproofing Your Dog: A Complete Guide to Preparing Your Dog for the Children in Your Life" ($9.95, Warner Books), by Sarah Wilson and Brian Kilcommmons. -- G.S.
BY THE NUMBERS
According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, reptiles and amphibians kept as pets are likely to have come from a small pet store. Here's the breakdown of the top sources in 2004 for pet reptiles:
Pet store 38 percent
Friend/relative 17 percent
Caught outside 17 percent
Pet superstore 9 percent
Previous owner 9 percent
Humane society 7 percent
Independent breeder 5 percent
ON THE WEB
Groups help give animals a voice
Like many writers, I belong to a handful of national writing organizations. The two I've been most active in over the years have been the Dog Writers Association of America (www.dwaa.org) and the Cat Writers Association (www.catwriters.org). The DWAA is decades old, founded during a time when most major newspapers had one staff writer whose job it was to cover dog shows. These days, the organization embraces all kinds of writing, photography and broadcasting about dogs.
The CWA is a relative newcomer on the scene, but it has developed a large membership in just over a decade. The group also founded a wonderful annual writing conference, which it now holds in conjunction with the DWAA. This year's conference is Nov. 18-20 in San Mateo, Calif.
Both organizations also hold annual writing contests with cash prizes, and are generally helpful and supportive to new members. -- G.S.
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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