FINNY PETS ARE JUST THE TICKET FOR HOMES AND OFFICES
Dr. Marty Becker
If you're looking for a way to lower your stress, improve your health and get your children off the couch, part of the answer may be fish -- not eating them, but keeping them.
Whether you choose a small tank with a few freshwater fish or a stunning saltwater setup that makes you feel like a deep-sea diver without getting wet, you'll be getting some of the proven benefits of keeping fish. Studies showing the stress-relieving nature of fish-gazing have led to the proliferation of tanks in clinical settings such as dental offices and nursing homes. Tanks have helped calm troubled children and stimulate appetites in adults with diminished brain function.
The benefits of fish extend to the home as well.
"I do think people need contact with nature," said Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. "The technology has made it so much easier to keep fish now. Fish can be very low-maintenance, and they are so attractive. Fish are remarkably well-designed, and it's easy to appreciate that."
While fish themselves haven't changed much, how we keep them has evolved. Many of us may remember a simple fish bowl, or a small tank with some colored gravel and a deep-sea diver or castle at the bottom. While glass tanks are still by far the most common, high-tech plastics have released a wave of new designs, making possible seamless tanks that look as if the fish are swimming in air. New technology has also created filtration systems that have made tank maintenance easier.
And, of course, it's water that really counts when it comes to keeping fish alive, says Dr. Roy Yanong, a veterinarian with a lifelong love of fish-keeping that he turned into a career with the Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory at the University of Florida, which helps to support the state's fish-breeding industry.
"Keeping fish doesn't have to be difficult," said Dr. Yanong. "Depending on the species, you can start with a 10-gallon tank. But you always have to think about the water. Fish make ammonia, which is excreted through their gills. You need the right number of fish, and a bio-filter with the right set of bacteria. If you don't have that, the water will turn toxic, and that's when fish die."
But just as you don't need to be an ichthyologist -- a fish expert -- to keep healthy fish, you don't have to be a chemist either, says Dr. Yanong. All you need to make sure the water is right for your fish is to test it yourself with easy-to-find kits, or have it tested at a specialty aquarium store.
"Help with fish-keeping is pretty easy to get," he said. "You can talk to someone who's keeping fish successfully. You can also find sites online that can help."
Dr. Yanong has been working with fish since 1992, which is also when the popularity of keeping aquatic pets started to grow. While the more complicated and expensive saltwater setups have remained the interest of only a tiny percentage of dedicated hobbyists, freshwater fish-keeping has risen steadily for the last two decades.
"Aquaria is where a lot of kids first got their interest in nature," said Dr. Yanong. "I know I did. And while any pet can be an entry into the world of nature, the fascinating thing about fish is that you're not just keeping pets, you're running an ecosystem."
At a time when it's hard to get kids to put down the video games and get off the couch, experts say looking into a fish tank may be key to getting youngsters out the door -- perhaps to a career in science. And it can all start with a small tank and a couple of guppies.
DOG PARKS REQUIRE CARE, COMMON SENSE
Q: We took a puppy class, and the trainer told us that she couldn't recommend any of the local dog parks -- or, in fact, the idea of dog parks at all. She said that no puppy should ever go to a dog park, and that she wouldn't take her own dogs to them either, because they are "dangerous." I don't have a yard to speak of, really just a patio, and I wanted to take my dog to the park when he's older. It's the only place it's legal for him to be off-leash. What do you think? -- T. R.
A: One of the reasons having a large living space isn't so critical in keeping a dog anymore is that many communities have become much more dog-friendly.
Cities large and small have responded to dog owners' desire for off-leash play areas, and have even allowed businesses to let dogs dine on patios in the style long enjoyed in many parts of Europe.
Dog parks, though, tend to be only as good as the people using them, and as a dog owner you need to look out for the safety of your dog, as well as make sure he's not causing problems for other dogs. Yes, there are dog-park bullies!
The best way to check out a dog park is to go during off-peak hours. You want to see clean grounds and clear rules for pickup and good behavior, a double-gated entry, so dogs don't walk in on leash (a known fight trigger), and, in the best parks, a separate area for smaller dogs, so they're not trampled or looked at as prey by larger ones.
Whether or not children are allowed is a matter of controversy, but dog experts generally agree that it's safer for all involved if they are not. And, of course, all dogs should be current on their vaccines (that means no puppies), well-socialized and non-aggressive. People should be paying attention to keeping their own dogs out of trouble, not answering their e-mail or texting.
When they work, dog parks are great for getting pets the exercise they need. When they don't work, they put people and pets at risk of injuries, perhaps even deadly ones. So go forth and unleash, but do so with common sense and caution. And if you find yourself feeling uneasy about the users -- human or canine -- at any given time, take your dog out and go home. You can always play another day. -- Gina Spadafori
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
OLD-FASHIONED REMEDY STILL WORTH USING
-- Writing in her PetMd.com blog, "Fully Vetted," Dr. Patty Khuly of Miami sings the praises of the humble Epsom salts, starting with the comfort one cup dissolved in a couple quarts of hot water can offer to the sore, tired feet of a hard-working veterinarian. But that's not all. She notes that this product is "the ultimate do-no-harm remedy for many simple wounds and swellings," and says she'll often recommend it as complement to or even a replacement for more modern remedies, especially those medications with occasionally problematic side effects. Use as a soak or apply as a poultice, holding a clean, soaked washcloth to the affected areas. Five to 10 minutes, two or three times a day, should help, she writes.
-- Osaka, Japan, has a population of nearly 9 million, many living in apartments that do not allow pets. So how do they get their fix of quality kitty time? Enter the rent-a-cat cafe. Time magazine reports the places are very popular with the purr-deprived.
-- Purring is more than a sound of contentment. Cats also purr if they're injured, while giving birth -- even when dying. British zoologist Desmond Morris has observed in his masterwork "Catworld: A Feline Encyclopedia" that purring is "a sign of friendship -- either when (the cat) is contented with a friend or when it is in need of friendship -- as with a cat in trouble."-- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon