Hardly a day goes by when there isn't a news story about a dog attack somewhere. When school starts, children may become especially vulnerable, walking and biking through their neighborhoods to class. That's why every year we like to remind parents to review safety around strange dogs with their children.
To be fair, dogs aren't the biggest risk that children face growing up. Organized sports, for example, are 10 times more likely to result in a child's trip to the emergency room than are dogs.
And although in most cases the dog involved in a serious attack is the family's own, it's also true that many neighborhoods are not safe for walking or biking because of a dog. These animals are accidents waiting to happen because their owners either don't know or don't care that their dogs are a public menace.
The experts say the signs are usually there long before a dog attacks. The dog is typically young, male and unneutered. He is usually unsocialized, a backyard dog with little to no interaction with the family. He is often inadvertently trained to be vicious by being kept full-time on a chain or in a small kennel run.
Is there a dog like this in your neighborhood -- or in your own yard? If it's the latter, call your veterinarian and arrange for your pet to be neutered, and then ask for a referral to a behaviorist who can help you rehabilitate your pet. Don't put this off: Your dog is a danger, and your own family is at risk.
Of course, you can't control what other people do with their animals. That's why you have to make sure your children know how to behave around dogs to protect themselves. Here's what everyone should know, and what parents need to teach their children:
-- Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs who are confined in yards, and especially those on chains, should also be avoided. Many are very serious about protecting their turf. If the dog is with his owner, children should always ask permission before petting him and then begin by offering him the back of a hand for a sniff. Further, they should pat the dog on the neck or chest. The dog may interpret a pat from above as a gesture of dominance. Teach your children to avoid fast or jerky movements around dogs, since these may trigger predatory behavior.
-- Be a tree when a dog approaches, standing straight with feet together, fists under the neck and elbows into the chest. Teach your children to make no eye contact, since some dogs view eye contact as a challenge. Running is a normal response to danger, but it's the worst possible thing to do around a dog, because it triggers the animal's instinct to chase and bite. Many dogs will just sniff and leave. Teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, and then back away slowly out of the area.
-- "Feed" the dog a jacket or backpack if attacked, or use a bike to block the dog. These strategies may keep an attacking dog's teeth from connecting with flesh.
-- Act like a log if knocked down: face down, legs together, curled into a ball with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears. This position protects vital areas and can keep an attack from turning fatal. Role-play these lessons with your children until the instructions are ingrained. They may save a child's life.
Discuss safe behavior with your children and role-play how to approach dogs, when not to approach, and what to do if confronted or attacked.
You don't need to scare your children, but you do need to make sure they're ready, just in case. And going over the "what ifs" isn't a bad idea for you as well.
Pumpkin the fix
for cat hairballs
Q: I'm tired of stepping in hairballs, and tired of listening to the gagging sound of my cat tossing one. What's the best way to end them? -- via e-mail
A: When cats groom, they pull out and swallow a lot of fur. Swallowed fur is undigestible, so when it's in a cat's stomach, it has two ways to go: down and out, or up and out. When it comes up (to the accompaniment of that middle-of-the-night "Ack! Ack!" serenade every cat lover knows so well), it's a hairball.
If you want to impress your friends, the scientific name for that gummy mass you step in on your way to the bathroom at 2 a.m. is "trichobezoar." It is made up of the excess hair your cat swallowed, held together with a sticky mucous.
You'll have to tolerate a certain amount of hairballs because that's just part of having a cat. But there are steps you can take to help ingested hair to go through the system instead of coming back up.
Add some fiber to your cat's diet. A little bit of canned pumpkin -– plain pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filler -- added to your pet's regular meals will help the fur ingested by grooming to pass through the digestive system, instead of being thrown up onto your carpets. Combine it with canned food for palatability, or mix it with a little water from canned tuna or clams.
Canned pumpkin has an advantage over oil-based hairball remedies: Overusing the latter can decrease the absorption of some essential nutrients.
Regular combing and brushing also helps, especially if your pet has long hair. The fur you catch when grooming your cat won't end up as a hairball, or as hair you'll be cleaning off your clothes.
Hacking up a hairball every now and then is normal and usually doesn't cause problems. But if you see anything else in the mix, take the cat and the hairball (the former in a carrier; the latter in a plastic bag or container) to your veterinarian. Likewise, if your cat is hacking without producing a hairball, the vet is waiting to see you.
Chronic coughing can be a symptom of many health problems, from heartworms to heart disease to asthma. Occasionally, hairballs can cause an obstruction that will require veterinary attention. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hormone creams pose
pet health risks
-- The spreading popularity of topical hormone treatments in people -- especially, but not exclusively, among menopausal women -- is having unintended medical consequences for pets, according to the Veterinary Information Network News Service (news.vin.com). The news service reports that veterinarians have seen both male and female dogs with alarming changes in the appearance of their genitalia, as well as fur loss. The problem is easy to avoid: Use disposable gloves to apply the creams, and confine them to an area of the body that will be under clothing, so that pets are not exposed to the active ingredients. The advice is even more critical now that the FDA has warned of problems related to the creams in children as well.
-- Cats live a maximum of 27 years, with 15 years the typical life span. The two oldest cats on record were both tabbies. One, owned by a Mrs. Thomas Holway of the United Kingdom, died in 1939 at the advanced age of 36. The other, also from the U.K. and owned by a Mrs. Alice St. George Moore, lived to 34, dying in 1957.
-- Putting your dog in a pen and putting a double layer of heavy-duty aluminum foil around the enclosure may help your pet with fear reactions to thunderstorms by helping with the effects of electromagnetism during a storm. A layer of aluminum foil between the box spring and the mattress should do the trick as well for a dog who likes to slide under your bed sheets during a storm. The aluminum has been reported to work for animals by lessening the electromagnetic radiation waves that are part of the fear triggers. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.