Screech. Scrape. Crunch. Three sounds you never want to hear, especially in an aging minivan in the middle of a dusty field on the far outskirts of the San Francisco Bay area.
There was a road, sort of, a well-worn strip with two deep ruts on either side of a long rocky berm. Fine for the farm trucks, with their high ground clearance. For a soccer-mom-style minivan? Not so hot.
My Plymouth Voyager, loyal and trusty companion during travels to countless dog events, on dog-accompanied vacations and even two cross-country moves with dogs, was never designed to traverse a rutted cow pasture where retrievers were being trained for hunting competitions. By the end of the day, ol' Forrest Green was dripping something that meant a trip to the mechanic. After nearly a decade, I'm in the market for a new "dogmobile." And I'd like to share the story of my hunt.
As a pet-care columnist, I recognize my family's not typical. For one thing, pets outnumber humans 8-to-1 in my home. Four of those pets are dogs, and three of those are retrievers, which means my life is full of large, friendly and frequently damp animals. We are moderately active in canine competitions, but even on those days when we're not training or competing, it's rare that the dogs and I are not heading somewhere in the van -- a dog park, a river run, a play date with other dog-loving friends.
After I started looking around and talking to fellow dog-lovers, I realized that even though more than 43 million U.S. households have dogs, and most of those people travel with their pets for one reason or another, our needs are mostly an afterthought for carmakers. Ask about pet-friendly features in a new-car showroom, and you'll probably get a blank stare. Years ago, I even had a frustrated salesman inform me I was "stupid" for ruling out an otherwise attractive compact Ford station wagon from contention because the seats wouldn't fold flat.
So I've decided to start a new occasional feature for the Pet Connection reviewing vehicles with an eye to how dog-friendly they are. It seems the place to start is with the question: What makes a good dogmobile?
People who are really into canine competitions, including professional dog handlers and trainers, tend to go customized, with motor homes or trucks with dog boxes. But most of us want our regular vehicle to be our dog hauler as well, so I'm limiting my search to stock vehicles -- wagons, vans and SUVs. Although I may occasionally test-drive a large vehicle (how many dogs can you fit in a Hummer, anyway?), I'm mostly going to be looking at midsize and smaller, with reasonable to good gas mileage.
What really matters in a dogmobile is what's inside. Although small dogs have been gaining, large breeds and mixes are still tops in popularity, and they need room to stretch their legs. Seats that are removable, or stowable to increase cargo space, and interiors that clean up easily top the list of dog-friendly requirements. I'll also be looking for vehicles with specific dog-friendly features, like the optional flip-down dog gate.
Judging from the number of dog-lovers I know who already have one or who are planning to buy one, I know the Honda Element will be in for a good look. The fold-away seats in the cargo area and lack of carpeting make the vehicle perfect for hauling pets and sweeping out the debris afterward.
At some point I figure my patched-up Voyager van will drop dead after one field run too many, and I'll end up buying something. But I'll still keep looking at what's new and what works for people who wouldn't dream of taking a road trip and leaving their dogs behind.
Do you have a thought on what makes a dog car perfect? Do you love your dogmobile? Why? Is there are model you'd like to see featured? Drop me a line at email@example.com and I'll get my crack team of test dogs on it. They never miss an opportunity to jump in the car, believe me.
Q: I'm an academics-oriented-to-the-point-of-mania student in high school. My dwarf hamster died a few months ago, and I'm very eager to purchase another domesticated rodent.
I've researched rabbits (I know, I know: They're lagomorphs, not rodents) and guinea pigs, and I've come across an unsettling plethora of setbacks. However, I stumbled upon rats, and I'm now smitten. I've read that they're exceptionally intelligent and willing to be handled by humans (two factors I value), and I've simply realized that I'm quite compatible with them.
Unfortunately, my parents are completely averse to keeping a "filthy creature" that could spread an abhorrent plague in "their house," in spite of my fervent assertions that domesticated rats are different than wild rats. My city-bred mother always mentions the fact that rats have infiltrated New York City. She's being so close-minded.
Responsibility isn't an issue, for my parents are completely cognizant of my maturity and dedication. During the school year, I study maniacally, and my parents have always been worried about my unhealthy devotion to my studies. I believe that owning such active pets as rats will calm me during my scholastic frenzies. Could you aid me in this seemingly fruitless quest to persuade my parents? I see a pair of rats in my future. -- P.C., via e-mail
A: I have a feeling that your parents don't stand a chance when you really have your mind set on something. I imagine you will have your rats, and that you will soon have them trained to negotiate mazes, run through tunnels, climb ladders and jump through hoops on your way to winning the state science fair for the best-ever project on operant conditioning and reward-based training techniques.
Like all pets (even dogs and cats), domesticated rats do present some risk of disease transmission, but proper handling, care and sanitation will reduce those risks substantially. Domesticated rats are friendly, easy to train, and much cuter than their wild counterparts, thanks to years of breeding that have introduced all manner of interesting and attractive markings.
I know you won't have any problem presenting a good case to your parents. Just be sure you don't let them see "Willard" on DVD or read the utterly fascinating but unhelpful to your cause book, "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitant," by Robert Sullivan ($14.95; Bloomsbury USA).
After they relent, consider adopting a rat from a rescue group or shelter. You can connect with rescue groups through the Rat and Mouse Club of America (www.rmca.org). My favorite sites for rat care information are Rat Guide (www.ratguide.com) and the Rat Fan Club (www.ratfanclub.org).
Q: We have more information on Jack Russell terriers and shedding for your reader. The smooth-coated JRTs will always shed more than the rough- or broken-coated JRTs. As an owner of four of these dogs -- two smooth-coated and two broken-coated -- we know our smooth coats shed quite a bit more than the two fuzzier dogs. We use a stripping comb to take out the undercoat, and a fine-tooth comb on the smooths. Would you pass this along? -- J.C., via e-mail
A: Thanks for the additional information. Aside from the breed-specific points you've made, I think it's important that people be realistic in realizing that shedding is normal for all furry pets.
The best way to keep things neat is to brush and comb pets regularly, keep washable throws on beds and furniture and have lint-rollers handy. And remember, always, that it's neither realistic nor fair to expect life with a dog or cat to be fur-free.
The best way to pick up your cat is to make sure you're not surprising him when you do so. Scoop him up gently under the midsection, and then hold him under the chest with one hand while your other hand supports his hind end. Of course, this only works if your cat is agreeable to being held.
If you want your arms to remain clean of angry red cat tracks, never pick a fight you won't win. If your cat is scared or angry, the best way to hold him is not to. If you're holding a cat who's suddenly in a panic, let go. Once a cat reaches that "flight or fight" threshold, you do not want to be the thing he's trying to defeat or run from. Razor-sharp claws and teeth like hypodermic needles are nothing to mess with. Let go.
If you must get your angry cat under control -- for example, if he's in a dangerous situation -- it's better to throw a blanket or big towel over him and roll him up in a "kitty burrito" until you can get him out of harm's way. If you have no other option, you may be able "scruff" him: Take a firm hold on the loose skin at the nape of the neck and hold on tight.
And don't forget: Cat bites and scratches are nothing to ignore. If you get nailed, call your doctor to have the wounds treated.
In the last decade, the veterinary profession has made huge strides in advancing the proper care of pet rabbits. Rabbit medicine and surgery is taught in an increasing number of veterinary schools, and much more published and lecture material is available to keep in-practice veterinarians up-to-date.
Despite these advances, there is still confusion regarding the use of pain relief for sick or injured rabbits. Some veterinarians do not use pain-relieving medications in their rabbit patients even though they routinely use these drugs in dogs and cats. But pain management is as important to a sick rabbits as it is to any other pet. Chronic moderate to severe pain can slow the healing process in addition to making life miserable.
Like other prey animals, rabbits will try to hide their pain, tending to become immobile in an effort at to hide unusual behavior from any predator. That doesn't mean they're not hurting. There are acceptable pain medications available for rabbits, and these should be given to help these animals with recovery. Talk to 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.)
Think of perches as replaceable cage furnishings, fighting boredom and keeping your bird comfortable and healthy. The extra labor and cost involved in keeping a fresh variety of perches in the cage is more than offset by the benefits of good perches for your bird.
Dump the dowels that came with the cage, and try some of these perches:
Rope: Great stuff! Rope perches are both comfortable and entertaining. They're easy to clean, too. Just run them through the washer and dryer, or put them in the top rack of your dishwasher. The downside to rope is the possibility of your pet catching a toe on a frayed part of the perch or swallowing loose strands of the rope. Watch closely and replace these perches when the rope gets stringy.
Mineral: Almost every bird should have a mineral perch, also called a concrete or cement perch. The rough texture feels good underfoot, and the surface is great for helping to keep nails blunt and beaks clean and well-groomed (birds like to wipe their beaks against the rough surface). A better option than sandpaper perches.
Plastic: Two kinds of plastic, acrylic and PVC, are both popular because of their sturdiness and relative ease of cleaning. If you choose acrylic, be sure to add other chewable perch options to your bird's environment. In general, acrylic is better than PVC, because the latter can too easily end up causing problems in a bird's stomach. PVC perches are better for supervised use.
Tree branches: Most fruit and nut trees (almond, apple, prune and all citrus) are fine to use, as are ash, elm, dogwood and magnolia. Cut the branches to fit in the cage, check for bugs, scrub with soap, rinse well and air-dry before using.
BY THE NUMBERS
If you're not comfortable feeding live prey to pets, you're probably not meant to keep lizards. Most of these pets like their food live, and their owners accommodate them. According to a 2004 study, top choices for feeding lizards include:
Crickets 72 percent
Worms 34 percent
Fruits/vegetables 31 percent
Dry formula 16 percent
(Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Assoc.)
Judy Masrud's "Second Chance: A Tale of Two Puppies" (Birdseed Books, $9.95) is the sometimes preachy but always earnest story of littermates adopted from a shelter by two different families. Andrew trains and socializes his puppy, while Matt loses interest, becomes frustrated, and finally has to agree when his father says the young dog must go back to the shelter.
Masrud marks the places where Matt goes wrong and Andrew steers his puppy into being a well-mannered family pet. Along with the fictional story, the book offers puppy-raising tips to help any youngster who's trying to do right by a new puppy.
The book is for young readers, but it can be shared by any family trying to answer the question, "Should we get a dog?" As "Second Chance" points out, getting a dog is just the beginning when it comes to having the perfect pet.
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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