and Keith Turner
Universal Press Syndicate
Last year we went quirky, choosing the love-it-or-hate-it Honda Element as our first-ever DogCars.com canine hauler of the year.
This year, we went traditional, choosing the quintessential minivan, the redesigned Dodge Grand Caravan, as our "Best in Show." Chrysler may be struggling for survival, but its minivans still offer plenty to the dog lover looking for a comfortable ride for a canine companion.
DogCars.com is the Pet Connection's Web site for reviews of pet-friendly vehicles and pet-related travel gear. Our reviewers test new minivans, hatchbacks, SUVs, wagons and crossovers looking for pet-friendly features, including:
-- Seats that fold flat or are easily removable.
-- Plenty of usable cargo space relative to the size of the vehicle.
-- Wide, square backs and easy-lift rear hatches, with as little rear slope as possible to make the most of the cargo area.
-- All-wheel or four-wheel drive and high ground clearance for those who are into canine competitions.
The Dodge Grand Caravan also scored on economy, with a starting price under $29,000 and fuel economy of 17 mpg (city), 24 mpg (highway), both competitive in its class. The Caravan shares the honors with its cousins, the Chrysler Town and Country and the new Volkswagen Routan.
In addition to the Best in Show award, we also chose our favorites in the eight categories. Looking ahead, we're watching the Toyota Venza -- designed with pet-friendly features from the first -- as a potential Best in Show contender for next year.
-- Best Overall/Best Minivan: The Dodge Grand Caravan. The newest redesign of Chrysler's trademark product offers a larger cargo area and squared-off back, lots of storage compartments, and plenty of tie-downs for gear.
-- Best Compact: Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix. The newly redesigned Toyota Matrix and its littermate, the Pontiac Vibe, offer economy and versatility. Sharing many of the same mechanics as the Toyota Corolla, the Vibe and Matrix come in three versions: a base-level front-wheel drive, small four-cylinder model; an all-wheel drive with a larger engine; and a sporty version.
-- Best Green Vehicle: Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid was redesigned to add room, comfort and efficiency, giving the classic SUV a green twist. The Highlander's onboard computers automatically shift power usage from gas to electric to a combination of both, for an average fuel economy of 27 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway.
-- Best Small SUV: Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner/Mazda Tribute and Mitsubishi Outlander (tie). Ford's terrific triplets -- the Escape, Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute -- offer on- and off-road versatility, with moderate fuel mileage and fold-flat seats. While they may look different on the outside, their heritage is the same. They tied with a repeat winner in this category, the Mitsubishi Outlander, which offers good value, capacious cargo room and a flip-down rear gate that makes dog-loading easier.
-- Best Midsize SUV: Honda Pilot, Suzuki XL7, Hyundai Santa Fe (tie). The Honda Pilot has been redesigned and gets even better, with a squared-off rear to better handle large dog crates. Suzuki's XL7 is a rugged rig that features fold-flat second- and third-row seats for flexibility when securing crates and carrying cargo. And finally, the Hyundai Santa Fe offers pet-friendly features and great value, with a starting price of around $21,000.
-- Best Wagon: Subaru Forester and Volvo XC70 (tie). Volvo and Subaru have long been favorite brands among dog lovers, and the two companies are among the few that actively seem to push for the pet-lover trade. The Volvo XC70 and Subaru Forester -- both recently redesigned -- will continue to be the versatile workhorses for many dog lovers.
-- Best Luxury SUV: BMW X5 and Acura MDX (tie). Yeah, we know: In this economy, who's thinking luxury? But if you're looking to put down top dollar for a dog hauler, you can't do better than these. Your dog won't be impressed with all the nice features, but they'll make your drive to the dog park a pleasure.
-- Other tail-waggers: Ford Flex and Mini Cooper Clubman. This year, we liked two in the "other" category. With a design that seems to mimic the boxy look of the Honda Element, the Flex has a wide-open interior and seats that fold either flat or flip forward to reveal a hard, carpeted surface providing plenty of room. As for the Clubman, what can you say except "adorable"? The stretch Mini has a lot of space for a vehicle its size, and it turns heads wherever it goes.
You can find full reviews and pet-travel tips at DogCars.com.
Keeping plants safe from nibbling cats
Q: How can we get our cats to leave our houseplants alone? -- E.W., via e-mail
A: If your cats love to nibble on houseplants, start by making sure poisonous plants are not on the menu. Many common houseplants can make your cats ill, and a few can be deadly. Among the most dangerous are dieffenbachia, lily of the valley and philodendron. Various ivies and yews can be troublesome, too, and the bulbs of plants popular for "forcing" into early indoor bloom -- such as amaryllis, daffodils and tulips -- can cause problems for the cat who likes to dig and chew.
The Animal Poison Control Center (www.aspca.org/apcc) maintains a list of problem plants, and you should also be able to find such lists in most basic cat-care books. Check your household inventory against the "bad plant" list, and replace any dangerous plants with safer ones.
You don't have to give up all your plants to your cats, however. Instead, keep some plants for nibbling, and put other safe plants off-limits to maintain a lush indoor environment that you and your cats can both enjoy.
Indulge your pets by keeping planters of sprouting grasses growing in an accessible place for nibbling. Special blends of seeds for cats are available in pet stores and specialty shops, or you can purchase rye grass seeds at the nursery. Catnip, too, is something that's always better when fresh, as is valerian. While not all cats react to the pleasures of these plants, those who do will appreciate your keeping it in-house and using fresh cuttings to recharge cat posts and toys.
When your cats have their own plants, you can work on keeping them away from yours. Plants on the ground or on low tables are the easiest targets, so make your houseplants less accessible to the bored and wandering cat. Put plants up high, or better yet: Hang them.
For the plants you can't move out of harm's way, make them less appealing by coating them with something your cats find disagreeable. Cat-discouragers include Bitter Apple, a nasty-tasting substance available at any pet-supply store, or Tabasco sauce from any grocery store. Whenever you find what your cat doesn't like, keep reapplying it to reinforce the point.
Pot your plants in heavy, wide-bottomed containers, and cover the soil of the problem plants with rough, decorative rock to end digging. Foil, waxed paper and double-sided tape are also effective digging deterrents. But I don't like to recommend them as much, because you're going to get tired of looking at these materials. Attractive, rough-edged rocks can stay in place forever. -- Gina Spadafori
(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 monthly drawing for more than $1,000 in pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to email@example.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.
Feline taste test tips to tap water
-- Cats are notorious for not drinking enough water, and their near-chronic state of dehydration contributes to kidney and bladder problems. Getting cats to drink more can be a key to better health, but you may not need to offer purified water (as is sometimes suggested) to do so. As reported by Dr. Eric Barchas in his veterinary blog on the Dogster.com Web site, a recent clinician's brief put out by the North American Veterinary Conference suggests that cats like tap water just fine, in fact choosing it over purified water in a small study. No matter what kind of water your cat prefers, chances are he'll drink more of it if it's kept recirculating, so consider one of several pet drinking fountains on the market.
-- "Bad" dogs are box office catnip. "Marley & Me," the movie based on John Grogan's best-seller about his lovable, behavior-challenged Labrador retriever, was the No. 1 seller of tickets on Christmas Day. The comedy received less than sterling reviews from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (avsabonline.org) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (apdt.com), each of which offers suggestions for those trying to cope with their own "Marleys."
-- Cats with piercings? Don't try this at home, unless you're itching to have humane officers come down on you like a load of bricks. A woman in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., had three kittens seized after trying to sell what she described as "Gothic Kittens" on eBay (which doesn't allow sales of live animals in any case). The Associated Press reported the kittens had ear, neck and tail piercings. "It's unbelievable anybody would do this to kittens," said the humane officer on the case. We agree! -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon
A crate is key to easier house-training
If you're house-training a new puppy, you'll find it goes more quickly if you use a crate.
Crate-training limits a puppy's options to three: He's either empty and playing in the house, or he's in the crate and "holding it" because he doesn't want to sit in his own waste, or he's at the place you've chosen for him to relieve himself.
Puppies need to relieve themselves after they wake up, after they eat or drink, or after a period of play. Set up a schedule to accommodate his needs -- young puppies, especially small breeds or mixes, can't go very long without eating, drinking, sleeping or relieving themselves -- as you work to mold behavior. A good rule of thumb: Puppies can hold it as long as their age in months. A 2-month-old pup can "hold it" in a crate for about two hours, for example.
Don't punish your pet for mistakes. If you catch your dog in the act, a stern "no" will suffice, followed by an immediate trip to the yard and praise when he finishes up where he's supposed to. Clean up the inside mess thoroughly, and treat the area with an enzymatic solution to neutralize the smell.
If your puppy doesn't seem to be "getting it," ask your veterinarian for a referral to a behaviorist who can help get you both on track.
Remember, the goal is for your puppy to roam free in your house, not to stay in a crate for life. But the lessons of crate-training remain important: A dog who is used to being comfortably confined will be less stressed at the veterinarian hospital and also will have more options for housing in time of emergency. -- Gina Spadafori
PETS BY THE NUMBERS
Treats and more treats
Too much food and not enough exercise add up to overweight dogs and cats. Perhaps not surprisingly, the number of people who give treats to their pets is increasing in tandem with reports of obese pets by veterinarians:
Dogs given treats
2000: 79 percent
2002: 81 percent
2004: 88 percent
Cats given treats
2000: 54 percent
2002: 56 percent
2004: 65 percent
Source: American Pet Products Association
Variety better for bird health
An all-seed diet contributes both directly (through malnutrition) and indirectly (by weakening the bird, making it easier for infectious diseases to take hold) to a serious reduction in the lifespan of any pet bird -- by half or more in many situations.
Variety is the name of the game when it comes to feeding your pet bird. This means that in addition to offering high-quality pelleted food, you should be offering a wide array of healthy "people food" -- fresh vegetables, fruits, pasta, bread, scrambled eggs. Whatever has good nutrition for you is also good for your parrot.
If your bird is a "seed junkie," talk to an avian veterinarian about a strategy for converting your pet to healthier diet. Seeds are best used as for rewards for good behavior and for teaching tricks. -- Gina Spadafori
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.