Puppies are overrated. I say that after spending the last six months working on raising one, a darling, bright retriever who is as good a puppy as anyone could ever hope for. But after piddle puddles, chewed shoes and all the normal silliness and mess that goes along with raising a puppy, I'm reminded why most of the dogs who've ended up as part of my family have come into my home as adults.
And I'm reminded why, when people with a lot on their plates ask me about getting a puppy, I encourage them to consider a grown dog instead. Chosen carefully, an adult dog will be well past puppy foolishness and may have had some basic obedience training. Unlike puppies, who need constant monitoring, an adult dog should be able to be left alone while a family is at work or school.
For today's time-crunched households, there's no better deal than a good adult dog. But getting the right one is a little more difficult than going down to the shelter and picking out the cutest one.
While expecting to work on some minor behavior issues as your new dog gets used to you is reasonable, you want to avoid those animals who have too many problems, especially if one of them is aggression. Here are some questions that will help you:
-- What do you know of this dog's history? You may be dealing with a shelter, a rescue volunteer, the dog's original owner or breeder, or a nice person who found a stray. The more information you can get, the better. If you find out nothing about him because he was a stray, don't count him out. If he's healthy and friendly and otherwise fits your size, coat and activity criteria, he's a contender.
-- Why is this dog available for adoption? Dogs become available for lots of reasons, some as frivolous as a change in decor. "Losing our home," "divorce" and "death in the family" show no fault on the dog's part; "bit our daughter" obviously is a problem.
Listen, too, for what isn't said: "He needs more exercise than we can give him" may mean "He needs more exercise than anyone could possibly ever give him, and he eats furniture when he doesn't get it."
-- What behavior problems does this dog have? Many things are fixable and worth considering if you honestly believe you'll take the time to work with the dog. "Pulls on the leash" is fixable. "He snaps at people" is not, at least not by the average pet owner's standard, and not to the extent that you should take a chance on him with so many other dogs available.
Remember, too, that some problems are the owner's fault, not the dog's. "Won't stay in the yard," for example, may be easily cured by a decent fence and neutering.
-- How is he with children? Other dogs? Cats? Even if you don't have children, you're going to run into some from time to time. The same is true with other dogs. You can successfully avoid cats if you don't have them, but make certain your prospective pet at least tolerates them well if you have a cat in your home.
If you're getting an animal from a shelter, the organization should have asked the former owner to fill out a card on such things as problems with children or other animals. If you're adopting from a foster home, ask if the family has other animals and children. If there's no way to determine the dog's attitude toward children and other animals but he seems friendly, he may be OK. If you have doubts, however, hold out for an animal that you're sure fits well with your family.
Above all, take your time. This is a decision that should be for the dog's lifetime, and there are lots of pets to consider. Make the decision with your head, not your heart. There's plenty of time after adoption to fall in love with your new canine companion.
Adoptions on the Internet
Petfinder (www.petfinder.com) has become the No. 1 place to look for a pet to adopt, with thousands of listings searchable by species, breed type and geographic area. Shelters and rescue groups of all sizes use Petfinder to bring attention to the animals they're trying to place. Your local shelter will likely have listings of pets for adoption on its own Web site, as well.
While some rescue groups that work with a single breed use Petfinder, many do not. To find these organizations, visit the American Kennel Club's Web site (www.akc.org) and look up the breed you're interested in. The national rescue contact will be listed.
College pet? Not a good bet
Q: I truly desire to get a yellow Labrador, a year old or so, at the beginning of this summer. I am a college student, attending the University of Connecticut.
I know that I would take care of my dog responsibly, with the utmost of care. I only worry about where I can find a place that allows dogs. I was wondering what your thoughts are. Should I get a dog during college, or is it a completely horrible idea? I would really love to get one, and I am studying carefully to make sure I do the right thing. -- E.D., via the Internet
A: I honestly think you'd be better off waiting until you're done with college. The shelters and rescue groups of every college town in the country are constantly dealing with the former pets of college students. As you've already guessed, finding and keeping housing that allows pets is a major challenge. So, too, can be finding the time and energy to care for a pet when there's so much to do and try when you're in college. And don't forget that pets can be expensive to maintain, and very few college students have much money to spare.
Even if you can find suitable housing, have you thought about what you'll do with your dog during school breaks? If you're planning on going home when you're not in school, you might find your parents unwilling to have your dog become a member of the family, even temporarily.
Why don't you volunteer at a shelter instead? You'll be able to pet all the dogs you want, and by helping with their socialization, you'll be making the animals more likely to be adopted.
Vets for pets
Q: I am thinking of moving and was wondering how to find out about veterinary services in my new area. This is of special concern because I need to find care for my parrot and my bunny. I know these pets need veterinarians familiar with their particular health needs -- not just any veterinarian will do. Can you give me some insight? I always like to find the right veterinarians wherever I plan on moving. -- M.Y., via the Internet
A: While I don't know of any veterinarians who limit their practice to rabbits, there are certainly those who specialize in birds. To find a good avian veterinarian, check with the Association of Avian Veterinarians (www.aav.org). The member listings merely provide a starting point, however, since not all of the veterinarians listed are in practice. Even those who aren't should be able to provide you with a referral, as should your current avian veterinarian.
You might also check with bird clubs in the area you're considering moving to, or scan for listings of avian veterinarians in publications such as Bird Talk magazine. If you want a bona fide avian specialist, ask the veterinarian if he or she is board-certified in avian practice by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners.
For your rabbit, see if you can find a veterinarian recommended by members of the House Rabbit Society on its Web site (www.rabbit.org). The HRS also has an article on its site on how to evaluate a veterinarian as to how suitable he or she will be for your rabbit.
People with reptiles and amphibians also need to find veterinarians well-versed in the care of these pets. For pet owners looking for these veterinarians, check out Melissa Kaplan's resources on www.anapsid.org/vets.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Dog get loose? Don't punish!
Punishing a dog for running from you is one surefire way to make sure he's even harder to catch the next time. Wouldn't you keep running if you knew you'd get punished when caught?
If your dog takes off on you, kneel down and open your arms when calling to make yourself more inviting. If that doesn't work, try to use a command he knows well, like "sit" instead of "come." Many dogs know "sit" so well that they'll plant their rumps, and once they're sitting, you might be able to walk up and take their collars. Another possibility is to catch your dog's attention and run in the other direction, enticing him to follow you. The chase instinct is very strong in dogs, and it may well work.
Remember, a loose dog situation is not about dog training, but about dog saving. When you have your dog safely back on leash, praise him, be grateful and make a vow that you'll take the time to teach him this most important of commands. Because next time he's out, you may not be so lucky to get him back in one piece.
A blimpy bird needs vet help
Amazon parrots, large cockatoos, cockatiels and budgies seem more prone to obesity than other species of pet birds. Some of the signs of obesity in birds include:
-- The presence of rolls of fat around the abdomen and hip areas, along with cleavage on the abdomen or breast area.
-- Visible fat under the skin. The skin of most normal pet birds is typically very thin and quite transparent. When the skin is wet with rubbing alcohol, you should be able to see dark pink or red muscle underneath. In overweight birds, you see yellowish fat instead.
-- Breathing difficulty, such as labored breathing, especially after physical exertion.
-- Heat intolerance, shown by excessive wing drooping or open-mouthed breathing in a hot environment.
-- Overgrown upper beaks. Some birds will grow their upper beaks excessively long if they have obesity and fatty liver disease problems. This is particularly true in Amazon parrots and budgies.
If you suspect your bird is fat -- and especially if you already know your bird is fat -- see your veterinarian right away for nutritional counseling and other ways to attack the problem.
(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.)
Teach your cat to scratch a post
Scratching is natural, normal and satisfying behavior for a cat, best accommodated by training your pet to use a scratching post or cat tree.
The post or tree must be stable enough for your cat to climb and pull on, and should be covered with material your cat can dig her claws into, such as sisal.
Because clawing is also a territory marker, move the cat tree into a prominent place, such as near that clawed corner of the couch. Praise your cat for using the post instead. Move the post slowly -- a few inches a day -- to a place more to your taste after your cat is using it reliably.
Encourage your cat to use the scratching post by teasing her with a cat toy and praising her for digging in her claws. If your cat enjoys catnip, rub some on the post to encourage her to spend more time there, and give her treats for being on the cat tree as well.
Make the areas you don't want your pet to touch less appealing during the retraining process by covering them with foil, plastic sheeting or plastic carpet runners with the pointy side out. Use double-sided tape generously as well -- cats hate the feel of sticky stuff under their paws.
If you catch your cat clawing, squirt with a spray bottle. Try to stay out of sight whenever you do so and don't lose your temper. Remember: The idea is to get the cat to believe that the furniture itself is doing the disciplining.
Yes, your house is going to look pretty ugly for a while, with cat deterrents all over the furniture and a cat tree in the middle of the room. You must live with it until your cat's new pattern of clawing where acceptable is established.
BY THE NUMBERS
Hazards of the holidays
A recent analysis of claims submitted to the Veterinary Pet Insurance Co./DVM Insurance Agency suggests the holiday season can be dangerous for pets. Below are the most common holiday health problems and the average claim submitted to the company:
Surgery for foreign-body ingestion $825
Bandage treatment for injury $234
Chocolate poisoning $208
Plant poisoning $186
Non-surgery treatment for fracture $132
ON THE WEB
A celebration of all goldens
Top Golden Retriever Sites (www.topgoldenretrieversites.net) is a helpful and wide-ranging resource for anyone who has or is considering adding one of these popular dogs to the family. The site offers articles, bulletin boards, a Web log, links, lots of pictures and even online games for golden lovers.
Much of the wisdom shared here comes from fans of the golden retriever, who are generous with their desire to help others determine if the breed is right for them, and if so, how to find the right puppy or dog from a reputable breeder or rescue group. There's even a special section for children, with a golden retriever coloring book and a quiz.
Discussion forums offer some interesting information, such as how much people spend on their dogs annually, what they feed and what their dogs weigh. There's even discussion on dogs and vacuums.
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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