Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Chow Down

I didn't feel like cooking last night--making brownies doesn't count--so I had tomato soup, a mini baguette, and about half an ounce of goat cheese from Pug's Leap Farm. I bought it at the Beverly Hills Cheese Store--who could resist the packaging with the silhouette of a Pug leaping over a fence? Not me. All I lacked was a glass of Mutt Lynch Canis Major zinfandel.

Pug's Leap Farm in Healdsburg, California, is home to 24 goats (and, one presumes, a Pug). Mutt Lynch, a winery in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley that's owned by Brenda and Chris Lynch, makes some very fine zins, as well as merlot, syrah, cabs, and chardonnay. (I'm sure they're very fine, too, but I've only had the zin, which I love.) Their motto? Apply dog logic to life: eat well, be loved, get petted, sleep a lot, dream of a leash-free world. Works for me.

It's been a busy time for me. Last month, I went to the Cat Writers Association annual conference, where I got face time with friends that I usually "see" only online and moderated the editor panel. While I was there, I also took a quickie tour of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Icing was winning three awards: the Purina ONE award for an article on treating urinary tract infections in cats, a Muse medallion for an article on Katrina pet rescue efforts, and a Muse medallion for an article on treating diabetes, which appeared in Catnip. The girls and Jerry went, too; they are all honorary members of CWA despite their handicaps of--in Bella and Twyla's case--being dogs and in Jerry's case, not being a writer. Unfortunately, the girls had diarrhea while they were there and were too stinky to be seen much in public, so they weren't able to meet with their adoring legions of fans.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bad Cat Stats?

No, the cats aren't bad, the statistics are, at least according to Wall Street Journal Numbers Guy Carl Bialik. At the urging of my friend and well-known pet columnist Gina Spadafori, he took a look at the theory that one unspayed cat and her offspring could produce 420,000 kittens over a 7-year period. That's probably a little high, experts say. Taking kitten mortality and other factors into account, the real number is probably closer to 5,000. Phew! We'd be buried in cats, otherwise. Not that that's a bad thing...well, except that all those cats in laps combined with global warming would make for an awfully hot planet. And it doesn't mean that pet overpopulation isn't a problem, just that more realistic numbers make the solution seem more attainable.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Animal News

Lots to read about on the animal front recently. In addition to the hype on the hypoallergenic kitties, there are more grrs about the dog whisperer, a pet-related museum exhibit, an opinion piece on animal intelligence, and rampaging elephants in Africa.

The cats bred by Allerca, a San Diego company, carry a mutant gene that prevents the cats' glands from producing the protein that causes allergies in people. The company screens prospective buyers to ensure that they'll give the $4,000 cats a good home, but no reporters have asked yet if the company will take the cats back if the relationship doesn't work out. I'll try to cover that in my column next month: the truth about hypoallergenic cats and dogs.

Whether they're televangelists or trainers, I've always had a problem with people who say that their way is the only way. Unfortunately, that very machismo is what attracts editors and producers, who then give those people a platform to spout their theories, right or wrong or somewhere in between. One of those people who claim to know it all is Cesar Millan, better known as the dog whisperer. His show and book have dog trainers and behaviorists nationwide frothing with rage. In the New York Times, Mark Derr describes him as a charming, one-man wrecking ball. Esquire's Curtis Pesmen talks to canine experts about Millan's methods in the October 2006 issue. Their opinions? Not complimentary. Millan might make for good TV, but he's not necessarily good for dogs and their people. Slate writer Emily Yoffe had good luck with his techniques, but that said, she was dealing with a fairly easygoing Beagle that didn't require too much effort to be directed back onto the straight and narrow.

The University of South Carolina's Pets in America website covers such subjects as the history of pets, veterinary care, pet food, and more. For kids, there are puzzles, coloring pages and games. A traveling exhibit will visit museums in Michigan, Massachusetts, Delaware and Florida. See the website for tour dates.

As a diver, I have a special interest in marine life. Two of my favorite experiences have been watching with delight as a pod of dolphin sped past underwater and jumping into the open ocean to spend time with a dolphin that was riding the wake of the Nauti-Cat on Grand Cayman's East End. Since the time of the Greeks, people have remarked on dolphin intelligence, but apparently that's unnerving to some people. Renowned psychologist Frans de Waal looks at a South African scientist's speculation that the intelligence of dolphins and other cetaceans is overrated. For years, scientists have shied away from any affirmation of animal emotions or intelligence. Why is that, de Waal wonders. Does it really threaten the human ego to admit that other animals--and yes, we are animals--have those attributes? Sadly, the answer is too often yes.

They're not pets, but elephants are among the most intelligent, emotional and long-lived creatures with whom we share the planet. It's distressing, then, that poaching and human encroachment on their territory is leading to the destruction of their society. Elephant aggression toward people and other animals such as rhinos is increasing, and the outlook isn't pretty. Read it and weep.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Travels With the Girls

When we travel, we've always tried to take our dogs with us whenever possible. Over the years, our various dogs have visited San Francisco, Seattle, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Carmel, Kansas City, Vancouver and Tenaya Lodge just outside Yosemite. They've ridden in cars and flown on airplanes. At Tenaya, Bella went on a hayride in a horse-drawn wagon. Darcy had the most mileage, having flown from Ireland to New York, then New York to Los Angeles (in business class, baby!) when she was a puppy.

On rare occasions, the dogs can't go with us. When we had our greyhound, I never minded boarding her because I reasoned that she was used to kennel life. For short trips, the Cavaliers stayed at the vet's office, where they were royally spoiled. But for trips of longer than a week, I wanted better for them--so we began the habit of driving them 7 hours north to the Bay Area to stay with Bella's breeder. I'm sure people thought we were crazy, but it made me happy. They were in a home, with people they knew and other dogs to play with, and I never worried that they wouldn't get the best of care.

It was cost-effective too. Even with the price of gas inching up, it was still cheaper than a kennel stay to drive them up to Joanne and either turn right around and drive back or spend the night and fly to our destination from San Francisco instead of LAX. The cost of boarding three small dogs was $108 per day, and that wasn't even boarding them at fancy places like these. At those rates, boarding the girls for a typical trip of 16 days would have cost $1,728--enough to pay for a whole nother trip. No thanks! So we'll keep taking them with us or driving them north. Thank dog for Sirius satellite and books on CD...

Nothing To Sneeze At

The holy grail of catdom may be at hand. Scientists have bred cats that they say do not carry the gene that causes feline fur, saliva and skin to produce allergic reactions.

Want one? Don't cough up a hairball when you hear the price. Instead, be prepared to cough up $3,950--and spend time on a waiting list until a kitten is available. But for people who love cats but not the red eyes, sneezing and asthma they can induce, the hypoallergenic kittens are, well, priceless.

Friday, September 22, 2006

In Search of Cynophobes

I'm looking for sources to interview for a column on overcoming a fear of dogs. One of the places Google took me to was the Food and Drug Administration, which has an article on phobias. At the end it lists organizations that can help. Why does it not surprise me that a group called Phobics Anonymous only has a PO Box and a phone number?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Water By Poochi

In his usual incisive, insightful way, SFGate.com columnist Mark Morford skewers what is not really the latest in pet culture overload--designer drinking water for dogs and cats. He writes:

As if quenching his sheer dumb animal thirst at the garden hose wasn't enough to make your dog blissfully happy. As if a world teeming with roughly 1 billion unclassifiable odors wasn't already a wondrous canine olfactory buffet. Did you know that dogs have over 200 million scent cells? And that humans have a mere 5 million? The last thing dogs need is for their water to smell like synthetic cow. I'm just guessing.

The reason I say it's not really the latest is because I remember when it first came out--some time in the mid '80s. Along with pet cologne formulated to make dogs smell like their Giorgio-wearing mistresses and clothing that went beyond the basic sweater. It just has taken 20 years for all those prescient businesspeople to build marketshare and develop a "need" for their products.

And it hasn't all been bad. That was also when the pet health food market began to stir. That's been a good thing. Dogs and cats have a much wider variety of healthier foods available to them today, although their people still tend to overfeed and underexercise them. I still remember the horrified expressions of a group of pet food marketers when I predicted--a dozen or so years ago--that homemade, or at least fresh, pet food was the coming thing.

Was I a visionary? Nah. Partly I was just making it up off the top of my head, based on the rise of dog bakeries at the time, but it seemed like a possibility. And when it comes to what people will do for their dogs and cats, you can't discount anything.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Keep Kids Healthier. Get a Pet.

A new study shows that kids who have pets tend to suffer less from stomach bugs. Apparently, the frequent exposure to low levels of pathogenic organisms strengthens the immune system and makes it less likely to succumb to gastroenteritis. I guess that's true. I was sick all the time as a kid, but rarely from stomach upset. And to this day I have a cast-iron stomach--knock on wood. Now I'm counting on Bella and Twyla to keep me free of heart disease. As much petting as they demand (and get), I should have the heart of a 20-year-old.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Losing Darcy

Our tricolor Cavalier, Darcy, died on June 27 of chronic valve disease, also known as mitral valve disease. It's a common health problem in Cavaliers and tends to strike them much earlier in life than it does other breeds. Darcy was a classic example of that, being only six and a half years old when she died.

Now, five weeks later, it's still hard to believe she's gone. We knew for months that we had only a limited amount of time left with her. I had hoped that the anticipatory grief would be helpful. It wasn't. We were fortunate, however, to be surrounded by friends and family who loved Darcy too and understood our sense of loss. No one, not even our terminally tactless neighbor, said "Hey, buck up, it was just a dog."

People commemorate beloved pets in numerous ways. They light candles, have the pet cremated or buried, turn them into diamonds, drink a toast, or make a donation to an animal welfare or health organization. We did a lot of those things. But more important, we arranged to start The Darcy Fund, which will finance research into the causes and cures of CVD. The Darcy Fund is set up in conjunction with the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club's Charitable Trust. It's our hope that through it, Darcy will help other Cavaliers live longer, healthier lives.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Good News from the Windy City

Breed-specific legislation, which would have banned certain breeds and was a real possibility in Chicago, has been pushed back, thanks to the tireless efforts of well-known radio personality and pet writer Steve Dale and a coalition of companion animal experts and public officials. Here's what will happen instead:

The Task Force on Companion Animals and Public Safety, a coalition of experts representing various organizations, is now authorized under the auspices of the License and Consumer Protection Committee, Dale says.

A model for pre-empting breed-specific legislation has been created, which can be used by other cities.

People whose dogs have not been spayed or neutered--and thus are more likely to roam and to become a public nuisance or danger--must pay higher license fees. That's a good way to encourage spaying and neutering to reduce the production of unwanted puppies.

All dogs boarded in kennels or doggie day care or that are used by guard dog services must be microchipped. (I'd like to see this go further, with all breeders required to microchip puppies before they go to their new homes, so that breeders can be traced if dogs become lost or are turned in to shelters or rescue groups.)

People whose dogs are chronic wanderers face increased fees.

It's a good start. All dog owners owe thanks to Steve for his efforts, as well as to the many experts who provided support, including Patricia McConnell, Ian Dunbar, Gary Landsberg, Bonnie Beaver, AVMA president Roger Mahr and AVMA Animal Welfare vice president Gail Golab. Good job!

My friend Deb Eldredge, a veterinarian in New York, says: "Go Steve!!! Even if Chicago can't field a decent baseball team, they are smart about dogs!"

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Weak in the Knees

Today's Wall Street Journal has a front-page article about the prevalence of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in dogs. You won't find it online unless you're a subscriber, but it's worth finding a copy to read it, especially if you're unfamiliar with the problem or thought it only affected human athletes.

Written by Kevin Helliker, the article reports that the high rate of ACL tears is mystifying to veterinarians. Could it be the prevalence of obesity in dogs? A fat dog jumping on and off the sofa is putting a lot of pressure on his joints. And active dogs, unless they're well conditioned, are just as much at risk, especially if they're jumping and twisting to catch a flying disc. Cats are prone to ACL tears as well, especially if they're overweight.

How do you know if your pet is overweight? Sight and touch are your best guides. Look down at your dog or cat. Does she have a waist? If she looks more like a sausage, she's overweight. Put your hands on her body, thumbs lining up on the spine and the fingers splayed to the sides. Can you feel the ribs or are they buried under a layer of fat? Hint: you should be able to feel them but not see them.

If your dog or cat is overweight or has suffered an ACL tear or other injury, talk to your veterinarian about rehab. A good practitioner can put together a program that will help your pet lose weight and become better conditioned. Look for more about pet rehab in next week's Creature Comforts.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Dog Walking Weather

I was checking the weather today and noticed that the site had a feature that allows pet owners to determine the best time to walk their dogs--or cats. Here in California, we get a pretty wide range of walking times, apparently: the girls' petcast says they can be walked from 11 AM to 5 PM or 6 PM to 11 PM. I guess that means it's not going to rain until late tonight, if at all. It also notes that mosquito activity is low. Check your own personal petcast here.

And by the way, if you live in tornado alley and your dog starts barking incessantly for no apparent reason--like Sparkle the Jack Russell terrier, who lives in Crossville, Tennessee--you might want to start heading for the basement or some other protected area, with your dog, of course. Sparkle's home was destroyed, but luckily she and her people are all safe.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Equal Time for Birds

Larry Bird, my African ringneck parakeet, complains that I spend way too much time writing about the dogs and not nearly enough about his own beautiful self. Larry is 19 years old this spring. As you may have guessed from his name, we acquired him during the Lakers-Celtics playoffs in 1987. We tried to teach him to say "Go Lakers," but he was true to his color (vivid green) and would never repeat it. He does know a number of words and phrases, however: "Hi Larry," "Good morning," "What cha doin?" "Larry's a good bird" "Larry's a pretty bird" and, on occasion "Wipeout!" When we turn out the lights at night, he says "Good night!" He mimics door squeaks and makes kissing sounds.

But Larry's most unusual accomplishment is that he meows like a cat. Like several cats, in fact. He has two or three different meows, picked up from the various cats we've owned over the years. Most people think they're really hearing a cat when Larry meows. By the way, we also taught Larry to say "Here, kitty, kitty." After hearing him, one of my friends said, "That just proves that birds don't know what they're saying." I don't know about that. I think Larry used to get a kick out of biting the cats when they would stick their noses through his cage bars.

When he's not playing peekaboo with himself in the mirror, Larry likes to ride on shoulders and take hot showers with us. His favorite foods include scrambled eggs and chicken, leading us to nickname him "cannibal bird." The only drawback to Larry--besides the scattered seed and the powerful beak--is that when he wants attention, Larry shrieks. Not like a girl, thank goodness, but ear-piercing enough just the same. That's okay. We all need a good scream now and then.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Love and Money

An article in The Scotsman reports that an insurance company survey says that the cost of dog ownership over the course of the animal's life can range from 18,000 pounds to 33,000 pounds (that's $31,224 to $57,250 for us here in the States). I believe it. A veterinarian I know said recently that he spent more than $12,000 last year on his dogs and cats.

It's expensive enough when you're just buying high-quality food and taking them to the veterinarian once or twice a year, but when an injury occurs or illness strikes, vet bills can really get scary. A lot of people complain about the high cost of veterinary care, but it's certainly a better bargain than uninsured medical care. Veterinarians on the East and West coasts, where veterinary costs tend to be the highest, are paying a premium for land and staff salaries. And veterinary medicine is right up there with human medicine as far as what's available: kidney transplants for cats, hip replacements for dogs, chemotherapy for animals with cancer, physical therapy for dogs with ACL tears--you name it, it's probably available for animals or will be soon.

Even small hospitals, like the one I take my dogs to, can provide very sophisticated care. "We can do ultrasounds, we can do endoscopy, we can do laser surgery," says John Hamil, DVM. "If you go to the specialists, you can get care that rivals the care you can get in a human hospital, at a tiny fraction of the cost."

But even Dr. Hamil worries about rising costs for his clients. "With people stretched as tightly as they are...we have people that are priced out of the market," he says. "Certainly young people can be priced out very quickly."

Willingness to pay isn't necessarily related to income, though, he says. "Oftentimes people who have a modest amount are willing to spend the money, and sometimes people who have a lot of money say 'no way.' I see people as or more willing to provide care now at the new cost than they did 35 years ago at the lower cost, and I think that's because there is a different ethic in regards to care for animals. There's a different awareness of what's available and a different desire for the level of care to be provided."

This is a subject I contemplate every 10 years or so--about the length of time between each catastrophic pet health problem. Veterinary medicine has done some wonderful things for my animals, and I've never regretted a cent of the cost. I just wish it could do more. I would fly my Darcy to Timbuktu if they could fix her heart there. I have a neighbor who complained some time ago about the $600 his dog racked up for a back problem. "It's just not worth it," he said. He's so wrong.

Friday, February 24, 2006

House Hunting With Dogs

The Wall Street Journal's real estate section has a good piece on what dog owners should look for in a home. I especially liked the advice on electronic fences, which seem like a good idea to many people but have some definite cons: to name just two, they don't keep other people out of your yard and they don't prevent other dogs from coming into your yard and attacking your dog.

If you're a dog lover deciding where to settle, consider some of these dog-friendly cities. Dog Fancy has also ranked places friendly to dogs. Of all of these, my dog-tested favorites are Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Long Beach, and San Diego. Just remember that water dogs do best in Vancouver. Luckily, my greyhound and Cavaliers have never minded the rain. Maybe that's because they're all of British origin and some ancestral memory tells them that rain is a normal state of affairs.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cool Pet News

If only I'd had a dog to tutor me in school. I might have gotten beyond basic arithmetic. A couple of recent experiments show that dogs appear to use calculus-like, well, calculations to figure out the optimal path to fetch a ball or stick. And, of course, we all know they can count. My dogs all keep careful track of the number of treats each has received to make sure they're not shorted.

Those of you in tick country may be interested to learn that scientists have deciphered the genomes of certain bacteria that cause ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne disease that can affect dogs and people. The study reports new genes that allow the bacteria to evade a host's immune system and adapt to new niches and will help scientists better study the bacteria and how they operate.

Fellow pet writer Beth Adelman recommends a new book for people with allergies who have or would like to have pets. Here's what she says:

"I just got a copy of a great new book by Shirlee Kalstone, called "Allergic to Pets? The Breakthrough Guide to LIving With the Animals You Love." Shirlee worked with a DVM and an MD on this book, and it is really straightforward, practical, factual, and covers dogs, cats, birds, horses, ferrets and rodents!.

"She has dogs and cats, and is very allergic; she and her husband have a company that develops products that lessen the impact of allergies. But the book is not a commercial for her stuff. It's a rundown of pretty much everything we know so far about pet allergies and what you can do about them so you can keep your pet with you. The book is short and inexpensive, too ($7.99). Definitely, it will help keep some animals in their homes.

(And no, I did not work on the book with her at all, so this is an unbiased endorsement.) "

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

How 'Bout That Bull Terrier?

Ch. Rocky Top's Sundance Kid, Rufus to his friends, last night became the first colored bull terrier to win best in show at Westminster. My neighbor e-mailed me to ask what I thought about the winning dog, ending her message with a pictograph of an unhappy face. Her feelings probably mirrored those of a lot of people, but although I'm not a fan of terriers in general--too rowdy for my tastes--I've always liked bull terriers, with their sculptural heads and big smiles.

The bull terrier is an extrovert, a happy, outgoing dog. The first bull terriers, created sometime around 1835 by crossing bulldogs with the now-extinct white English terriers, were all white, but of course the genetic lottery ensured that some would have colored coats. By 1936, these colored bull terriers--which must be any color other than white or any color with white as long as white doesn't predominate--were recognized as a separate variety. Later, the miniature bull terrier was developed. Whatever its variety, the bull terrier likes to have fun in the ring, and Rufus did that all the way to a win.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Brush Those Fangs!

February is Pet Dental Health Month. Yes, you're bad enough about flossing your own teeth, let alone brushing Bailey's, but really--how much longer can you stand his bad breath? That bad breath is a sign of periodontal disease, caused by the buildup of bacteria-laden plaque on the teeth. Plaque hardens into tartar, the ugly brown or yellow spots you see on Spot's teeth.

Regular brushing is the best way to keep your pet's mouth healthy and breath sweet. It's easy to learn to brush your pet's teeth, and once it becomes a habit, it takes less than a minute each day. Back up brushing by giving rope toys and knobbly hard rubber toys to help "floss" the teeth.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cats Undercover

No, not under the bedcovers, although they're often found there. Cats have a long history with and as spies and detectives, both in literature and film. Now a real-life cat, Fred, putting his very man-, er, malehood on the chopping block, so to speak, has helped bring to justice a man masquerading as a veterinarian. What's next? Drug-sniffing dogs? Oh, wait...

Monday, February 06, 2006

Itchy and Scratchy

Does your dog or cat suffer from allergies? If your pet seems to be scratching a never-ending itch, he may be allergic to some of the same things you are: grasses, pollen, molds, the chemicals on certain fabrics or carpets, or even other pets. It's not unusual, for instance, for dogs to be allergic to cats. Theoretically, cats can be allergic to dogs, although it's not something that's commonly tested for, says veterinary dermatologist Kim Boyanowski of Peninsula Animal Dermatology in Redwood City, California. These types of allergies are known as atopic or inhalant, meaning they're absorbed through the skin or inhaled through the respiratory tract.

Pets can also have food allergies, but they're less common than inhalant allergies, Dr. Boyanowski says. For instance, only about 10 percent of allergic dogs exhibit true food allergies.

Unlike people, it's rare for cats and dogs to manifest allergies by sniffling, sneezing or coughing. A coughing cat, however, may have allergy-related asthma.

Allergies can be genetic, but whether a pet develops allergies depends on the convergence of three events: genetic predisposition, exposure to an allergen, and a reaction to that allergen. "If they are not genetically predisposed or they don't have an exposure or haven't triggered a reaction, they could theoretically on a blood test or skin test react as an allergic patient but not be displaying symptoms," Dr. Boyanowski says.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Year of the Dog

"Sit Ubu, Sit." What television viewer doesn't remember that tag line from shows produced by Ubu Productions, such as Family Ties and Spin City? The black Labrador retriever is number 95 of 100 canine pop culture icons celebrated during the Chinese year of the dog. Favorites from my childhood that it includes are Underdog, Mr Peabody, and Huckleberry Hound. To top things off, we'll give equal time to our other furry friends, cats.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Profiling of a Species

Should pit bulls, or any breed for that matter, be banned? Every time a dog attacks someone, there's an outcry about the danger of keeping Xenobian Doomhounds and the local city council calls for its ban. To most people, breed-specific legislation probably seems like a good idea--that is, unless their own Xenobian Doomhounds are renowned for their therapy visits to the nursing home, the tightrope-walking act they perform at kids' birthday parties, and the time they saved the neighbor's cat from being swept away in a flash flood. Dog lovers in every breed should be concerned about the increasing number of attempts by municipalities to ban certain breeds. Sure, today it's Xenobian Doomhounds and you don't have those, but tomorrow they'll come for the Swedish ChickenHund (it might spread avian flu, after all), and the day after that--well, it might be your breed's turn.