Every year at this time, I like to remind pet lovers that as fun as it is to wrap gifts for our pets, it doesn't hurt to expand the idea of giving.
After all, your pet hasn't been dreaming of this year's hottest gift, and he won't be disappointed if he gets something as modest as a package of yummy pet treats or a single new toy.
I encourage pet lovers to be reasonable when it comes to getting gifts for their own pets -- and to remember those other animals who aren't as lucky. The need for assistance has never been more critical in the nation's animal shelters, where funds are tighter than ever following the massive assistance efforts put together in the wake of this year's devastating hurricanes.
While shelters in the disaster region -- such as the Louisiana SPCA, which lost its New Orleans base entirely -- were hardest hit, the ripple effect of the disaster has been felt across the nation.
This year, I'm suggesting that people donate money to shelters in the disaster area, or to the national groups that saved so many abandoned animals. A good place to start is with a donation to the Louisiana SPCA. Checks can go to the organization at P.O. Box 127, Mandeville, LA 70470. Donations can also be made on the organization's Web site, www.la-spca.org. (Donations of goods are not recommended for organizations in the disaster region.)
Don't forget your local shelter. Not only were many of the nation's shelters involved in taking in animals from the disaster zone, but they're also struggling now because donations to local charities traditionally suffer after an event on the scale of Hurricane Katrina.
For local animal charities, a donation of money is most practical, but it's not the only kind of gift that can help.
Nancy Peterson of the Humane Society of the United States says it's important to ask your local shelter what's needed before giving.
"There's nothing worse for a shelter than to get bags of dog food or cat food they can't use, or toys that can't be disinfected," she said. "Storage space is always in short supply."
While perishable items or those that cannot be reused should not be given, there are a few items most any shelter can use, including old towels and newspapers.
In the coming year, the gift of your time may be appreciated most of all, according to Peterson.
"You don't have to volunteer in the shelter," she says, acknowledging that some people find it difficult to deal with the sad reality of homeless pets. "There are always events that can use volunteers."
One way to help is by getting others to donate. Find out what your local shelter needs in the way of goods and services, and then get on the phone to help get it donated by individuals and businesses in your community.
It all starts with making a decision to skip something your pet doesn't need and then putting the money to help those pets who need just about everything. To me, it's the best way to celebrate the season, by giving to those who really need it.
Heartworm hits Katrina dogs hard
Considering the South is a perfect environment for bugs, it's not surprising that many of the animals rescued following Hurricane Katrina were infested with fleas and ticks. A little more surprising: Rescue groups estimate that 80 percent of the dogs they saved tested positive for heartworm disease, a potentially deadly parasitic infestation that can be prevented with a monthly pill.
Treatment for an established heartworm infestation is hard on the animal and the pocketbook, which is why a coalition of humane and veterinary groups have stepped up with a special effort to help, by putting $150,000 into a fund for heartworm treatment of the rescued animals. Grants of up to $500 are being given to treat the disease.
More donations are needed and can be given in care of American Animal Hospital Association (www.aahahelpingpets.org, 866-443-5738). Grant guidelines are available at the same source.
Should cold stop dog's daily walk?
Q: When is it too cold to walk my 2-year-old Labrador-boxer mix? The other morning I took her for a 30-minute walk when the temperature was in the low 20s, with a mid-teens wind chill and a dusting of snow on the ground. She was her usual curious, bouncy self the whole way. But when we got in the car to go home, I noticed that her feet were really cold. Should I have canceled or shortened the walk? -- J.F., via e-mail
A: Generally speaking, if you can take a walk, so can your dog, especially if the dog is as young and healthy as yours is.
If your dog is used to spending most of her time in the warm house (and I sure hope so, because dogs need to be part of the family), you might consider making things more comfortable on long winter outings by outfitting her with boots and a sweater or coat. Dog garments may seem silly, but in addition to keeping your dog warmer, they also make cleaning up after the walk easier, because you won't be dealing with melting snowballs between your dog's pads or the drip of melting ice from the coat. Boots also help to protect feet from chemicals used to melt ice on pavement.
When I was at the great British dog show Crufts, the largest canine event in the world, I was astonished by the range of high-quality weather protection designed both for dogs and the people who walk them.
One of the people at a booth selling well-designed, good-looking raincoats for dogs explained that when you live in a place as damp as England, anything that minimizes wet-dog smell is a good value. Viewed from that perspective, bad-weather gear for dogs is as much a convenience for people as a comfort for the animals.
Q: After years of reading that poinsettias are poisonous, I've heard in the last couple of years that they're not. Looking on the Web, there's contradictory information. I like holiday greenery, but I'm not going to risk my pets' lives. What's the truth? -- S.T., via e-mail
A: Just last week I got a media release from a humane society, one of dozens of such releases I get this time of year from every conceivable organization or business hoping to get a little publicity. And there it was: "Be careful to keep poisonous plants such as poinsettias away from your pets."
Wrong. Poinsettias are not poisonous, according to folks who know more about pets and poisons than anyone else, the Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc). Apparently the idea that poinsettias are deadly traces back to a story from early in the last century, when a young child was said to have been killed by eating a poinsettia leaf.
In fact, poinsettias can cause a mild tummy ache at most. While it's not recommended that you add poinsettia leaves to your pet's holiday meal, they're certainly not such a concern that you need to ban the plant from your home.
Mistletoe might be, however. According to the APCC, the common holiday decoration can, if ingested in sufficient quantities, cause a severe reaction that may include difficulty breathing, seizures, coma and even death. Other holiday eating hazards include yeast dough, alcohol, chocolate and avocados.
The Internet can be a good source of information -- or an even better source of misinformation. Whenever I get one of those breathless forwarded e-mails warning of a deadly substance or product, I check it out with the Animal Poison Control Center and with Snopes.com to make sure it's not another urban myth -- as the ongoing warnings about Febreze and Swiffer home-cleaning products have been shown to be by these reliable sources.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Making collar a better fit
Dog trainer and author Liz Palika (www.lizpalika.com) has spent enough time training dogs to know that no one tool or training method is right for every dog. For some dogs, her tool of choice is the pinch collar, a piece of equipment that seems to owe its less-than-ideal reputation to its fearsome appearance.
The collar has a double row of blunt points that pinch when the leash is pulled, providing a prompt correction that can get the attention of dogs with well-muscled necks, such as pit bulls, boxers and Rottweilers.
Since it's the "pinch," not the "points," that's important, Palika modifies the collars for sale at her San Diego-area training facility, Kindred Spirits: They're outfitted with fuzzy kids' socks. The toes are cut off the socks, and the collars go inside.
The socks soften the resistance of dog lovers to using the collars and soften the effect of the collars on the dogs. It's a nifty innovation. -- G.S.
Vet should choose pet's antibiotics
Antibiotics have saved countless lives of both the human and animal variety. But we have become so comfortable with these medicines and their frequent use, we sometimes forget they are powerful drugs that should be used with care.
Case in point: Some pet owners respond to any sign of illness by dosing -- and often, overdosing -- their pets with antibiotics commonly available at pet-supply stores (and often labeled for fish). "Prescribing" antibiotics on your own for your pet is a bad idea, for a couple of reasons.
First, if your pet has a viral or fungal infection, antibiotics will not help -- and they may even worsen your pet's condition.
Second, all antibiotics are not the same -- they each have their target bacteria, and may little affect bacteria that they're not designed to combat as well as bacteria that are resistant to their effects.
Finally, regular use of antibiotics may affect both your pet's immune system and the bacteria trying to beat it, leading to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that will be hard to stamp out, even with the "right" medication.
When you buy an antibiotic at a pet-supply store, you are often wasting your money, and you're certainly losing time -- time that should be spent taking your pet to your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and targeted treatment.
(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.)
Many choices when it comes to litter boxes
While a simple plastic litter box may well satisfy your cat, there are more choices to consider than ever before. Among them:
-- Covered pans. Covered pans keep odors down and may prevent dogs from getting into the filler. Simple covered boxes are available in any pet-supply outlet. For something special, look in the back of cat magazines or visit a cat show to purchase cabinets designed to house litter boxes and cat care accessories.
Remember, though, that cats with asthma should not use a covered litter pan -- they need the increased ventilation an open-air variety offers. And if you choose a covered pan, don't forget that you must be as on top of its cleaning as you would with any other variety. Just because you can't smell it doesn't mean it isn't stinking.
-- Self-cleaning pans. No one likes to clean the litter box, but some cats are so fussy that, if you let this important chore wait, your cat may turn her nose up and go elsewhere. At the high end of litter box choices are appliances that make cleaning a nearly "hands-off" affair, thanks to the easy-clean properties of clumping cat-box filler. Although more expensive than ordinary hoodless pans, a self-cleaning litter box may be a good option if you're not inclined to stay on top of cleaning.
-- Creative box choices. Litter-box possibilities are not limited to pet-supply outlets. Feline behaviorist Kate Gamble suggests using plastic blanket-storage boxes because they have lots of room and high sides for keeping litter in. (She cuts down one side for an easier entrance.) You can also try plastic dish pans, retired cake pans (the low sides are good for kittens) or even mortar-mixing pans.
With a litter box your cat likes and a commitment from you to keep it fastidiously clean, you'll have a good chance at keeping your cat thinking inside the box.
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Pets and cancer
The Veterinary Pet Insurance Co./DVM Insurance Agency (www.petinsurance.com) recently released an analysis of claims submitted for cancer. With more than 17,000 cancer-related claimed filed by VPI policy-holders, the No. 1 cancer for cats and dogs in 2004 turned out to be lymphosarcoma.
Top cancer claims for dogs:
Lymphosarcoma 22 percent
Skin tumors 14 percent
Bone cancer 6 percent
Top cancer claims for cats:
Lymphosarcoma 36 percent
Skin tumors 8 percent
Thorax cancer 6 percent
ON THE WEB
Toys keep birds healthy, happy
Pet birds do not live by food alone -- they need to be kept occupied. The Birdbrain (www.thebirdbrain.com) is one of the most expert sources for toys and other things to keep your bird busy. Proceeds from their sales go to one of the best bird charities around, the well-respected Colorado-based Gabriel Foundation (www.thegabrielfoundation.org).
The Birdbrain offers all kinds of parrot-related items, from perches to food containers to cleaning supplies, but the toy selection is truly outstanding. The shop breaks them down into categories such as "noisemakers," "foot toys" and "destructible," and will even suggest toys for birds with disabilities. I visited the Gabriel Foundation and The Birdbrain near Snowmass, Colo., a few years back and took home a rather large collection of toys for my parrot. The store's now in Denver, and it is a must-visit for any parrot lover. There's lots of good information on the site, too!
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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