By Christie Keith
Universal Press Syndicate
When Dr. Helen Hamilton of Fremont, Calif., noticed an upswing in very sick puppies coming into her veterinary practice, she started asking her clients where they got their pets.
What she found surprised her: They were coming from the Internet.
Consumers can buy anything from a book to a car online, so it might seem perfectly logical to buy a new family pet the same way. But when Hamilton and her staff went to the source of some Internet puppies, what she discovered horrified her.
"There were dogs with no eyes, dogs missing ears, dogs with old, untended bite wounds and cage wire injuries," she said. "We saw, over two days, two different females in labor go on the auction block."
Hamilton was part of a team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians who brought back 49 dogs from the dispersal auction of a breeding operation. The dogs were not only in poor physical condition, but most of them were also fearful and shy of people. That's because they'd spent their lives isolated from loving human contact while producing puppies for the pet trade.
One such dog was Sunshine, a golden retriever so afraid of people that she had to be lifted out of the van, shaking so hard her teeth chattered -- a hard thing to see, given the usual happy, tail-wagging, people-crazy nature of the breed. Another was Savannah, a miniature dachshund who huddled in her crate, crusted with diarrhea and weighing only 6 1/2 pounds -- around half her healthy body weight.
"She was suffering from malnutrition from being loaded with hookworm and whipworm," Hamilton said. "She was emaciated. And she must have been starved, because I can find no other medical problems to account for her condition."
All the dogs brought back on their most recent trip to a dog auction site in Oklahoma were suffering from health problems, many of them genetic. There were dogs missing an eye or an ear or part of a tail, dogs with inguinal hernias from having too many litters, dogs with evidence of do-it-yourself C-sections.
All of these dogs were cleaned up, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, wormed and treated for other medical conditions. All are now being placed in loving homes. But while everyone involved knows that they're making a difference for these particular dogs, they acknowledge they're not even making a dent in the overall problem.
"There are thousands of dogs that run through the auction. You can only buy a few," Hamilton said. "But that's not the point. Of course we want to get the dogs out and get them in loving homes. But the real point of doing this is to draw attention to the lives these dogs live.
"We want someone who feels the impulse to get a puppy on the Web to stop and think -- not about that cute puppy, but about his mother and father back at the puppy mill," she said. "Those dogs are spending their entire lives in tiny cages and cramped, filthy runs. And once they realize that, they'll think again and walk away."
Hamilton is working to place the dogs she brought back into new homes. But she stresses that the only real way to help the Sunshines and Savannahs still in the well-documented filth of puppy mills is simple: Stop buying those kinds of puppies.
"It's a money-driven industry, and the only way to stop it is when people become educated not to buy puppies from these sources," she said.
What is a 'puppy mill'?
The appeal of puppies as a retail item goes back at least as far as the old song "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" But cruelty in the high-volume breeding operations that feed the pet trade has been documented for decades.
While there are operations that practice husbandry at least as humane as that offered to livestock, other breeding businesses care little for their animals. And even the "good" commercial breeders do not offer what behaviorists argue is essential for a temperamentally sound family pet: constant in-house exposure to normal family life and gentle socialization by all manner of people.
"Commercial kennels" become "puppy mills" when animals are housed in inhumane and filthy conditions, offered little in the way of proper medical care and disposed of when they're no longer productive as breeding stock.
There's really no way to determine what misery may exist behind the puppy you're buying unless you investigate. At the very minimum, buy only from people who are happy to show you their kennels in person. Even better is when the puppies aren't kenneled at all, but raised and socialized in the house.
While investigating a puppy's background isn't as easy as ordering with a few online clicks, you'll likely get a healthier, happier pet -- and you'll know you won't be supporting a puppy mill. -- Gina Spadafori
'Speed eating' the sport of the Labrador
Q: One of our dogs (our yellow Lab) doesn't eat his dinner -- he inhales it! It can't be very healthy, and we'd like to slow him down. He has been with us since he was a puppy, so it's not as if he doesn't know where his next meal is coming from. Suggestions? -- L.L., via e-mail
A: Dogs only have about 1,500 taste buds, vs. 10,000 for people, so in their minds, haste beats taste. Eating is often a mechanical act designed to fulfill a nutrient need as opposed to a gourmet experience. Although few household pets have to worry about starving -- in fact about half of all dogs are overweight -- dogs never stray far from their prehistoric roots. When your dog's ancestors were sharing an elk they'd pulled down, they each wanted to make sure they got their own share. They don't call it "wolfing down" food for no reason, after all.
You can slow down your dog some, though. Dogs tend to eat more quickly when other dogs are around. So since you have more than one dog, feed them at different times or out of sight of each other. Also, give them more time to eat before you pick up their bowl, or leave their empty bowls on the floor for a half-hour after they finish eating. Other experts suggest putting a large object in the bowl along with the food. The dog has to eat around the object, thus slowing him down. A plastic ball or Kong toy works well -- a big size for big dogs and a smaller size for the little guys.
Don't be too disappointed, though, if nothing slows down your Labrador. Retrievers in general seem to be about the most enthusiastic eaters around, with Labs at the top of the list for fast eating and putting on weight easily. (Roly-poly Labs are more common than not and seem, along with beagles and pugs, to lead in the ability to pack on the pounds.) Labs love eating so much that most pet food companies have banned them from the testing rooms as they won't slow down enough to discriminate one flavor from the next.
You can try to slow down your dog, but as long as he's healthy and not overweight, don't worry too much about the wolfing. -- Dr. Marty Becker
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or visiting PetConnection.com.
New vaccine is promising
"Man's best friend" took on a new meaning and a step forward recently at the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine's national convention in Seattle.
After 6 1/2 years of research and testing at Animal Medical Center and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, a vaccine aimed at treating canine skin cancer (melanoma) patients was introduced by the drug company Merial, after receiving conditional approval March 26 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Dr. Philip Bergman, director of AMC's Donaldson-Atwood Cancer Clinic and Flaherty Comparative Oncology Laboratory, who partnered the research lead with Dr. Jedd Wolchok, an oncologist on the Clinical Immunology Service at Sloan-Kettering, called the breakthrough a landmark in veterinary medicine.
Not only is this the first veterinary cancer vaccine on the market, but it also offers hope for human patients with melanoma. The conditional licensure is for surgically removed oral melanoma, but Bergman sees many oncologists using it off-label for other melanomas.
"The vaccine," Bergman said, "tricks the body into recognizing cancer as a foreign entry. Then the body acts to eliminate it. The same strategy we have used in dogs is now working in people." The aggressive diseases are very similar and metastasize in the same places (namely the mouth, toenail bed and foot pad), and are chemotherapy-resistant.
While the vaccine is still on a USDA conditional status, it nevertheless offers canine melanoma patients' owners considerable hope. Prior to testing in 2000, dogs diagnosed with the disease and treated with conventional means (surgery, radiation and chemotherapy) survived only weeks or months. Patients from that initial study enjoyed a median survival of 389 days, but some lived between three and five years, succumbing to a cause other than melanoma.
The vaccine will be available only through veterinary oncologists, since it is still considered a test product, which allows Merial stronger data control. Four vials (one is injected every two weeks into the inner thigh) begin the treatment, followed by boosters at six-month intervals for the remainder of the animal's life. The four-vial packet is priced at $1,000 to practitioners, who will then determine the markup price. Dosage is the same for a 150-pound Great Dane and 10-pound Chihuahua. -- Ranny Green
Catnip a perfectly safe 'trip' for cats
Not all cats like catnip. The ability to appreciate the herb is genetic, with slightly more cats in the fan club than not. These hardwired preferences aren't immediately apparent, though, since kittens under the age of 3 months don't react to catnip at all.
Among those cats who do like catnip, you'll find two basic kinds of reactions: Your cat may seem to become a lazy drunk or a wired-up crazy. Credit a substance called "nepetalactone," which is found in the leaves and stems and causes the mood-altering behavior.
Is catnip safe? While some cat experts recommend that you buy only organically raised products, the consensus is that you can treat your cat as often as you (and your cat) wish. Catnip is considered to be nonaddictive and harmless.
It's also relatively easy to grow. Get seeds or seedlings from any garden-supply center, and put the pots in a place where your cat can't get to them. That's because some enthusiastic cats will pull the plants out by the roots!
When you have your catnip plant well-established, snip off fresh sprigs and rub them on scratching posts and cat trees, or stuff them into toys. Your cat will love the fresh stuff even more.
Another plant that provides pleasure to cats is valerian, so grow some of that, too. And don't forget that still other plants are just good eating, especially grasses. Keep tender shoots of grasses growing in low, long planters, and your cat will love nibbling them. -- Gina Spadafori
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Getting help with the cat
Hiring a pet sitter is by far the most common service hired by cat lovers, and it's becoming even more popular. In 2002, 50 percent reported using a cat sitter in the last six months; in 2004, 62 percent had. Popular cat services, in 2004:
Pet-sitting at home 62 percent
Other service 16 percent
Boarding 15 percent
Pet transport 7 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
Follow 'bad stuff' with a good treat
Do you remember when you were a child and you got to dig through that treasure chest in the dentist's office or got that lollipop after a doctor's visit or haircut? You can apply the same principle to increasing good behavior from your pet.
Just as with children, dogs will learn to anticipate a treat after predictable events such as getting brushed, bathed or given pills. If you give them a treat every time, you will help get your dog's mind on the treat instead of the somewhat unpleasant activity.
Always praise cooperative, good behavior during trying activities with a treat, and praise them as a final reward and a signal that you are done with the bad stuff.
(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
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